Mizoram youth protest against the national highways widening project
Representational image

Environmental activists in Mizoram have slammed the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL) for not following environmental laws and regulations, while undertaking highway projects in the state. These projects have led to environmental damage, say the activists, including polluting the state’s water bodies.

  • The National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL) projects have led to environmental damage in the state of Mizoram. NHIDCL is currently carrying out widening work on four national highways in the state.
  • On July 19, more than 2,000 people participated in a rally against these projects in Mizoram. This rally was led by the Youth for Environment Justice Mizoram (YEJM), spearheaded by well-known social activist Vanramchhuangi.
  • While the environmental activists allege that the projects have polluted the soil, thereby impacting agriculture and the perennial rivers, five Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) also reported improper disposal of muck and other violations by NHIDCL.
  • However, there are also organisations in favour of the infrastructure development project as they believe that it would reduce the travel time and improve road connectivity.

NHIDCL, which comes under the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, is currently carrying out widening work on four national highways in the state – NH-09 (Seling- Zokhawthar), NH- 102B (Keifang-Manipur), NH-302 (Lunglei-Tlabung) and NH-54 (Aizawl-Tuipang).

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Map by Technology for Wildlife Foundation.

On July 19, more than 2,000 people participated in a rally against these projects in Mizoram’s capital city Aizawl. It was led by the Youth for Environment Justice Mizoram (YEJM), spearheaded by social activist Vanramchhuangi, popularly known as Ruatfela Nu. In its memorandum to the office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), the YEJM demanded an immediate stay order for highway projects of NHIDCL.

The memorandum read: “The Mizo indigenous people have survived throughout history in this rough terrain and location owing to our rivers. The enormous siltation which has destroyed agricultural lands and polluted our main water subsistence is a result of disregard and negligence of Environmental Laws and regulations by NHIDCL and all governmental stakeholders involved at every level.” It demanded that NHIDCL restore the damage to the environment and that developmental projects with reliable Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) be done through a credible agency, and only then be given forest and environment clearance.

The birth of an environmental movement

Lalrinfela Khiangte, Michael Lalramdingliana and Malsawmtluangi are members of the YEJM, who met at their study class. “During one of our discussions, we spoke about environmental issues in Mizoram and the NHIDCL highway project,” 23-year-old Khiangte told Mongabay-India, adding that they wanted to do something about it, but did not know how to proceed. They were then introduced to Vanramchhuangi, after which the YEJM was formed.

Vanramchhuangi, 64, has been a social activist since 1996 and worked on issues related to human rights in the past.

In the beginning, YEJM only had a few members, but in the past months, many people have joined this movement. Lalrintluangi, 27, a practicing nurse from Aizawl, who joined the group in May said, “I read about the group on social media, and felt strongly about it, so I got associated.”

Today, Lalrintluangi is an integral part of YEJM. Their WhatsApp group now has more than 300 members. Vanramchuuangi said that it was support from the students of different colleges, which made their July 19 rally, a success.

Khiangte said they met student unions of various colleges in the state before the rally. “We told them about the issue and they wholeheartedly supported us.” YEJM is also vocal against other projects, where environmental violations have allegedly taken place, such as the upcoming multipurpose sports complex in Lunglei that is being constructed in the catchment area of Tlawng, one of the major rivers of Mizoram, and the illegal construction of a tourist lodge in Chalfilh, Vanzau.

On July 19, more than 2,000 people, primarily youth, participated in a rally against the highway expansion project in Mizoram’s capital city Aizawl. It was led by the Youth for Environment Justice Mizoram (YEJM). Photo from YEJM.

‘Agriculture hampered, perennial rivers affected’

In 2020, while travelling across the state, Vanramchuuangi witnessed the destruction caused by the highway projects. “The state government did not carry out proper monitoring. In 1999, a highway was constructed from Aizawl to Lunglei. That project, funded by the World Bank, followed all necessary regulations, which was not the case with the NHIDCL projects,” she said.

The activist added that the project had mostly affected Situal, Serchhip and Hnahthial districts. “There are a lot of people depending on the crop fields along the banks of the river,” she said. “The spoiled soil deposited along the banks of the river have completely destroyed the crops grown here and made the land unfit for agricultural use.”

Mizoram also faces major water scarcity, which can be aggravated by the highway widening work. “In 2020, when I visited Lunglei, there was immense water scarcity,” she adds. “People had to fetch water from far off places and also buy it sometimes. During monsoon, we get plenty of rainfall, but because our seasonal and perennial rivers are deeply affected by the work of NHIDCL, I can only imagine our struggle for water in the summer.”

Environmental activists say that Mizoram already faces major water scarcity, which can be aggravated by the highway widening work. Photo by Gaurab Talukdar/Mongabay.

