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This article was first published 1 year ago  » News » Manipur: A Distant Outpost Full Of Promise

Manipur: A Distant Outpost Full Of Promise

June 09, 2023 10:54 IST
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A lesson we have not learnt from China is the urgent need to knit the vast country together to keep it from falling apart at the seams.
While there is considerable dent in poverty, sadly, the North East remains as distant today as it always was, points out Shreekant Sambrani.

IMAGE: A house that caught fire in violence-hit Manipur. Photograph: ANI Photo

As the plane comes in to land at Imphal, the capital of Manipur, the visitor is treated to a breath-taking sight.

A saucer-shaped valley lies nestled between gently rising hills lush green with paddy, looking like an emerald encased in platinum.

The crescent-shaped terraces of paddy lands on lower hill slopes elsewhere are evidence of both the fertility of the area and enterprise of its farmers, producing bountiful harvests.

It feels like Shangri-la, except that unlike James Hilton's fictional Himalayan utopia, Manipur is very real and far from bathed in tranquility.


Those were my initial thoughts when I first went to Manipur 45 years ago in 1978.

On my several subsequent visits, I was invariably struck by the eerie coexistence of natural calm and man-made calamities in the North Eastern state.

And now that coexistence has reached explosive levels, or so it would seem.

My substantial exposure to the entire North East, especially Manipur, was due largely to my involvement in the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad faculty consulting team for the North Eastern Council.

As the youngest member of the team then, I was unanimously nominated for extensive field touring, which was a Godsend for me.

It gave me the rare privilege to visit even the remote corners of the region.

This was followed subsequently by professional work for some private/co-operative clients.

Ever since the present trouble started brewing, I have had a sense of deja vu, that these events have been foretold and we have done nothing worth the mention to avert them.

Two aspects mark the situation in Manipur (and with some variations, the rest of the North East as well). The first is economic and the second is human.

I would like to share my understanding of the economic realities first.

It is best told through the experience of Subrata Bhowmik. He went to Manipur as its director of agriculture in 1972.

A middle-level officer in the vast West Bengal bureaucracy, Bhowmik thought he was selected for the deputation because others did not want to go to a remote state with a population barely exceeding that of an average district. He grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Manipur then faced an acute shortage of its staple crop, rice. Bhowmik discovered that Manipuri farmers rejected the recommended high-yielding varieties because the rice cooked from them was not sticky enough for their liking.

His search for more glutinous varieties in India yielded no results. Next stop, the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, a premier organisation.

He found the wonder variety he was looking for and filled his suitcases with its seeds.

After smuggling this precious cargo into Manipur, Bhowmik grew its crop on a state farm.

He then went from village to village cooking the new rice and giving mouthfuls of it to leading farmers.

The left-over crop was sold as seed in no time flat. By 1976, Manipur grew a surplus of rice and Subratada enjoyed a well-earned reputation as its saviour.

He told me of the of the enormous potential of the region and its daunting problems. Forty-five years on, both these remain almost where they were, including shifting cultivation.

In most areas with partial or non-existent permanent rural settlements, farmers clear hill-slopes of the natural growth by burning it.

They broadcast the crop seed, mostly rice or maize, and let it grow under nature's mercy.

Harvesting involves slashing through the crop with a scythe (hence the other name of this practice, slash-and-burn cultivation).

They move on, leaving the land fallow to regain its productive vigour, returning when they have finished using other such lands available to them.

Rising population has reduced the 'jhoom' (the local name for this practice) cycle considerably, from seven or eight years down to as little as two years.

In some areas, even permanent jhoom is practiced. The resulting soil degradation and falling productivity puts greater pressure on an already depleting resource.

A classic vicious cycle of deprivation is set in motion.

Most of the North East is poverty-stricken due to this situation. But it does not have to be so at all.

Most states have fertile plains to grow enough food to feed their relatively small populations and did not need to farm the vast hill-slopes.

Yet the population still resorts to jhoom because it has no means, nor opportunities, for other gainful occupations, as is the case of surplus rural population almost everywhere else in the country.

The North East has a veritable feast of local fruit. Pineapple and pear are available in plenty and practically grew wild everywhere.

