Even as a conflict of interest controversy around Mizoram Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla’s younger brother Lal Thanzara dies down in the aftermath of a thumping by-poll victory last fortnight, fresh controversy threatens the former’s tenure.

Opposition parties have demanded that the chief minister, who holds the Public Works Department portfolio, resign over the frequent collapses of a bridge across the Tlawng river, a vital link on NH-44A that connects state capital Aizawl with the lone domestic airport at Lengpui.

The bridge has collapsed thrice in just over a year.It first collapsed on October 31, 2014, at which time the government claimed that metal components had been stolen and the bridge had been weakened as a result. Even as repair work was underway, the bridge collapsed again on December 8, 2014. The third, and latest, collapse on December 2 this year resulted in the death of one person.

Last winter was particularly bad for Mizoram’s bridges: five days after the bridge on NH-44A collapsed for the second time, the Darzokai bridge at Tuipui D, to the far south of Mizoram, collapsed as ten people were crossing it. One died, while six sustained injuries of varying severity.

Blaming residents

The chief minister blamed area residents for hurrying the contractor, but a six-member committee of MLAs, including four ruling Congress legislators, found otherwise. The committee in its report to the state assembly in October said “The collapse of the [Darzokai] bridge is totally due to carelessness and negligence on the part of the contractor [Kolkata-based S Guha Nyogi and Associates]. The committee is also disappointed that there is lack of proper supervision by the department, which has resulted in the collapse of the bridge.”

There was no such high-level report on the collapse of the bridge on NH-44A, whose work was handled by another Kolkata-based firm, Tantia Constructions, which currently handles almost Rs 360 crore worth of public projects in the state.

When the bridge collapsed again last week, the Public Works Department issued a statement that a 52-ton truck was crossing it in spite of signs near the bridge announcing that it could only hold 15.5 tons. The department further said money has already been sanctioned to rebuild the bridge during the current dry season, and that tenders have been called to build a more stable bridge nearby.

Despite these assurances, the Mizo National Front and the Zoram Nationalist Party’s youth wing have demanded that Chief Minister Lal Thanhawla take moral responsibility and resign. The Mizo National Front has further demanded a judicial probe by a sitting judge of the High Court. Even the Mizoram People’s Conference, which is aligned with the ruling Congress in the Aizawl Municipal Corporation, has condemned the collapse and demanded that check-points be set up on either side of the bridge.

Even as political and public condemnation escalated, former Chief Secretary M Lalmanzuala filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Aizawl Bench of the Guwahati High Court. Taking official cognisance, Justice Michael Zothankhuma Pachuau has issued notices to the state government and directed them to respond within a week.

The bridge is not the only headache for Lal Thanwala: a major student body has trained its guns on the government over the second re-employment of the chief minister’s  sister-in-law B Sairengpuii as Commissioner of Persons with Disabilities.

Sairengpuii was first appointed in 2012 after her superannuation from government service. Protests at the time by a group of disabled persons had no impact. Her term was extended by a further two years in October, which is when the Mizo Students Union stepped in with the threat of direct action.

'Overt nepotism'

At a press conference earlier this week, Miso Students Union president P C Lalrinhlua said the students’ union considers Sairengpuii “un-fit to be re-employed”. Her appointment, he said, was “inexcusable and a case of overt nepotism”,and noted that the state government has so far prepared no recruitment rules for the post.

The Mizo Students Union had earlier complained, fruitlessly, to Chief Commissioner of Persons with Disability, Prasanna Kumar Pincha, when he visited the state last year. This time, says the students union, it will not restrict its protests to the case of B Sairengpuii alone, but will target the 15-odd officials who have either been re-employed or whose terms have been extended despite their having crossed the age of superannuation.

Accusing the the state government of flouting its own rules, Lalrinhua referred to an official memorandum reiterating a government order that those who are re-employed must be exceptional either in the field of science or medicine, and that in any case no person must be re-employed for more than two years. At least five of the 15 officials in question, he pointed out, will be in breach of this two-year limit.