Building a 100-km road using FB, iron will and zero govt

Here’s a project that defies my city-bred cynicism. It weaves past some rules in the book. It challenges the rot within our governance. But it tells me just why India shall survive her corrupt rulers

rohit

Rohit Bansal | November 6, 2012


Tamenglong-Haflong road construction
Tamenglong-Haflong road construction

“I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him [...] I'm talking on behalf of Egypt. [...] This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook. This revolution started [...] in June 2010 when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians started collaborating content. We would post a video on Facebook that would be shared by 60,000 people on their walls within a few hours. I've always said that if you want to liberate a society just give them the Internet. [...]”
 
Jeremiah Pame, 31, hasn’t just heard Wael Ghonim saying this about the first revolution man created via Facebook. Pame, the quintessential faceless Indian, has used the social media channel to create something that the Indian state didn’t for 65 years.
 
Today, thanks in ample measure to a piece in The Times of India, membership on his FB page, “Tamenglong - Haflong Road Construction”, is past the 5k mark, and as the admin, Jeremiah is receiving crowd funding from all over India, not to mention NRIs from London to Lusaka.
 
It isn’t raining dollars though. Some give as little as Rs 50. But who said small contributions don’t count! They mean the world for these simple Manipuris trying to build a better future for their people.
 
What interests me is that even before the TOI story, the aforementioned FB page had gone past 3K on the power of word of mouth alone.
 
I learnt so much as I spoke to Jeremiah, an assistant professor at Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, for one hour. My intent was to warm him on the transience of adulation. That Armstrong Pame, his younger brother in the IAS, the first among their tribe to have made it to the premier service, is flirting with trouble, from what seemed to have been channelizing of private funding for a 100-km road, with zero role of the government, that would link Manipur with Nagaland and Assam.

Check the website of the project: www.thegreatindianroad.in

I was armed with All India Services Conduct Rules which forbid officers to solicit funds from private sources even for public causes unless these are explicitly approved by the state government. Rule 10 is clear: "Subscriptions—No member of the Service shall, except with the previous sanction of the Government or of such authority as may be empowered by it in his behalf ask for, or accept, contributions to or otherwise associate himself with the raising of any fund or other collections in cash or in kind in pursuance of any object whatsoever."
 
I was also worried that in his over enthusiasm, Armstrong, 29, will be leading the build-up for the remaining 30-km stretch of the road, in violation of the Forest Conservation Act.
 
I sensed the young sub-district magistrate (SDM) in Tousen, not far from his native village, would regret the day when his bosses woke up and asked how he’s sanctified clearance of a single tree, whatever be the legal status of the intervening forest.
 
I confess that Jeremiah, one of eight siblings, born to a primary school teacher who paid for their tuition making furniture, had answers to almost all my searching questions. Lacking in technical finesse, they were backed by honesty of intent. Surely, self-help, a hapless citizen’s last weapon, deserves more moral backing than antiquated rules we’ve inherited from the Brits.
 
In one hour, mere good intentions on my part have been washed away. Instead, I’ve even wanted to drop this keyboard and lend my untrained hands to help build the actual road.
 
Yes, I do want to rush to Imphal, drive down to Tamenglong town, a place I confess I hadn’t heard of before, cross the Barak river, go past Azuram village, navigate over the Makhru, go past Tonsen village, and break ground with the 100 villagers.
 
These folks are working pro bono. They don’t expect the Rs 300 per day wage to build the road of their lives. There are no contractors. No engineers either.
 
John Zeliang, an honorary resource in Delhi, is the closest the project has to a chief engineer.
 
I want to sip the tea and live on the rice that neighbouring villagers might feed us. What I would do to drive that single bull dozer in our arsenal, and the two JCBs the contractors have lent us gratis.
 
Would that one experience, culminating into reaching the Jiri river, our target by Christmas, cleanse me from fixation with rules and official niceties?
 
Would I find inspiring that this Team Lagaan, an IAS officer being their Aamir Khan, have no interest left in government funding. Legend has it that the said road, in any case, has already been built on paper, the funds earmarked sitting with Manipur’s infamous neta-babu mafia!
 
Certainly, the good cheer with which the Pames and their friends forked several months of their personal salaries is inspirational. Seeing that they had skin in the game, others have followed. Just so that no child along this ribbon fails to be educated like they were, no mother dies before reaching the hospital in Tamenglong, no farmer does a distress sale of oranges, reared with her sweat and blood, for 50 paise apiece.
 
Bravo, folks, and hats off!

[Tweets @therohitbansal]

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