We embark on our journey just as twilight approaches Dimapur, nervously bracing for our encounter with the notorious NH39 we heard so much about in the city. Thanks to a couple of kindly managers at the NRL petrol pump, who told their attendants to ask truckers to take us along. We get a ride much sooner than expected, and I find myself back in a truck, heading this time for Kohima. The driver tells me they’re not going all the way to Imphal because of the recent violence in the border town of Mao and advises me to wait it out in Kohima for the unrest to subside before proceeding to Imphal.
He says they’re transporting 33 tonne of mutter (peas), as opposed to a capacity of 20 tons, from a goods train that arrived in Dimapur the day before. ’90s Bollywood songs play on the stereo as we hit the road, Kumar Sanu crooning away maudlin numbers to glory, as if most of subaltern India is still absorbed in a comfortable time warp when Indian pop culture’s worldview was limited to love and heartbreak, blind to the glitzy aspirational overtones of contemporary Bollywood culture. Hindu idols adorn the centre of the windshield — Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi, surprisingly Brahma, and even a southern God sporting a mean moustache while seated on an elephant. Their Marwari owner is a very devout person, says Mohammad, the sombre man from Kokrajhar district in Assam, who is driving the truck.
Accompanying him in this improvised journey to Imphal are David, a Munda tribal from Jharkhand settled in Karbi Anglong, Assam, and Rahul Boro, a baby-faced Bodo tribal from Kokrajhar district in Assam. The three seem to be walking embodiments of Indian secularism, Boro cracking the joke dying to be made that they are the Amar Akbar Anthony of the trucking industry.
The drivers are conspicuously younger in the Northeast, often just out of their teens. Boro, who was trained under a Sikh, tells me that when they go to Punjab, the older grizzled Sikhs have a hard time believing that they are bonafide truck drivers. Between the three of them, they know Mundari, Nagamese, Assamese, Hindi, Bhojpuri, English, Bengali, Punjabi, Kachari, Dimasa and Manipuri. That’s a whopping 11 languages! “Sikhna padta hai warna maar khaayega sab jagah,” says Boro.
Soon, we enter the picturesque Naga hills. We stop at an excise department post, where there’s no checking for overloading. Boro, the juniormost member, the khalasi or factotum, jumps out. At the beginning of the trip itself, he was handed cash to take care of all expenses on the way. “Woh entry karate karate pahunchata hai Imphal,” Mohammad tells me.
Throughout the stretch in Nagaland, grisly ‘Tobacco kills’ boards, along with Baptist churches, form the foreground to a stunning background of mist-swathed hills. Pineapple stalls along the road evoke subliminal images of south-east Asia. “Manipuri Rice Hotels’, the non-veg northeast version of the dhaba, are a regular sight. Hornbill festival billboards appear now and then. In these, Nagaland is touted as the ‘land of festivals’, the frequent festivities a result of the rich tribal diversity in the state.
Mohammad says he spends around ₹30,000 per trip from Dimapur to Imphal. “We typically spend ₹12,000 on diesel, ₹1,000 on food and cigarettes, and the rest on paying policemen and andarwalas” he says. Their boss, who owns three trucks and a cloth shop in Dimapur, does not wish to be named says, he has to pay around ₹10,000 per trip directly to the andarwalas, through a manager. “It’s difficult to do business here. Everybody, from policemen to andarwalas, demand their cut. Corruption is a way of life,” he adds.
As we ascend the hills, it gets cooler. The drivers know there’s a bandh in place, but they’re still going ahead so they can stop in the hills and sleep comfortably instead of sweating in the plains. The roads are in terrible disrepair, our truck bumping along clumsily.
