Struggle for land, identity and survival – a smart city plan in Manipur

Published on February 2, 2015

By Jalun Haokip

Even though the government of India has not announced anything about a smart city in Manipur state, it has become one of the most controversial issues in the state and if not carefully dealt with, it will erode and eventually tear apart the state’s integrity. This is essentially the state government’s responsibility. And, even as the story of reported land acquisition for the proposed smart city remains a mystery with the state government failing to provide an official clarification regarding the issue to date, whether Manipur really needs a smart city is another issue.

According to media report on July 17, 2014, Manipur Chief Minister O Ibobi Singh announced in the state’s assembly that the state government would be sending a proposal to the central government for acquisition of land at Moreh (Haolenphai) for the proposed smart city. About a week later, as it appeared in Imphal Free Press on July 22, industries minister Govindas Konthoujam reportedly stated “We have acquired 3,000 acres of land in Moreh for the proposed smart city in Moreh.” This statement evoked sharp protest from the affected tribal community. On July 27, Lalkholun Haokip, chief of Haolenphai village, made a declaration against the chief minister’s statement and categorically rejected the proposal.

Contrary to the minister’s statement suggesting that the land had been acquired even before the proposal would have reached its final destination, the village chief’s declaration indicates that it was not acquired. Many questions regarding the minister’s statement remain unanswered. Questions as to where the statement came from; what prompted him to give the statement and what is the actual purpose of the 3,000 acres of land are some of the most interesting ones.

The union budget for 2014-15 announced the central government’s commitment to create a hundred new “smart cities” as satellites of existing cities in India. The main concept of smart city is: cities outfitted with high-tech communication capabilities. Inspired by the concept of advanced cities like Singapore and Kyoto, Japan, smart city  generally refers to cities using information technology to solve urban problems and build satellite cities to solve the problem of over-population in existing cities.

The “smart city” idea may be extremely attractive, especially to the middle and upper classes, but the idea of a smart city in tribal area is too artificial to deserve the support of the tribals, who are still struggling for the basic needs and basic human rights – the right to their land, culture, identity and survival.

In a stark contrast to the concept of smart city, state government ministers, high ranking officers and even some media have in a rather patronising manner conveyed that the smart city development in in Haolenphai, a remote tribal area on the Indo-Myanmar border about 110 kilometres east of Imphal, the state’s capital, will benefit the local indigenous tribals first and foremost. This smacks of the lack of understanding of the concept of smart city by the very people who try to sell it to the tribals. Also, this speaks of the absence of empathy and understanding of, and respect for the tribals and their perspectives. This is ridiculous.

In reality, the already disadvantaged and vulnerable tribals will lose their land and resources, the main sources of their livelihood, to the smart city development and their culture and identity harmed. The tribals, who are not willing to buy the smart city plan, certainly know the real concept of smart city and thus the strong objection. Why would one buy something that is against their interest and threatens their very existence in their homeland? It is a tragedy to view the whole issue only from economic development perspective and nothing else, taking the tribals for a ride.

In the struggle for protection and preservation of their land, identity, dignity and survival, the Kuki tribals, who have been saying the plan to acquire tribal land in the name of development/smart city is a ploy to grab tribal land, have made their stance on the issue loud and clear with a number of memoranda to the government having been submitted and the Thadou Students’ Association (TSA) spearheading the protest movement against the state government’s proposal/plans and demanding revocation of the plan to acquire the tribal land for the proposed smart city. In this connection, the TSA had submitted separate memoranda to the union home minister, Manipur chief minister and to the prime minister on November 19, 2014 (also supported and signed by Haolenphai chief and several tribal organisations). TSA had also called a 48-hour national highway bandh and organised a sit-in-protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on November 22. The United Naga Council, apex body of Naga tribals of Manipur, had a few months ago announced through the media their opposition to the smart city plan in tribal area.

As I understand it, none of the valley-based organisations have made an open or public statement about the smart city development, but the valley-based media support it.

During the closing ceremony of the Sangai festival in Imphal on November 30, 2014, despite the strong tribal protest against the plan, Chief Minister Ibobi, in what can be best described as a glaring display of helplessness or insensitivity to the tribals or a combination of both, placed a proposal before Prime Minister Narendra Modi for setting up a smart city at the Myanmar-Manipur border and passionately pleaded for the prime minister’s favourable consideration. Reacting swiftly to the chief minister’s proposal, the TSA, while giving a befitting reply, condemned the chief minister’s speech and rejected the proposed talks with the state government regarding the issue that was slated for December 4, sticking to its gun, that is, for immediate revocation of the proposal/plan.

Whether the chief minister’s proposal was a fresh proposal because the previous proposal was rejected or was an inclusion in the memorandum as a reiteration is unknown, but what is clear is that the state government is determinedly giving it a push, not missing any opportunity. Ibobi’s statement confirmed that the central government had not approved any proposal for smart city development in Manipur – this has increased the level of suspicion and opened up more questions as to whether the state government has an ulterior motive or a sinister design behind the plan and the reported land acquisition. Modi’s silence about the proposal in his speech that followed Ibobi’s impassioned speech says a lot as it assumes significance against the backdrop of the constant protest from the affected tribal community.

