Armstrong and Jeremiah are from Tamenglong district in Manipur. It is one of the nine districts in Manipur, and also the least populated. Both brothers have spent their childhood in Tousem subdivision of Manipur state; one of the many villages in North East India which are yet to be connected by road.
Jeremiah says, “We used to walk down to the district headquarters—about 60km away—and carry 25 kilos of rice back home. It used to take us four days to go and come back and the rations used to last for two weeks.” The nearest road connectivity to the outside world is 50 kms away and the nearest hospital is two days away. Even after such hardships, the Pame brothers managed to get themselves educated.
After graduating from Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s college in 2005, Armstrong appeared for one of the toughest exams held here, the Civil Service Exam, and went onto became an officer in the IAS in 2009. He is also the first IAS officer from his tribe, Zeme. Meanwhile, Jeremiah too finished his graduation, and joined Delhi University as a professor.
In 2012, Armstrong was posted to his home district, Tamenglong, as the Sub-Divisional Magistrate. Soon after he took over, there was a deadly outbreak of tropical diseases like malaria and typhoid in his district. The situation worsened due to unavailability of a single doctor. As there was no road connectivity, ambulances could not reach the village. Doctors from other towns were unwilling to come and provide treatment due to the hardship required in getting there.
In an interview with NorthEastToday, Pame said that hundreds of patients were transported to hospitals on makeshift bamboo stretchers. Most of them died before they arrived at a hospital. The situation could have worsened if it wasn’t for Armstrong’s doctor friend.
On Armstrong’s request, she came to the village and started providing medicines to the patients. If she had not done so, hundreds more could have died. Pame says, “She treated over 500 patients and conducted quite a few minor surgeries. Many lives were saved in this way; but I realized how perilously poised the situation was in the absence of a road. That was the catalyst.”
It’s not that the Indian government was not aware of the problem. The center had even commissioned Rs 101 crores in 1982 to construct a road connecting Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, but the project never took-off. Back in Dec 2011, when the then Union Home Minister, P Chidambaram visited Manipur, he had asked about the status of road construction, to which a state government response was, ‘it is under consideration’. But in reality, it was not. The state government was in no mood to act on this and so, Armstrong took upon the responsibility single-handedly.
Armstrong first approached the government, and that was a failed attempt. Now, how to build a road without any help from government. One needs crores of Rupees to construct a 100 km long road, and that too in a terrain like that. Unwilling to retreat, Armstrong decided to get help from friends and family.
Speaking about the effort, his elder brother, Jeremiah says, “Armstrong and I grew up in a village in Tousem amid a lot of hardships. Our father was a schoolteacher and had a limited income. When we came to Delhi for higher studies, we would survive on biscuits for days without enough money to buy food. The remoteness of our village ruined its economy; and we knew that unless there was a road, there would be no development. So, when Armstrong proposed to undertake the venture, we all threw our lot with him. My wife and I donated our one month’s salary, Armstrong paid five months’ of his, and our mother paid our dad’s one month’s pension of Rs 5,000. Our youngest brother, Lungtuabui, recently started working. He donated his entire first month’s pay for the project. The family together pooled Rs 4 lakhs.”
“But it was not enough, we needed more”, says Armstrong. “So, we turned to Facebook. We created a page, seeking donations, and the response was overwhelming. Within days, donations from all corners of the world started pouring. With the help of volunteers, donation centers were setup in Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Guwahati, Shillong and Dimapur. While online transfers from US, UK, Canada, Norway, and many more countries started coming in as the news about this project wen viral over the internet. We also created a website. Soon our collection crossed Rs 40 lakhs,” adds Armstrong.
Generally, this is not enough to start constructing a road, but, in this case, when hundreds of locals offered to help, this amount seemed enough to get started. Road construction work began in August 2012.
Armstrong, who is named after the famous Neil Armstrong, says, “The villagers, too, have contributed as per their capabilities: some are providing food and accommodation for the workers; some are supplying fuel for the earthmovers. They have also provided manpower for the project. We did not have to engage a contractor with so many people volunteering to shoulder that responsibility.”
After months of hard work, construction of the 100 km stretch of road was finally completed. Thanks to the efforts of locals, and donations that poured in from around the world, this road is aptly named, “The People’s Road” and now connects Assam , Manipur and Nagaland—- from tamenglong – barak river – azuram – makhu river – tousem – phoklong – katang nam – Chari river – Hereilua (assam) – laisong- mohur- haflong — or from hereilua – ngauluang – nsong- peren- jalukie.
For his effort, Armstrong was even nominated for the prestigious 2012 Indian of the Year Award Public Service Category. Though he did not get the award, (Dr Devi Shetty did), Armstrong got what he wanted for his people. Earlier in February 2013, The People’s Road was officially inaugurated. An International Bike Rally was organized to mark the event, where bikers from across the globe had participated.