Imphal: Work on the 84-km Jiribam-Tupul railway expansion project in Manipur, something that could boost Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ambitious 'Act East' policy in linking up with tiger economies of Southeast and East Asia, is way behind schedule.
"How can there be a Delhi-Hanoi Trans-Asian Railway if India cannot complete its railway expansion through Manipur before it links up with the Myanmar railway system?" says logistic expert Atin Kumar Sen, a former office-bearer with the Asian Council of Logistics Management.
But it is not funds that is holding up work on the Manipur railway project. The government has allotted Rs.1,397 crore for the Jiribam-Tupul segment and the implementing agency, the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), was comfortable with it.
But officials are worried over the law and order situation and threat of abductions and attacks faced by companies working on the project.
"Law and order is horrible, all companies working on the project suffer huge extortion," said Sen.
Work stopped for weeks after Mohammed Munir Raza, a manager with Coastal Projects, was kidnapped by militants of the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) in January this year.
The ZUF is one of the more than dozen armed groups that are forcing companies to pay through their nose or suffer abductions.
Workers and managers often flee construction sites for fear of abductions or attacks when their companies say no more payments can be made.
The Manipur government has done little to control the situation that threatens to derail one of India's most ambitious infrastructure projects.
What worries companies the most is that the ZUF, despite being down to hardly 25 activists, can go scot free because it enjoys backing of a top tribal minister in the Ibobi Singh government.
Intelligence officials say a former home ministry official who was behind the ZUF's formation as a 'counter-weight' to Naga rebel group NSCN is now back as a senior official in his parent Manipur cadre.
"If someone with 25 activists can hold a national project like this to ransom, we would expect the Centre to deploy the army and central paramilitary forces to ensure completion of this project," says a top manager of a company working in Tupul.
But home ministry officials say that may not be possible because law and order is a state subject and any uncalled-for central intervention will provoke cries of federalism in danger, especially because the Manipur government is run by the Congress and the one in Delhi by the BJP.
The Jiribam-Tupul section has 112 minor bridges, six major bridges, three road overbridges and two road under-bridges.
In the first phase, there will be 34 tunnels covering a length of 39,401 metres.
The longest tunnel in the Jiribam-Tupul section will be 4.9 km in length, while the longest tunnel in the Tupul-Imphal section will be 10.75 km.
The 12.5 km track linking the main line from Jiribam to Dholakhal section and 1.20 km of loop line have been completed.
But the rest of the Jiribam-Tupul project, that was to be fully completed by March 2016, is way behind schedule.
The railways had told the Modi government that the Tupul-Imphal section, covering 27 km, cannot now be completed within the target date of March 2018, since the first phase (Jiribam-Tupul) is behind schedule.
Modi's plans to take the railway line to Moreh, 109 km from Imphal on the Manipur-Myanmar border, looks like distant.
"At the present rate, the railway will not reach Moreh before 2023 unless the government in Delhi and Imphal wake up and push the project," says economist Indraneel Bhowmik who specialises on the northeast.
Tripura also faced the same problem, but it crushed the insurgent groups through some tough action including hitting their bases across the border in Bangladesh.
Soon the rebels were controlled, the railway line to Agartala was laid and now it is being linked with Akhaura on the border with the Bangladesh railway system.
"That resolve is missing in Manipur, where insurgency is big business and top ministers seem to be directly working in tandem with rebels of their ethnic group," says Major General Gaganjit Singh (retd), former deputy chief of the Defence Intelligence Agency.