The demand from certain sections of the Meitei community for inclusion in the 5th Schedule of the Indian constitution which lists an ever-increasing number of recognized tribes in India, has many radically different stories to tell. Among others, it is yet another fallout of Manipur’s endemic hill-valley friction. Also quite obvious is that the tribal status in India is no longer defined by anthropological or sociological parameters, but by the cravings of the incentives accorded to this status.
In this way, the conditions for an ever-proliferating number of demands from different communities to be given the tribal status, and equally importantly, the reason for perpetuating this retrogressive social status by those who are already classified in this category, are inherent in the constitution itself. Let there be no dispute about this, what the section of the Meiteis are demanding is not the anthropological tribal status but the incentives that come along with it, just as the opposition to this demand by certain tribal student bodies in the state, is not to another community joining the tribal ranks, but the fear that there will be more competitors of these same incentives and governmental doles.
Both, are pathetic in equal measures, and in fact are the two sides of the same coin. This being so, the Meiteis should weigh their options more carefully on the idea of being included in this category, I will give some of my reasons why. On the other hand, those already in the tribals list should have been happy at the prospect of an expanded fraternity, but as we are witnessing, this is not exactly so. This is also indeed revealing. On the wide canvas, the harmatia (or fatal flaw of the Greek dramatic tragedy tradition), is the incentive structuring of the Indian constitution, any by this same analogy of the Greek Tragedy, those demanding as well as those opposing the Meitei’s inclusion in the ST list, would be more akin to the Chorus, wishing things would go their way, but with little agency to determine the ultimate destiny of the issue at hand.
I will not go further on whether the tribal status is good or bad for communities which are already listed in the 5th Schedule of the constitution, considering the sensitivity of the issue, but here are some of my reasons why the demand from a section of the Meiteis for tribal status needs deeper scrutiny, and I am not saying this out of sentimental reasons, but sound economics. It is a bad idea because the gains can only be short term, and the unseen prices paid for it will be far heavier. I have not done any empirical survey on the matter, so what I say here will be from general observations alone.
Whatever else may be said, the Meitei economy today is one of the most diversified, if not the most diversified in the entire Northeast region, including Assam, precisely because its growth has been intrinsic in nature determined by market needs of the times that have gone by, and not so much a result of pre-fabricated, one-size-fit-all economic models dropped from above. It may not be a monetarily rich economy yet, but there is little to disbelieve it would prove the most resilient ultimately.
Although today the introduction of government services, which are paid far above the wage value of the real market and protected and insured far more than jobs in the real market, is somewhat beginning to cause this traditional economy to lose its dynamism considerably, and those in the traditional professions are beginning to abandon what they were naturally gifted, to opt for government services, it still remains a multifaceted, battle-hardened economy. Look at the range of professions the community has nurtured. From cycle repair shops to excellent motorcar workshops, from watch mechanics and TV repair professionals to medical professionals of the highest standards, from traditional doll makers, truck drivers, weavers to media professionals and academics of repute. Blacksmiths, goldsmiths, gunsmiths, sportsmen, professional dancers, farmers, carpenters, masons, computer hackers… you name it and the Meitei society would have them. Many of these professions were groomed by survival needs, and most were and still are lowly paid jobs. Yet they have managed to survive as an economic tradition.
This range and reach could not have happened in a completely sponsored economy, which are essentially top heavy and bottom empty. The top is essential no doubt, but ultimately it will be the bottom which will makes the difference, once the sponsors retreat, and it will.
In fact, most of my criticisms of the Manipur government’s employment, therefore economic policies have been from this standpoint. No government has done much to build the place’s modern economy from this rich traditional foundation, by striving to enrich the environment in which this diversification can thrive and expand. This could be initiatives such as ensuring electricity availability, improving road and internet connectivity, extending easier credit facilities to prospective entrepreneurs etc. Instead, as mentioned above, today gainful employment has come to mean only garnering government jobs, and we all know government jobs have a very low ceiling, and in fact this ceiling has already been reached. Nonetheless, creating jobs in the government’s parlance continues woefully to be confined to raising more police constabularies etc.
Let those amongst the Meiteis who want the 5th Schedule tribal status do some serious rethinking. Even the OBC status they are now classified into should be treated as a temporary measure. Imagine how hollow and vulnerable an economy which has only government job holders and nothing else would be. There is much wisdom in the Meitei saying: “Phadi leitana imung keidouneida oiroi” (a household without phadi/mopping cloths, can never be complete).
The better approach should be to put in all the effort towards lifting the standard of school, college and university education in the state. In the school sector, though most government schools have sunk to the bottom, a private school revolution, initiated by pioneering contributions by Catholic missionary schools, in particular Little Flower, Nirmalabas and Don Bosco schools, has ensured competitive quality comparable to school education anywhere in India. The results of all India open competitive examinations, such as the NEET etc., where candidates from state schools are no longer far behind, are the testimony. If similar revolutions also come to happen in higher education, it is imaginable the optimism for the future that would result for everybody. At this moment, most government colleges in Manipur have students only on paper but not seen in classrooms. Similarly, teachers are there on payrolls and occasionally seen in protest rallies for salary hikes, but seldom in their college campuses. This dismal picture is also very much about a government which pretends to know education, puts up a show that it will recruit nobody but the best qualified and committed as teachers in its colleges, but in fell swoops now and then, takes sundry privately run colleges into the government fold together with their teaching and non-teaching staffs without bothering to first find out if all are qualified for the job. These takeovers of course are purchased for astronomical sums, and such underground markets are not expected to care if they end up condemning generations of students, so long as those machinating these lucrative transactions are made tycoons, especially before an election.
There are some very exceptionally high performing private colleges. Indeed one of the highest NAAC rated colleges in Manipur is a government aided-private college, Catholic missionary run Don Bosco Maram. We do hope it too grows more in stature and infrastructure to qualify to be given the status of a university, and in the process do the yeoman service of ushering in a revolution in higher education, much as LFS and DBS did in school education, the rich benefits of which the state is reaping today. As dreamers, we do wish such revolution becomes a reality and a magical transformation towards quality education comes about to lift our colleges and universities to be amongst the all-India merit-ranked institutions released each year.
In conclusion, the best possible scenario would be for education to empower job seekers in Manipur to feel confident that all doors to government jobs, including its topmost, are within their reach, but even these top jobs must be seen as an attractive option, but not the ultimate. They must be made confident that the field is much larger. There are already some welcome signs. Among these is the fact six from the state cracked the UPSC conducted Civil Services examination this year from recruitment to the Union government’s top jobs, a prospect that had all along seemed to remote. Equally, if not more encouraging is the growth in the number of entrepreneurs who decided not to be just job seekers but job creators. Let it be remembered that it is the growth in number as well as respectability of the latter class of jobs which will be the solution to unemployment, for the number of government jobs has a definite ceiling. The growth of private entrepreneurship will of course need official regulation for it is known they can get exploitative of labour. The government must routinely fix wage standards for both the organised as well as unorganised sectors of this economy. In recent times for instance, the plight of nurses in the booming private health industry came to the fore because of protests. Such anomalies must not be allowed, and a proportionality must be maintained between the revenues earned by these enterprises and the salaries their employees are made entitled to.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author