Eighteen Territorial Army personnel among 24 people were killed in a massive landslide in Manipur’s Noney district[i] on Wednesday (June 29, 2022), and at least another 40, including 18 soldiers, are feared trapped or buried in the rubble of an under-construction railway yard. An adjoining construction camp and security camp engulfed in the avalanche of rock and mud.[ii] The Railway line is under construction since a decade.
The toll increased to 24 as rescuers removed dead bodies from the debris, 19 people have been rescued. 40 people are still feared buried, missing. The landslide also damaged the under construction Tupul station building of the ongoing Jiribam – Imphal new Railway line project.[iii]
The landslide brought down a hill, cut off Ejei River. The people of Pongringlong village close to the accident site reportedly heard a loud thundering around 11.30 pm on June 29, 2022, but did not know it was of the hill crashing down in a landslide and blocking the river. it was only early morning on Thursday that they realised that a whole hill (Marangjing) has caved in, cutting off the Ejei river and the under-construction railway track. The river has now opened up a route.[iv]
On Friday, excavators were used to pull out bodies from a river.[v] By then 24 dead bodies were recovered and 40 were feared missing. So far, 13 personnel of the Territorial Army and five civilians have been rescued.
Violations, Warnings ignored A two part report[vi] for Land Conflict Watch in Feb 2020 by Makepeace Sitlhou, among other articles had highlighted a number of concerns about the Railway Line project that has led to the landslide.
– This is northeast India’s third longest and most ambitious broad gauge railway line, construction of which has also overlooked the forest and environment laws. In its first phase, the broad gauge line in Manipur starts from Jiribam in Tamenglong district (connecting with Silchar in Assam), running 84 km east till Tupul in Noney district.
– The construction of the railway line began in 2010 without forest clearance, even though it is required under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had issued a notification in September 2006 deeming environmental clearance necessary for construction of new projects or expansion of existing projects. But the deputy conservator of forests of the western forests division-Tamenglong noted in April 2014 that such a clearance was not required.
– A Social Impact Assessment (SIA) study is required under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act.
The SIA report that was submitted to the district commissioner in 2015 only makes reference to the acquired land and standing crops, trees and buildings, missing crucial details of loss of livelihood and rehabilitation. Even though a date for a public hearing was advertised in the local newspapers, it did not take place.
– Like Marangjing, several families in the villages of Kambiron, Noney and Khumji in Manipur’s Noney district have been displaced without any resettlement or rehabilitation packages.
Ejei River Ejei – also spelt ‘Ijei’ and ‘Ijai’ – is one of the main tributaries of the Irang, which flows into the Naga-inhabited Senapati, Tamenglong and Noney districts of Manipur. It eventually joins the Barak river in the south.[vii] The Ejei is a source of life and livelihood for the 1.4 lakh inhabitants of Noney, Rangkhung, Luangchum, Taobam, Makhuam, Nungtex, Khumji, Tupul and Namdonjang villages in Noney district. The Railway line construction activity has led to pollution of the Ejei river and has severely affected livelihood of communities that depend on it. Tingenlung has been organising the villagers to protest against this ecological loss, and holding the North East Frontier Railways (NFR) accountable for this. “Species of tasty fish like Khaschun (a family of the carp Rohu), Khanua, Khagwa and Tapampui have just disappeared,” Tingenlung said.
Tingenlung and others raised the issue of increasing water pollution with the construction companies, the Manipur State Pollution Control Board (MSPCB) and the NFR. When they were met with silence, they turned to the Eastern Zone (Kolkata) bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in February 2017 and filed a case against the NFR, the Ministry of Railways, the Municipal Corporation of Imphal, the MSPCB, the Manipur government and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). In the petition, they annexed photographs from Duidai Pangthak and Khiangthuak villages, where waste water discharge from the construction sites flowed into freshwater streams.
GSI assessment about erosion and landslides along Ejei River A geotechnical assessment of landslides along the Jiribam-Imphal Broad Gauge Line, between Barak and Tupul, was undertaken by the Geological Survey of India, North East Region. In their report, they noted: “The unauthorised and unscientific dumping of excavated earth and disposal of chemical and solid wastes must be strictly checked in the proximity of the villages to avoid loss of property and life including aquatic life in future.” The assessment report further stated that uncontrolled sudden increase in the discharge of major rivers – including Ejei – had caused severe erosion of the rivers and their tributaries, which would pose a danger to nearby villages. “Change in existing land use, uncontrolled cutting and excavation of critical slopes during construction of new approach road, particularly close to habituation, makes the area vulnerable to landslides.” The GSI warnings seem to have been ignored.
However, the petition in NGT has not been heard since Oct 2017 for lack of sufficient bench persons.
An independent inquiry into the whole disaster and the reasons behind the same would help unravel the truth and help learn lessons.
[i] It was carved out of Tamenglong district only in 2016.
July 4, 2022: Dave Petley wrote in his blog about the railway line construction: “Some of the works shown in the image appear to demonstrate questionable construction approaches, including large amounts of sediment being released into the river system…
There are a number of aspects of this site, prior to the failure, that give me cause for concern, including the very steep upper part of the slope, the lobate form of the lower slopes and the large bend in the river. I would like to see the engineering geomorphological and geological interpretation of this site that was surely (?) undertaken prior to construction.
The section that has collapsed had been cut, so inevitably this must be the leading potential cause of the landslide. The width of the landslide appears to correspond closely to the section of cut slope, which may be an indication of process and causation. I have tried to annotate the image from Karma Paljor to indicate the main features – of course this is highly speculative:”
Dave Petley further writes: “My initial (speculative) interpretation is that the cut slope failed, creating the large debris mass seen in the foreground of the image. The location of the destroyed buildings gives a sense of the movement direction and distance. The area that I have shaded appears to be a secondary failure from higher up the slope, probably because of a loss of support. This is a deep seated collapse that may have implications for the stability of the other parts of the slope. This scar has then been partially infilled by smaller failures around the steep backscarp. These are likely to continue for some time.
Note the water flowing down the rear scarp. The main part of the SW summer monsoon will occur over the coming weeks. A key concern right now must be the stability of the other cut slopes at this site.
Finally, it goes without saying that this landslide should be investigated independently and in a transparent manner, with the outcomes published and lessons learnt.”
On July 5, 2022 Dave Petley posted another blog on this disaster where he wrote: the Chief Minister of Manipur, N. Biren Singh, has indicated that “the tragedy necessitated a “relook” at the railway project.” “The Manipur hill soil is very soft, the railway people have the expertise, but unfortunately this kind of incident has taken place and they need to relook… this target of railway reaching Imphal by December 2023 will be delayed,” he had said.