The Union External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, speech at Tashkent yesterday, (Friday, July 16) during the summit on Regional Connectivity in Central and South Asia, that investments in this area are a national obligation made by countries to ensure “territorial integrity and sovereignty” should put into perspective the embarrassingly servile responses of our state leaders to the generous road connectivity projects offered to be initiated in Manipur. The message is loud and clear that such investments are part of the responsibilities of any government towards nation building and not any undue favour to anybody.
It may be recalled, in his recent visit to Manipur on July 12, the auspicious day of the Hindu festival of Rath Yatra, locally known as Kang, the Union Minister for Road Transport & Highways, Nitin Gadkiri, earned well-deserved accolades from the entire state for inaugurating and laying foundation stones for a total of 16 surface connectivity projects. The highway projects are to be developed with an investment of Rs 4,148 crores, covering a length of 298 kilometres in total, the minister announced. These highways will provide all-weather connectivity to this Northeast state with the rest of the country as well as India’s neighbouring countries, the ministry’s website has also specified later. It also said these projects will facilitate health care and emergency service to the remotest of the areas in Manipur as well as create employment and self-employment opportunities. It further confirmed the minsters statement in Imphal that another Rs. 5000 crore worth of projects in the state are also in the pipelines under the government’s Bharatmala Phase ll, and the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s new and special priority placed on the Northeast region.
Even if the timing makes it obvious that these announcements were with an eye on the forthcoming election to the Legislative Assembly in about seven months from now, nobody can complain about this generous gesture from which Manipur, regardless of political affiliation, will stand to benefit tremendously. However, it must be said that woefully, the distinction between a national objective and those of a ruling party often gets mixed up in Manipur. While the seasoned and astute politician Gadkiri was careful not to make political contents of his gestures obvious, and indeed stressed this was part of a larger policy of the Central government to uplift the Northeast region, it was the state’s own politicians who were openly projecting the event as a goodwill overture of the party they belong to, the BJP. Not only this, at least one of them was using this to claim a contrast between the BJP and their predecessors in power, the Congress, not realising in his naivety that if this were to be so, and that Gadkiri’s visit was a strictly party affair, he may have become guilty for using public resources for his party’s private matters, not too dissimilar to the ruling of the Allahabad High Court in 1975 against the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, which triggered the imposition of the reviled Emergency. Consider this scenario. If in the February 2022 State Assembly Election, some other party and not the BJP were to come to power in the state, would Gadkiri be prompted, or even be justified, to abandon the projects he announced on July 12? Certainly not. Let the distinction be clear then. While the Union Minister and his government must be praised for these projects, it is a government project awarded to the state on the ground that the state needs and deserves it, and also because it is in the national interest to do so, and no political party can justifiably claim exclusive proprietorship over them.
Quite unfortunately, the happy moment was also tarnished by a Pandora’s box the Union Minister opened in his speech on the occasion. He actually began with an account of his conversation with the Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, in the car on their way to the event venue from the airport. He said he asked the Chief Minister what the chief resources of the state were, and the bewildered CM answered “that is the problem”, implying that the state had no worthwhile resources. Obviously prompted by this, Gadkiri then went on to lecture what good governance is, opening with the line that would have embarrassed the CM as it did all of us: “You can donate eyes, but you cannot donate vision”, he said, implying that it is political vision which is in short supply in the state. He also lectured further on the components of a state or a nation’s economy saying in the case of India, roughly 12 percent of its economy belong to the primary agricultural sector, 24 percent in the secondary manufacturing sector and the rest in the service sector. If there is a problem, he also tutored, it is for the leadership to evolve means to overcome the problem, otherwise the very idea of leadership would lose its meaning. Furthermore, he hinted at insincere and dishonest work culture, official corruption, inability of the state government to handle its law and order problems, environment, land laws etc.
