Book Title: Development Aggression: Rethinking India’s Neoliberal Development in Manipur
Published by: Yaol Publishing Ltd., London
First published: 2021
Author: Jiten Yumnam
Volume: Paperback (5.5″ X 8.5″), 248 pages
Price: Rs. 450 (South Asia)
What is development? Meetei or Manipuri language word for the term ‘development’ is chaokhatpa. The term chaokhatpa, from economic perspective, has positive connotation. It would mean positive changes. Changes had to be visually manifested in the growth of economic infrastructures, institutions of learning and earning, transport and communication, entertainment and recreations, tourism, and many more. In that sense, the term chaokhatpa is closely associated with other terms such as ngahong-chak-hongba (abundance of food), watta-padaba (prosperity), and lan’gei-thumgei (wealth). All these terms have corresponding objective material reflection. The ambition to fulfil these conditions is culturally reflected in the worship of deities such as Emoinu (goddess of wealth), Hikubi Yaikubi (goddess of gems), Khamlangba (god of iron and other metal industries), market goddesses, Ngāreima (goddess of fish), Phouoibi (goddess of agriculture), Pisatao (goddess of skill and technology), Silreima or Silleima (goddess of work and occupation), Thumleima (goddess of salt), and so on. From all this, it becomes very clear that everyone wants chaokhatpa. But the question is, how to achieve it? Generally, people expect the Government to fulfil it. They consider the Government is the legitimate source and agency of chaokhatpa because it enjoys the political mandate of the people and has the power to dispense or utilise resources. The Government jumps in and adopts liberalisation, globalisation, and privatisation as harbinger of chaokhatpa. Have the expectations been fully fulfilled? Is it going in the right direction? Before going deeper into it, let me briefly refer to the broad Marxist understanding of development.
Development, according to the Marxists, “refers to that process of change in which something becomes more and more concrete and mature, as opposed to the simple succession of one thing passing away as another comes into being or the transition of a thing into something else in the course of the struggle of form and content and interchange of cause and effect.” Historically, development is continuous. Beginning from the ancient time, development follows a linear progression from one mode of production to the next level, e.g., from tribal simple mode of production to complex modes such as feudalism and capitalism. According to this principle of change, Manipur is in a particular mode of production. It exemplifies a particular phase of development. But the point is to know the character of this phase. In this regard, some pertinent questions may raise. Where do we live? What is the historical context? What is the form of development? Who decides the policy of development? For what purposes? Whose benefit? At what cost? Is there equal distribution of wealth? Does it serve the need of all without discrimination and exploitation based on class, creed, gender, age, region, and nationality? Before going deeper into the matter, it is worth reminding that ‘development’ follows the progression from a phase to another and that the transition from an older phase to a new phase is the result of the breakdown of the older phase. In that sense, development never stops. This theoretical postulation must not be confused with the neoliberal concept of ‘development,’ which is extensively used to cover up capitalist loot, oppression, subjugation, exploitation, and destruction.
What is wrong with the general perception of development? Put it simpler, the term ‘development’ has been hijacked by imperialist propaganda. They extensively use the terms capitalism, capitalist projects, free trade, and development interchangeably. The Marxists, since the mid 19th century, while recognising the progressive phase of capitalism development in a given historical context, are critical of the exploitative and destructive tendencies of capitalism in the long run. According to the Marxists, capitalism is “the socio-economic system where social relations are based on commodities for exchange, in particular private ownership of the means of production and on the exploitation of wage labour.” The capitalists own the means of production and exploit the rest for profit, leading to poverty and misery of the majority. It is also responsible for the promotion of colonialism, imperialism, and wars of aggression. Capitalism, therefore, is not development-oriented towards equality and proportional progress. From this, it became clear that the Marxists ideology of development and policy making and those of the neoliberals are conflicting. As Marxists could not win victory over capitalist regimes, the neoliberal propaganda of “capitalism as development” remains dominating and widespread, influencing many. While the communists strive for a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system, in the late 1980s, a new term “sustainable development” was accepted and promoted by the United Nations to address certain negative threats to the planet earth (including humanity) by the unrestrained aggressive tendencies of capitalism. Conceptually, sustainable development means “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It focuses more on the goal of “socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable economic growth.” It was followed by a series of UN Conferences, Millennium Declaration, and so on, which culminated in the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. There are 17 SDGs that combined to constitute “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.”
