The highway in the Northeast that is most written about is perhaps NH39 – now NH2 – that meanders through Nagaland and Manipur and ends at Moreh on the Myanmar border. But in the nearly 28 years of my reporting career, it is NH37 that has yielded a lot of stories, and not only because it takes one to the Kaziranga National Park.
Much of NH37 that ran from Goalpara in western Assam to Roing in Arunachal Pradesh is now part of NH27, India’s second longest highway from Porbandar in Gujarat to Silchar in southern Assam. Locals, though, refuse to acknowledge the new number, preferring the fancier Asian Highway 1 instead.
NH37 is the lifeline for much of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur. In three decades, it has changed from a potholed single lane to a fairly good two-lane road to a concrete four-lane highway that is part of the East-West Corridor, enabling vehicles to zoom at more than 100 kmph. But speed hasn’t stopped many users of this highway, like me, from taking a break at a milk product outlet of Sitajakhala Dugdha Utpadak Samabai Samiti Ltd., a cooperative society.
Sitajakhala derives its name from a jakhala (ladder) that Sita from the Ramayana is believed to have used to fetch water from the river Kiling in the vicinity. The spot on a hillock is near the cooperative society’s production unit at Amlighat, about 60 km east of Guwahati. Amlighat is between Jagiroad, once the byword for pollution because of a paper mill, and Nellie, where more than 2,000 migrant Muslims were massacred in 1983 at the height of the Assam agitation. Sitajakhala used to be a modest set-up in the 1990s.
My travel on NH37 has often been dictated by insurgency, ethnic conflicts and annual floods in districts such as Morigaon where Sitajakhala is situated. I have hardly had time off these “bigger issues” to see the Amul-like growth story of the cooperative society. But returning from Kaziranga a few days ago, I stopped at Sitajakhala’s sweets and snacks outlet on the highway. Ranjib Sharma, the society’s chairman, narrated how Sitajakhala had started in 1961 with 17 cattle farmers. Today, 900 members produce 15,000 litres of milk per day to help Sitajakhala record a turnover of ₹50 crore. The business took off after the society launched the Gonand brand in 2015, adding milk products to pasteurised milk.
The white revolution has indeed changed the area where the red of blood once flowed.