Politics

Crisis Looms Over Tripura As NH8 Remains Partially Closed For Three Months

Since the highway Tripura uses to transport most necessities is closed because of water logging and the lack of maintenance, the state is close to running out of stocks.

Thousands of trucks are stranded on National Highway 8, waiting to enter Tripura. Credit: PTI

Thousands of trucks are stranded on National Highway 8, waiting to enter Tripura. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: A worsening shortage of essential commodities has led to a crisis in Tripura as National Highway 8 – the landlocked state’s arterial supply link through Assam – has remained partially closed for the last three months. Incessant rain and the lack of regular necessary maintenance have led to the present situation.

According to a status report on food grains available at the state and Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns issued by the Tripura government on Friday morning, the state has only enough rice, the staple food for the population, for only 45 days.

State food and supplies minister Bhanulal Saha told this correspondent, “With no rice trucks entering the state in the last few days, we are left with only 44,541 tonnes of rice.” He said the godowns have four days’ worth of wheat “to tide over an emergency situation”.

“The stock of sugar will cover only four days while the salt stock will only last 16 more days.”

Per the report, 71.5 metric tonnes of cooking gas is presently in stock.

With the stock of fuel also falling, the government has begun rationing petrol and diesel by issuing instructions to fuel stations to not sell fuel worth more than Rs 200 per customer. According to the latest status report, there is petrol only for two days, high speed diesel for another five days and kerosene for the next 16 days. It mentions that four petrol tankers, five diesel tankers and one truck carrying kerosene into the state are in transit.

“The rationing has forced people to buy fuel in the black market at exorbitant rates to survive emergency situations,” said Agartala-based journalist Sujit Chakravarty. “The price of fish, which is one of the main foods of the people of Tripura, has also gone up hugely. The state is dependent on NH8 for fish, too.”

Jitendra Choudhury, Lok Sabha MP from Tripura East, told The Wire on Friday, “The 20 km stretch near Loupoei in Assam’s Karimganj district looks like a paddy field with knee-deep slush due to constant rain and water logging. In normal times, 700 to 800 trucks and light vehicles ply on that highway every day. These days, only 70 to 80 vehicles have been able to pass through it, that too only when there is no rain for some days and the mud has dried a bit.”

“Goods have been offloaded from trucks to lighten their weight to help them wade through the muddy path,” he added. “Elephants and manual labourers are being used to help carry the goods. Bamboo poles have been laid at places to help the trucks cross. Thousands of trucks loaded with goods are stuck on the highway for months now.”

The Left MP also said, “The Tripura government has been writing to both the Centre and the Assam government to repair the highway as soon as possible to avoid our people from facing this crisis situation, but nothing has happened till now.”

On July 21, Choudhury and two other MPs from the northeastern state – Jharna Das and Shankar Prasad Dutta – met union transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari to discuss the issue.

“We showed him photographs of the highway. Not that he is unaware of the state the highway has been in, since he has visited the state in the last two years quite a few times. On seeing the photographs, he seemed convinced that something needs to be done urgently. He promised to send a central team soon to take stock of the situation,” he said.

In mid-2013, the Tripura and Assam governments took over the maintenance of their respective stretches of NH8 from the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), following instructions from the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) since BRO was reportedly faltering in its upkeep.

‘The maintenance was taken over by the Public Works Department (PWD) of both the states,” said Choudhury. “While Tripura has been doing its bit, the Assam PWD department stopped looking after the patch of road on its side which has led to this emergency situation. Our government and the PWD pointed this out to the previous Congress government many times but nothing happened. We requested the union minister to help Tripura as there is now a government run by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”

At the end of June, Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal took stock of the situation during a visit to Silchar town. He has reportedly directed the state administration to rope in the National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation to tackle the crisis.

However, the situation is not showing any signs of letting up, leading to exorbitant prices of food grains and fuel, which in turn has triggered angry protests by opposition parties against the state government. Two weeks ago, Trinamool Congress organised a protest in front of Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar’s office, alleging that his government was unable to tackle the situation.

State BJP president Biplab Deb too criticised the Sarkar government. Deb met Sonowal on July 16 to urge him to get the highway repaired as soon as possible. Speaking to local media, Deb also claimed he had asked for help from Gadkari’s ministry on the issue.

Though NH8 has been the arterial connect between Tripura and the rest of the country, it is not the only link to the neighbouring Karimganj district of Assam. “Highway no. 208 was developed some years ago with funds from the North East Council, but it is a longer route to reach Agartala. So the supply trucks and private vehicles have continued to use NH8,” said Chakravarty.

He said the condition of that road was deteriorating as well, as both the highways have begun receiving a lot more traffic than their usual share since last year.

“Over a year ago, the North East Frontier Railway closed the meter gauge rail link between South Assam, Mizoram and Tripura to convert it into a broad gauge line. This led to increased traffic on both highways, but mostly on NH8. The increase in traffic, aided by the lack of regular maintenance, led to the present situation.” Last June, Gadkari announced the construction of two more highways to connect Tripura with Assam. Though he told reporters then that work would begin in December 2015, the projects are nowhere near completion.

Choudhury said, “Though the broad gauge line is ready, it is yet to be formally inaugurated by the Centre.”

“I am meeting the union railway minister this afternoon to know for sure when will it be formally opened to the public. As of now, it is to open end of this month,” he said.

The state government has also asked the Centre to help it procure food grains and fuel via the Ashuganj port of Bangladesh, situated barely 45 km from Agartala. “The state government has written to the Centre. Let’s see what it does,” said Choudhury.

Though Bangladesh allowed the FCI to transport 35,000 tonnes of rice to Tripura in 2015, transporting fuel – an urgent need in the state these days – is not possible through the port due to third country protocol.

“The state government has urged the India Oil Corporation to supply fuel to Tripura through Bangladesh, but it will take days as there are many formalities involved,” he said.

However, on July 4, state revenue and PWD minister Badal Chowdhury told reporters in Agartala, “Initiatives were being taken to bring essential commodities including fuel and food grains by using the Ashuganj port” now that the formal inauguration of the Inland Water Transit and Trade Protocol (IWTTP), signed by the two countries during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka in June last year, has been finalised. The transit facility at Ashuganj Port, set up under the IWTTP, was inaugurated by Bangladesh shipping minister Shahjahan Khan.