The fact is, Manipur is not without an economy or resources. Its primary agricultural sector has always been robust though now needing modernisation in methods and irrigation facilities, as well as in land use laws. Even before its economy got integrated into the larger Indian economy, this is why it held its own and did not collapse. What it missed was the industrialisation bus, therefore its manufacturing sector is extremely weak or non-existent. However, the state is now beginning to show immense promise in its people’s ability make up for the losses in the secondary sector with its expanding tertiary service sector. From traditional occupations such as motor mechanics to the current entrepreneurial boom in private healthcare, private school, food processing, media etc, people are discovering new ways of making a living and job creation. In the spirit of the adage that necessity is the mother of invention, there are many others who have successfully explored their entrepreneurial instinct to launch novel businesses and services which have guaranteed themselves and their associates good lives.
The fact on the ground is, the government can at best directly employ one lakh people, so where would the remaining 29 lakhs go other than into this uncharted territory left open to these tertiary services. No, this is certainly not where the problem is as the Union Minister said the CM told him. This, on the other hand, is arguably where Manipur’s future promise is, and the CM should have told him this in no uncertain terms. Under the circumstance, priority of any government investments, be it road and bridge building or establishing contacts with neighbouring foreign countries, should have the objective of burnishing and empowering this sector foremost in mind. There are plenty of examples of success stories on this front for the state to draw inspiration from. Many other economies which too have either missed or else have not done too well in the secondary sector have now compensated themselves with booming service sectors. Thailand with a tourism industry worth 60 billion USD is a prime example. Hong Kong, Singapore and more, have found their own niche services, be it healthcare, education, trading, offering trading platforms, information technology etc., to counterbalance what they missed in the manufacturing sector.
The most unfortunate part of the entire episode is the abiding sense the public at large is thoughtlessly encouraged to adhere to that the state is a helpless surrogate of New Delhi surviving on its charity, by a leadership not merely subordinate but slavishly servile to their party higher commands. With this leadership practically voiceless thus, it should not be a surprise that the state’s ordinary folks are often left on their own to fight to be heard sometimes in language of violence. A radical reorientation therefore is what is called for. Yes, the state is poor. Its economy missed the industrialisation phase, but as argued earlier, this needs not be the end of the journey. There are areas we are strong in, and identifying and building the foundation, and then giving wings for these sectors to rise with, gain confidence, and ultimately soar high with pride and dignity must be the responsibility as well as commitment of any sound leadership. The lack of such vision and commitment in Manipur is also what Gadkiri in his own way castigated. It did come as quite a surprise that he should have chosen a public forum to embarrass and humiliate his own party’s leadership in the state, but it can also be argued that his open disappointment was in his capacity as a Union Minister and not a BJP leader.
On the part of the CM, rather than the bovine response of “that is the problem” to Gagiri’s question as to where the state’s resources were, he should have spelled out the strengths and weakness of the state’s economy, and areas his government has identified as potential future sunshine areas. It must not be lost sight of that the budget Gadkiri’s ministry commands, is also every Indian’s budget, raised through tax money, direct and indirect. The investments Gadkiri’s ministry is making, most recently in the 16 connectivity projects in the state, are also part of the Union budget that Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman read out earlier this year and the broad developmental philosophy for the nation that that she spelled out. It is, as Union External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, put it in his speech at Tashkent, a mandated national obligation of all countries to ensure “territorial integrity and sovereignty”. He did flag alarm that foreign capital in national connectivity effort can put the borrower in deep dept burden, obviously with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, in mind, but that is another matter.
Gadkiri’s generous nod to investment plans in road infrastructure in Manipur, from this outlook is a vital effort on the part of the Government of India to build and secure national unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, therefore not at all a special favour to Manipur as our leaders with humiliating servitude and comical gestures concluded it to be. The state’s share of the Central government’s tax pool and its own resources may fall short of its annual budgetary estimates, but the approach should be to negotiate for assistance to fill these shortfalls in a dignified manner. The commitment should also be to work “with vision and not just see with donated eyes” in order that this resource gap is bridged progressively in future budgetary estimates. A reset of the work culture in the government establishment, in which the notion of “work”, in Manipuri thabak, which literally translate as “labour”, has been replaced completely by an idea of “privilege”, is vital today. Like all other occupations, a government job must also come to be once again associated with “work done” and proportionate wages earned for the contribution. Let it be kept in mind that this morphed work culture is also what was reflected in the disparaging commentary of Gadkiri in Imphal.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author