“The awful roads in Nagaland and Manipur are symptomatic of development funds released by the Centre being leached away and distributed along the line, at the village and district level. Rebel groups, whatever their location, are part of the food chain. Also, you have the thing about the emotional number rebel groups pull on the local people. Sometimes the locals keep quiet, but they are keeping less quiet now,” says Sudeep Chakravarti, author of Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land, a book detailing the conflict economy of Manipur and Nagaland along the eponymous highway. Against Corruption and Unlawful Taxation, an organisation fighting unofficial taxation has reportedly gained public support, rattling rebel groups in the process.
We soon stop at a Bengali hotel for dinner, where a waiter wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt serves us delicious fish curry, aloo fry, and boiled leaves called silli, a local delicacy. At midnight, the army-directed convoy comprising oil tankers make a racket. Boro warns me not to venture out of the truck at this time since local goons prowl around in four-wheelers once the convoy passes. He then takes out a blunted machete from the front cabinet and displays it, bringing it closer to my face. “For protection,” he says. I get a little nervous and ask him how far Kohima is, itching to get back to the city. “Just 10 km away, you can go there in the morning,” he says.
Dividing it up
After a couple of days in Kohima waiting for the blockade to end, I decide to go to another petrol pump one afternoon to hitch a ride to Imphal. I meet Gurvinder Singh, a truck driver hailing from Jalandhar, along with four of his companions. It turns out they were separated from their convoy comprising 200-odd trucks transporting wheat from the Food Corporation of India the previous day. Now they are too scared to travel by themselves in this terrain and are waiting to rejoin the convoy when it arrives.
Many other truckers are biding their time, waiting for the city limits of Kohima to be opened to heavy vehicles at five in the evening. When the gates of Kohima open, the highway comes back to life. The convoy makes an appearance, a huge column of trucks with different numbers plastered on the vehicles’ windshields, escorted in the front and back by armoured military vehicles. The paramilitary escorts food and oil convoys on alternate days along NH39, so in spite of Singh’s efforts to join the oil convoy, the officer in charge tells him to wait another day and join the food convoy.
A little ahead from the pump, a couple of Naga youths are collecting the ‘entry tax’ for getting into Kohima. It’s a tried and tested routine. Khalasis hold up a ₹500 note out of the window as the truck slows down and a designated youth snatches the note from the khalasi’s hand mid-momentum, moving on the next truck. Traffic slows down in the process, but doesn’t come to a standstill.
As I stare at this strangely hypnotic routine, I see a truck driver who tries to evade the tax have his windshield smashed with a sturdy lathi. Impenetrable cracks appear on the screen. How will the guy drive now, and who exactly are these people, I wonder. The answer is complex, like much of the power dynamics in the Northeast. Chakravarti says that tax collection is carried out by different groups along the highway depending on their ‘area of influence’.
“From Dimapur to Senapati in Manipur, tax collection is largely by Naga groups, primarily NSCN(IM). From Senapati to Kangpokpi, it is by Kuki groups. From Kangpokpi to Imphal, Valley Based Insurgency Groups, a term used to signify Meitei rebel groups, do the collection. When the highway moves south-east to Imphal and travels towards Moreh, it begins to pass into Naga and then Kuki-controlled areas. In Chandel district, there is conflict between Naga, Kuki and Meitei rebels. It’s a battleground for revenue, as much as for ideologies and territory,” he says.
How is it that such an arrangement is allowed to continue? “The reason why such an arrangement is allowed to continue is because everybody makes a cut. Nagaland in particular, and the Naga areas of Manipur, even after the ceasefire with NSCN(IM) in 1997 and NSCN(K) in 2001, for reasons best known to the government of India and government of Nagaland, were allowed to continue with the parallel administration of Naga areas. The rebel groups routinely raise taxes from Naga citizens. They do run a parallel administration,” says Chakravarti.
If such is the dystopian nature of things, change will require systemic transformation and it is only natural that transporters won’t be spared harassment either. As the sun sets and I return to Kohima dejected, fresh from the sight of the smashed windshield, I hope our truck doesn’t meet the same fate going ahead.
This is the fourth of a six-part series on the highway economy.