Environment

Ground Report: As a Railway Line Grows, a River in Manipur Is Fighting for Survival

Environmental activists have taken the Ejei river case to the National Green Tribunal, but it appears to be going nowhere.

This is the second article in a two-part series on the ‘Act East’ railway project in Manipur. Read the first part here.

Imphal/Noney/Nungba: 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), Khanua, Khagwa 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.

View from the site of the Tupul station in Noney district headquarters from where the new broad gauge line will run 27 km till Imphal before it reaches Myanmar’s Tamu.

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 when The Wire visited in 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.

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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.

Lily Phaomei, principal and founder of the school, and her husband, Lani Phaomei.

“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.”

A geotechnical assessment of landslides along the Jiribam-Imphal Broad Gauge Line, between Barak and Tupul, undertaken by the Geological Survey of India-North East Region found 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 danger to nearby villages.

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.

All images by Makepeace Sitlhou.

Makepeace Sitlhou is an Assam-based independent journalist and contributing writer with Land Conflict Watch – a network of researchers that collect data about ongoing land conflicts in India

This series is published as a part of theSmitu  Kothari Fellowship of the Centre for Financial Accountability, Delhi.