Pusham Azad Babu
The recent visit of Union Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports, Shri Vijay Goel at the controversial site, 44-Yaithibi Loukon, of the proposed National Sports University turned out as a sudden storm for the state government and its concoctive plan to subdue all dissenting voices against their move to go on with the construction plan. As a new development, the surfacing of another JAC (different to the Affected Land Owners’ Association against Forced Land Acquisition for National Sports University) supporting the construction of NSU, reports of selective profiling and disruption of movement of people of Sora (the village which is most susceptible to be impacted by the proposed construction) on the National Highway and the political blame game that has surfaced has not only cooked up another ugly situation driven by divisive tactics, but also an impending condition of breaking down of communal harmony amongst various communities. As per the copy of a letter dated 9-11-2016, from the President of Affected Land Owners’ Association Against the Forced Land Acquisition for Sports University, Manipur, addressing to the presidents of other organizations who are voicing against the people of Sora, there seem to have developed a politically motivated ‘us’ verses ‘them’ dichotomy among communities. Pressures have been given to affected people, however selecting and targeting only people of the Muslim community. A section of people have even started bringing in questions of nationalism and dedication to the motherland, leaving aside questions of loss of livelihood for the farmers. Sadly in Manipur, we have often seen politically motivated moves turning concerns and problems of larger public interest into mere localized, trivial issues or vice versa, as per the convenience, interest and power of the agencies involved. Overlapping claims of responsibility through means of symbolic power between formal institutions and civil societies in handling issues of larger public interest or of local/community level, or maintaining deliberate silence on similar issues based on religious and community interest have increased over time. With certain section of the society collectively targeting the people of Sora as the only anti-development faction among the various localities impacted by the project, a sad turn of certain agencies drifting the sentiments of the people from the core issue is quite evident. One thing one has to keep in mind is the basic question whether the choice of Yaithibi Loukon as the favored site is a choice of the villagers or has it been an imposition. If in any case the answer for the former is affirmative, we need to ask ourselves this- what make us perceive our land as non productive or whether the land use pattern needs a change. If it is an imposition, it is imperative to question the vantage point through which the government had assumed the site as the most suitable of all options with least chances of impacts to the people around as well as to the state.
Land is Life
Sustaining a healthy community life should not be reduced to a mechanical activity of hoping in and out of a shelter and all sorts of activities of life running from a built up structure. The richness of our life’s experience should have a link with histories and memories of our surroundings. Those agricultural lands are not just mere unproductive swath of terrain as perceived with a mere economic lens. They are integral to the cultural history and sense of selfhood of the people of the surrounding areas. Of the total areas of Manipur the plain area which is considered as the rice bowl of the state constitute of approximately 10% only. Of this only 4.2% is considered as cultivable. Hence looking from a larger perspective, we ought to accept the fact that what matters to the people of the Yaithibi Loukon (the proposed site) and its surrounding areas should also matter to the whole state, its economy and future. In the light of the changing geo-political landscape and economic aspiration of the Govt. of India, there is a high chance that, the Govt. of Manipur, with its changing neo-liberal economic aspirations, is going to bang on any possible target to grab lands. There is no way we can seal the wave of globalization and people’s aspiration for development and economic welfare. Irrespective of whether or not the Sports University is built at this site, the area would be well connected to the influence area of the proposed Global economic trunk route to be connected with the rest of South East Asia and the Asia Pacific countries. However what we should be careful of is to make sure that our rights to our basic assets are not compromised by ephemeral promises and offers. We ought to think beyond the wishes and aspirations of our immediate needs and think for our future generations.
