My guest post today is a beautifully written account by Delhi based Catriona Child, of one of the most amazing stories to come out of India’s often neglected North East. Read this fascinating tale and, as Catriona says, your faith in human nature will be restored.
Catriona has just returned from a wonderful visit to The Road in January.
Here is her account.
Facebook-Funded People’s Road Opens 17 Feb 2013
When the first vehicle ever to reach Katangnam, in remote west Manipur, appeared round the corner on 12 Dec 2012, Mr Haiguangbe, former Village Chairman, wept for joy. And what was the vehicle that brought on Mr Haiguangbe’s tears? Not a shiny Scorpio or a rugged Gipsy but a lumbering mud-caked bulldozer!
For this community leader the ‘dozer’ represented a dream come true. During his chairmanship of more than 30 years, Haiguangbe had begged and pleaded with any number of bureaucrats, politicians and people with influence for a road to connect his mountain village with markets and medical help.
Until very recently no one listened, or if they listened they did nothing and Haiguangbe’s despair and disillusionment grew and grew.
Without a motorable road, it took two days for villagers to reach the nearest hospital on foot. Patients had to be carried on bamboo stretchers along a jungle trail and hundreds died on the way.
In the absence of motor transport, the excellent chilli, ginger, monkey rice and turmeric that Katangnam produces could not be sent to market to generate much-needed cash. Surplus yams and pumpkins had to go to the pigs because there was no way to sell them. Plagues of rats and other problems meant the village could not grow enough rice and Government-subsidised rice had to be carried on foot from Tousem Sub-Division headquarters 32 km away.
The world’s only crowd-funded road
The bulldozer that ‘relieved’ Katangnam and adjacent villages was a vital tool in one of the most remarkable road-building projects that India, and possibly the world, has ever seen. This 100km road connecting Tamenglong in Manipur to Haflong in Assam has been built entirely with volunteer effort and crowd-funding from a Facebook page.
And the speed with which it has been completed beggars belief. The project only began in September 2012 and “The People’s Road”, as it has been dubbed, will be inaugurated on 17 February 2013 with an international motor-bike rally. This is a level of productivity commercial contractors would struggle to emulate, especially when you consider that the total cost of the volunteer project will be little more than 50 lakhs.
It has to be said that the full 100km stretch from Tamenglong to Haflong has not been built from scratch. At least 60 km were already in existence but in poor repair. During the crowd-funded project, the bad stretches were mended and about 40km of new road constructed through dauntingly mountainous terrain between Phoklong Village, 20 km south of Katangnam, and the Assam-Manipur border.
In the most difficult sections, around 200 to 300 people laboured daily. Where the route had to be carved from solid rock, bulldozers and JCBs were no use. Instead, 50 of the strongest men hacked away at the cliffs. On these hand-cut stretches, the team leader told me workers could clear only 50m per day as opposed to 200-300m per day with a machine.
The moving spirits
Behind this heart-warming story is a remarkable family – the Pames. Jeremiah and Armstrong Pame grew up in Impa village in Tousem Sub-Division. Like Katangnam, Impa had no road so Jeremiah and his brother knew first-hand how tough it was to survive under those conditions. Both brothers did well in their careers; Jeremiah is a Professor at Delhi University and Armstrong (named after astronaut Neil Armstrong) joined the prestigious Indian Administrative service (IAS). And it was when the latter was posted to his home-beat of Tousem as Sub-Divisional Magistrate that The Road project was born.
Armstrong readily admits that people thought he was crazy. And Haiguangbe confesses that he thought Armstrong’s plan was just another castle in the air. He said “Even when Armstrong Pame said he would do it…. I was laughing because I thought it was another lie. But one day I heard the sound and smell of the first vehicle…. I realized it was not a dream any more – it was a reality.”
Power of social media
In June 2012, despite rain and leeches, Armstrong and his team surveyed the route. In September brother Jeremiah in Delhi launched the Facebook page and the money began to come in; a trickle at first with modest donations from students and others but then, as the momentum grew and the ‘can do’ project caught the public imagination, substantial sums began to arrive from India and abroad.
As well as providing muscle power, local villagers gave generously in kind – providing firewood, rice, oranges, fish and much more for the construction team. Teachers and government officers donated from their salaries; beauty queens presented their prize money; old people contributed their pensions. One boy gave money because the girl he loved came from Manipur. Skim the entries on the project’s Facebook page and faith in human nature will be restored.
The spin-offs have been astonishing. International teams have been visiting the area to make donations or assess possibilities for future development assistance. And news of The Road also reached California and the office of Mark Zuckerburg’s Facebook. Without the social media website this project could not have happened and, in January 2013, a Facebook team made the difficult journey to the construction site to see and film the work.
Looking to the future
Thanks to The Road, the future for Tousem Sub-Division villages like Katangnam looks brighter, with several potential development initiatives in the offing. There are also challenges ahead. The new road has no black-top and will require constant maintenance. But the ever-positive Armstrong believes government funds will be made available now the spade-work has been done.
Mr Haiguangbe is looking forward with optimism because he believes the money his villagers will get from selling their produce will enable them to send their children to school. “Now our kids are dirty and ill-educated,” he says. “Come back in future and see how things will have changed.”
To donate to “The People’s Road” please call +91 995302013
Mr. Haiguangbe, smiling away.
Photos above and below, of construction gangs working on The Road, are both courtesy of Berenice Ellena