Election update: Its hills vs plains in Manipur

The land of gems will have a new government soon. We look at what leading political parties have to say about issues related to natural resources.
A Manipuri family. (Source: Coffee Table Book, Government of Manipur)
A Manipuri family. (Source: Coffee Table Book, Government of Manipur)

The key issue in the Manipur Assembly election is the ongoing economic blockade in the state, which, in turn, is attributed to the present government’s decision to bifurcate districts. The Centre claims to have brokered a peace deal between the Manipur government and the United Naga Council, a rebel group opposed to the unilateral decision of the Congress state government to carve out new districts, including the Naga-dominated hill areas, for administrative convenience. While it is true that protracted economic blockade, interests of Manipur in the Naga accord, militarisation and insurgency are vital issues, the electorate also cares about sustainability, livelihoods and environmental issues. And this is gradually coming out in the political discourse of the state.

The elections in Manipur to elect 60 members of the Manipur Legislative Assembly are scheduled for March 4 and March 8, 2017. These will be contested by major parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Indian National Congress (Congress), the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), Naga People's Front (NPF), Manipur People’s Party (MPP) and two newly formed parties--the North East India Development Party (NEIDP) and the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA).

We, at India Water Portal, have put together what various political parties think of environment and livelihood issues based on the party’s vision documents, manifestos, party constitution, media statements, press releases and charge sheet against rival parties.

What’s in store for farmers?

Manipur is primarily an agricultural state despite the fact that just 7.41 percent of the total geographical area of the state is cultivated and 90 percent is hilly. Most of the cropped land (about 52 percent) is confined to the valley which supports about 61.54 percent of the state’s population, as per Census 2001. Agriculture continues to be the main occupation of the people of Manipur, with the sector contributing a major share to the total state domestic product and providing employment to about 52.19 percent of the total workers. But, how many political parties have considered the issues of farmers, the largest constituency in Manipur?

In its manifesto, the ruling party, the Congress, has listed various development works of the state, the most prominent being the implementation of the National Food Security Act. The party says that sectors such as agriculture, horticulture, sericulture, food processing and fisheries will be accorded priority through appropriate skill development with the involvement of the government, public and private partners. In 2012, the Congress had promised in its manifesto that “assured irrigation will be provided to all agricultural lands to pave way for another green revolution which will also aim at creating more employment opportunities in both agriculture and horticulture sectors”. As per a charge sheet of the Congress by the BJP, “only half of the state’s agricultural land is under irrigation. Hill districts, which account for 53 percent of the state’s agricultural land, have zero irrigation coverage.” 

The BJP, which is expected to make inroads into the state, promises to “adopt a comprehensive and practicable policy that makes agriculture a more organised sector”. It intends to “fortify the core strength of agricultural crops as well as facilitate multiple crop cultivation. Also, to educate farmers in scientific cropping patterns and modern farming techniques like agricultural biotechnology”.

Irom Sharmila, Manipur’s iconic civil rights activist entered mainstream politics after ending her 16-year-old hunger strike against the government of India in 2016. She set up a new political party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA). The objective of the PRJA, according to the party, is to develop a self-reliant economy and to “strive to formulate ecologically sustainable agricultural initiatives for mass production, and commercial export. Also, to build solar-powered cold storages in strategic locations, all across the state, to preserve agricultural products for a self-sufficient primary food supply chain”. It also talks about “encouraging and intensifying integrated organic farming with special initiatives”. Unlike its rivals, the PRJA has placed economy and environment in an integrated manner in its vision and party constitution.

The All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) which had made inroads into the state in the last Assembly election has, in its manifesto, highlighted how the benefits of modern methods of cultivation do not reach the marginal peasant or fruit grower. The AITC says it is committed “to struggling for evolving a more comprehensive, farmer friendly agricultural policy with emphasis on more public investment in irrigation, power, infrastructural facilities, and science and technology in agriculture to ensure sustained growth in agricultural production and protect the interests of the majority of the peasantry” and “production and use of safe and improved varieties of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and use of modern techniques in agricultural production should be encouraged”.

The Manipur People’s Party (MPP), on the other hand, stresses the efforts that it will put in to enhance the agricultural land, horticultural products and agro-based industries. North East India Development Party (NEIDP) whose ideology is to “foster democracy in all its dimensions” states in its manifesto that it would ensure “minimum support price for agricultural produce to the farmers and promote agri-produce co-operatives for better marketing of the produce”. It agrees to “safeguard and take effective measures to prevent starvation deaths, farmers and traditional workers and artisans committing suicide, deaths of malnourished children and women, particularly in rural areas”. It also promises to “enact laws to promote food security and protect food sovereignty through comprehensive farmer, landless peasants, and agricultural workers-centric agrarian reforms”. It assures to make the public distribution system transparent and well-functioning to provide food security to the weaker sections of the society”. The party also promises to promote organic farming in the state.

None of the parties, however, specify how they will adopt agriculture-based policies that can quickly alleviate hunger and poverty in a state which has the third lowest per capita GDP among the Indian states.

Water resources and supply

The AITC talks of launching a unique plan to provide adequate drinking water. The party candidate promises to “provide improved drainage system and regular supply of potable water”, as per a media report. The PRJA’s manifesto promises “clean water supply for all”.