One may use the Marxist concept of capitalism and the UN SDGs as the theoretical, conceptual, and objective yardstick of assessing the objectives, processes, strategies, impacts, and potential consequences of capitalism or imperialist globalisation. This method can be applied anywhere, including India or Manipur or North East India. Jiten, in his book, entitled Development Aggression: Rethinking India’s Neoliberal Development Model in Manipur, uses the provisions of the UN SDGs to study the situations prevalent in Manipur and North East India. Before going through Jiten’s book, it is advisable to have a holistic glimpse of India since 1947 from a Marxist perspective. Let me put it in this way:
Present India is an empire created by the Indian rulers after 1947. British direct rule had lapsed in British India. But a new empire was created by expanding colonial British India. This new empire is a semi-colonial and semi-feudal entity. It is an entity ruled by a landlord-capitalist state. This State facilitates penetration by imperialism. Imperialist penetration is encouraged because those who formed the State have capitalist orientation and collaborates with imperialist powers. Therefore, the power of imperialism and the survivals of feudalism have continued in India. Foreign capital has expanded while fundamental land reforms have not been carried out in the landlord dominated areas. With the decline and the fall of the Soviet Union, US imperialism has been able to extend its dominating position in the world. Through the policies of neo-liberalism, imperialism is expanding into the industrial sector while at the same time de-industrialising the economy. Big landlordism holds sway in large parts of the countryside, the capitalist path of development is leading to the peasantry being pauperised, rural indebtedness is leading to suicides. The multinationals have begun to deepen their penetration into agriculture. Public assets are being privatised, and the social sector is being eroded in health and education, which has led to the worsening of the conditions of the working people. Meanwhile, the ruling classes continue the path of the subjugation of the nationalities. They are expansionists and wanted to keep more territory under their control. Therefore, they annexed territories into India. They use the tactics of iron and carrot to fulfil this objective. This is particularly marked in Kashmir and the north-eastern states where military rule is a norm. Meanwhile, the ancient caste system still oppresses the people, while the capitalist path of development creates new forms of caste oppression. The tribal peoples are under great pressure as their natural resources are being plundered by imperialism and the big bourgeoisie, which is leading to their displacement and destitution.
It is against the backdrop of the historical context cited above that one needs to locate Manipur and the North East. India annexed Manipur in 1949. Manipur has been governed in the manner that served the ‘national’ agenda of the Indian State. The ‘national’ agenda has been capitalist-driven. The Indian Constitutional Schedule 7 empowers the Indian State to enjoy a monopoly on political sovereignty, natural resources, currency, transport and communication, defence, international or foreign relations, etc. Economically weak territory such as Manipur could not withstand the pressures to depend on the Indian State, and thus, compelling the former to compromise the nominal limited internal autonomy granted by the Constitution. Is it for good or worse returns? For whom and by whom? Are the people of Manipur enjoying social equity in chaokhatpa, ngahong-chak-hongba (abundance of food), watta-padaba (prosperity), and lan’gei-thumgei (wealth) without discrimination and compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs? The spiritual endeavour can have meaningful material impacts when people practically desist from individual opportunism and collectively assert for the creation of a favourable condition where individuals can have a fair share for the present and future. Should people remain misguided by the bourgeoise notion of development? Will most people remain seeking the divine blessing of their god or deities for personal wealth while not putting on efforts to understand the imperial assaults affecting everyone? Should people rush for individual glory while the context of systematic plunder and loot by powerful external forces suggest the need for collective efforts to fight for progressive growth and social equity?
