Developmental challenges : Airport & University expansion

By Jiten Yumnam *

Manipur has been grappling currently with unprecedented and unique responses of the people to Government's efforts to introduce 'developmental projects', contested to its rationality and purposes. After the residents of Kyamgei came out in unison to successfully defend the highly productive agricultural asset 'Kyamgei Loukol', against construction of NIT complex, the residents of Langthabal are in full preparation to defend 'Phumlou Konjil Loukon' from Manipur University expansion.

Similarly, the residents of Malom, Mongsangei, Ningombam, Konjeng Leikai with strong determination, resisted the massive acquisition of agricultural land for Imphal Airport Expansion, questioning its rationality and purpose. The Airport expansion move is slated to acquire 512 acres of farmland and the Manipur University expansion is envisaged to acquire at least 200 Acres of agricultural land.

The unfortunate part of the Government is the failure to sensitively capture the numerous messages of the peoples in defense moves for their land and resources. Visionary messages for sustainable development, for food security, for a dignity existence for our future generations, messages that development decision making bereft of peoples rightful participation will only be a sham exercise, messages all to strengthen the-foundations of the Manipuri nation, continues to be negated.

Rather than pondering to legitimate concerns and alternatives addressed by the peoples, the typical responses of the State to peoples resolve to defend their land and livelihood, is non-recognition of their inherent rights over their land and suppression of their democratic efforts with brute use of force, through threats and intimidations, thus negating the very universally upheld principles of human rights and development that peoples have rights over developments over their land and resources. Development becomes meaningless without the peoples and when their livelihoods are destroyed.

One may wonder how the current moves for Imphal Airport expansion, Manipur University Expansion, NIT, expansion in agricultural land and residential areas are consistent with forging a self reliant political economic culture of Manipur? Are these moves guided by any visionary developmental framework based on creation of such cultures with centrality on protection of peoples livelihood and production bases?

Are these massive land acquisition moves guided by any people acceptable land and natural resources use and management policy? Have any short term and long term implications of sacrifices of such scarce agricultural land being analysed in planning such mega developmental initiatives? Can the loss of agricultural land and wetlands be compensated with anything, by intangible items, money inclusive? Can developmental initiatives commence without first recognising peoples inherent and inalienable rights over their land and resources?

The increasing protest and militarism of peoples affected by the Airport Expansion, University expansion, NIT construction etc testified that these expansion moves have disregarded the peoples rights over their land and undermined their rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). These expansion moves will further undermine all efforts for sustainable development by consuming increasingly scarce farmland and residential areas, seriously undermining our food sovereignty, increase dependency to outsiders and worsening Manipur's economic crisis.

The main occupation of the people of Manipur, nearly 80% is agriculture and has no other industries to generate the economy. Already, the valley of Manipur, where the most fertile agricultural activities took place is pressured with rapid expansion of developmental activities. The displaced families by such expansion moves will be subjected to perennial impoverishment, which will further expose them to social exclusion, discrimination, health risks etc, primarily targeting women and children.

When much of the valley areas are already conscripted and much of its agricultural land already taken over in the name of development, how will our coming generations of Manipur secure a dignified survival? The commissioning of Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Power Project in 1984 has led to inundation of nearly 50,000 hectares of arable and along the Loktak Wetlands, causing displacement of several thousands of people living along and in the Loktak Wetlands and languishing till now with no rehabilitation and resettlement, resulting in increasing poverty, fragmentation of social cohesion and economic livelihood and disastrous environmental consequences.

The Airport Expansion move has failed to explore other alternatives including assessing how small international airports functions efficiently, all with only one runways over minimal spaces and land, as in the case of Tribhuvan International Airport of Kathmandu, Nepal, Phnom Penh (Pochentong) International Airport of Cambodia, Bandamaike International Airport of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Interestingly, even big international airports like Heathrow Airport of London manage more than 1000 flights a day from only two runways.

Women from Malom staged a "meiraa" rally against State Govt decision to expand the Imphal Airport in March 2008
Picture Courtesy: Jinen Maibam

The Airport expansion will accelerate the increasing noise pollution in Imphal, posing multifaceted health hazards and risks. Night flights are what several residents living near airports around the world had long been complaining against, the case of residents around Heathrow airport of London, Bangkok's Suvamabhumi airport etc complaining to their respective Supreme Courts and international human rights Organisations.

Villagers around the Imphal Airport are already subjected to traumatic experiences with noise pollution from the airport. The Airport construction will lead further militarisation of Manipur through deployment of paramilitary forces that will further intensify the scale of civil right violations targeting civil populace impunity, consistent denial of justice under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. The Malom Massacre of November 2, 2000 was carried out by the 8 Assam Rifles located inside Imphal Airport.