As expressed by many experts, a major lapse in the whole project was a seeming lack of communication between the impacted people and the planners. One thing that needs to be properly understood is the calculation and assessment of cost and benefit. The idea of cost and benefit does not pertain to only economic cost and benefit. Before jumping into calculating the overall benefit of the project to the state, we need to make sure if the land acquisition process as well as the project plan have been executed with a free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from the public; the public here means not the elected representatives, people staying in affinity with the related authorities or a particular set of people from a section of the society; but those people whose lands will be taken over, whose houses will be evicted, or whose neighborhood will become a gated, walled enclosed build-up area, which at one point of time will ever remain a distant memory of their long belongingness. Every centrally funded project will of course come with a detailed road map and blue print as per the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. There has to be a clear Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) Programme. But despite having all these provisions, there may still be roadblocks in the way how things are being executed. Going by the facts of various centrally as well as state funded developmental projects in the state it may not be an overestimation to say that for a community which lacks the social, cultural and intellectual capital to face the impending danger of being intrude upon by different forces, the people impacted by the project may be easily duped of all the promises given to them. On the other hand, if once constructed, there is no guarantee of when the government will ask for an expansion, upon which another danger of forceful eviction and violence is quite imminent. To the minority Muslims of Manipur with limited landholdings, it hardly makes a difference whether people from outside the state come and encroach upon our lands or whether imperialistic agenda of the state or other communities encroach upon us. The end product in both the case is a tacit ghettoization of the community.
The Game of Power, Politics and More
Prima facie, the whole process starting from the conceptualization of the idea to choose the site to the various processes that proceeds, covert negotiations with land holders, attempt to polarize people etc. itself tells an unfortunate tale of an inept attempt by a class of people to favour a particular class of people in the whole process of execution of the project. The fact that the area itself is a bad choice economically, owing to its low lying wetland in nature gives us a hint of how this would be favourable choice for a section of people who would landfill it. Development should not be reduced to a class phenomena aimed to serve the interest of one class with muscle and power at the cost of another weaker class or section of a society. Allegedly the Hill Areas Committee was not initially consulted and the government had arbitrarily announced the site as Khas land. This tells the covert and ill-gotten approach of the state government. For the people of Sora in particular and the Muslim community in Manipur in general it is a clear position that our land is part of our culture and identity. Amid shortage of jobs and limited availability of lands, there lies a symbiotic relationship between our life and our lands. In order to make sure that our identity is preserved, we need to make sure that our ancestral lands are saved from being gradually erased of our holdings. When we lose our lands, it is as though we are gradually selling off our legitimacy to claim for an identity. God forbid a day should not come when we become a ghettoized community, living in lanes and by-lanes of urban shanties. We should not be the creator of our own ill fated destiny. There have been several cases of intimidation of the Muslim land holders for force eviction or to stop expansion of habitation on their own lands. This has been perceived as deliberate attempts to curb our mobility and scope of expansion of habitation and business in areas of our own possession. On the other hand there have also been several attempts to claim lands belonging to Muslim landholders quoting historical and mythical importance from various sections of the society. Land is one basic asset through which our social and economic mobility can propel. The rise and demise of any civilization, the growth and downfall of any human collectivities have direct co-relation to their rights and entitlement of landholdings. At a time when the Muslim community is facing numerous predatory questions on identity markers and sense of belongingness to prove the legitimacy of our claims of culture and identity, in a way where our own identification goes in a dialectical relationship yet in a cordial equilibrium with the way how our markers are being classified by other communities, our land becomes one prime entity which should remain as an important immovable asset. Having said this, it does not mean we are in lack of other cultural markers, but we should be in a privileged position to maintain our identity in the face of any adversities. Our lands always remain as an intrinsic part of our socio economic and cultural life. Any forms of capital can be created or earned, but land is one asset which cannot be created.
The Question of Prospects, it’s questionable!
