Jiribam-Tupal-Imphal Rail line – Environmental Activists takes the Ejei River case to the NGT

As a Railway Line grows, a River in Manipur is fighting for Survival.

IMPHAL: Over the last eight years, 44-year-old Pamei Tingenlung has witnessed the gradual depletion of a variety of fish in the Ejei river that flows through his place of birth: Longjang village in west Manipur’s Noney district.

Ejei – also spelt ‘Ijei’ and ‘Ijai’ – is one of the main tributaries of the Irang, which flows into the Naga-inhabited Senapati, Tamenglong and Noney districts of Manipur. It eventually joins the Barak river in the south.

The Ejei is a source of life and livelihood for the 1.4 lakh inhabitants of Noney, Rangkhung, Luangchum, Taobam, Makhuam, Nungtex, Khumji, Tupul and Namdonjang villages in Noney district. Residents in these villages largely belong to the Zeliangrong Naga tribe, constitutionally recognised as one of the Scheduled Tribes entitled to benefits of reservation, and special protection of private and community land under Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution. However, land acquisition under national interest remains exempted from these protections.

As part of the Central government’s Act East Policy, the first broad gauge railway line in Manipur for freight and passenger transport – through a total length of 111 km – will connect India’s Northeast to ASEAN countries. The construction of tunnels and bridges began in 2012; this brought in construction companies, their heavy machinery that began excavations, and the constant sound of concrete construction work in these otherwise sleepy hills.

This heightened activity has polluted the Ejei and has severely affected livelihood of communities that depend on it. Tingenlung has been organising the villagers to protest against this ecological loss, and holding the North East Frontier Railways (NFR) accountable for this. “Species of tasty fish like Khaschun (a family of the carp Rohu), KhanuaKhagwa and Tapampui have just disappeared,” Tingenlung said.

In the first phase of the project, the upcoming 111-km-long railway line will originate from Jiribam (Tamenglong district) and go on eastward up to Tupul (Noney district). In the second phase, it will wind further east into the valley towards the capital city of Imphal.

Land for the project was acquired without any environmental impact assessment (EIA): quoting a 2006 EIA notification, the deputy conservator of forests, western forests division-Tamenglong had noted in April 2014 that the EIA was not a necessity. This was despite a notification from the Ministry of Environment and Forests in September 2006 which mandated environmental clearance for new projects.

Still, raising awareness and bringing people together to make demands for environmental restoration has not been easy for Tingenlung. Although an Ejei River Development Committee was formed by a few concerned citizens from 10 adjoining villages in 2015, their meeting place in Noney town looked deserted as of November 2018.

Chamrei Kamei, the chairperson of the Ejei River Development Committee and secretary of the Noney Bazar Board (a consumer welfare regulatory body along Ejei river settlements), attributes this inability to mobilise to the tussle among inhabitants of the affected villages over land disputes and fair compensation for the lands that had been acquired for the railway project.

The project’s progress has been intermittent; it was derailed several times by frequent curfews called by insurgent groups and civil society organisations, and economic blockades.

Authorities deny responsibility

Tingenlung and Kamei raised the issue of increasing water pollution with the construction companies, the Manipur State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB) and the NFR. When they were met with silence, they turned to the Eastern Zone (Kolkata) bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in February 2017 and filed a case against the NFR, the Ministry of Railways, the Municipal Corporation of Imphal, the MSPCB, the Manipur government and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). In the petition, they annexed photographs from Duidai Pangthak and Khiangthuak villages, where waste water discharge from the construction sites flowed into freshwater streams.

In the petition, they contended that the Ejei was undergoing “severe environmental and ecological damage due to the illegal discharge of dangerous untreated effluents and pollutants”. This, they alleged in the petition, violated the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1974, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act of 1981, and the Code of Practice for Ready Mix Concrete (RMC) Plants.

Kamei claimed that the Ejei was once so pure that it was fit for drinking. Their petition mentions that chemicals are mixed with cement for the construction of the tunnels, and the waste for this flows right into the freshwater streams.

