The telephone gets disconnected for the seventh time in 10 minutes. It bluntly cuts the conversation Armstrong Pame, the 28-year-old IAS officer posted in Manipur, is trying to have. He was speaking about how remote and inhospitable Tousem is. Tousem, where Armstrong is posted, is the most backward of the four sub-divisions of Tamenglong, which in turn, is the most backward of the nine districts of Manipur.
On the eighth attempt, Armstrong comes back on the line and rues, "Well, I don’t think I need to elaborate anymore. You can judge what life is like here just by the quality of this call.”
Tamenglong may still be struggling with electronic connectivity, but thanks to Armstrong and his brother, Jeremiah, it is connected to the world outside. This February, the brothers helped residents of 15 villages in Tamenglong build a 100-km-long road which now connects the district to Assam and Nagaland.
The construction began in September 2012, and in just seven months, over 150 locals across Tamenglong pooled in Rs 10 lakh from their meagre earnings for the road. A larger contribution of Rs 40 lakh came from donations through the social networking site, Facebook.
Just for the record: the government estimate for the same road was Rs 100 crore.
The road, says Jeremiah, has changed life in Tamenglong forever. Thirty-two-year-old Jeremiah is assistant professor at the Delhi University, and memories of the erstwhile Tamenglong make him bitter. The government, he adds, promised a road to Manipur in 1976 but all people saw was sporadic construction and ministerial visits over the past 40 years. “Until February, our farmers travelled for two days to sell their produce in the market and make only Rs 100-200 over four days. The nearest hospital takes two days to reach and 10 people carry a patient on bamboo stretchers.” says Jeremiah. In 2004, the brothers lost their uncle to belligerent outbreaks of typhoid and malaria. He was one among hundreds. Since Armstrong’s tenure in Tamenglong which started in May last year, 10 women have died in childbirth due to lack of facilities.
Jeremiah adds that he and his six siblings grew up in Impa village, where the nearest school was 60 kms away. “Our father, a primary school teacher, wouldn’t receive his salary for a year at times and worked as a carpenter to make ends meet. Till date, most teachers don’t come to schools in Tamenglong. Out of 300 students in Tamenglong now, only two have done their postgraduate studies. The literacy rate here is an abysmal 40 per cent,” says Jeremiah.
It was early last year that Armstrong and Jeremiah first thought it was time to rise against the deplorable conditions they called life. At his first Gram Sabha meeting in Phoklong, Armstrong asked the people what they wanted the most. It was then that an elderly man stood up to speak. “He had spent the best part of his life walking for days to sell his produce and was worried that his grandson will have the same fate throughout his life. In spite of the grind, he was resigned to what would probably be a painful death due to the lack of a road. I was deeply moved and wanted to change my helplessness into action.”
Armstrong discussed the issue with Jeremiah, who had been thinking on the same lines after watching local after local perishing due to sickness year after year.
Armstrong approached the government for the last time but found no solace there. “So we began putting our own money into this,” says Jeremiah. “My wife and I gave a month’s salary each, Armstrong put in five months’ salary, our mother put in my father’s pension money, and one of our brothers put in some more. We collected around Rs 4 lakh and then went around our village. People laughed at us, but we didn’t give up.”
Jeremiah followed a Naga tradition to gather funds. To seek help, traditionally, the Nagas distribute a pinch of salt to encourage donation. “We distributed 6,000 kgs of salt across 15 villages. That’s when people knew we were serious, and one village decided to give us a JCB machine for free. Soon, another businessman heard of the effort and donated a bulldozer. Another contractor donated another JCB machine. We collected Rs 6 lakh through the Naga tradition, and were ready.” Locals from the village where the construction took place came forward and worked for free. Jeremiah and Armstrong say they could provide food for everyone only rarely, so the workforce arranged for their own meals despite bad harvests, rains and landslides. The operators of the machines and some locals didn’t go home for three months.
Jeremiah says they didn’t hire an engineer and only worked with locals. By August, however, some local engineers came forward to volunteer for the project. In September, Jeremiah started a Facebook group about the project which soon got 10,000 memberships. Donations came from US, Canada, UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. “Benevolent people who had lived in the North East contributed, NRIs came ahead, even disgruntled Indians who had sworn never to return to the country said they were moved by our effort and contributed. We raised Rs 40 lakh that way,” says Jeremiah.
Wholehearted donations from underprivileged Manipuris moved Jeremiah and Armstrong most. “A man confessed his love for a girl who lived in a village which would benefit from this road and said he was donating the money so she could see good times,” remembers Jeremiah.
The road was inaugurated on February 16 and the two brothers organised a bike rally to flag off the new member in their lives. Jeremiah says they plan to hold celebrations in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, too, since most of their donors came from these cities. On May 4, Jeremiah is organising a resource and network building programme in Delhi.
Their work, he adds, doesn’t end with the road. “We now plan to work on our crumbling healthcare and education facilities.” On June 1, 2 and 3, the brothers have organised a health camp which will see some Mumbai-based doctors live in Tamenglong for a month to tend to the sick. They are also sponsoring the treatment of a visually-challenged local, a five-year-old boy, in Delhi. “An elderly woman who is suffering from goitre, once walked to a hospital for two days and returned because she couldn’t afford treatment. We will soon take her to Imphal for treatment.” By next year, Jeremiah also hopes to start a good school in Tamenglong. Work has also begun on an extension of the road — a 12-km-stretch. “The villagers heard of us and asked us to help. They have been digging that road for 20 years in vain,” says Jeremiah. Donors have contributed Rs 16 lakh.
Armstrong says a woman recently suffered major injuries after a fall in his village, but they couldn’t use the road to transport her to a hospital. “It is a kacchha road. It isn’t an answer to all our problems, but we hope to make it work for most of them.”
To donate, log on to thegreatindianroad.in