The Marangching disaster
Tupul is a nondescript settlement in Noney district of Manipur. But years ago, when Lalu Prasad Yadav was the Union Railways Minister he came and laid the foundation stone of the Jiri-Tupul railway line. It was a dream project of the Government of India and of Manipur as the State grappled with ways and means to save the people from economic hardship frequently caused by the numerous economic blockades periodically imposed by various ethnic groups. They straddled the two National Highways and would do this to get the State's attention to their grievances.
Soon it got the status of a National Project and work on the 111-kilometre-long railway line picked up pace. Indian Railways announced that whilst 60 per cent of the line would be through tunnels it would also be having the world's tallest railway bridge covering the Noney Valley. The bridge is being built at a pier height of 141 metres surpassing the existing record of 139 metres of the Mala-Rijeka via duct in Montenegro in Europe. Tupul, located 50 kilometres south of Imphal, was to be the railhead connecting the State to the rest of the country.
The area in and around Marangching in Tupul where the station is to come up had received moderate to heavy rainfall during the last two weeks or so. But on the intervening night of 29-30 June, there was nothing to indicate that all hell was going to be let loose on the sleepy settlement that had come up to ensure the final finishing touches to this dream project. Around midnight, about a kilometer long hill side came crashing down 300 feet burying everything in its way and blocking the Izei river flowing below. Many of the bodies were to be recovered from the mini lake which this blockade had caused.
Stationed at the fateful site were a company of the 107 Territorial Army attached to the 11 Gurkha Rifles, employees of the North Eastern Frontier Railways and of private companies engaged in the laying of the track.
There were also a sprinkling of local civilians running shops and sundries in the area. On 30 June, eight bodies were recovered even as Chief Minister N Biren Singh rushed to the site with relief personnel in tow. The relief personnel included members of the National and State Disaster Relief Force, the Indian Army and Assam Rifles. Also present were members of the Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association (MMTA) and local volunteers.
The Chief Minister announced an ex-gratia grant of Rs 5 lakh each to the next of kin of those killed and Rs 50,000 to each of the injured. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also called CM Biren on the phone and had assured him of all possible help from the Centre to cope with the disaster at hand. The body count began rising day by day even as the Army brought in Infra Red Through Wall Radars sensors from as far away as Ladakh to track bodies trapped under the mud. Assisting them is a team of the Army's sniffer dogs. Yet still quite a number had to be fished out of the minor lake that had cropped up overnight and according to Sarangthem Thoiba, a member of the MMTA volunteer team, most of the bodies were already bloated when they discovered them in the water. Excavators were pressed into service to dig into the mud mounds and extract the bodies. The dead included many soldiers, a pregnant woman with her four-month-old foetus and a two-year-old old girl. Another girl whose parents were swept away with the shop they ran at the site is now wandering around aimlessly, uncertain about her future.
By Day 5, the body count had risen to 34, most victims belonging to the Territorial Army and largely from Darjeeling, Sikkim and Tripura. A high level Ministerial team of the State headed by the Health Minister, Dr Sapam Ranjan Singh, and another from Assam, led by Piyush Hazarika visited the site. In the meantime, the Army had been sending back bodies to respective home States on board aircraft of the Indian Air Force after according them full military honours at the Imphal Airport. Following up the VIP entourage to the site was Union Minister of State for Education, Dr Subhas Sarkar, who was accompanied by the State's Rajya Sabha MP Leishemba Sanajaoba.
But critics are skeptical about these VIP visits as they hamper the rescue operations, with the State's resources drawn thin to look after their requirements. In a way, it is a good thing that both PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah had decided to stay away from the site; ensuring security would have caused chaos. And in any case if PM Modi had decided to come, there would have also been a mandatory bandh call by the non-State actors. The Manipur Governor decided not to visit the site but went to the Assam Rifles Hospital where the injured Army men are being treated in nearby Mantripukhri in Imphal.
However even as the toll reached 47 on Day 6, questions are being raised by various quarters. Satellite imagery data dating back from 2009 till 2019 began to be compared, whereby the massive degradation in the environment around the disaster site was evident. The latest of them showed a denuded hill slope with a railway track and heavy construction around. Railway officials have tried to play it down stating that there had been no problems in the numerous tunnels and bridges they have constructed enroute till date.
Perhaps the most meaningful visit to the site was that of RK Ranjan, Union Minister of State of External Affairs and a former Earth Scientist at Manipur University. After visiting the site, he had said that he will advise the Union Railways Minister to review and re-study the impact assessment of the Railway Project area to prevent any adverse situation. He stressed on the need for a proper impact assessment in a geologically fragile State like Manipur before initiating any developmental projects in the future to prevent such catastrophes. He opined that the mass of land might have slid with the gravitational pull and hydraulic pressure caused by the accumulation of water the number of micro-folds in the hillside affected areas owing to high intensity rainfall recently.
Meanwhile the Longmai area village authorities had through Minister RK Ranjan submitted a memorandum to Prime Minister Modi asking him to order fresh investigations and technical dearance with soil tests, geological and seismic surveys along the Jiri-Tupul-Imphal railway line and the National Highway 37 surface road expansion programme being carried out now.
With the discovery of yet another body on 6 July, the death toll has now reached 48. Of this, 29 are army men; 13 are still reported missing and 18 have been rescued alive. But all said and done, this rail line may have been laid at the cost of at least 50 lives in Manipur's biggest natural disaster in recorded history. The Statesman
The writer is The Statesman's Imphal-based Special Representative.