“All the streams, rivulets and paddy fields have been polluted and agricultural yield has gone down,” Kamei says. Data on district-wise area and production from Manipur’s Agriculture Department shows the total paddy yield (the main crop grown primarily for self sustenance) in Tamenglong and Noney districts had dropped to 1.08 metric tonnes per hectare in 2017-18, from 1.51 metric tonnes per hectare in 2016-17.

However, the MSPCB, NFR and the Ministry of Railways have denied the allegations. The MSPCB stated in an affidavit that it regularly monitors the water quality of the Ejei at its Water Quality Monitoring Station near Noney Bazaar. In response to a RTI query filed by Tingenlung previously, the MSPCB did not have information about air pollution due to the operation of RMC plants.

According to one test carried out in April 2016, the MSPCB found that the water quality was “within Indian standard”: the water turbidity was recorded at 100 NTU (Nephelometric Turbidity Unit) upstream and 3.4 NTU downstream. However, as per the 1993 Indian Standard Specifications for Drinking Water, the desirable limit for turbidity was at 10 NTU, which could be relaxed up to 25 NTU.

The difference in the water turbidity upstream and downstream, as MSPCB stated in response to Tingenlung’s RTI query, was because it did not have any information on water treatment plants near the RMC plants close to the tunnel construction. Moreover, it noted that it was the “responsibility of the construction agencies to dispose off the cement and concrete bags as per rules”.

In 2017, when MSPCB failed to submit a response to the NGT based on the allegations of the petition, Judge S.P. Wangdi explicitly directed the MSPCB to conduct an inspection by collecting “samples of water from different stretches before and after the affected portion, at least three times, at an interval of three days”. MSPCB was also asked to ensure the presence of the petitioners at the time of the sample collection.

The inspection was conducted on three days, in three different areas, in early 2018. But each of the three times, the MSPCB  collected samples only once each day, instead of three different times of the day. J. Hillson Angam, who works at the Manipur chapter of the non-profit Human Rights Law Network, had joined Tingenlung and members of the MSPCB during a field inspection on February 13, 2018 at the railway construction site along the Ejei near Noney town.

The water quality monitoring report stated that “hazardous liquid waste from the railways construction site is simply discharged into the river through a canal laid on both sides of the tunnel”. The highest turbidity was recorded at 162 in the central stretch of the river, and the lowest at 42 upstream at Noney Bazaar.

Similarly, the Ministry of Railways responded that there was very little quantity of waste water, and that is filtered in the course of the flow. Their affidavit stated: “Generally all tunnel work sites are more than 1 km away from Ejei river [….] the main cause of pollution of river is due to rain/cut and erosion of hill soil which met in to the river during the rainy season (sic).”

Disturbance to local ecology

The construction has also had more visible consequences. In July 2018, Rhema Public Academy in the town of Khumji in Noney district was overrun by loose soil sediments that had flowed into a stream, from the tunnel. “Our campus, where 200 students are also residing, was severely flooded. We had to shut for a week,” Lily Phaomei, principal and founder of the school, said.

That same month, the school sent a letter to Onycon T-23 B, one the companies contracted by the railways for the construction of the tunnel. The school threatened to agitate if the company failed to take any action: Phaomei alleged that the school property had been destroyed consecutively for three years previously. However, despite an on-site inspection by the deputy commissioner of Noney district and engineers from Onycon, Phaomei said no remedial steps had been taken.

“We spent Rs 4 lakh building a 100-feet-long and nine-feet-tall concrete wall to secure our campus. But even that was destroyed in October 2018. Onycon says it is out of their jurisdiction. But it is an indirect effect of their construction work,” said Lani Phaomei, Lily’s husband, who runs the school with her. He added that they have also not received any relief funds from the Noney district collector.

A geotechnical assessment of landslides along the Jiribam-Imphal Broad Gauge Line, between Barak and Tupul, was undertaken by the Geological Survey of India, North East Region. In their report, they noted: “The unauthorised and unscientific dumping of excavated earth and disposal of chemical and solid wastes must be strictly checked in the proximity of the villages to avoid loss of property and life including aquatic life in future.”

