Manipur`s Missing Basics: Official Ennui and Public Morale

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

For those who call Imphal home, flying into this city after a long stay outside the state always presents a picture of paradox which makes such homecoming heart warming and depressing at the same time in equal measures. The place is home, so always sweet, notwithstanding its impoverishment and conflict torn predicament. Much of these political and economic conditions are beyond ordinary volition, therefore it is understandable, though not desirable, for the man on the street to think of coping and coming to terms with them, rather than expect immediate transformations. Though this involves without doubt a degree of resignation, in the ordinary citizen’s coping capacity there is a peculiar heroism. The kind of uninspiring, mundane, everyday heroism of the common man which few ever takes note of, but keen and sensitive observers of human destiny such as playwright Henry Miller celebrated in his play “Death of a Salesman”. It is however the abject lack of exercise of institutional volition, imagination and intent to draw up a grand plan to attempt lifting the place out of this terrible ennui which never fails to depress. Indeed, beyond the charm of ordinary life, Imphal also presents a visage of mental stagnancy of the officialdom.

If this is the impression the capital city of the state gives not just occasional visitors, but those who call it home, it anybody’s guess what the condition in the rest of the state would be like.

Nobody is expecting swank malls, shopping plazas, spiralling freeways, state of art underground metro railways and modern multiplexes to sprout like the place’s lush rain forest vegetation, but at least available infrastructure well-kempt, and well-maintained. Early risers of the city will vouch it has been ages since the streets of this city is seen swept. Such activities are rarities these days reserved only for occasions when political bosses from New Delhi are expected to visit the state. This is evident not only to early risers, for Imphal streets are choking dusty in the dry seasons and slippery and muddy in the wet seasons. The toppings of most of its roads too peel off every monsoon, atrociously bringing into view the unbroken loose pebbles (majri) as foundation beneath them, exposing the abysmal lack of quality control exercised while these roads were being laid or repaired.

Yet no contractor has ever been blacklisted or penalised, no chief engineer of responsible departments ever asked to explain, no minister dropped for such betrayal of public trust. It becomes just another extension of the organised robbery by the cabal holding or brokering the power levers of the state. It is such a shame that in this age of engineering marvels everywhere in the world, Manipur’s legions of engineering departments have not been able to come up with a solution to building roads that can last out a single monsoon. If it is not just the engineers at fault, it is even more surprising that a political will capable of pinning down the problem and introducing corrective measures have not come about in all these decades.

The biggest casualty of this obvious and visible dereliction of governance is public morale. In a rudderless state, the virtual absence of any semblance of public discipline so evident everywhere in the state today, is only to be expected.

Reams after reams of newsprint must have been spent by the state media in criticism of the government for its inability to provide the basics to ensure a decent life to its citizens. Amenities as basic as electric power and drinking water are next to missing in the state, and this has been so for years now. Yet, no official finger has been lifted to ameliorate the situation.

For year the state has been in the midst of a perennial power crisis, with most part of the state, including all of the capital Imphal except in its VIP areas, bereft of the wonder of electricity. With it, piped municipal drinking water too has become a distant memory. Today’s pre-teens and perhaps even teens probably would not even remember Manipur once had the luxury of electricity and clean potable water in the house, maybe not round the clock, but at least enough to make life not too difficult.

Today it is an entirely different story. The state is literally back to the pre-modern era when the only source of light in the house after daylight was the good old firewood hearth and candles.

Life is difficult for everybody without electricity and water, but it is practically impossible for those in the cities. In the rural areas for instance, thanks to greater proximity to nature, people can still fetch clean water from the rivers and springs, ponds and lakes. City dwellers on the other hand have little other than gutters and sewers.

Pace of city life and means of livelihood also demand stretching productive activity hours to well after nightfall. The material price for compromising these, especially in terms of work hours lost as well as affording alternative sources of these essentials, is nothing to trifle. For evidence, consider the way Imphal is managing to cope with the power and water shortage.

A way to start would be to take a stroll along the Paona International Market, in Imphal’s Paona Bazar where merchandise brought from across the border beyond Moreh are sold. A good 30 percent of these shops deal in home power generators, battery inverters, batteries, rechargeable torches, rechargeable lamps etc. Batteries and battery inverters have been always around, for the availability of power has never been adequate. But the generators are a new addition, and they are there in piles, clearly indicating that there is inadequate power available to consumers to even recharge batteries.

Consider now the costs, short terms as well as long. The generators are run on fuel oil, mostly petrol, but also kerosene and diesel. The cost of these fuels being such, power had from them would be much more expensive for the individual consumer. The aggregate of what the consumers as a collective pay would also be, without any doubt, substantive.