The Congress, a party that came to power in the state twice in a row, has taken civic issues into account in its 19-point manifesto of 2017 and promised drinking water to all households in the state by 2022. It has also said Imphal will be made "garbage free". The NEIDP states that “it shall treat water as a national and common resource and stop the privatisation or sale of water bodies like river, tanks, ponds etc”. Also, as most of the diseases faced are water-borne, it shall ensure safe drinking water to all.

The BJP, in a factsheet against the ruling Congress, says that “while the party promised in its manifesto in 2012 that all villages will be provided drinking water within a time frame, 85 percent of households in Manipur don’t get potable water. There is barely a household that has not had to pay for water through private tankers”.

The BJP, in its vision document 2025 for Manipur, assures the availability of basic amenities such as food and safe drinking water to every household and set up “class one” cities along with satellite townships equipped with all modern amenities like rainwater harvesting and sewage systems. At one point, it states that “rainwater harvesting will be made mandatory in urban housing”. It promises to “design and implement an ambitious plan for municipal solid waste management and apply practices like vermiculture, pelletisation, aerobic composting, mechanical composting as well as energy generation”. The vision is to implement an ecosan system using membrane technology to encourage fertiliser production in villages by using sewage water, biomedical waste, and sanitary waste.

Regarding irrigation projects, the BJP’s vision document promises to “encourage constitution of water users’ associations or committees for active community participation.” It speaks of “preventing soil erosion by effective implementation of integrated watershed management programmes” and “bringing most of the cultivable land under effective irrigation”.

None of the political parties mentions the stand they will take on dams or on whether they will review the performance of these mega projects.

Reviving Loktak lake

The Loktak lake in Bishnupur district of Manipur, the largest freshwater lake in the northeast has shown degradation in the recent past. The commissioning of the Loktak project by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation in 1983 has raised the level of water to 769 m permanently with the help of the Ithai barrage for generating electricity. This has caused a number of changes. As per the State of Environment report for Manipur, the unique natural up and down movement of the phumdis (floating mats) in the vast expanses of the lake have been disturbed over the last 30 years. Moreover, the project, instead of supplying electricity for local consumption, sells power to neighbouring states.

The BJP’s vision document promises to “develop the Loktak lake”, and use geo-satellite mapping technology to save the Loktak lake from degradation of catchment areas and soil erosion. It also promises to “strengthen and modernise the Loktak Development Authority for conservation and development of the lake and to efficiently address various issues related to it”. And finally, it intends to “control deforestation and encourage afforestation in the catchment areas of the rivers and tributaries falling in Loktak lake”.

Environment, natural resources, and sustainability

Livelihood environmentalism is not a big ticket item on any of the manifestoes. Nonetheless, natural resource use and access find mention in most of them. On the issue of environment, AITC is of the view that the political instability in the region has affected the environment and water resources. “It is distressing to see our prized possessions, like forest wealth and water bodies, become victims of criminal negligence. The party will formulate an environment policy which will be integrated with the needs of rapid and sustainable development,” the manifesto says.

The NPF’s manifesto stresses on forest rights. Letpao Haokip, the candidate of the NPF says that he is committed to protecting and defending the rights of the people and their lands. The NEIDP says that “it shall strictly implement the environment protection laws”.

The PRJA, the party set up on demilitarisation and anti-corruption plank, in its political discourse, talks of a “sense of responsibility in a healthy natural environment”. The party constitution mainstreams the issue of sustainability. In its six-point objective, there is one on the economic sector that pledges to ensure protection and promotion of indigenous people’s ownership rights over their lands, natural resources, while preserving ecological harmony. “To overcome underdevelopment and all forms of injustice meted out to the people, imposed by any international financial institutions, corporate groups or powerful external market forces. To promote a self-sustainable economy by encouraging individuals, communities, and entrepreneurship, towards addressing unemployment and creating an economy that is based on the principle of proportionate development across regions, communities, and genders,” it says.

The BJP's position on forest management and governance is rather incongruous in a state which has seen the “environment vs development” debate in the context of shifting cultivation. On this, the BJP wants “to restore the lands and to prevent further jhumland (shifting) cultivation”. It talks about “removing the encroachments occupying large tracts of reserved forest and proposed reserved forest areas”. It wants to “establish an effective forest protection force for tackling illicit trafficking of forest resources and control forest vandalism like encroachments and poaching”.

On forests rights, the BJP’s vision document for this ethnically fractured state promises to “recognise the rights of scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers endorsed by the recognition of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 to make conservation of forests more accountable”. It agrees to “make effective implementation of the Biological Diversity Act”.

Most of the agendas of the political parties are good on political rhetoric and have spelt the need to engage with the communities dwelling on both hills and valley in natural resources management. But there is no mention on how to make them the custodians of the resources and on giving them better access to them. Manipur lacks a proper institutional framework on land use and as per the state of the environment report, there is “no legal provision to protect the wetlands and lakes from converting into agricultural land”. Also, hydroelectric projects are being forcibly imposed often under the protection of the police or paramilitary forces like the Tipaimukh dam which would lead to displacement and ecological destruction. It’s high time the parties moved beyond generic suggestions and righteous aspirations regarding livelihoods and environment and provided a clear and action-oriented roadmap on how these could be pursued vigorously.

 

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