Water Crisis in Manipur: Dialogue of the deaf

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By Amar Yumnam

I have been to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla more than once in the past. I was there very recently too. In the earlier visits, the relative social and economic performance of Manipur and Himachal Pradesh did not strike me hard. But in the latest visit there I was really pained by the feeling of relative non-performance of Manipur and the absolute lack of evolution of thinking for contextual application for solution of problems. Home is one place whose thoughts occupy one’s mind everywhere one is. With the emergence of the Internet gathering information about home is all the easier now.

It was during the latest visit to Shimla that the news about water scarcity and the ministers visiting places (whatever) came out. It has also come out that a minister has also blamed the Global Warming as responsible for the current water scarcity in Manipur. Looking at the way ministers visit places and make statements on the crisis, I cannot help referring to the term “dialogue of the deaf”. A young French economist, Thomas Piketty, has just come out with his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century examining the historical trend and evolution of distribution trajectory in the development process and the social implications of these; this book just published this year is already being seen as the most significant one since the publication of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money of John Maynard Keynes in 1936. All the academic debates in the area of distribution so far are labelled as ‘dialogue of the deaf’ by Piketty due to the “Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact”. Though he uses it in a different context, the behaviour of the ministers look like indulgence in bluffer rather than an attempt for evolution of a long term solution to the problem and thus avoid recurrence of water crisis in the future. It has never occurred to them that some concerned intellectuals have been raising the question as to why water availability is a problem in a land with one of the richest rainfalls in the world, and the public have been voicing their unheard grievances for more than a decade on this issue. Francis Fukuyama in his 2011 book on The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution writes: “The ability of societies to innovate institutionally ….. depends on whether they can neutralise existing political stakeholders holding vetoes over reform”. In the case of India as a whole, we have never seen such a massive engagement of academicians and intellectuals anywhere in the world interested on Indian issues like the one being seen in the ongoing elections. But, in the case of Manipur, even the acute water crisis has not evoked a character of responsiveness among the political leadership of the land and people. Is it a case that manipulative politics has always made it possible to reap personal capital at a rate much higher than the expansion of social benefits? Is it a case that the accumulated experiences of the people over decades about the absolute weaknesses in social and economic facilities have made them unmindful of lapses of governance and instead treat these as normal in any society of expanding population? But the way poverty and inequality are evolving in both the valley and the mountains of Manipur are such that we cannot remain unconcerned. Let me quote Piketty here again: “The principal destabilizing force has to do with the fact that the private rate of return on capital .. can be significantly higher for long periods of time than the rate of growth of income and output…The inequality … implies that wealth accumulated in the past grows more rapidly than output and wages. This inequality expresses a fundamental logical contradiction. The entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labour. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future. The consequences for the long- term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying, especially when one adds that the return on capital varies directly with the size of the initial stake…”.

But the responsibility of the governance of Manipur to the people of Manipur has two important components. First there is the responsiveness to the issues facing the land and people of Manipur. We cannot allow the past governance behaviour devour the future of the land and people of Manipur. Second, there is the responsibility to enable India to meaningfully respond to what Stuart Corbridge, John Harriss and Craig Jeffrey have just raised in their just published book titled India: Economy, Politics and Society: “..the way in which India’s position in the world changes over the coming years will certainly be influenced quite fundamentally by the outcomes of the largely democratic trends of economic and political change, and of conflicts between social groups and classes..”

Now coming back to the prevailing water crisis in Manipur, we really need to be examining why such a scenario emerges at all in Manipur. Here we must necessarily move beyond the Honourable Ministers visiting the water supply points in the valley and make statements from there. We must accept the fact that the current scenario is only a reflection of the increasing fragility of the environment in Manipur and endeavour to get out of the scenario of absolute illiteracy of the government about environment in both action and verbosity.

The environment in Manipur is very fragile today. By this we mean that the capability of the environment to perform the traditional functions performed so far is weakening fast and it can reach a point of no return. This is because the forests in Manipur have absolutely declined both quantitatively and qualitatively. But why is it that this has not happened in Himachal Pradesh despite the closeness to a metropolis and economic and demographic expansion? This is despite the fact that the livelihood of the population is closely linked with the forests in both Manipur and Himachal Pradesh.

The explanation is to be found in the differential nature of the linkages between livelihood and forests. In the case of Himachal Pradesh, the maintenance of the forests has been linked with the continued assurance of environmental services as the sustenance of livelihood opportunities. In the case of Manipur, the livelihood opportunity of the common people has been linked extensively with the degradation of the forests. The absence of governance coverage, prevalence of both bureaucratic and political corruption, and the presence of powerful non-state agents have made the common people with no option but to yield to the short-term designs of these. Kenneth Kaunda had said that when the elephants make love, the grasses suffer, and when the elephants fight, the grasses suffer again. In the prevailing scenario of Manipur, the forests and the common people suffer in the absence of expansion of livelihood opportunities without depleting the forests. The governance should evolve a fitting response to the fragility of the environment in Manipur by addressing the livelihood opportunities of the mountain population. Visiting the Shingda Dam and blaming global warming are not responses to the crisis and its possibilities for repetition. The problem of water goes much beyond water itself. Is anybody listening?      

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