The losses are also in terms of man hours and work hours lost. The loss would also be about small self-employed businesses such as photo studios, Photostat shops etc losing customers and indeed facing bankruptcy. Burning fuel oil, we also know, emits greenhouse gases, and this too would have a cost not so trivial in these days of acute international concern about climate change. Perhaps the losses on an annual basis would be enough for the state to invest in fresh, efficient, clean power generation plants.

The story would practically be the same in the case of the non availability of treated piped municipal water. Like generators, all of Imphal knows, there are now private operators lifting treated water from municipality water reservoirs in improvised oil tankers and delivering them to individual customers. This too would obviously have an economics of its own, the aggregate of which would show a deficit in the consumer’s monthly budget, and in turn the state exchequer in the long run.

Maybe it would be worthwhile for concerned Manipur University departments, or research scholars probing relevant issues of Manipur to make an empirical estimate of the losses incurred to the state on account of this extraordinary situation. Maybe it should not be the Manipur University but the government itself which should institute such a research. We are sure it would reap immense benefits from it, and the government’s real benefits, there is no gainsaying, would ultimately be the benefits of the people by and large.

The moot point is, the government should wake up and see these administrative responsibilities as not merely welfare measures obligatory on a welfare state, but also as an economic exercises meant to save precious revenue.

Creativity and Corruption

In newspaper reports after reports the common man in Manipur has pronounced he is on the point of total collapse bearing the onerous and extraordinary burdens of life in the state. He is fatigued by violence and equally, perhaps even more, by official corruption. And yet, rather than responding to this popular will, both are on an ascendency. Both have become institutionalised and entrenched deep into the very fabric of the society, too deep for any easy solution. It will now need tremendous political commitment and will of those in position of power to set things right, but in equal measure, it will also need a general change in attitude towards these issues.

On the corruption issue for instance, it will need besides the political will to fight it, a general indifference or even contempt for the nouveau riche culture so rampant in the state today and all the vulgar display of wealth that come along with it. There are so many who have self-proclaimed their distaste for vulgar wealth, but it always turns out that this is more disguised envy than honest sensibility.

Wealth is good, and everybody should strive to be wealthy, but wealth has meaning so long as it is a measure of one’s worth and enterprise. There is absolutely no doubt that there are many who have become wealthy because of the worth of their abilities and entrepreneurial spirits. They also richly deserve the reverence and awe they have earned from everybody, rich and poor alike, in the state and outside it.

Wealth on the other hand becomes vulgar in the hands of those who everybody knows have not earned it by their sweat or enterprise. It is when this vulgarity ceases to be taken cognizance of intuitively as an object of shame that a society can be said to have lost its integrity, and indeed sanity. Increasingly this is becoming Manipur’s case. The more money somebody has, regardless of how it may have been earned, the more seems to be the respect society accords the individual. This being the case, everybody would be encouraged to earn money by whichever means possible. The easiest way to do this is to become part of the ever expanding net of corruption.

So many thinkers and writers, especially in the wake of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century Europe when the magnitude as well as attitude to wealth changed dramatically, have made penetrating observations on the spiritual “worth of wealth”. Henry James in his classic 1881 novel The Portrait of a Lady inferred that since lack of wealth seriously limits the actualisation of creative imagination, or even murders it, at the individual level the worth of wealth is as much as it is able to empower and give wings to this creative instinct. As to how much wealth should have a real worth, it also follow from this, will depend on the magnitude of the creative instinct that is called upon to given wings. Hence Ratan Tata seeking to build his Rs. 1 lakh car will need more to fire his creative imagination than another man of less ambitious imagination.

Delinking of this creativity from wealth thus becomes the threshold of vulgarity. Amongst Manipur’s nouveau riche, the extent of this link between wealth and creativity does not go beyond building mansions and rush for tons of gold jewelleries for their ladies to flaunt at wedding receptions. Alas what a pity!

If a delinking of creative need and wealth has led to vulgarity, in the case of violence, it is about delinking an equation for the opposite result. Violence, by both the state as well as the non-state, have been given legitimacy, as both with increasing impudence have come to claim the right to violent means to achieve ends. As the numerous commentaries by ordinary citizens on the affairs of the state have in unambiguous terms pronounced, these claims to “legitimate violence” by the two sides feed and fatten on each other, causing a frightening spiral of mayhem that is spinning out of everybody’s control.

Moreover, there is also an unending proliferation of self-proclaimed champions of justice claiming this right to “legitimate violence”, scaring ordinary men and women with threats of bomb attacks, killing and maiming people and declaring responsibility as if everybody should understand why these violent acts are the right things to do. The need today, as again the commentaries of the man on the streets have spelled out, is to unconditionally delegitimize violence.

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