The news that over Rs. 15,000 crore funds have been earmarked for building Manipur’s highways is welcome. There is unlikely to be anybody unhappy with it, but in the spirit of not taking anything without first interrogating their pros and cons thoroughly, we have some questions. The fact that there is so little made known about the nature of this massive fund inflow, inevitably has left much room for speculations especially among those given to healthy skepticism. So then, is this money coming as loan or grant? Is the fund simply another generous largess from the Central government extended to Manipur, or are there more to the story than meets the eye? In particular, is this an investment by private corporations and conglomerates. If the latter, then surely the investment would have to have monetary returns and profits as objectives of those who made the investment? It is therefore in the rightness of things for the public to want these ambiguities cleared and the exact terms that went into the reward of this fund made known? In particular, are the new highways to be built (or else existing ones improved) with this fund designed to make these highways revenue generating toll roads, and not another welfare scheme of a welfare state? If the earlier, then is the government also planning for alternate toll-free roads for those who cannot afford to use the tolled ones on a regular basis?
It is not too late yet. The concerned authorities should clarify these points to put to rest all doubts about the project. This will be for the benefit of all and a trouble free future in this discontent and protest ridden beleaguered state. From information available so far, the money for the project is coming from the Asian Development Bank, ADB, and obviously, the bank would have its own interest in mind. This also apparently is a project which has been in the pipeline since 2012, almost in the manner Manipur’s rail link project has been very much around for more than a decade, though it is only now beginning to fructify visibly.
One other thing often neglected but nonetheless needs to be kept in mind with regards to any modern road project, especially expressways is, as much as these roads connect, they also divide. They also make stark the chasm between the interest of the elites and the plebians. If an expressway connects points A and B on a linear trajectory, making it extremely convenient for those who can afford to drive along them to shuttle between these points A and B, such a road also splits the landscape through which they pass into two. If these divided landscapes are uninhabited stretches, there are no problems likely to arise, but this is not likely to be the case in Manipur, especially in the valley area where the population density is high, considering the fact that the valley forms less than 10 percent of the state’s total area, but is home to more than half its population. Even when there are no actual human settlements, the fields here are almost entirely farmlands. This being so, the land on either side of any roads in this landscape cannot be segregated from each other. There will always be people wanting, and indeed needing, to cross over to either side at practically every point. So far, the rural stretches of our roads are not so divisive. They can be crossed practically anywhere, with caution on the part of the crosser of course, and although this would cause those driving along these roads a little inconvenience, the fact is our roads have never remained exclusively for those driving along them, and they have had to share them in a give and take manner with those needing to cross them. That, like it or not, was where the equilibrium was. Now, with expressways entering the scene, this relationship is set to change drastically, all in favour of those driving along them and at the cost of those who need to cross them. The way to deal with this would have been to build these expressways, but with designated crossing points at short and regular intervals, preferably as overbridges and tunnels to the extent possible. There should also be junctions for entry of vehicles from arterial roads at regular and convenient places. Maybe all these are in the plan, but a confounding lack of transparency has ensured they remain largely unknown.
There is yet one more long-term consequence all have to be wary of. This can be for the good or bad depending on how far-sighted the planners are. This is best illustrated in the story of how the broad-gauge rail lines inherited from the British by their former colonies measure 4 feet 8.5 inches wide. At first glance, it does seem extremely strange why this odd but so precise breath was chosen. A closer study however would reveal why this strange choice connects the modern era and the ancient. NASA’s space shuttles use two booster rockets for the launch stage of the shuttle, but it seems engineers designing these shuttles would have preferred the two booster engines combined into a larger one for efficiency. This is not possible because these boosters are manufactured at another factory located elsewhere and they had to be transported in US railway carriages and these carriages would not be stable if they exceed the width permitted on the 4ft 8.5 inches tracks. Moreover there are also tunnels along the way just wide enough to accommodate wagons built at optimum sizes for these tracks. So why were the US rail tracks 4ft 8.5 inches? Because the British built them using the same rigs and tools used to make their own railways in Britain which were 4ft 8.5 inches wide. Why did the British build their railway tracks that way? Because they were designed to fit the wheel ruts left on the roads by early tram cars that ran on roads not tracks. Why did the trams have this wheel width? Because there were already wheel ruts created by earlier horse drawn carriages and making them of a different size would break them. How did the British come to have their carriage wheels of that width? Because they had to fit to the ruts made by Romans chariots brought there when they took control of England. What is it that made the ancient Romans use this strange measure of 4ft 8.5 inches? The answer is, their chariots were double horse drawn and this width is the optimum distance determined by the breath of two horses’ buttocks. The moral of the story is, when it comes to infrastructure building, it has to be remembered these can and will have profound impacts on the cultural mores and collective psychology of entire peoples for many generations down the line.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author