Hill and Valley Categories
The raging storm over the allegation of extremely disproportionate fund allocation between the valley and hills in Manipur should trouble everyone with a conscience. One of the several unsubstantiated figures shared widely on social media says that in the last five years, of nearly Rs. 22,000 crores plan funds available, the hills received less that Rs. 500 crores. Percentage wise this would translate to over 97 percent for the valley and the remaining less than 3 percent for the hills. This is atrocious if true but difficult to believe in any case. It is equally difficult to believe such awards of “demands for grants” would have been allowed blindly by the Manipur Assembly of 60 MLAs of whom 20 are from the hills with several cabinet ministers as well. Not any more believable is that the plans for these fundings would have gone unchallenged in the bureaucracy, a majority of the top leadership positions of which are occupied by bureaucrats with hills roots, given the nature of the reservation policy at the national level. What exactly is the real picture then? In an earlier article I had called for a white paper from the government to explain and clarify this matter, and I still stand by this demand for such a conscientious official response. The government has made a press clarification on the matter today, but this should not suffice.
I did on my part do some serious relook, and as a start got hold of an Assembly booklet compiling and listing the “demands for grants” presented in the Manipur Assembly during the current year. To my initial surprise, the grants are indeed grouped under the categories of “Hill” and “Valley”, and the “Valley” category does get a disproportionately larger share, although I have not taken the trouble to tabulate to see precisely if these differentials add up to all wildly viral allegations on the social media. It however did not take long to figure out how extremely misleading this way of categorisation is for several different reasons.
Imphal as Valley
Before coming to the most important ones, here is an obvious case, and one which caters to a popular misconception. The capital city of Imphal is included in the “Valley” category. This is flawed, for Imphal works at least in two tiers. First, it is the capital of a State and therefore would have to have all the necessary infrastructures of a capital, the Assembly, High Courts, Secretariat etc. In fact, a good percentage of the infrastructure expenditures for Imphal has been towards building and upkeep of living quarters for non-resident employees. Imphal also has two administrative districts, Imphal East and Imphal West, and they are under a different layer of administration. Hence what really should have counted as “Valley” allocations in the two categories of the “demands for grants” should only have been what are left aside for the administration of these two districts.
A parallel should illustrate. Take the case of New Delhi although this will be even more compound, for the city is also the National capital besides being the capital of the State of Delhi. The latter also is divided into 11 administrative districts. Here too, the fund allocation for the National capital, Delhi State capital and for the different districts, cannot simply be clubbed as New Delhi’s budget. The same logic would apply to any other States of India. Expenditures for the capitals and districts cannot be with any justice compared on the same scale. Surprisingly, this is virtually what is being done in the categorisation of “Hill” and “Valley” in Manipur, which is one of the reasons for the seemingly disproportionate allocations between these two categories. If Imphal as the capital of the State were to be kept aside as a separate category, and just the remaining districts were to be compared, the differences would not be much, if at all. We hope the government is listening and makes the necessary rectifications in this categorisation, especially in the wake of the current storm, so as to prevent future misinformation, misinterpretation or deliberate disinformation and subterfuge by vested interests, as the case may be.
Hill, Valley Salaries
One of the biggest expenditure heads in the “demands for grants” is “salary”. Here too, at first glance, for reasons that seem confounding and meaningless, the same categorisation norm or “Hill” and “Valley” is followed. “Salary” comes under non-plan expenditure, but it is illustrative of the larger pattern hence I am picking it as an example. Since by “salary” the reference is only to government salaries, Imphal as capital again has a major share of it. But would this mean these jobs in government institutions in Imphal are a monopoly of the valley? Not so, not even in the remotest imagination. Manipur follows a reservation norm in government job recruitment by which 31 percent job vacancies are to be filled by members of the Scheduled Tribes, 40 percent is for non-reserved, 17 percent for OBC, 10 percent for the economically backward, and 2 percent for Schedule Castes, and therefore the employees’ strength in any government office, in the valley or hills, will reflect this reservation norm by and large with some possible anomalies here and there. How in the world did the Manipur government think expenditure heads such as “salary” can be categorised as “Hill” and “Valley”?
The pattern is also to put any investments which overlaps hills and valley under the “Valley” category. Maybe these were done solely with the purpose of accounting conveniences, but the linearity of vision with which these data are now being interpreted by many, including a section of academia, without ever trying to put them in context, is simply incredible. If such interpretations are a result of inability to comprehend, it is pitiable to say the least, and if done to deliberately twist the subject away from reality, nothing can be more sinister. If as I have suggested, Imphal were put in a different category and then hill districts and valley districts were compared, say for instance, Ukhrul and Thoubal, or Churachandpur and Bishenpur, Chandel and Kakching etc., things would be a lot more sober. Such comparisons can be at the block and village levels too. Comparisons between the districts would also have made more sense if the terms and scales used were investments in the tertiary sector such as village roads, market sheds, new schools, Anganwadi centres etc. and not the larger overlapping ones.