It is high time that the Government of Manipur reconsider as to how and why Manipur degenerated alarmingly from a food exporting country to a food dependent State. Prior to forced merger of Manipur to India in 1949, Manipur enjoys a subsistence agricultural economy with minimal industrial base in the form of handloom and handicrafts.

Notwithstanding its nature of subsistence production, Manipur had been a surplus exporter of rice during the British colonial times. Rice surplus extracted increased from 26% in 1891 to 34% in 19412. Perpetuation of Manipur's status in the post British Period as a peripheral economy is quite evident from the pattern of plan outlays of the State.

Marginalisation of agriculture and industry compelled the State to depend heavily on imports from the core economy of mainland India right from the initial stage of planning. Manipur was steadily transformed into a market and its people only consumers. Agriculture, the mainstay of economy with 80% of the population engaged in it suffered immensely as a result of mis-prioritisation in the Centralised plans that followed the forced merger of Manipur.

Now a new trend of policies, purely extractive, exploitative and aggressively pursued, where the planning is again restricted to few elites and at the cost of the common people, whose livelihood and survival depends on the land and the resources they live for generations. The planning and introduction of such exclusionary developmental policies and projects led to massive displacement, forced and arbitrary disconnection of people from their survival sources, massive takeover and conversion of agricultural land, agrarian production areas for non productive initiatives are designed to benefit few, the elites, those in position of power.

In Manipur, efforts for protection of productive agricultural land and to involve people in developmental decision making process are met with brute use of State force and repression, further propagation of State terrorism. Already residents of Malom and Ningombam campaigning against Airport Expansion are already subjected to harassment by the State law enforcing agencies.

It's no wonder that the 3 affected villagers of Khuga Dam were killed and 25 injured, including women and children by indiscriminate firing by the Border Security Force and the Indian Reserve Battalion in December 2005. On 21 April 2007, Manipur police commandoes baton charged and fired rubber and live bullets to villagers, including women, of Kyamgei defending their land from occupation by State for construction of National Institute of Technology, injuring many.

The brute response of the Government to villagers affected by the Airport and University expansion moves clearly demonstrates that the Government seems totally uncared for the loss of agricultural land with negligible effort to rightfully involve the people of Manipur for developmental policies and implementation in Manipur. The people are being pushed to periphery to defend themselves and with multitude of issues social, economic and political issues remaining unresolved, it will be sheer inappropriate and insensitive, to proceed with 'developmental initiatives' in Manipur.

The questions still remain without any lucid answers as to what are the policies of the Government to promote a wise and sustainable use of our land, forest, rivers, wetlands, mountains based on peoples participation and consent. Are these policies based on the recognition of the rights of peoples over their land and their livelihood dependence over their land and resources?

Does Manipur have or when will it have its own vision for development, or will, it wait for the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank or those bureaucrats/politicians in New Delhi to decide what Manipur should be? With no space provided for the people for mutual assessment of alternative, questions will emerge, whose interest are these expansion moves and for whose benefits? Rather than listening to these questions, how long will the State insist on a forcible kind of development model, using its military might? It's clearly evident that the people of Manipur will reject irrational decisions taken without their participation from far away places and then imposed on them undemocratically.

The demands of the agitating peoples of Langthabal, Malom, Ningombam, Langol, Lamphel etc to stop further acquisition of agricultural land in the name of development is timely and appropriate in Manipur, given the extent of loss of agricultural land and the need to secure our food sovereignty. The State Government should listen to the demands of the 'affected peoples that adequate land is available for expansion inside the existing airport implying further land acquisition is unnecessary.

ll airport irrelevant office complexes and establishments, including military should be removed for the airport expansion. The State Government should, assess viable alternatives with the people for the airport expansion, based on efficient and sustainable airports worldwide. Units of Manipur University can also be established in Hill districts of Manipur.

Why should everything concentrate only in Imphal areas? Such inconsideration will only deepen developmental disparity in Manipur and will only incite misunqerstanding among the communities.

The Airport and Manipur University Expansion moves should not be taken up without the free prior and informed consent of people of Manipur. Development, including airport expansion, pursued under threats and intimidations with "barrels of guns" cannot be acceptable to the people.

The Manipuri peoples who enjoyed self reliant and subsistent economy before the merger with India are now reduced to a dependent race, reeling in poverty and confronting increasing military brutality and suppression for democratic assertion of their rights. Here, the recognition and respect of political rights of the people of Manipur, to ensure their free determination of their political, economic, social and cultural rights becomes extremely crucial for defense of their land and resources.

There should be a complete moratorium on mega developmental initiatives in Manipur till peoples rights over their land and resources and their rights for developmental decisions are fully recognised.

* Jiten Yumnam wrote this article for The Sangai Express . This article was webcasted on May 11, 2008.

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