Looking Skyward For The Easiest Way Out 9 January 2011

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By Yambem Laba
WHEN World War II broke out and the Japanese advance into Manipur and the then Naga Hills became apparent, the Allied forces lost no time in improving and wideneing the road connecting Manipur with Assam via Dimapur and named it Manipur Road. Around this time Dimapur railway station came to be called Manipur Road Station. The road was a single-lane one, with Mao — 96 km from Imphal – being the staging point where vehicles would pass each other at a fixed time. This was the forerunner of National Highway-39, Manipur’s lifeline with the rest of the country, which is today aptly called Hell’s Own Highway thanks to Nagas of various hues using the stretch as a stranglehold on the state government to press for an array of demands. Manipur and its people have not quite recovered yet from the fallouts of the 68-day economic and almost total blockade of the highway, under the sponsorship of the United Naga Council of Manipur, which was called off on 18 June 2010. In fact, petrol and diesel are still being rationed in Manipur as a result.

Such frequent blockades prompted the state government and various civil society bodies to look for an alternative route and all eyes fell on National Highway-53 connecting Imphal with Silchar in Assam via Jiribam on the Manipur-Assam border, 254 km from Imphal. Though this stretch is nearly 100 km longer, truckers and long-distance buses started using the route from Guwahati to avoid Naga freebooters along NH-39. But what takes approximately seven hours today in dry winter conditions cannot be covered in four days’ time during the monsoon.

Traversing this stretch leaves one with the impression of travelling the worst road in the world. At one time the state government even contemplated taking over management of this highway from the Border Roads Organisation, but New Delhi put its foot down and the BRO was given breathing space for a couple of years. Kh. Temba, additional chief engineer of Manipur’s PWD, however, lamented that although National Highways were supposed to be national property the Centre did not even bother to send an engineering team to assess the total requirements of these roads.

As mentioned, the frequent bandhs and blockades by Naga outfits prompted the state government to do some real soul-searching on seeking new routes to connect Manipur with the outside world, which resulted in planning a broad gauge railway line from Jiribam to Imphal, the foundation for which was laid by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 17 November 2004 at Jiribam. According to Bijen Kumar Sharma, Manipur’s director of transport who is also handling the railway project on behalf of the state government, the estimated date of completion of the 110-km railway line to Imphal is 2016. But he also added that the cost had escalated from the initial estimate of Rs 724 crore to Rs 2,343 crore, now thanks to the rise in prices of cement and steel, again courtesy the frequent blockades. Another problem, he added, was the low weight-bearing capacity of the Bailey suspension bridges that could at most handle a capacity of 24 tonnes, whereas the Railways have been asking for bridges to bear at least 40 metric tonnes to bring in the Boomers, or tunnelling machines, to bore at least 35 tunnels en route to Imphal. This railway line-laying proposal was also declared a national project in 2005, by which account the Centre would bear 70 per cent of the total cost while the Railway Board would account for the remaining 30 per cent. Once completed, it is hoped that Manipur will have no problem of ferrying in food and fuel plus construction materials, besides offering its people a cheaper mode of transport should they wish to visit the mainland and beyond.

Manipur is also been making frantic bids to increase air-connectivity with the rest of the country. The old World War II airfield at Tulihal, which used to see the daily old workhorse Dakota flights of the then Indian Airways Corporation connecting Imphal with Kolkata, is being expanded from its present 464 acres by acquiring another 669 acres and extending the present runway from 9,000 feet to 12,000 feet, increasing passenger capacity to 500 per day from the present 250 to 500 per day and holding capacity to 10 aircraft at a time from the present five. Manipur is also planning to start helicopter services to connect Imphal with Moreh on the Indo-Myanmarese border and Jiribam and Tamenglong, with the Pawan Hans Corporation providing the choppers.

Night-landing facilities have also come up at Tulihal airport and the state government has been urging the Centre to land any commercial flight now operating to Imphal on 27 January 2011.

But away from the media glare and government initiative, a small number of entrepreneurs is also contributing their bit to connect Manipur with the rest of  the region and elsewhere through the induction of small aircraft.

Speaking to The Statesman, Chungkham Jaichandra, aviation entrepreneur of Golden Valley Travel Services, said that it was on 3 December 2008 that he launched the North East Shuttle service in Imphal connecting Imphal with Aizwal, Silchar and Shillong using the single-engine nine-seater Cessna 208-B Caravan, the fare being Rs 3,500, Rs 3,000 and Rs 5,000 respectively. The 40-minute flight ferries passengers who are allowed to carry 15 kg of baggage.

North East Shuttles is the brainchild of Hyderabad-based Captain Shoba Mani and Agartala-based Captain Phuzunath Nepali, who had earlier operated Sita airways in Nepal. It is now poised to become the first scheduled regional airline of the North-east region, according to MS Sodhi, adviser, transport and communications, North Eastern Council, who spoke to a section of the media recently. He said that with the emergence of North East Shuttles, the NEC had dropped the idea of having its own dedicated airline service for the North-east. Besides the Cessna, North East Shuttles has also acquired two more 19-seater Dornier aircraft that had been parked at Kolkata. Once it begins functioning as a scheduled regional airlines, it could operate about 100 scheduled flights a week connecting such places like Bagdogra, Tezpur, Dibrugrah, Jorhat, Dimapur, Silchar, Agartala, Aizwal, Umroi (Meghalaya) and Imphal with Guwahati as the base, Sodhi added.

There is more good news — and competition for North East Shuttles. According to Jaichandra, a group of 15-20 promoters of the North-east has formed North East Aviation, Pvt Ltd and hopes  the registration process as a regional airline will be completed by March. This new entity, according to Jaichandra, will be using the Brazilian-made Embraer — a twin-jet aircraft — on a dry lease. It can carry 90-100 passengers. This airline will be based in Imphal and operate between Imphal and Aizwal-Silchar, Imphal-Guwahati and Imphal-Kolkata. The good thing about planes, as an old Imphal observer put it, is that “they are  bandh- and blockade-proof”. For a population trapped in so much turmoil on the ground, perhaps the sky will be the easiest way out.

The writer is The Statesman’s former Special Correspondent and the article was first published in The Statesman

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