The assessment report further stated that uncontrolled sudden increase in the discharge of major rivers – including Ejei – had caused severe erosion of the rivers and their tributaries, which would pose a danger to nearby villages. “Change in existing land use, uncontrolled cutting and excavation of critical slopes during construction of new approach road, particularly close to habituation, makes the area vulnerable to landslides.”

Unchecked human toll

Fishing and cultivation along the river banks is nearly absent in the villages along the Ejei. Most people in the region have had to move away from their main source of livelihood – fishing – and have instead taken up masonry or started small businesses.

On the other hand, Marangjing resident Guangchalung Gangmei allege that at least 10 cows died from drinking the river water and several people have fallen sick. Kamei added that residents of Noney town, who do their laundry and bathe in the river, complain of rashes. Edwin Golmei, the chief medical officer at Noney district, confirmed that several residents from nearby villages had reported skin rashes because of their contact with water from the river. “Most of the complaints were brought to us at the medical camp we had organised in 2018,” he said.

Meanwhile, Tingenlung and Kamei’s petition in the NGT has not been heard after October 2017. The NFR, the Railways, MSPCB, Manipur Directorate of Environment and MOEFCC had each requested for more time to file their responses. The scheduled hearing in December 2017 did not take place since the vacancy for judges in the Eastern bench had not been filled.

Despite peoples effort to hold the government accountable, the damage caused by the project has received very little attention from the local and national news media. Instead, much of the local media’s focus has been on the construction of bridge 164, which, at a proposed height of 141 metres, is touted to be the tallest girder bridge in the world and a potential tourist attraction.

In the three years since Tingenlung took on the fight to save the river of his childhood, he relocated to Imphal. He hopes that the NGT case is transferred to the principal bench in New Delhi. Tingelung’s lawyer Aindreela Chakraborty says that she had been struggling – with no success – to get the Kolkata bench to schedule a hearing via video conferencing with the principal bench in New Delhi, which hears zonal cases on an ad hoc basis.

Today, with no Eastern bench appointed and the case marked “disposed” on the NGT’s website, the last door for environmental accountability and justice certainly appears to be shut for the Ejei river.

Citizens dissent over poor compensation and loss of crops

The banana farms were gone. And so were the paddy fields. And to the residents of Marangjing in west Manipur’s Noney district, this was an irreparable cost that had come in the process of wanting development – a necessary railway project. So one afternoon last September, Marangjing residents made their way through a muddy path to protest at the site of the broad gauge line, which had been under construction for nearly a decade.

Since 2017, the residents have protested against the poor compensation that they have received from the North East Frontier Railways (NFR), which is constructing the railway line, for their farmland and their subsequent displacement from their homes. In March 2018, they burnt an effigy of Tamenglong district deputy commissioner Armstrong Pame in the village for his alleged role in siphoning the compensation money to two former residents of the village, who claim to be private owners of community-owned land.

Pame had shot to fame in 2012 when he raised Rs 40 lakh via Facebook to build a 100-km road in Tamenglong, to connect Assam and Manipur. However, following protests against him in Marangjing, Pame was transferred out. He returned to his office in Tamenglong in 2019, drawing the ire of Marangjing residents once again, as they still await proper compensation for the land they have lost, and with it, their traditional livelihood.

Like Marangjing, several families in the villages of Kambiron, Noney and Khumji in Manipur’s Noney district have been displaced without any resettlement or rehabilitation packages. While some in Maranging got entangled in litigation over competing claims in privately-owned versus community-owned land, others have gone to court over allegations of corruption in granting compensatory funds. Local livelihoods have taken a severe beating with the loss of arable land.

Noney was carved out as a new district from Tamenglong only in 2016, hence the matter of land acquisition and compensation continues to be handled by Pame. In 2018, the railway project was interrupted for a whole month due to protests. Such delays have been interrupting the progress of the northeast India’s third longest and most ambitious broad gauge railway line, construction of which has also overlooked the forest and environment laws.

