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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 b

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