TODAY -

Link between forest and conflict in Manipur

Oinam Nabakishore Singh *



When a patient goes to a doctor for treatment, he is asked many questions on the history of his complaints, symptoms expe- rienced by him, environmental exposure, food taken, etc. In order to appreciate the underlying causes of the illness of the patient, a doctor orders investigation by having several tests to be conducted on his patient before he prescribes any medicine.

Similarly, in a complex situation like the ongoing conflict in Manipur, it is absolutely necessary to probe into the underlying causes of the same by employing relevant mechanisms so that those issues and difficulties are addressed well.

One of the most important possible causes behind the conflict will be steps taken by Manipur Government to survey reserved and protected forest areas and subsequent eviction of villages and settlers with impunity from the forest. It will not be correct to say that the State Government selectively targeted areas including hills inhabited by Kukis alone.

Hundreds of houses of encroachers in Waithou and Langol Reserved Forests, which have little forest cover, have been indiscriminately dismantled by the State authorities, rendering many homeless overnight. Being helpless and having no documents to support their claims, if any, the encroachers meekly collected whatever was left by the bulldozers and vacated the places.

In pursuit of its ambitious programme of War on Drugs, the Government of Manipur destroyed large tracts of poppy cultivation especially in hill areas mostly inhabited by Kuki-Zo community. It was noticed that forests have been indiscriminately cleared to allow poppy plantation. Who are the beneficiaries of poppy plantation and why do people take to its plantation instead of other crops ?

The report of the United Nations Drug and Crime, titled “Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2023: Cultivation, Production and Implications”, analyses data collected in Myanmar during the second growing season since the military takeover, showing an 18% increase from 40,100 to 47,100 hectares.

In Myanmar, the most significant increases were registered in Shan State, where cultivation increased by 20%, followed by Chin and Kachin, where it increased by 10% and 6% respectively. A targeted assessment also found indications of substantial opium cultivation in Sagaing, along Myanmar’s border with India (source: https://www.unodc.org/roseap/en/2023/12/southeast-asia-opium-survey-report-launch/story.html).

Manipur has also seen huge increase in the area of poppy plantation as revealed by the data of Narcotic and Border Affairs, Manipur Government. Out of 4305 acres of destruction of poppy plants in 2022-23, Churachandpur, Kangpokpi and Tengnoupal districts account for 1250, 1108 and 566 acres respectively, i.e. 68% of the total area under poppy destroyed.

This figure will be the tip of the ice-berg as several areas under poppy plantation are difficult to reach by the State authorities. It is obvious that large tracts of land has been brought under poppy plantation either by clearing forest or using the erstwhile area under shifting cultivation.

Clearing of forest is also proved by the decline in forest cover in Manipur reported by Forest Survey of India, ie, 249 sq km between 2019 and 2021. The loss is attributed to shifting cultivation, which may include poppy plantation.

Manipur Government is convinced of the link between poppy plantation and loss of forest cover, and it ordered extensive survey of both Reserved and Protected Forests in the hills. Such initiative of forest survey by the State Government was not seen kindly by the Kuki-Zo community in general and their chiefs in particular as there has never been a clear-cut demarcation between such forests and land owned by the Kuki-Zo Chiefs as per their tradition and customs.

There was controversy surrounding the Khoupum- Churachandpur Protected forests as the procedure adopted in the declaration of the forest as protected. Such protests by the people were not heeded by the State.

The State Government went ahead with the eviction of a new settlement of K Songjang village, inhabited by Kukis, in the Khoupum Churachandpur Protected Forest on the ground that it came into existence recently in the forest area. This action of the Government sparked widespread protests by the Kuki-Zo community. There was clash between the security forces and protesters in Kangpopki on the 10th March, 2023.

It will not be hard to find a link between the discontent of the Kuki-Zo community and steps taken by the State Government to survey forest land in the hills, as the latter was seen as a direct threat to the customary rights over the land of the Chiefs of Kuki-Zo tribes. There is a complete discordance between the perceptions of rights over the land.

In case it is conceded that the land comes under Reserved and Protected Forests, the Kuki-Zo community especially the chiefs stand to lose economically, socially and politically. Over the years, when land is acquired for infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, railways, they have been recognized as owners and huge sums were paid as land compensation.

Further, huge income as landlord or as planters of poppy will be lost due to the identification of hills and forests as reserved and protected forests. It is, therefore, natural that forest offices were the targets of the protests by the Kuki-Zo community whenever there was protests.

As many as 16 forest offices located in Kuki inhabited areas were targeted and burnt on a single day on May 3, the day on which ATSUM organised tribal solidarity march. (source: https://e-pao.net/ge.asp?heading=15&src=170523).

Of all the factors behind the present conflict in Manipur, the act of forest survey and eviction of Kuki habitations from the forest by the State Government is the most critical. It is a question of existence for the Kuki-Zo community. They have been living inextricably with forests for years together, and their identity and life are linked to forests.

Manipur Government may not be legally wrong to initiate action for preservation of forest for the sake of environment and sustainable lives of the people, and to stop illegal poppy plantation. However, stirring up hornets’ nest without second thought will attract deadly sting.

That is what we see today. If the State Government is sincere to resolve the conflict, it should take the horn by its bull-talk about rights of Kuki-Zo people over forest land. Talking about illegal immigrants, border fencing and Free Movement Regime and narco-terrorism will not bring anybody close to the solution as they are far from the present reality.


* Oinam Nabakishore Singh IAS (Retd) wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on 05 April 2024

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