The local variety of pears are as delicious as any found in the cooler regions of the world.

Ripe fruit fall off the trees to rot, because there are no takers for them even at Re 1 a kilo!

Pineapples are sent to the Siliguri market, but the local price is seldom enough to meet the cost of harvesting.

IMAGE: Security personnel stand guard in Manipur. Photograph: Shrikant Singh/ANI Photo

A viable alternative to jhoom required considering the totality of activities possible on land.

Organised orchards practically suggested themselves. We proposed a strategic plan envisaging the North East becoming the fruit basket of the country with jhoomiyas earning attractive incomes from horticulture.

What could not be sold as fresh fruit could be processed.

New plants would become showpieces for the region. They would also provide additional employment.

Trees instead of shifting crops would help undo a part of the ecological damage. With Bhowmik's firm backing, the North Eastern Council accepted the plan.

But like the best laid schemes of mice and men, that did not happen.

Even now, as imported stone-fruit grace supermarket shelves at sky-high prices, pears are probably still rotting in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram.

The pineapple barely manages to reach Kolkata. The North Eastern Council's once-gleaming processing plant at Siliguri never really functioned and now rusts away.

A private plant, too, is shut down as it turned out to be a ruse to bilk the state government.

Another activity that begs attention is the great variety of handicrafts that exists in the region.

Manipuri and Naga shawls and saris with their striking designs and colour schemes enjoyed the pride of place in my wife's extensive wardrobe.

I could afford them even on my teacher's salary and bought them, not at the state emporia, which wore desultory looks, but at the local traders, mostly Marwaris.

For them it was a straight-forward commercial deal, albeit conducted behind fenced walls, of course.

But the state departments charged with the responsibility of developing and promoting handicrafts and artisans' welfare are usually marked by apathy.

Given the surge of interest of consumers in ethnic art there is no telling how it can transform rural lives.

This has already happened in other parts of the country, including Kutch in Gujarat, Sanganer in Rajasthan, Sambalpur in Odisha and Gadwal in Telangana, which have now become reputed suppliers of ethnic wear and crafts the world over.

Although this was not part of our brief, we suggested setting up special programmes for skill development and marketing of these artefacts.

The reason for these grand plans not materialising, and for most of the myriad problems of the North East in one word is remoteness. And that is no oversimplification.

Surface transport in the North East, despite the grand uni-gauge and National Highway projects, lags far behind the rest of the country both in reach and quality.

We showcase the Konkan Railway and the new Kargil highway, but roads, or what passes for them east of Kolkata, languish in a limbo.

Meanwhile, China builds rail and road links to Tibet and Xinjiang under far more trying conditions.

Yet another lesson we have not learnt from China is the urgent need to knit the vast country together to keep it from falling apart at the seams.

Creating infrastructure, especially in remote areas such as the North East, became a mantra of Plan after Five-year Plan, much like removal of poverty.

While there is considerable dent in poverty, sadly, the North-east remains as distant today as it always was.

Trains now connect Guwahati to most cities, but the North East stretches a further 600 km as the crow flies to the north-east and the south-east.

Horticulture becoming the growth-engine of the North East required easy, rapid and economic access to markets.

The nearest large urban market, Kolkata, was at best a half day's journey -- more like three days in case of Arunachal Pradesh -- over tortuous roads and the Chicken's Neck in North Bengal.

These poor excuses of roads are often blocked by landslides or insurgencies.

IMAGE: Kukis protest against the killing of tribals in Manipur at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photograph: Shrikant Singh/ANI Photo

We knew of these constraints while proposing the plan, but believed the grand assurances of state and central governments and the North Eastern Council according infrastructure the top priority and the North-east soon having seamless connectivity with the rest of the country.

That has still not happened despite the far greater attention the present regime pays to infrastructure development.

The North East remains a distant outpost full of promise and poverty.

And when the pressure becomes unbearable, the lid blows off, which brings to the fore an even more pressing human dimension of the problem. That was the subject of my earlier column.

Author's note: Some readers may have found a few references, such as those to the Manipur saviour, Subrata Bhowmik, and the overall economy of the region, a bit confusing. This backstory fills those gaps.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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