Wednesday 21st December 2022, tragedy struck a bus carrying school children on an annual excursion when it met an accident at around 11.10 am in which nine including two adults were killed at Longsai Part 3 on the Old Cachar Road popularly known as Tongjei Maril and it will be forever remembered as a day when the whole of Manipur wept.
The excursion was enroute to the beautiful Khoupum valley which lies on the old highway. Although the cause of the accident is yet to be ascertained, the state government seems to have come up with an assumption that it could be the morning mist clouding the vision of the driver which explains the order banning school excursions. Well, the village chief of the area has fixed the responsibility of the accident to the state government’s neglect of the highway.
The place of Wednesday's tragic school bus accident on the Tongjei Maril Road at Longsai village area in Noney district is an accident-prone zone and the state government failed to repair the road despite several complaints made, the chief of Longsai village, Kabidon Gonmei had alleged. Speaking to the media at the Manipur Press Club in Imphal, Kabidon alleged that the government has been neglecting the construction of the 5–6-kilometre downhill road stretch of Laimaton to Leimatak, which has caused several similar accidents in the past.
Works Minister Govindas Konthoujam was quick to respond to the allegation and clarified that the blacktopping of the road stretch was in good condition and that the issue is the sharp corner. As the road excavation works and other processes requires, certain survey and process, it takes time for the work, he said. Well, what more can you expect from a government which works on assumptions.
The Old Cachar Road has a history of its own and it was Manipur’s gateway to the outside world on the western flank. The route once connected the erstwhile kingdom of Manipur with other princely states. Former kings of Manipur depended on the route for trade and commercial purposes. It was through the Old Cachar Road that disaffected brothers and uncles of Manipur had launched rebellions with Cachar as the sanctuary and also Shantidas Gosain, a Vaishnavite preacher had come from Bengal to Manipur to preach Hinduism in the kingdom.
During British rule in Manipur, many English political agents had come to the state via this route. The last of the English to escape the palace rebellion in 1891 was Rose Grimwood, the wife of the then political agent who was killed during the rebellion. The road which was used to travel on foot or horseback by the king's men was widened by the Chap force in 1942, between July to September. The Chap force included 150 officers and men from the 82 Anti-Tank regiment of the Royal Artillery. The force was led by Lt Col GP Chapman.
With the development of the new Jiribam-Imphal national highway, Tongjei Maril was left abandoned only to be remembered at times of crisis and blockades on the new highway. The old highway which passes through the districts of Bishnupur, Churachandpur, Senapati, Nungba and Tamenglong is only 100 km while the new Jiribam highway is 220 km.
However, promises to develop the historic Tongjei Maril had been made in the past and now also. In 2010, the then Congress chief Gaikhangam promised that it would soon be converted into NH-53 (A) through the North-Eastern Council (NEC) and that Rs. 86 crores have been earmarked by the Central government for the purpose of developing the Old Cachar Road. It never materialised. In 2015, officials of the state PWD said a total of Rs 9.25 crore has been sanctioned for development of the 90 kilometers long road out of which 20 kilometer stretch of the same road from Bishnupur district headquarters to Zouzangtek village in Tamenglong district will be developed with the funding of Asian Development Bank.
The remaining 70-kilometer road stretch from Zouzangtek to Rengpang will be developed under the funding of the North Eastern Council. In 2020, an inspection team of state officials and Keystone Infra Private Ltd and representatives of the JAC Khoupum area visited the road construction site. The government, JAC and the construction company signed an agreement on the maintenance of the road. The dream still eludes us.