Why Development Cannot Climb Hills?

Uneven Development and Identity Politics in Manipur; Take example from Sikkim and Meghalaya, if they can build quality public institutes in high terrain and inaccessible areas, it is a clear indication that political will and policy making are what it takes to develop any place or build any public institution, and not the topography of the location or the people who lived there.

Manipur’s chequered history of hill-valley divide has resurrected in its varied forms again, but this time it is not in the form of demands for ethnic enclaves, but for equal development opportunity for hill areas and more autonomy to Autonomous District Councils and HAC (Hill Areas Committee). In the aftermath of HAC’s proposal for new MHADC Bill, intended to repeal and replace the old Act, the affairs of the state has come under serious scrutiny by CSOs, intellectuals and common citizens. What we are witnessing now is an attempt by the citizenry to unravel the quagmire of ‘uneven development’ between the hills and valley in Manipur, initially ignited by the debates in the State Assembly, followed by social media frenzy over how the hill areas have been deprived of deserving allocation of funds and given step-motherly treatment by the state departments and agencies. In some way, we can say that the representations of figures and amounts sanctioned for hills and valley widely shared in social media platforms are flawed and does not bear much resemblance with the official statement from the government. However, what actually needs our attention is the actual official statement that has come from the state government and how serious attempts has been made by some intellectuals to justify the un-equal allocations for fund for hills and valley, rather than addressing the serious question of why and how hill areas are still deprived of development.

Taking cue from James C. Scot’s famous lecture ‘Why Civilizations Cannot Climb Hills?’ the state of uneven development in Manipur is an indication of the perennial question ‘Why Development Cannot Climb Hills?” Scot argues that ‘Hill people are the past of valley people’. They live on the ‘fringes of the State’ and ‘the idea of Nation-state has been to control the periphery and to expand the state sovereignty till the borer’. Thus, it is clear that ‘hill people’ have always been looked at as people who are still ‘living in the past’, located at the periphery, and to be controlled for the purpose of maintaining state’s power; but not the center of state’s attention. On the other hand, Scot also argued in his book Art of Not Being Governed that development in the ‘Uplands’ is part of ‘state-making’ process, and thus ‘state-making’ is stylized as ‘development’. Again, development in hill areas is not just for the sake of development itself, but for other purposes. The arguments put forth by James Scot is a sweeping statement about vast areas in the Uplands of Asia, and may not have direct references to the events in Manipur state. However, given the nature of uneven development in the state, the treatment towards hill people by the state may have some reflection on how these communities have been socially constructed and constituted in the past. And, that past considerations of notion of hill people (chingmi or Hao) may have consciously or unconsciously effected the state’s policies and administrative treatment towards them.  However, we must also keep in mind that the problems of development in the hill areas of Manipur is not just a case misdemeanor by  one leader or one party or one government per-se. The uneven development in the hill areas should be considered as cumulative product of years and years of administrative apathy as well as mistreatment in policy making by those who have been at the helms of affairs.

There are varied examples that we can cite from Northeast states itself on the question of uneven development, and we can take example from M. Sajjad Hassan’s paper ‘Explaining Manipur’s Breakdown and Mizoram’s Peace’. Sajjad Hassan diagnosed Manipur’s problem as a situation where ‘social forces’ have ‘retained authority’ and ‘politicized their narrow identities to capture state power, leading to competitive mobilisation and conflicts’. In hindsight, what we can understand is that ‘state power’ is captured for ‘narrow ethnic interest’ and the state is held ransom by ‘social forces’, thus making the state weak in its purposes and functions. Now, Manipur’s under-development can be seen as byproducts of the ‘frequent breakdowns’, and also ‘uneven development’ can be seen as consequences of the role of ‘social forces’. Thus, the question of ‘Why Development Cannot Climb the Hills?’ in Manipur goes beyond the functions of various departments, but it’s a reflection of the larger aspects of identity politics in the state. Or perhaps, it also indication of how varied political parties and leaders who have been in power have toyed with the chequered Hill-Valley dynamics and used it for their own political gain.

Subsequent to the social media frenzy post on disparity in the allocation of funds for Hill and Valley Districts in the state, the press notes from the Directorate of Information and Public Relations, government of Manipur, refuted the social media post stating that ‘Diversion of Funds from Hill Areas is Misleading’. Further, the same press notes also present figures of the actual amount of funds allocated to the Hills and Valley stating that Rs. 1544 crore was spend in Hill and Rs. 3287 crores in Valley in the 2017-18 financial year. It is clearly indicated in the Official statement that the amount of expenditure for Hill is half of the amount spend in Valley. The same equation of spending double the amount in Valley than the Hill is indicated till the financial year of 2020-2021. Now, what is actually interesting and should be a cause of concern is justification given in the press note:  the disparity in allocation of fund between Hill and Valley is due to the function of some Departments which is ‘mainly Valley based, such as Secretariat, MHUD, Panchayati Raj etc.’ Further, it is clarified that the funds allocated at the budged for Hill is lower than the actual as funds of ‘Centrally sponsored schemes’ are ‘encashed by the Headquarter (DDO)’. Now, what is unclear is what are all those Departments that functions only in the Valley, and are not at all engaged or relevant in the Hill Areas.  Apart from mentioning Departments like Secretariat, MAHUD and Panchayati Raj, other departments that functions solely in the Valley has been omitted. For example, if Department of Tourism is spending few hundred crores in the Hill, but thousands of crores in the Valley, what will it indicate? Of course, in the same press note it also stated that a full white paper on financial allocation will be released by the end of this month, but giving partial information and not full information when the controversy concerning fund allocation is raging on raises more questions than solving the problems of distrusts.

Meanwhile, it is still unfathomable that the due to the functions of few departments that are Valley based and few centrally sponsored schemes encashed at Headquarter that the funds allocated to the Hill are less than Valley by half. Some of the flimsy reason reasons for Valley getting more funds than the Hill has been put forward in the article ‘Flawed Hill-Valley Categorization in Fund Allocation in Manipur and How This May have come About’, written by Pradip Phanjoubam. One of the major argument that he has made is the need for separate funding for the upkeep of Imphal, the capital city of Manipur, which includes two districts (Imphal East and Imphal West). Now, the suggestion that other valley districts expenditure and hill districts will be the same seems mere conjectures. When we have not actually checked the official statistics, it is preposterous to pass judgment on fund allocations. In the North Eastern Region District SDG Baseline Report 2021-22, prepared and released by Niti Aayog, the districts from Manipur with the highest ranking is Imphal West (13), while the lowest is Tamenglong (65). Now, if we exclude districts located in Imphal (Imphal West and Imphal East), and take account of those districts that are supposed to receive normal funding such as Bishunupur (26) and Thoubal (29), these districts are still, in comparison, far above the highest from hill districts such as Chandel (44) and Senapati (55).  Thus, the disparity between hill and valley districts are far and wide and needs serious interrogations at the policy level, rather than whitewashing with value loaded terms and propaganda.

Further, he also argued for ‘valley centricity’, that the state has no choice but to keep the public institutions at ‘central place’ if it can afford only one. Continuing with the same tempo, he said that public institutes like RIMS, CAU, etc. are all sponsored by the central government and these are regional centers, and not just for state and sponsored by the state. Thus, shifting the onus of establishing these institutes to the central government and not the state. Well, one can find all the right or wrong reasons for the uneven development between hill and valley in the arguments presented in this article. Let us take the example of state sponsored universities in Manipur (Central as well as State), initially Manipur had only one state sponsored University, which we know as Manipur University (MU), located in the valley. Later through an Act of Parliament in 2005, MU became central university. Later on, Dhanamanjuri College was turned into university in 2017 as part of state law. Now, the argument that centrally sponsored public institutions are regional centers and can only function in ‘central place’ or that if the state can afford to have only one public institution, it should be at ‘central place’. Thus, the ‘central place’ (valley) end up with all the universities and none for the hill areas.

The argument that regional institutes can grow and function only at the ‘central place’ is not only flawed but irrational. By that logic, all the public institutes in the country that are located in periphery should not have flourish or developed at all. The argument that establishment of public institute in hill areas are not feasible or cannot function due to difficult terrain and inaccessibility does not hold any ground. Take example from Sikkim and Meghalaya, if they can build quality public institutes in high terrain and inaccessible areas, it is a clear indication that political will and policy making are what it takes to develop any place or build any public institution, and not the topography of the location or the people who lived there. Therefore, it will not be wrong to conclude that the state of ‘uneven development’ in the states in Northeast India like Manipur is a reflection of mindset of political leaders and flawed policy making, rather than the actual challenges and disadvantages of the ‘place’ per se.

Dr. A. S. Shimreiwung is an Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Tezpur University. Views are personal. Email: shimreiwung@gmail.com

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