Although it is worrying that some among Manipuris returning home from different cities in India have brought along the dreaded coronavirus, it is imaginable how relieved they and their near and dear ones would be now. It would not be very wrong to say this is an ongoing rescue mission, for indeed, many of these returnees, most of them young migrant job seekers, were as reported, in desperation as they have lost their jobs amidst the sudden lockdown and therefore their livelihood means in the big heartless cities. Many of them, as numerous fervent appeals to the government on local TV channels indicated, had also been turned out of their rented accommodations because they were unable to meet rent payment deadlines. Over and above these is the general racial indignity they were also exposed too. The jobs they have lost probably will not have a replacement in Manipur after the lockdown, but they must have weighed their options well and it would have to be sheer desperation which made them still want to return. A lot of those who have been brought back and others who want to be brought back are students whose college hostels and messes have shut putting them in big difficulties. The worry would also be on account of not knowing when the lockdown would end and life returns to normal. It is for instance heart wrenching to see groups of young girl students of nursing colleges in video clips they send to local TV channels appealing for help.
Yet there are still people who do not want them back for fear that they may bring the virus, self-righteously claiming this is in the “larger interest” of the state. What interest of a welfare state can be larger than the commitment that every life of its citizens matters, and that it is its duty to make all efforts to ensure nobody is left in situations of avoidable distress. Let these few facts be known so people are pacified: not all who return will have the virus; not everybody who contracts it will die (death rate is only about 3.5 percent as we are seeing); the ways of spread of the virus is known so spreading can be prevented by strict regimes of quarantines of those who may be carriers. The effort instead should be to retain the state’s green zone status outside of the quarantine area precisely by restricting the risk zones within the quarantine areas only. There are some risks no doubt, but alleviating the traumas of so many of our children and compatriots should definitely be worth many times these risks.
There is another strategy the government can think of. Encourage as many job migrants in distress now to remain where they are by extending them financial support for the lockdown period. Cost of living in most of the metropolises being high, this should be at least Rs. 10,000 a month. The actual expenditure of the government will be less, for it will only be the net expenditure after subtracting what it would have spent on their transport home and quarantine, were they to be brought back. But now this may be too late, for after four phases of lockdowns and the economy on the verge of collapse, it is unlikely they would be able to avail of the jobs they have lost long after the lockdown has lifted.
But beyond the immediate crisis, there are certain important questions for Manipur to reflect on. The first of these is, just how did so many job seeking migrant Manipuris find themselves stranded outside the state when the March 25 lockdown, now extended four times, began. The answer has to be the stagnant structure of the state’s economy which has undergone little intrinsic changes since the feudal times. The basis of state formation in places like Manipur in upland South East Asia, as James Scott pointed out, is their successful domestication of rice paddy and food surplus this brought. He even calls them quite catchily “Paddy States”. Indeed, Manipur’s state formation had the surplus primary sector of agriculture as its foundation. This structure of the economy for many reasons froze at the time modern economy came on its horizon, first with the arrival of the British and then Indian independence, and it missed the secondary sector of industries capable of generate goods and services outside of agriculture. Instead, the economy jumped straight to the tertiary sector of services alone, and this too essentially in the government sector where the number of jobs has a definite ceiling. Small and medium scale enterprises are now beginning to mushroom, but these have not matured or stabilised enough to generate enough jobs to absorb its expanding generations of job seekers, therefore the migration for jobs outside by a great segment of this section of population.
This being so, the responsibility now before the government is to reform the primary and secondary sectors of the state’s economy. Today the agriculture sector is under great strain unable to reach its potential on account of several factors, but primarily the failure to build support infrastructure, such as irrigation facilities, in spite of several decades of a full-fledged government department set up to shoulder this responsibility. The complete redundancy of the Mapithel/Maphou/Thoubal Multipurpose Dam and the Khuga Dam etc., are some stark reminders of this institutional failure. These projects were built at tremendous costs not just monitory, but in human and environmental terms. If these costs proved to be for a greater common good, as indeed was the promise when these projects were launched, there would have been some sense of justice, but it has been long since these original goals have been relegated to history. The authorities who were given charge of executing these ambitious projects probably were always confident that even if they blunder, they would ultimately be exonerated by the notorious shortness of public memory. Indeed, while few tear hairs in utter frustration and despair, the public seldom has punished the guilty in elections after elections, thereby perpetuating this brazen disregard.
In the state’s fledgling secondary sector, the stimulus will also have to be in terms of tertiary support infrastructure and extended liquidity in the form of easy loans etc. If opportunities can be thought of even in the midst of crisis, in the post COVID period the anticipation is, many established global manufacturers may begin looking away from China to base their manufacturing units. A closer study of how such a shift can be taken advantage of is a must for places like Manipur.
There is another segment of our population found stranded outside the state in the lockdown. These are college and university students in the thousands. If the current crisis had happened 30 years ago, probably there would have been several thousand more school students as well, but thanks to the emergence of several enterprising private schools giving quality education, amidst the continued failure of government schools, parents today are no more compelled to send their children out. But such a silent revolution has not been forthcoming in the higher education sector, hence the continuing exodus of college and university students to other states. Now that the COVID crisis has exposed this, the need is for a complete prerestroica (restructuring) in this sector, and the government must put its focus on efforts to ensure all colleges in the state in particular, other than a few, are functional again in practice and not just on paper and salary rolls. Let the government strictly introduce incentives, both positive and negative, for good performances as well as bad, by monitoring closely the working of our colleges and the actual tangible results they show.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author