By Francis Suchiang
National Highway 44 starts from the bridge at Nongthymmai (opposite Jingkieng Power House) to Umkiang. The bridge was built by the British probably in the 1920’s. It could bear the gross vehicular weight of 12 tons in the era of trucks of seven tons capacity. Meghalaya struck coal in 1978, six years after statehood. And the said bridge never tortured for so many years, snapped in 1984. Meghalaya practices rat-hole mining, being cheap as far as labour goes. To make matters worse the sale of coal at Lad Rymbai and elsewhere had a new economic doctrine. One can load one’s truck as much as one could. It resembles the ‘buy one shirt and get one free’ deal that baffles me as an economist. The trucks were Tata S/Model 1210, meaning 10×10=100 HP and 12 tons axle load. GOI ministry of transport concedes low power trucks reinforced in the suspension system (not allowed in strict engineering terms) the ‘load as much as one could’ or marjee load in Hindi turned out to be 35 tons, almost three times the permitted load.
From Lad Rymbai to Beltola the NH 44 has four of the world’s notorious gradients not seen in any country, namely Sohshrieh, Riat Turiem 4 km from Jowai, Riat Puriang 17 km from Jowai, and Sohryngkham 16 km East Shillong. These gradients proved to be the graveyards of the so called Tata trucks. Sohryngkham and Puriang traffic jams became hell for commuters who spent weeks of sleepless nights. Puriang was famous as a labour room in Sumos as expecting mothers were trapped in traffic jams. For office goers of Jowai and Shillong it turned out to be a pleasant exercise. My friend simply peeped through the window praying to see empty roads, meaning undeclared holiday with no loss of casual leave.
Sohryngkham village utilized this opportunity in giving tea and snacks to starving passengers. Students appearing for examinations became Carl Lewis or Ussain Bolt, but if invigilators are not kind hearted, then they lose one year. I happened to be caught once in such a traffic snarl but luckily retreated back home. In the thick of such a situation, the place of traffic jam of days or weeks became a transit point. Shillong buses and cars turned back with Jowai passengers and vice versa after due calculated division of fares. Mothers with babies in arms and a leather suit case overhead moved to their new vehicles. It reminds me of the 1947 partition when Gandhi wept bitterly as the Lahore Amritsar road grew slippery with blood of two brothers fighting against the British Raj together. The sharp contrast here is that there were greetings and exchange of smiles between stranded passengers some of whom with eyeballs deep down the sockets on account of sleepless nights.
In the human crisis of this magnitude, the sheer result of greed for money and power, the conduct of the victims was exemplary. They quietly bore it, all to the benefit of these five-year gods whose memories are very short indeed especially with one week of feeding before polling day. Yesterday I again witnessed the games these people play. They promised free vaccine to all the Bihar people and unfortunately the E.C did nothing or perhaps the model code of conduct is no longer in place.
Everyone was optimistic when in 2014, the National Green Tribunal banned coal mining. To the contrary the movement of coal multiplied as now the much bigger monsters, the 12 wheelers equipped with tarpaulin to block the satellite imagery took to the road. Two judicious policemen trying to climb the huge body to inspect whether it was cigarette or coal were transferred to distant postings. Truck drivers face sleepless nights and loss of days as they had to queue their vehicles for pollution test or else face fines. There are only two pollution testing centres and in Shillong where the registration number is now V, the forced test proved a nightmare. There is no consumer protection system as in other countries, where automobile industries take care of the customers as regards to emission problems. These countries have regular checks not for fines but to apprise the car owner of the next step to follow be it tuning of the engine or if the catalytic converter needs a replacement. If the guaranteed mileage is still in place the catalytic converter is free except for the fixing charge.
Why is NH 44 or its continuation till Guwahati does not last? The answer is (1) These 12 wheeler overloaded trucks from say Jaipur do not shed off some percentage of load at Guwahati or from Silchar to Shillong. With 40 tons load they crawl on the notorious gradients at 6km/hr (illegal speed from the lower speed limit). So Umling- Nongpoh road becomes a workshop of vehicles due to overheat or worn gearboxes . Traffic jams are bound to happen and it is problematic for those with train or air tickets. There is no whistle allowance to revive the lungs of our traffic police blowing whistle non- stop to clear traffic. There are times in which a phone call from the truck operators would put our police into the job of a chowkidar to guard the stranded trucks with valuables.
Over and above this, these 12 wheelers are not equipped with two differentials. With a single differential the torque of the 4 tyres is sufficient to peel off the bitumen, no matter how well PWD does its jobs.
A matter of grave concern is that the Transport Department seems to be unaware of the speed limit. Look at the Shillong – Tura highway. One who drives will understand the lack of super elevation and transition curve in sharp turn. When asked about this, the answer was that trucks have to travel at limit of 40km/hour. This is welcome but what about our cars and Sumos that need sensible speed? Nongstoin Sumo drivers complain of the short life span of tyres. So where is the middle limit? In as much as there is upper speed limit, there is as well a lower speed limit. Any vehicle below this limit is fined heavily with a term tail gating. In USA where the registration number plates are a must unlike in our country where only few comply, the driver simply has to consult his mobile to know of his penalty of slow speed in case he is guilty.
For Shillong- Jowai commuters it is just sheer luck or kismet that we are still alive. From Myntdu bridge to Khlieh Tyrshi a heavily overloaded 12 wheeler would crawl at snail’s pace of 6km/hr. You need not consult your speedometer. Just look at a small boy walking behind his truck with a wooden jam to throw unto the rear tyres receding in the event of diesel mis-injection or gear changing. So what if the jam refuses to perform. If one is in a JCB or WW II armored vehicle, one is safe. But what can a small car do? Lives will be lost.
Unless our leaders and the bureaucrats in the Transport Department become wise and aware of impending dangers only kismet will govern our life span in driving.