As part of the Central government’s ‘Act East’ policy, the broad gauge railway line for freight and passenger transport would pass through 46 tunnels, and 22 major and 129 minor bridges. In its first phase, the broad gauge line in Manipur starts from Jiribam in Tamenglong district (connecting with Silchar in Assam), running 84 km east till Tupul in Noney district. In the second phase the line will extend another 27 km east to the state capital of Imphal. In the third phase, the line will run eastward to Moreh in Manipur’s Tengnoupal district, eventually going into Tamu in Myanmar, as a part of the Trans Asian Railway network to connect South Asia with Southeast Asia.

Even though connectivity has expanded significantly across the country, the transportation network remains scant in the northeast region. In the late 1990s, a project to connect India’s mainland with the northeast was conceived; former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone in 2004. Subsequently, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has been aggressively pursuing its ‘vikaas’ agenda for northeast India. At a diaspora event in Bangkok in November 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that plans were on to establish “seamless connectivity between Thailand, Myanmar and India’s Northeast”.

Violations in the NFR rail construction

In November 2018, even though the BJP-led government in Manipur announced 2020 as the deadline for the completion of the project within the state, it blamed violent interruptions by armed groups for the delay in the construction work. In January 2020, Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh told reporters that even though the construction was only “half-complete”, the railway track would reach Kaimai in Tamenglong district before April 2020, and Imphal by 2022.

As per NFR’s quarterly report in November 2019, the anticipated cost of the project is currently pegged at Rs 12,524 crore, which has more than doubled in five years; an additional Rs 400 crore has been requested from the Ministry of Railways to meet the targets.

Moreover, government documents show that the construction of the railway line began in 2010 without forest clearance, even though it is required under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had issued a notification in September 2006 deeming environmental clearance necessary for construction of new projects or expansion of existing projects. But the deputy conservator of forests of the western forests division-Tamenglong noted in April 2014 that such a clearance was not required.

In 2014, Tamenglong’s district collector had formed a committee comprising officials from several departments to collect data for initiating the acquisition of 137.09 acres of land in three villages, as per the amended Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013. A few months later, the revenue department issued a notification, specifying the needs to acquire more land for the project and conduct a Social Impact Assessment (SIA) study – a requirement under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act.

The SIA report that was submitted to the district commissioner in 2015 only makes reference to the  acquired land and standing crops, trees and buildings, missing crucial details of loss of livelihood and rehabilitation. Even though a date for a public hearing was advertised in the local newspapers, it did not take place.

In July 2016, the district commissioner’s office issued a certificate stating that “the scheme of rehabilitation and resettlement under the 2013 Act is not applicable and therefore, may be exempted in this particular sense of land acquisition”. No explanation for the exemption was offered.

In June 2019, when the writer emailed Pame, he replied, “It was not during my period, so I don’t have any response.” His office did not respond to right to information applications seeking certified copies of sale deeds of private and community land and compensation beneficiaries list in the affected villages of Marangjing, Kambiron, Khumji and Noney.

In Khumji, where the Tupul train station is being built, 29 families were displaced out of their homes in 2015 immediately after the compensation was paid. However, the Manipur government submitted claims that no families were displaced, hence, formulated no plan for rehabilitation of the families. In a consent of undertaking that was signed in June 2014 by six affected villages and land owners, the district forest official had said that 23 houses at Khumji village will be affected by the project.

“The first land survey was conducted in 1998 and a resurvey done in 2009 but the compensation was only given in 2015,” said K. Athuipou , the chairman (modern title for chieftain) of Khumji-2 village. He added  that “the compensation ranged from seventy thousand rupees to five lakhs”. Poupanlung Kamei, who lost about 200×150 square feet of land after he and his family were displaced from Khumji-2, said that they had not been compensated sufficiently. He said that it took time and money to rebuild their lives and the compensation money was just not enough.

“Then, another 10-20% for the Lambu (an old system from the colonial times, when a runner or representative of a village clan negotiated with the administration) and 20-30% cut for underground groups in the area,” he added. Prominent among them are the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), Zeliangrong United Front, Kuki Revolutionary Army and Kuki National Front.

Moreover, laws are not uniform across districts in Manipur, where land ownership widely differs from the valley and the hill districts, and a diversity of tribes and sub-tribes have their own customary laws and practices. This further complicates the process of consultation for land acquisition, and subsequent compensation and rehabilitation, for the villages affected by the project.