Other than accounting convenience, there is one other possible reason, and perhaps more important, for this rather ridiculous categorisation of the fund allocation under “Hill” and “Valley”. This probably has to do with avoiding complications in the area of jurisdiction of the Hill Area Committee – Manipur Assembly’s unique feature of an “Assembly within the Assembly”. Since the assent of the HAC is necessary for any decision of the Assembly in matters pertaining partially or wholly to the hill areas, if most or all expenditures of the State were to be seen as overlapping “Hill” and “Valley”, as indeed they do, the HAC would become an additional chamber of the Assembly having an independent say in practically every decision of the Assembly, which is ridiculous and unthinkable. No harm in the Manipur Assembly having a second chamber, but this has to be a representative body as well as constituted of independently elected or nominated legislators as in the Rajya Sabha, and not just comprised of hill MLAs of the first chamber.
As an instance of the necessary overlapping of issues and developmental programmes consider this. Just as a landslide along the Imphal-Dimapur road at Tadubi would affect the valley not just the hill, a culvert collapse at Sawombung would affect the Ukhrul district as much as populations along the Imphal-Ukhrul road in the valley. Hence, the tendency to put every overlapping project head under the “Valley” category was probably originally meant to avoid this unnecessary complication of HAC’s over-vision over all Assembly decisions, because in the end practically every decision of the State government would wholly or partly, directly or indirectly, have a bearing on the hills as well as the valley for the two together form a single State and are also part of an integral geography. Indeed, in the “demands for grants”, expenditures entered clearly under “Hill” are only allocations for ADCs, watershed management programmes, consumers affairs, a good part of transmission and distribution of power, some salary components in the medical sector, rural development etc. This being so, earmarking on paper of less than 3 percent funds under the “Hill” category becomes understandable, though in real terms the amounts that actually went to the hills would be multiple times more. This being so, maybe it is time to ask the Parliament for an amendment to Article 271-C. Give the HAC more legislative power if necessary, but the nature and limits or its jurisdiction must be made distinct and unambiguous to all extents so that no mischievous and damaging interpretations can ever again be given to the effort to avoid the kind of complications I have outlined above.
The other charge of valley centricity of the Manipur administration is the concentration of government institutions in the valley, unmindful again of the fact that these are in the capital Imphal not anywhere else in the valley. But there is also a logic why things may have happened this way. When a State could afford only one important institutional public facility, it would be most logical to have it at a central place so it is accessible with least difficulty from all its outlying districts, and Imphal becomes such a central gravitating point. Hence if JNIMS is in Imphal, as and when provisions for more such institutes become available, they can be spread out to the districts, and indeed, another one is coming up at Churachandpur. RIMS, CAU etc., are Northeast regional institutes and not Manipur government projects. The case of the state-of-the-art, artificial turf hockey and football grounds in Imphal have similar logic. These are not facilities open to the public and are reserved for State and National level tournaments. These restricted grounds are hence as remote to players in Imphal as they are to somebody from a distant village. This being so, the most important grounds to hone skills of young talents remain the local playfields in the valley and in the hills.
But these perceptions of discrimination, right or wrong, must be treated as serious by the government, and a comprehensive white paper to put things in perspective brought out at the soonest. If the allegations are false, let all the damaging noises be put to rest forever. If there are substance in them, then the government must make course corrections. In the meantime, the government should also consider the idea of autonomy for its different regions, namely the hills and valley. The hills must be given the opportunity to overcome their sense of being discriminated, and equally, it is time now for the valley to also have the opportunity to end their sense of siege and be given the right to be themselves in their traditional home ground.
Creative asymmetry needed
All said, maybe there is a need for evolving a mechanism for asymmetric investment in the hills and not by any standard scale of proportionate funding pattern. The terrains are much more difficult than in the plains. Roads built for instance would need much more reinforcement in the hills because gravity makes them much more prone to landslips and landslides; human settlements are much more spread out and thin too, making it difficult to decide a central point where government infrastructures can be most beneficially placed and most accessible by all etc. In James Scott’s words, the pathway friction to development in the mountains are exponentially greater than in the plains, and probably development in modern terms between the two can never be matched completely. The larger aim therefore should be for human development, some of the indexes of which are life expectancy, child mortality, nutrition, quality education and a general sense of wellbeing, rather than matching of material advancements. A six-lane highway may be within reach in the valley but would need much more for it to be actualised in the hills. If all parties were to acknowledge this and work together to overcome the challenges to the extent possible, probably there would not have been any need to communalise, as many so eagerly and gleefully do on the free for all arena of social media. Maybe there is something here to learn from the generosity evident in the Marxist dictum of: “to each according to his need, from each according to his ability.”
In this short assessment of this burning issue of the State, I have not touched on the part played by corruption which continues to account for the siphoning off of a great part of the developmental fund entitlements of the State into individual pockets, accentuating the problem. My reason is, corruption is ethnicity neutral which is also probably why hate mongers do not find it interesting in their divisive campaigns as well.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author