When not just goods, but fear too piles

A report from NH39, India’s most unsafe highway where insurgent groups call the shots

Photographs by Ozzie Hoppe

By no stretch of imagination is Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland, a pleasant place to live in. On a damp Sunday morning, it feels like I have walked into a tropical war zone — there is a strange uneasiness in the air and the roads have been chiselled away by passing trucks and frequent downpours into an uneven slush of concrete and mud: a consequence of frictional forces and persistent civic indifference. 

I walk towards the railway station and discover the level of filth to be shocking, particularly for the northeast, which is much cleaner than mainland India on average. Open gutters overflow onto the street and mounds of garbage cover the side of the street, as gaunt cycle rickshawallahs heave past me. A large pool of stagnant water — black as crude oil and the abode of mosquitoes that hover close to its surface — lies right opposite the station. Roadside vendors sell cheap track pants, fruits, bangles and other fashion accessories right beside it, in what appears to be the main market of the town. A flyover passes above our heads and as I look up, I see a couple of Naga policemen looking down and observing us, making our position as obvious outsiders clear to me.

That this crumbling town happens to be one of the most important railheads in the northeast, particularly vital for the economies of Nagaland and Manipur, is easily forgotten. During the battle of Kohima in the second World War, reinforcements and goods for the Allies were routed through Dimapur by rail and road, towards the war fronts of Imphal and Kohima. Today, almost all goods headed for Manipur and Nagaland, which include cereal from the Food Corporation of India, first arrive to Dimapur by goods train. 

After being unloaded from the train, the goods are transported by trucks along NH39, which stretches from Dimapur in the plains to Moreh on the Indo-Myanmar border, passing through the undulating Naga and Manipur hills, crossing the cities of Kohima and Imphal in between. 

Hear my train a comin’

I soon turn from the road and enter through the broken remains of an iron gate to find myself near an endless rust-coloured train, comprising 42 bogies, 21 of which are loaded with 20 tonne of potatoes each. It’s quite a sight: rows of trucks as far as the eye can see, one for each train bogie, with labourers carrying bulky sacks on their heads, moving in and out of the bogies with stopwatch frequency, sweat pouring down faces that are crumpled in a look of exhaustion and concentration, as they negotiate the inclined ramp that constitutes the path from the bogie to the truck. 

I find out that a group of local Marwari traders in Dimapur has booked the train. A couple of traders are supervising the loading and unloading, noting down details in coarse, discoloured notebooks. They tell me that the potatoes are to be transported to Imphal by trucks, most of them six-wheelers. One truck is assigned per bogie, carrying 20 tonne each, far exceeding its designated capacity of nine tonne. The traders don’t even attempt to hide this fact, just as one doesn’t bother to conceal a banal reality. Again and again, I discover routine overloading as a common thread that ties the transportation industry in India together across state borders. 

Bihari labourers do most of the hard labour, clad in lungis or baggy shorts, their clothes and bodies covered in fine, golden potato dust that envelops the insides of the bogies as well. Inside the bogie, the labourers work in pairs to drag the heavy gunny sacks, using a pair of tongs to hitch it to shoulder level, and then haul them on their heads — cushioned by gamchhas — to the waiting trucks.

They earn #2.5 per sack, 6% of which goes to a broker, a measly amount for what is clearly punishing work. Loose potatoes that have fallen out of holes in the sacks are collected in a plastic bag and whisked away or handed over, depending on whether a supervisor is around or not. Faint echoes of the Lord’s song being played on loudspeakers with accompanying guitar can be heard amid the loading and unloading, a jolly Sunday routine that’s quite incongruous with the pervasive filth and caginess of Dimapur.

I go around trying to chat with truck drivers, only to be alarmed to learn that essential goods such as foodgrain and oil are escorted by paramilitary trucks in 200-strong convoys, since the highway is host to a dozen insurgent groups that extort unofficial ‘taxes’ from drivers. However, many of the truck drivers travel outside the convoy, in small groups often united by language and geography. 

It turns out that on an average, the highway is blocked for 60 days a year due to frequent rasta-rokos by the insurgent groups and other political stakeholders, the major ones among whom include the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) (divided into two splinter groups, NSCN-IM and NSCN-K), the Kangleipak National Liberation Front, the Communist Party of Kangleipak and many other organisations turning a variety of ideological, tribal and ethnic grudges into armed revolutionary movements. The recent killing of 18 soldiers by the NSCN-K in an ambush further intensified tensions and given rise to an atmosphere of palpable insecurity. In effect, I discover it is safe to call NH39 the most dangerous highway in the country. 


Hustling for rides is an affair riddled with uncertainty, but its complementary twin, serendipity, also makes an occasional appearance. You never know who you are going to stumble upon. I am told that the best place to find stationary trucks in Dimapur is the Numaligarh Refinery Limited (NRL) petrol pump, the cheapest destination for long-distance vehicles. I head there in a rickety auto, passing deserted shopping arcades and slammed shutters along the way. Nagaland, being a Christian-dominated state — Christians constitute 85% of the population — comes to a virtual standstill on Sundays. 