Complex land ownership patterns and irregular compensation

Most of Manipur is home to constitutionally-recognised Scheduled Tribes, but the state is not covered by the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution. The Sixth Schedule safeguards the rights of tribal populations through the formation of Autonomous District Councils (ADC), which represent certain districts with varying degrees of autonomy, in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram. It provides special provisions, including the sale and purchase of land limited to the residing communities native to the place.

However, the hill districts of Manipur – through which the railway line will pass – are precariously positioned because the land comes under under the 1971 Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act passed in parliament, which led to the insertion of Article 371C as a constitutional safeguard. This article essentially ensures that the state governor accommodates the interests of the hill tribal areas in the day-to-day administration of the state. Unlike the Sixth Schedule, the hill districts have ‘Hill Areas Committees’ (HAC), which are referred to as ADCs.

Kham Khan Suan Hausing, a political science professor at the University of Hyderabad, however contends that the Fifth Schedule provision in Manipur’s hill districts is actually a misnomer. “The original Act under which these councils have been made does not mention ‘autonomous’ and it’s a recent coinage by the government, even though the kind of constitutional provisions that the HACs enjoy is totally different from the Sixth Schedule ADCs,” he said.

“Moreover,” Hausing added, the combination of disparate legal and institutional structures in the hill districts of Manipur leave them with a kind of protection on land and resources which is at best described as ‘tenuous’.

Among the Rongmeis – a Naga tribe that predominantly lives in Noney and Tamenglong districts – community-owned land is treated as village ‘commons’ for structures like schools and churches. The system of village chieftainship is key here as most of the private land is owned by the village’s ancestral owner called Khunbu. The village chief, called Khullakpa, is considered the founding member of the village and holds the deed for the community land.

“Landless farmers cultivate and take the entire produce for themselves. They are not paid wages for their labour, as is normally seen in plain areas,” says Gailinpou Gonmei, a small business owner in Marangjing. Farmers working on the land would pay ancestral land owners two tins of the yield (approximately 10 kg rice) every seven years, as a token. In effect, land owners do not derive any profit because the traditional system accommodated the landless. The Khunbu and Khullakpa bear the social responsibility of maintaining such a system to provide for the residents of the village.

However, the compensation money order for Marangjing village offers a different explanation. The order says that although the traditional land ownership system is legally recognised, “the provision of the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960 is not applicable to the Hill areas of Manipur including Tamenglong district”. No reasons were given alongside this explanation. The claim of land ownership by the community was not accepted and so the compensation was made only to individual land owners.

As a result of that, in 2014 Gaimanlung Gangmei, a farmer in Marangjing, received Rs 2.4 lakh as compensation from the Manipur government when he and his family were displaced from their 5,000 square feet house. He said that he had lost three banana farms measuring about 1.5 acres after the project acquired it from Houngamlung Gangmei and Gaigonglung – both were the Khunbu of the village. “I used to earn as much as Rs 50,000 every year from selling my produce. I was expecting about Rs 2 lakh in compensation for my crops. But all Houngamlung gave me was Rs 3,000 as a ‘consolation gift’ for the standing crops during Christmas, in 2014,” he said.

Gaimanlung now lives in a 600-square-feet house that he built alongside a row of houses in which 90 other displaced farmers live. They have been pushed to take up masonry.

As per court documents, the now deceased Houngamlung Gangmei received nearly Rs 1.4 crore from the state government for 95.682 acres of land in 2011. He died in 2016 after a year of battling liver cancer. His wife Namdunlu Gangmei said that contrary to the perception of everyone in Marangjing, the family did not earn a profit. “Firstly, we didn’t get a significant amount. Secondly, we had to give nearly 5% to underground groups, as well as compensation to the farmers for their standing crops on the land.”

In a case filed in 2011 in the civil court of Tamenglong, Houngamlung was one of the defendants along with Thuankulung Gangmei against the Gondalmei clan in Marangjing who claimed the ancestral titles of Khunbu and Khullakpa of the village. As per court records, the plaintiff, the Gondalmeis, argued that “there’s no separate individual land ownership system in the village”, and that defendants of other clans were only allowed to stay by their ancestors. However, Houngamlung won the title suit in 2012.