The idea of development either used or misused by the neoliberal protagonist of India’s Act East Policy needs to be questioned for its various consequences. Jiten in his book questions the idea of development from the perspectives of the UN SDGs. It is an attempt to understand the capitalist-driven ‘development’ course in general and the Act East Policy in particular. He argues that the Act East Policy is a facet of India’s capitalist path that witnessed a turning point in 1991. Perhaps, in 1991, India adopted the capitalist structural adjustment program, also known as Liberalization, Privatization, and Globalization. Following this, India’s policy towards the North East has noticed a dramatic change. Since then, India has collaborated with international monopoly finance capitalists, also known as International Financial Institutions and multinational corporations, to explore and exploit the peoples, lands, natural resources, and markets of the North East. India has entered into a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements with monopoly-finance imperialists. The monopoly-finance imperialists are organized into various International Financial Institutions such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Investment Bank, Japan International Cooperation Agency, etc. The objective of these IFIs is to extract what the Marxists would term “super-profits.” Their ‘investment’ in the Northeast is carried out within the broader strategic framework of expanding market interests on the one hand and also to counterweigh China’s political and economic dominance in South and South-East Asia. They are fully backed by the Indian State which deploys forces and uses repressive laws. Therefore, there is a tendency of aggression in the name of development. Jiten terms it “development aggression.”
To substantiate his points, Jiten studies the patterns, implications, and impacts of various projects under the Act East Policy. These are organized into chapters such as (1) Act East Policy and IFIs Financing in Manipur and India’s North East; (2) SDGs Realisation in Manipur’s Context; (3) Oil Exploration Plan & Resistance in Manipur; (4) Mining and Indigenous Rights Concerns in Manipur; (5) Mega Dams and People’s Resistance in Manipur; (6) Rethinking Trans Asian Railway Works in Manipur; (7) Development Aggression, Militarisation & Implications in Manipur; (8) Controversies of 1200 MW Teesta III HEP in Sikkim; (9) World Bank Financing Concerns in India’s North East; (10) ADB Road Projects and Concerns in Manipur, and; (11) East Asia Summit: A Reflection on Relevance and Implications in Manipur. In each chapter, Jiten elaborates on capitalist projects, its impacts, and popular reaction. He argues that the projects are enforced by deregulation of policies, violation of natural rights and existing norms, manipulating information, bribery, and suppression of democratic voices. He studies the agenda and potential fallouts of new policies, acts, and rules such as the Manipur Hydro Power Policy 2012, North East Hydrocarbon Vision 2030, Mining Act Amendment, 2015, Draft Forest Policy of 2018, Draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020, and so on. He argues that extractive projects are enforced in a speedy manner using brute forces to extract super-profits at the cost of indigenous peoples’ rights and survival. It contributed to a never-ending cycle of conflict, violations, destructions, unrest, resistance, suppression, and militarization.
The better alternatives to the “development aggression,” Jiten suggests, are fulfilment of the agenda of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2015. He argues
Corporate plunder and loot in the name of development will never contribute to improving the economy of Manipur. On the contrary, the destructions, deprivations, exploitations, and repressions to defend extractive industries and other unsustainable projects pursued in the pretext of development will add to and complicate Manipur’s ongoing multi-layered conflicts. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007 has outlined that “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making on matters affecting their rights, through representatives elected by them in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own decision-making institutions.” Furthermore, “States shall consult and obtain their free, prior and informed consent.”
Jiten strongly advocates the rising faith worldwide in the present time that indigenous rights and UN SDGs are necessary and complementary to growth, progress, social equity, and peace. Theoretically, the Government is obliged to fulfil this agenda. He appeals, “Government should recognise the indigenous systems’ role in addressing the problems related to biodiversity, cultural diversity, poverty, conflict resolution, food, ecology, and climate change.” The government’s roles must be in creating sustainable development models in pursuing development processes. He demands “an alternative development discourse, sustainability, respect of human rights, and accountable form of development processes.” He also called on mass organisations and individuals to raise voice against destructive projects. He called on the people to “unite against the North East Hydrocarbon Vision 2030, New Land Use Policy, 2014, Manipur Hydropower Policy, 2012, Mining Amendment Act of 2015, Draft EIA Notification, 2020, and other policies that buttress development aggression.” He expresses optimism that there can be alternatives to development aggression.
Note: This review is a slightly edited version of the author’s foreword of the book Development Aggression: Impacts of India’s Neoliberal Development Model in Manipur, authored by Jiten Yumnam, published by Yaol, London.
 Chaokhatpa also has a positive moral and behavioural connotation, such as socially expected moral or ethical or civilized behaviour.
The writer is an independent researcher, Ph. D. in History from the University of Delhi and a former fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla