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Manipur resists land alienation

By Monideepa Choudhuri

250 farming families are protesting the acquisition of their fertile lands for modernisation of the Imphal airport.With cultivable land already at a premium in Manipur, the transition of agricultural land to infrastructure development all over the state will exacerbate the food crisis, add to poverty levels and cause loss of livelihoods

With its emerald green valleys, gently undulating hills and azure wetlands, Manipur is ostensibly the perfect retreat for the world-weary. Sadly though, the calm of the landscape is illusory. Torn asunder for years by insurgency and limping development indices, Manipur is a tired state. Agriculture and allied activities like animal husbandry, horticulture, forestry and pisciculture, which engage 80% of the workforce, are under threat from myopic development policies. And with non-agricultural activities having remained more or less at the household level of enterprise, Manipur's people face an uncertain future.

Inevitably then, when the government sought to acquire 512 acres of land for modernisation and expansion of the runway at Imphal's Tulihal airport to international standards (as part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special package for the state), there were widespread protests. On April 2, 2008, dissent against land acquisition reached a peak, and in a confrontation reminiscent of Nandigram, residents of villages that will be affected by the expansion -- Malom, Ningombam, Meitram, Kodompokpi, Mongsangei and Konjeng Leikai -- fought pitched battles with the police.

While things are calm at present, discontent over the government's move continues to fester. Deejen Khoisnam, joint secretary of the Joint Action Committee (JAC) against the Acquisition of Land for Airport Expansion, says the committee is now engaged in organising a state-level seminar to formalise intellectual and public opinion on the matter.

The airport modernisation issue has been simmering for over a year. And it's not an isolated case. A couple of other infrastructure development schemes that entail relinquishing agricultural land, like construction of the National Institute of Technology complex at Langgol and expansion of Manipur University in Canchipur, have also been stymied by strident protests.

Dinesh Sabokam, JAC's information secretary, explains: "We are not against development per se; evidently then these protests point to a larger issue."

Apart from the macro issue of marginalisation of agriculture at a time when a global food crisis looms large, the most important concern at the micro level in Manipur is scarcity of cultivable land.

Spread over an area of 22,327 sq km, Manipur, which shares its northern, southern and western borders with Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam respectively and international borders with Myanmar on its eastern flank, has two distinct physical regions -- a flat oval-shaped valley encompassing around 2,200 sq km of fertile land interspersed with wetlands, and an outlying hilly area. Farming in the hills, for obvious reasons, is largely subsistence, while cultivation in the valley is reasonably productive with many households augmenting their livelihood with horticulture and fish farming.

The flatlands, however, comprise barely 10% of the state's area and, due to its better accessibility and location of the state capital, Imphal is already under pressure from population and infrastructure expansion.

Converting farmland into real estate in this valuable expanse is therefore fraught with problems. Most cultivators, content with their annual yields, are loath to part with even an inch of land. L Manitomba Singh, a Malom farmer, says: "An efficient irrigation system and fertile soil ensures that we get good crops. Most years we are also able to sell a substantial percentage of our produce. Our livelihoods are secure. How can we just give it all up for the sake of an airport?"

So, even if only 250-odd families, or 10,000 people, are displaced by the Tulihal expansion, in real terms, the human cost would be monumental, ranging from loss of ancestral property and secure livelihoods to ecological imbalance and impoverishment.

Although the government has promised "handsome compensation", Sabokam says: "The land is our life. It is priceless." Anxiety over loss of land and livelihood is compounded by bitter previous experience of compensation vis-à-vis development projects. Compensation amounts in the past have allegedly been paltry and the process of rehabilitation callous. The Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Power Project in 1984, for instance, led to the inundation of nearly 50,000 hectares of arable land along the Loktak wetlands. Campaigners against state land-grabbing insist that the several hundreds who were displaced are still to be effectively rehabilitated.

Over the years since 1960, approximately 600 acres of arable land have been acquired already for the expansion of Tulihal airport. "Yet, while the land remains unutilised or under the occupation of security forces inside the airport premises, those uprooted from their age-old familial dwellings are facing threats to their survival. The compensation was a mere four acres to a family," says K Lanngamba, president of United Committee Manipur (UCM). Already Manipur's per capita income lags behind the national average, the state having swiftly changed from a subsistence economy, at the time of its accession to the Indian Union in 1949, to a reliant economy heavily dependent on imports of almost all essential commodities. "Any further alienation of land is likely to swell the ranks of the poor, and give a fillip to insurgency. As it is, many insurgent groups believe that shortsighted government policies have ignored the people's requirements," insists Deejen Khoisnam.

The government says loss of arable land will be compensated by a growth in tourism. State tourism minister T N Haokip told newsmen recently that an airport of international standards would help attract tourists and act as the launch pad for other tourism-related infrastructure development. Although tourism would be an easy sector to promote in a state that has some of the most beautiful locales in the country, a rich cultural heritage, endemic flora and fauna, the only floating sanctuary in the world (Keibul Lamjao National Park) and the largest freshwater lake in India (Loktak lake), the JAC remains unconvinced that a tourist-centric economy could ever make up for a reduction in production bases. "The tourism pretext is flimsy. Policymakers need to look at a more inclusive development model for the state," Lanngamba says, adding that countries like Nepal, Cambodia and Sri Lanka have been managing to attract tourists despite their small airports and short single runways.

The JAC's grouse against the airport expansion move is based on several points. For one, it does not believe that the government is being entirely truthful in claiming that it needs more land for the runway's extension since the blueprint of the upgraded airport does not show one. Second, large tracts of land acquired earlier continue to be under the occupation of the security forces and the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) inside the airport premises; the government remains tight-lipped on the issue. Third, the government's argument that a bigger airport would help land essential commodities whose entry into Manipur, as of today, is hampered by frequent blockades and extortion on the highways by insurgent groups, is feeble. The state has three airports of which two are still under the control of the military. One of them could easily be used to land cargo planes. The government could also set up a highway protection force instead of tamely submitting to militancy. And, finally, as Khoisnam says: "The government could take a pointer from Mizoram and think of an airport in the sparsely populated hill area, where land use is optimal and human displacement minimal."

This suggestion of spreading infrastructural assets to the hills does not find favour with the government that is wary of upsetting the ethnic status quo in the state. Grouped into three main ethnic denominations -- the Meiteis, the Nagas and the Kuki-Chins -- Manipuris have settled in different regions, with the more populous Meiteis inhabiting the valley region and various Naga and Kuki-Chin tribes concentrated in the various hill districts. Forever having to walk a tightrope between fractious ethnic groups, the government chooses to remain valley-centric, since the valley has assumed a more or less neutral character.

Meanwhile, the fight against land alienation grows ever more belligerent, with the populace trying to convince the policymakers that they are missing the wood for the trees.

InfoChange News & Features, May 2008