After the court verdict, Namdunlu said that allegations of her family claiming extra land emerged and the village residents demanded Rs 40 lakh as compensation from them. Such land disputes have strained the social fabric of the community.

‘Temporary’ occupation of land

Over the years, the number of construction firms associated with the railway project has gone up to nine. In Kambiron, another village in Noney district, 260 families have been affected by the construction of a tunnel and a railway station. Residents allege that Bhartiya Infrastructure Pvt. Ltd, one of the contractors hired by NFR to build two tunnels, has encroached upon their farmland to build a six-km approach road to reach the construction site from the highway, NH-37.

Documents show that approximately 211 acres of land in Kambiron were acquired by NFR in 2012 for the railway project, for which over Rs 4.14 crore was paid in compensation. An additional 5.18 acres were acquired in 2018.

While that part of the farmland, upon which the approach road was constructed, has not been formally acquired, Gainsing Liangmei, a social activist in Kambiron, said that from 2015 onwards, Bharatiya Infrastructure had begun to pay an annual rent of Rs 15,000 per km to 160 land owners.

According to Gainsing, the companies’ rationale for not acquiring the land is that it acts as an inter-village road. He argued that the locals have never felt the need for such a road.

The 2013 Land Acquisition Act permits “temporary occupation and use of any waste or arable land needed for public purpose” for a period that shall not exceed “more than three years from the commencement of occupation”. The Act stipulates that such compensation may be paid as a gross sum or periodically.

Gainsing pointed that even though 160 land owners have been receiving the rent from Bharatiya Infrastructure, they have lost their plantations of orange, banana, betelnut and timber, as well as land where they would cultivate vegetables and paddy for sustenance.

Moreover, documents obtained under the RTI Act showed that a reassessment of the value of the land acquired led to a lesser compensation being rewarded in 2019. In Kambiron, the value of the 5.18 acres of land that was acquired in mid-2018 was assessed to be close to Rs 4.6 crore. Within less than a year, its value was found to have depreciated to Rs 3.34 crore, as assessed by a new district collector. In this new assessment, the land rate was valued at Rs 10 per square feet, in reference to a 2007 government order. This was in contrast to a subsequent government order of 2010 wherein the same land was valued at Rs 23 per square feet.

Further documents revealed that Rs 1.2 lakh was paid by NFR to the Manipur state director of the Social Environment Unit in 2015 to conduct an SIA for the construction of the tunnel. However, it is not clear whether or not an SIA was done. When reached out to the NFR asking about the SIA report, it couldn’t confirm whether an SIA was done.

Kambiron village chairman Dinrei Gangmei, who heads the Railway Affected Villages Association, said that they had submitted memorandums to the district commissioner of Tamenglong and the general manager of NFR, for the resettlement of villages. “If we don’t hear back soon, we may have to forcibly halt the construction work,” he said. The Association has been campaigning in 24 villages across Noney district to throw light on the impact of the railways, while also working towards securing alternative means of livelihood.

Despite the promise of employment, local residents have gained only short-term employment from the construction companies. An assessment report by Recognise Rise and Empower Association revealed that the railways brought in 10-20 short term jobs per village, whose average population is 2,500. These jobs included sourcing and transporting locally available raw materials like stones and timber, and safeguarding construction sites at night in areas like Noney, which is known for the presence of insurgent groups.

The 2007 report on the ‘Initial Assessment of Trans Asian Railway in Manipur’ by the Imphal-based non-profit Forum for Indigenous Perspectives and Action had projected that technical jobs for the railway project were likely to be sourced primarily from outside.

An engineer working in one of the private companies who did not want to be identified said that the contractors arranged to hire labourers from West Bengal, Assam and the Hindi heartland. “The resources required are mostly semi-skilled or technically skilled, which are readily available with the contractors handling these projects,” he said.

Moreover, the engineer added, language becomes a major barrier for the locals to be employed in the core construction work. “The communication with the site engineers and managers happens in Hindi, which the locals are not fluent in.”

Dinrei eyes the future of his community with fear.