Manipur’s budget is beautiful, but how would the Hill Areas grow?

I felt that Shri Alfred Kanngam Arthur was expecting a concrete response from the Tribal Affairs and Hills Minister Shri Vungzagin Valte, as he was the responsible authority to do so. But in return, the Minister appeared to avoid the issues by excusing himself that he did not remember any discussion or bill tabled at the House for deliberation.

Recently, a certain nine-minute and forty-six-second video clip on the Manipur Legislative Assembly House proceeding went viral on social media. In the video, member of Hill Areas Committee member Shri Alfred Kanngam Arthur called on the Speaker of the House for clarification on disproportionate allocation in the Manipur’s budget. While analysing the video, I felt that Shri Alfred Kanngam Arthur was expecting a concrete response from the Tribal Affairs and Hills Minister Shri Vungzagin Valte, as he was the responsible authority to do so. But in return, the Minister appeared to avoid the issues by excusing himself that he did not remember any discussion or bill tabled at the House for deliberation.

It was a well-played out political drama where the puppeteer relishes her masterpiece in full delight. On the surface, it was a debate between the ruling party and the opposition. When one skims a layer off, it is clear that it was a manifestation of the swelling Hill-Valley divide, where ethnic implications run deep; the fact that both the debating political actors are both representatives from the Hill Areas. It is here then that the circle of the politics of co-option is completed; the Hills have not been able to sniff out and tackle the nuances in the politics of co-option, while the state a.k.a Valley lacks the political willingness for inclusive governance but enjoy the seat of the cunning monkey in the midst of two cats.

So then, the questions remain uncertain, though very certain, that who holds the political power in the state? Who decides the budgets? When and how are funds allocated? These are the fundamental questions that need to be answered. It would be visionary as much as it is morally obligatory and pragmatic for the political analysts, policy-makers, and third-party observers to vouch for workable solutions to ensure equal political autonomy if not peaceful co-existence through proportional political representation. Why and how could earlier generations foresee the unworkability of co-existence of the Hills and the Valley without special provisions? And why and how could not the present generation see the unworkability of the co-existence of the Hills and the Valley if justice as fairness and equality is not lived, protected and nurtured? I will leave this debate for another day and come back to Arthur’s inquiries on the disproportionate allocation of budget to remind ourselves of the existing sorry state of affairs in Manipur given the abysmal allocation compounded by the huge gaps in the allocation and actual spending. It is pertinent to recollect the concerns and questions raised by Arthur in the Assembly:

“Speaker Sir…as per the response from the Tribal Affairs and Hills department…for development activities in the year 2017-18 was Rs 108 crore; in 2018-19, it was Rs 150 crore; in 2019-20, it was Rs 120 crore, and [for] 2020-21, it was Rs 41 crore.

Speaker Sir…as per this Finance Department report, Rs 5000 crore [was allotted] in 2017-18, Rs 4900 crore in 2018-19 [for the Valley. However, the] actual expenditure,  expenditure in 2019-20 is 5000 crores, and in 2020-21; it is 7000 crores actual expenditure.

[Speaker] Sir…in the actual expenditure when it is 7000, 6000, 5000 crores [for the Valley] and you are allocating 100 crores for development of hills. I agree the other department has a hill-valley section …budget is very beautiful, but when the expenditure is not done, Speaker, sir, how will the Hills grow? Speaker, sir?”

