Vajpayee’s Dream Project Biting Slush and Mud
Mahasadak or East-West Corridor to connect Silchar with Saurashtra has been caught in plethora of troubles due to substandard quality of work by different construction companies under the supervision of National Highway Authority of India (NHAI).
After long and intricate delay in land acquisition by Ministry of Forest and Environment, Government of India for the 31 kms stretch through proposed Borail Wild Life sanctuary. Apart from the extremists’ threat for extortion and ransom money, the construction progressed and completed in some of the 14 packages covering 687 kms upto Guwahati, geo-physical problems became worrisome, particularly in the hilly areas of Cachar and Dima Hasao districts.
Along with that came out the glaring facts of sub standard works of the Corridor by some national and international contractual construction companies. The foundation stone of this Vajpayee’s dream project was laid in 2004 by B C Khanduri, Minister of Transport then, in the presence of Jaswant Singh, Finance Minister, with the target date of completion in 2012. Student and youth bodies as well as NGOs went for agitation and questioning the delay. Neither the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), nor Tarun Gogoi Government showed any concern for the public demand. Their only talking point was on Sanctuary and blamed each other for the delay.
But, with the return of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and his stress on development, the lid was peeled off. The construction companies are in question to adopt a dilatory process and executed the work in a wayward manner. In the absence of any monitoring or accountability in the jungles of Cachar and Dima Hasao, substandard materials were used without following any guidelines. This effected heavily on the quality and sustainability of the Super Highway. Nor was proper soil testing done to examine and evaluate the peculiar features of the hilly region, exposing the ugly face of UPA, known for its scams.
Dhrubendu Shekhar Bhattacharya, BJP leader and convener of the sampark cell of Assam, took a group of journalists on a stretch of 177 kms of the Highway up to Maibong for an on the spot study of the progress and quality of work. It was one of bitter experiences. The blockade along the Sanctuary looked inexplicable as it falls in unclassified state forest without any flora and fauna of significance. The clearance from the Union Ministry of Forest and Environment has to be concurred by the state government. The clearance is now expected soon with the change of guard in Delhi. The work is under package 14. It was also clear that a strong syndicate of politicians, bureaucrats and transport lobby has been active to cause abnormal delay.
If this blockade is an irritant, the worst work has been done on a stretch of 26 kms under package 21 by NKC Project Private Limited, a Delhi based company. The construction is complete, but the Highway has developed craters and fissures all along. Black topping carpet is giving way and it is difficult to imagine the shape when the Corridor will be thrown open to passenger and goods vehicular traffic. The officials of NHAI and the construction companies, some internationally reputed, have no answer to these below standard works between Harangajao to Jatinga in particular and beyond in general.
Beyond Haflong, the district headquarters of Dima Hasao, to Mahur, the work is more or less satisfactory. The retaining wall along Mandardisa and Hatikhali for protection of the Highway from landslips and cascading water has also raised question about the quality of work. Red stones of the hills have allegedly been crushed mechanically for laying down the road and then covered with black topping.
Dhrubendu Shekhar Bhattacharya said that, “I was asked by Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister of Highways, to visit the Corridor under public criticism and submit a detailed report to him. I am not on any political tourism. I am here on the directive of Gadkari. It is not only the dream project of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but also the people of North-East as a whole. I want to see it completed expeditiously without compromising with quality.”
In fact, the Corridor touching NHs 54, 36, 37, 31, 57, 28, 76, 14, 15, 8 A and 78 B is passing through Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and finally Gujarat. But, it has got stuck in corruption and virtually tumbled at the very first leg of its originating point. The construction companies under scanner, taking advantage of the lack of monitoring by NHAI, have been executing the work of a national project in their own way. After crores of rupees have by now gone down the drain, the blame is now being laid on deceptive soil of the hills.
Why was not soil testing done earlier? Why was not Geological Survey of India (GSI) or expertise of ONGC involved? The expert opinion of Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) should have been taken. NHAI Technical Head, Kaduri Satyanarayan and official Manoj Mahapatra as well as S B Rai, a top executive of JKM, the company executing AS 21 package work, have no answer to any of these questions.
In the meantime, a team of experts from CRRI, Geo-physicists, Dr Guru Bittal and Dr Sanjay Gupta, former Director General of Roads, Ministry of Transport, N C Saxena along with NHAI General Manager, Col Sanjay Vajpayee, and other officials, visited the Corridor from Silchar to Maibong on June 19. CRRI team was simply taken by surprise and dismay at the way such a below standard work on a national project was executed. They also found it difficult to digest that the retaining wall of Madhura Bridge near Silchar, the starting point, should collapse.
Punj Lyod, the company officials have no answers. Local people in the plains and hills said during the last 10 years of UPA government, there was no monitoring by any team. Dhrubendu Shekhar Bhattacharya impressed upon the CRRI team to give particular attention to the sub-soil erosion and sub-soil drainage, besides realignment where the road has sunk. NHAI GM fumbled to give any satisfactory answer to any of the question from CRRI officials.
Significant to recall that two decades ago, Border Roads Task Force (BRTF) which laid down all weather one lane Silchar-Haflong-Lumding road discovered peculiar behaviour of the soil and hills all along, the treacherous being between Harangajao and Jatinga. Somewhere it expanded and somewhere sunk, creating craters and potholes.
The zone is most unstable, Borail hills, the extension of Himalayas, the youngest mountain in the world, is still growing. Besides, the land set satellite image of ONGC finds a seismic belt identified as Haflong Thrust. The instability has been attributed to these geo-physical features. Though BRTF under political pressure had to pack up and go, its reports and findings could have helped NHAI and the construction companies under it. The damage has already been done. This was certainly not the dream of Vajpayee.
-Jyotilal Chowdhury (The writer is a senior journalist)