The reported proposed benchmark for a smart city population is 1 million (10 lakhs), which is more than one-third of the state’s total population (approximately 26 lakhs according to 2011 census) and about two times the total population of greater Imphal, the state’s capital. Where is this population going to come from and how is this going to impact on the indigenous population and demographics of Manipur? Whether investors will be really interested without the benchmark and with the plan in remote tribal area coupled with stiff opposition from the community is another question.

Although the nitty-gritty of the smart city and the reported proposed benchmark is still unclear, presumably there will be a gradual transfer of population from outside the state given that the smart city project is a central government initiative with the bulk of funds for the project to be sourced from private investors, such as multinational companies, and foreign governments through foreign direct investment. In fact, unless there is a special protective law, this is inevitable. The Act East policy is poised to further complicate the situation.

The Act East policy’s primary aim is to boost India’s economy by enhancing tourism industry and trade and commerce with Southeast Asian nations with big investments in infrastructures. Smart city will come with its investors, along with their forces, from private as well as public sectors from within the country and beyond. The linking of smart city to the Act East policy is to a certain extent understandable but the suggestion that development of a smart city at the India-Myanmar border, Haolenphai, is a requirement of Look East policy is wrong simply because the two are separate things. Why not smarten the existing border town, Moreh, and villages and improve law and order situation to attract investors and tourists, and utilise existing government-owned lands in town for necessary infrastructures?

However good the smart city may sound for economic development, social, cultural and environmental impacts and the issue of social justice should not be overlooked. The risk of harm to long-term interests of the indigenous communities of Manipur and the impact of deforestation are not negligible. Is Manipur society which has been demanding introduction of the Inner Line Permit System (ILPS) really ready to accept mass transfer of population from outside of the state? This is an issue worth pondering over. Some experts have pointed out that the demand for ILPS, which is to stop or prevent unrestrained migration of non-locals into Manipur, is unconstitutional.

I am not a constitutional expert to give a definitive opinion on the legality of the demand, however, the fact that the central government has previously rejected the proposal by the state government indicates the difficulty to get it through. This is not to say that this is impossible because lawmakers can change the law. I fail miserably to understand why a government that is fervently pushing for implementation of a system like the ILPS would vigorously demand a smart city, that too in a remote tribal area, because there is a total disconnect between the two. What a paradox! I am sure people of Manipur do not want Manipur to become like the state of Tripura, where non-indigenous population from outside the state have inundated the indigenous population within just a few decades.

Based on the concept and reported benchmark of the smart city, which even Imphal, the state’s capital, falls short of, one should be sceptical of a chance for Manipur to get a smart city, or its implementation if at all it does. Not to speak of the mismatch between the smart city concept and the proposed smart city site, it is doubtful that any sensible government or private establishment will invest hundreds or thousands of crores of rupees on a project that is to be imposed upon a tribal community that has been vehemently opposing the project in their area.

And if the government bulldozes its way, then it simply means it takes the risk, inviting intensified protests from the tribals with the case landing in court for it would mean that norms and rules of laws of acquisition of tribal land have been flawed. If it’s a matter of trying luck or whatever, why not propose Imphal or Bishnupur or Thoubal which is situated on national highway (Indo-Myanmar road) and only 87 kilometres from the Indo-Myanmar border, to be the smart city of the state? The fact that none of the said (more viable) towns/locations in the valley have been proposed says a lot about the general suspicion that the state government has a hidden agenda.

Let the indigenous tribals first feel secure about their rights to their ancestral land, culture, customs, identity and their very survival and let them determine their own future instead of trying to impose the smart city upon them and talking about development of tourism, enhancing transnational trade and commerce and what not.

As Himanshu Burte, in his article “The ‘Smart City’ Card,” rightly points out, “it is necessary to fix the basics before we aim for more techno-managerially advanced systems.”

If we cannot build and maintain roads without potholes or cannot complete a sewage project in the state’s capital; or cannot implement the many basic developmental projects in the state; or cannot provide regular power and water supply, basic healthcare and other basic infrastructures and services for the existing population or towns; or cannot properly manage development funds; or cannot check the rampant corruption; or cannot even deliver basic governance and social justice, it is absurd to talk about setting up a smart city in a remote tribal area and lecture on smart city development as if the smart city is the only human need and the way and the only way to development and growth, and nothing else.

Solution to the problem

Set up the smart city where it is needed, viable and wanted, not where it isn’t. This should be the main assessment and criteria for identification of smart city site for the success of the ambitious project. If Manipur government really thinks Manipur needs a smart city, let it propose for up-grading of Imphal, the state’s capital, to smart city or development of a brand new city as a satellite city in the valley, preferably near Imphal in view of its accessibility, central location, convenience, viability and for the benefit of all communities of the state. Most importantly, this will prevent or minimise the impact of forced population transfer or displacement and forced assimilation or integration of the tribals. Unless there is a protest from the valley people, such a proposal, I believe, will be welcomed by all communities of the state. And this is more likely to be a smart move for smart city development. In light of this, the Manipur state government must rethink its decision, if it is genuinely interested in and serious about smart city development in the state, in the larger interest of the state and its integrity. Otherwise, it must stop talking about the smart city altogether and concentrate on the basics.

The writer, a native of Manipur and who finished Master of Social Work degree from an Australian university, is an Australia-based social worker with an experience of working with the mainstream population for one year and with the indigenous Australians for the last three years in different areas of social work. He can be reached at jalunhaokip@gmail.com.

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