One thing that the people of Sora should ask themselves is the extent of benefits of a sports university at the cost of their own lands, peaceful co-existence, alienated and restricted surrounding, wiping out of cultural history and sense of belongingness. What are those benefits that surpass these costs? It is a National Sports University, not a business hotspot where any able person or any beneficiary can get a space to do business. It is going to be a closed campus which may have limited facilities of shops and other outlets on campus. There is no surety that people of the affected area will get job opportunities or children will get admission to certain course, for these will have to follow the mandatory and standard procedures applicable as per law. With an optimistic position we can say that some people may get some odd jobs or some secured jobs during the process of construction and after. However the problem lies in equitable distribution of benefits. When it comes to acquisition of lands, irrespective of rich or poor families, all are impacted; however when it comes to getting benefits, going by the tradition existing in Manipur, the fate of the poorer lots are grim. This is not going to be a campus like the mainstream educational universities, where people of the vicinities will get chances to coach students. All these may sound like some negative sound vibes, but what concrete promises are out there for which people should sell off their lands and homesteads? We can take examples from the projects like Mapithel Dam where people are still looking for the promised benefits decades after their lands have been forcefully taken over. The helpless villagers along with the Tangkhul Women’s League (TSL) and Tangkhul Student Union (TKS) have done a sit in peaceful demonstration since July 9, 2015 at the Mini Secretariat premises in Ukhrul, demanding the decommissioning of the dam. (Kipgen, 2015). Kipgen maintains that in case of Mapithei Dam, “Compensation in the form of cash often put the landowner in a problematic situation as it replaces a familiar asset (land) with an unfamiliar one (paper assets), thereby destroying the value of the asset-specific skills”.
The Realities and the Apprehension
As per Walter Farnandes, because of the low investment and high unemployment rate, the importance of land as people’s livelihood is reflected among the communities of North Eastern States. In our state, as per a survey conducted by All Manipur Muslim’s Organization Coordinating Committee (AMMOCOC) in 1998, the number of class I officers amongst the Muslims were very negligible. Muslims still rely on petty low profile jobs and the economic conditions have not changed markedly. This is same as the findings given in Report on Socio-Economic Survey of Manipuri Muslims (Meitei-Pangals), 2004, conducted by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics and Directorate of MOBC, Manipur. In the mean time we see a depleting graph of land holdings among the Pangals owing to ‘artificially created strategic politico-economic circumstances’. The hill tribes have their own customary laws to protect their lands. Scopes of horizontal expansion in the plain areas have become almost an impossible task. The reason why the people of Kakching have put up a huge structure of “Welcome to Kakching” at the edge of Sora village and similar structure of the Nagas putting up “Welcome to South Nagaland” at Senapati district are not merely structures denoting warm wishes, but has symbolic political connotations, indicating the scope and extent of one’s claim for territory, in-fact indicating that one should not expand beyond the marked line. Each community has their own set mechanism to protect their lands. After all because of the kind of land use and fragmentation model traditionally practiced, the vision of our community ten years from now is in fact very gloomy. The Muslims are poor in all sectors including our social capital, economic capital, cultural capital and most importantly symbolic capital. At this critical juncture, we must understand that a judicious safeguard from imposed commercialization of our traditional lands and making sure of scientific land use pattern is of utmost necessity.
Sora and Beyond
So rather than looking at these problems, which have popped up every now and then, such as stereotyping, efforts to incite disharmony, violence, forced claim of our heritage land etc. as independent entities or problems of different context lying out there, we ought to think beyond this conception and see if these are different interrelated strands of vectors which are structured and which pose serious threat to the identity and very existence of small communities and also to the peaceful co-existence of different communities in our state. Sora should not be taken as an independent or ‘a particular case’, but it can be regarded as a mirror of the society through which we can conceive of larger images and problems that our society faces today. The difficulty and immunity that the smaller communities experience today is the extent of sophistication of hegemony, exerted through symbolic power and politics, which provide no other option than to ultimately submit to the marauding force. National Sports University is a welcoming development for the state, but it should not get its foundation pier constructed on a controversial site. After all the heartfelt consent of the people and their right to life matters most, much more than any politics of opportunism. Looking from a larger perspectives it would be a wise move for the Government of Manipur to look out for alternate areas where there are no conflicts on acquiring land and where the landholders are eagerly willing to provide their landholdings. The collective interest of the people of Manipur must lie in making sure that the speculative desires of certain political and influential class should not create a condition to justify the need of a large section of population from the weaker class to give up their land holdings under pressing conditions.
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Pusham Azad Babu is a research scholar at Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi