Tragedy of the Manipur’s Mountain Population: Withdrawing traditional institutions and capturing of formal institutions

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By Amar Yumnam

I have always maintained that
anything – whether develop
ment, administration, environment – would be unreal and incomplete in Manipur unless the mountains are covered in the inclusive sense; when I say mountains the mountain population are necessarily included. Whenever we articulate on anything, the people should necessarily constitute the spoke, wheel and hub of the argument.
Pondering over the contemporary mountain scenario of Manipur, we may recall what Othello said: “When I have pluck’d the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again.” I am afraid a very similar kind of scenario prevails in the mountains of Manipur where the common people are like the plucked roses. Whenever we think of the people and their level of well-being, we must always start from the poorest of the poor and weakest of the weak. This is the non-missable assertion of Rawls in his 1972 classic Theory of Justice. There are still villages and quite many households untouched and unkissed by any modern development facets and thus devoid of any hope for future in the mountain areas of Manipur. The population in these households are the ‘roses’ meant by Othello.
One unmistakable social change, not necessarily positive, happening in the mountains of Manipur with deepening implications during the last two decades or so is the emergence of poverty and widening inequality. Traditional institutions are such that the property rights are ill-defined in these areas of Manipur. While absolute equality is unachievable, emergence of acute and chronic relative poverty should never happen in these areas, given the traditional institutions. But this has now become a frightening social reality in these areas accompanied, as they are, by enlarging inequality. The very nature of the social and geographic characteristics in these areas are such that power is the main, if not sole, foundation of wealth and its accumulation. In recent years, this relationship has taken very unhealthy deepening with no democratic space for the ‘roses’. This has compromised the capability and orientation of the traditional institutions to address the issues of heightening relative poverty. This is happening in a context where the linkage of livelihood with the market is absolutely weak, if not non-existent. This implies that there is no easily visible signalling mechanism for what is socially happening in these areas; the facts are submerged at the cost of undocumented pains for the ‘roses’.
Now these are failures of the traditional institutions and the consequent emergence of acute and chronic relative poverty in a context where these should not occur, other things remaining the same. But we must also be aware of the existence of the state as the ultimate authority. If the traditional institutions have failed, why has not the state risen to the occasion so far? Has all these decades been marked by a complete absence of concerns, policies and programmes wherein the ‘roses’ could fit in themselves? The answer to both the questions would be negative. The state has indeed risen to the occasion, but the supplementary question is what has happened to it. It has not been enough or it has been made deficient. There have been concerns accompanied by policies and programmes but the majority of the ‘roses’ have not been able or have been made unable to fit themselves into these interventions.
We must have an explanation to both these phenomena – the incapacitation of the traditional institutions to attend to usual functions and the disabling of the ‘roses’ to harness the benefits of the interventions by the state. As stated above, power is a powerful and nearly sole means for garnering wealth in these areas as the linkages with the market are pathetically weak and the property rights are ill-defined. Couple these with the weaknesses in every sense of the modern state as it prevails and manifests in Manipur. These are facilitating milieu for capturing of both the traditional institutions and the sharing process of all the interventions by a powerful few. This is exactly what has happened in the mountain areas of Manipur. As the few powerful elites can accumulate their wealth surreptitiously and without participation in any production process, the productive capacity of the mountains has also experienced decline in recent years. The scenario is getting worse with the scope for relationship, mainly economic, with the rest of the world and the possible size of the booty expanding in the wake of evolving relationships with South East and East Asia. The few non-state oligarchs who have captured both the traditional institutions and the state interventions are now facing power struggles within while at the same time trying to consolidate their hold.
Since these are not encouraging pictures for social stability and long term social evolution, the time is now for clarity of interventions by the state. The driving principle of any policy and programme today should be as to how to make the ‘roses’ repossess and reaffirm their democratic space. There is imperative for increasingly linking the production and consumption processes in the mountains with the market such that a price mechanism evolves for signalling the direction of the economy as contrasted with the present scenario of the power elites capturing any positive fall-out of these processes. The challenge is tall but the rewards would be taller.

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