DFOs report improper disposal of muck and other violations by NHIDCL

Following the sit-in protest by YEJM in May, the state government directed five Divisional Forest Officers (DFO) to conduct a spot verification, in order to ascertain environmental violations. DFOs of Aizawl, Champhai, Lunglei, Tlabung and Thanzawl, in their reports, pointed out irregularities by NHIDCL. The reports said that there were violations of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, The Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and the Mizoram Forest Act 1955. The reports alleged improper disposal of muck, despite the presence of designated dumping grounds and dumping grounds not properly labelled with signage. The reports also mention that many dumping grounds were without physical barriers (RCC/gabon walls) meant to prevent the entry of muck into rivers and streams. They also report the establishment of labour camps inside forest areas, which is a violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

Five Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) who were instructed to conduct a spot verification, in order to ascertain environmental violations by NHIDCL wrote about improper muck disposal in their reports. Photo by Gaurab Talukdar/Mongabay.

The Mizoram Pollution Control Board (MPCB) also served a show cause notice to NHIDCL, which then said that it did not need environmental clearance. Lalduhawma, Secretary of MPCB, told Mongabay-India, that the show cause notice was served after the earth spoils were dumped in a manner which caused river pollution. “I instructed them to apply for consent to operate their machine, which is being done. The state government constituted a state-level monitoring committee in each of the affected districts. The committee is still carrying out inspections, but most of them have reported violations,” he said, adding that MPCB did not conduct any separate study. “The committees are headed by deputy commissioners of the respective districts and also have a member from MPCB. Construction of roads is welcome, as it is for the development of the state, but it should not be at the cost of the environment.”

Valpuia Malsawme Khawlhring, a YEJM member said that even though the total length of all the projects being undertaken by the NHIDCL in Mizoram is more than 700 kilometres, they have found a way to dodge environmental clearance. “NHIDCL divided the road segment into 28 sectors to bypass EIA,” he said. “If the segments are less than 100 kilometres, then EIA can be bypassed.”

A senior forest official, on condition of anonymity, said that only 8% of the area where the roads are being constructed, officially come under the forest area. “So, we can regulate their work only in forest areas. NHIDCL’s disposal of muck was an eye opener for both the government and people of Mizoram. Now, we have to ensure that NHIDCL stops the reckless disposal of muck.”

The official added that after the monsoon, the natural regeneration of muck will take place. “Also, NHIDCL said that because of the monsoon, all the spoil could not be transported and they were compelled to shove it down the road,” they said.

NHIDCL is carrying out widening work of four national highways in Mizoram, which youth activists and environmentalists are opposing. Photo by Gaurab Talukdar/Mongabay.

Mixed reactions towards NHIDCL in Champhai

Champhai is one of the districts where NHIDCL’s construction work has caused substantial damage, which was even witnessed by this Mongabay-India correspondent during their travel in the area. There are multiple places where spoils have been thrown down the hilly slope and in the rivers. However, during their inspection, the administration did not find any problem with the spoil disposal mechanism.

Young Mizo Association (YMA), the largest non-profit in Mizoram, is supporting NHIDCL’s work in Champhai. Lalrinmuana Fanai, a spokesperson of YMA, Champhai, said, “We are demanding that the construction of the road from Seling to Zokhawthar be completed within stipulated time. We think NHIDCL is doing well and we are opposing the agitations, as it is delaying the project.” While Fanai agrees that some spoils have been thrown into rivers, he says it will be drained out during the monsoon.

The district administration of Champhai supports the developmental project of NHIDCL. Photo by Gaurab Talukdar/Mongabay.

Fanai said that the YMA team at Khawzawl and Saitual also oppose the agitations, and that building these roads will help people reach Aizwal faster.

The district administration in Champhai also supports the project. James Lalrinchhana, Deputy Commissioner of Champhai said, “We have not finished our inspection entirely because our district was affected by the immense landslide and rainfall. A small stretch remains to be inspected. However, based on whatever inspection I have done so far, I can say that good gabon structures have been made and dumpsites have been properly utilised.” He added that they have advised the agency to plant saplings and the company said they will do it. “When the road gets completed, we can travel from Champhai to Aizawl in five hours which otherwise takes eight to ten hours. Khawzawl, which is just 42 kilometres from Chamohai, takes 80 minutes to reach. When the road is completed, we can cover that distance in 30 minutes.”

Despite several attempts, NHIDCL did not respond to Mongabay-India’s queries, at the time of publishing. Meanwhile, YEJM is planning another protest “Although stay orders have been issued, the NHIDCL is still carrying on their work,” Khiangte said.

This article is written by Nabarun Guha and republished from Mongabay.

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