Arthur’s inquiries at the Manipur Legislative Assembly House unearthed the huge disparity in the Hill-Valley divide beginning from budgetary allocation to the actual implementation, though his inquiry was confined to a single department. If the Department of Tribal Affairs and Hills that is supposed to look at the welfare of the Hill Areas, manifests a gap of such magnitude, the fate of other departments is candidly anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, the other thing that cannot go amiss is the complexity and sensitivity in the Hill-Valley relationship; and it must be read with the recent opposition to the introduction of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Bill, 2021 (ADC), which epitomises the geo-politico-ethnic biases and the incompetence in governance. Lakpachui Siro’s, a social activist, post on the Facebook wall perfectly sums up the general sentiments of the Hill peoples. I quote: “I don’t think this Bill is demanding shifting of Manipur University, SAI, State Secretariat, Assembly, High Court, JNIMS and RIIMS Hospital, Head Office of any of the Department which is [are] all concentrated in the valley, transfer of any of the 40 MLA constituencies, diversion of funds from Panchayat Raj institutions, relocation of Convention City Centre, VVIP Guest House etc from Imphal valley”(https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10215676683149926&set=a.3285877965613 ). This also perfectly mirrors the degree of infrastructural injustice in Manipur, as vividly argued by Raile Rocky Ziipao (2020) in his book Infrastructure of Injustice: State and Politics in Manipur and Northeast India. Ziipao does it well in explaining the Meitei state hegemony by unravelling the concentration of institutions, thus power, in the Valley in the hands of a certain community.

Akin to Arthur’s inquiries, Raile Rocky Ziipao has neatly demonstrated with empirical data -why there is so much infrastructure poverty in the Hill Areas as compared to the Valley. He argues that infrastructure like roads, bridges, irrigation, dispensaries, postal services, guest house, and electrification are poorly managed in the Hill Areas. For example, he mentions that when the Ukhrul District started highway construction linking to the state of Nagaland, the dominant community would make conscious efforts to destroy that project in the form of delaying, suspension, non-release of funds, delay in issuing utilisation certificates, etc. On the other hand, if developing a highway (NH-37) from Imphal to Jiribam, which extends its power, the dominant community would bypass all the existing legal hurdles and build it (p.20). Ziipao’s example in the book is troublesome to discern that the dominant community controls the state, especially when the Chief Minister of Manipur has inclusively advocated the gospel of development policies such as Go to Hills, Go to Village, and Meeyamgi Numit. But what has gone wrong with the BJP led Manipur ‘citizen-centric governance’? Why was a member of the Hills Area Committee, Shri Alfred Kanngam Arthur, demonstrating that ‘’I want to clarify a few things. We are not here to mislead this house or people in this state. So many debates have taken place that peisha di piye (we give the money). It is the leaders who are stealing. Blame your own elected leaders. Everybody says that. I want to appeal to my brother in the valley. We are not thieves; we are not come [coming] here to steal”. 

I believe it is not the time to blame who a thief is? Who are the traitors? It is a time to restructure and reformulate the existing policy. For example, the Hill Areas constitute 20,089  sq. km and have 20 representatives, whereas the valley constitutes 2,238 sq. km and have 40 representatives in the Manipur Legislative Assembly. This disproportionate imbalance of representation in the  Assembly is the major element causing development disparities in the  Hill-Valley division.

The valley based civil organisations are well aware of this methodology that greater the number of representatives in the assembly better the infrastructure development and higher amount of budget allocation. This is also one of the politics behind the Meitei state hegemony to oppose the Delimitation Act 2020 and continue to enjoy majoritarianism. For example, in 2015-16, a sum of Rs 70 crore was allocated under the state’s own fund for the maintenance of roads in the PWD. This amount was distributed to the 60 assembly seats, a sum of Rs 1 crore each for the valley district MLAs and Rs 1.5 crores for each of the 20 Hill MLAs was allocated. However, the average area of administration by one MLA in the  Hill Areas is 1,004.45 sq. km, in contrast with just 55.95 sq. km in the valley(Ziipao, 2020; p.69).

The beauty of Manipur’s budget is as ironic as it is rhetorical. But, how would the Hill Areas grow? How will the Hill Areas grow when the Meitei state hegemony has allocated the budget disproportionately? How will it develop when the Hill Areas holds 20 seats to maintain 20,089 Area sq. km? I believe this is the time to dialogue to avoid the ‘political construction of hopelessness’. This is the time for Meitei state hegemony to abandon their valley-centred aspirations. The prolonged denial of the Hill Areas autonomy and opposing the Delimitation exercise in Manipur by certain geography is detrimental. If the truth takes too long to prevail, the womb of lies might explode on its own with the turn of time.

Ramachan A Shimray. Views are personal. (ramachanshimray@gmail.com)

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