I am relieved to see trucks parked haphazardly on the premises of the petrol pump and jump out to make enquiries. It is lunchtime and most of the trucks are missing their masters. Finally, I see a couple of men idling inside a truck and approach them. 

One among them, a compact man with a receding hairline dressed in summer clothes — a blue-white checked lungi and a brown baniyan — calls himself Avirup Roy (name changed on request) and proclaims himself a Bengali from Dharamnagar in Tripura. He’s been driving all over the northeast for the past 25 years.

In a sing-song Bengali accent, he begins to tell me the break-up of his expenses for one trip to Imphal. Typically, his Marwari seth receives ₹26,000 from the client, of which he pockets ₹8,000 and hands over the remaining ₹18,000 to the drivers. I’m surprised to note that diesel constitutes just half of his expenses. The food and intoxication expense comes to around ₹1,000, but the biggest cash-guzzlers are the policemen and the insurgents, who he refers to as andarwalas or ‘underground’. Roy claims to pay ₹8,000 per trip to both combined. 

Fear and loathing 

The insurgents are more sophisticated. The tax they extort depends on the goods the truckers are ferrying. For instance, they demand more if the load is cement or iron — compared with potatoes and other ration — proportional to the value of the goods transported. Many drivers tell me it is foolhardy for them to try and evade the insurgents, since unlike the police, they usually have smaller vehicles at hand, using which they can easily overtake the truckers.

Upon catching up with the audacious escapees, the insurgents beat them black and blue and take away all the cash they have on them. “Risky kaam hai. Thappad toh mandir ka ghanti jaise bajata hai. Andarwala apne mann ka malik hai. Kisi ko bakshta nahi hai,” says Roy. He adds that there is no real difference between the policemen and the insurgents. “Ek ghar mein ek bhai policewala hoga aur doosra andarwala,” he says, only half-joking. And they work together in a climate of connivance. “Chor-chor chachere bhai hote hain,” he says, but with no humour this time. 

It was only last year that insurgents — allegedly so, because the police never did find the guys who actually did it — hijacked Roy’s Mahindra four-wheeler on NH39. They brandished guns and asked him to flee if he cared for his life. He did as he was told. Roy says he has not seen his vehicle since then. “Zindagi barbad ho gaya hijacking ke baad,” he says. He had bought the Mahindra only a year before it was taken from him and had managed to recoup only a bare fraction of his investment. 

He had taken a loan of ₹665,000 to buy the vehicle. When he went to register a case, the policemen demanded a bribe of ₹25,000 just for filing an FIR. In all, he says that he has spent an amount of ₹200,000-250,000 on the policemen, the dalal who filed a case with the insurance company, as well as the officers of the insurance company who came to conduct a fact-finding survey about the case. After all this effort, he says he has been able to recover ₹216,000 from the insurance company, a net loss for him. He’s now defaulting on his monthly EMI of ₹12,000 to the bank because of the loss of livelihood. “Magar bank ko hijack se koi farak nahi padta hai,” he says.

He was compelled to start all over again as a helper on a truck, back to square one after 25 years of experience, thanks to a former ustad who offered to let him accompany him on his truck. “Family ke jaise hai. Mushkil mein help karte hain. Majboori ka naam Mahatma Gandhi hai,” he says with cryptic glee. He says that their owner is going to buy a new truck soon, which he hopes to start driving within six months and draw a full salary. Presently, Roy has to rely on the kindness of his ustad

They have just finished eating lunch in the truck and the ustad is evidently busy spending some time alone, puffing at his beedi, looking out the other window, clearly not in a mood to communicate. He gets a salary of ₹5,000 per month from his boss. Roy doesn’t get any salary but he sustains himself and his family on the money their boss hands over for expenses. In order to avoid taxes, Roy and his ustad travel by night, when blockades by the police and insurgents are fewer and are often unmanned. He claims that it takes ₹30,000 to make the journey during the day, compared with ₹18,000 in the night, often lesser, the remainder going straight into Roy’s pocket. 

Blockade Blues

Other truckers arriving from Imphal soon join us, and I realise my worst fears have come true. They tell me about rumours that the road to Imphal is blocked for now, obstructed by Mao Nagas near Mao on the Manipur-Nagaland border. According to them, the situation was tense over there after shots were fired and a couple of trucks were set on fire, their drivers jumping away to safety in time. The truckers tell me to come back the next day if I want to hitch a ride, since no truck driver will be plying the highway that night. I have no option but to obey them and despondently return to the shady motel I’m putting up at.

I feel a pang of anxiety. Fear courses through my veins with renewed vigour and I question myself: should I actually go ahead with this? I consider returning to mainland India, to more familiar environs where the only people you have to worry about on highways are the police. I realise the blockade could extend indefinitely, while travelling at night carries its concomitant risks of hijacking and looting. I wonder if the trip’s worth the risk at all. But, of course, I know the answer. 

This is the third of a six-part series on the highway economy