The matter of the Hill Area Committee, HAC, Amendment Bill, is once again centre stage, threatening to throw the state into chaos and mayhem, with All Tribal Students Union Manipur, ATSUM, demanding its introduction, and obviously passage as well, during the just concluded budget session of the Manipur Legislative Assembly. Friction over this is already palpable and hopefully it will not escalate. As all saw unfold, the government did introduce two HAC Amendment Bills, but they were modified versions of the one ATSUM and certain hill politicians were pushing for.
While we have no objection to the original HAC Bill’s introduction and being debated for passage, we do have strong reservation on the foundation this particular Bill was built on. It may be recalled, those pushing this Bill, which includes the proposal for a separate hill secretariat headed by a chief secretary ranked officer, claimed that this demand became necessary because the Manipur government has been consistently investing 97 percent of its budget in the valley leaving only 3 percent for the hills. This despite the fact that in terms of land area the hills form 90 percent of the state’s territory.
This claim is outlandish. No government would have allowed such a discriminatory allotment of funds. Even if in terms of numbers, the valley has always had an advantage in the state ministries, there were never any shortage of representation from the hills in any of them. Moreover, there is also the state bureaucracy which forms one half of the government’s executive in any Parliamentary democracy (the other half being the ministry). We also know in this sector, tribal and non-Manipuri officers have always formed the top rung leadership, and objections surely would have come to a 97 to 3 fund allocation in favour of the valley.
Concerned very much even as a lay citizen by the allegation at the time it was made last year, I did do a bit of research. I requested and got hold of the demands for grant document 2021-2022 from the Manipur State Legislative office to see if the fund distribution was indeed so lopsided between the valley and hills. What I discovered was revealing. In making this allegation, those behind it deliberately or otherwise, did not make a distinction between plan and non-plan funds. If this was deliberate, then this is nothing short of sinister. If the oversight was inadvertent, then this would be the height of naivete. We all also know that in state budgets, especially of poor states like Manipur, the non-plan budget is always overwhelmingly bigger than the plan budget.
What is noticed is that in the balance sheet of the state’s demands for grant document, almost all of the non-plan expenditures are put under the “valley” column, probably for accounting convenience, for a balance sheet cannot be expected to have different ledgers for each and every different kinds of expenditures, though in the finer accounting books these details would be there. Of the non-plan budget, we also know that a major part of it is reserved for salary and pension commitments. There are also other periodic expenditure heads such as office renovation, government vehicle purchases etc. For instance, if the government decides to buy new uniforms for the police to replace old stocks, this would be a non-plan commitment.
The balance sheet shows almost all government salary bills under the “valley” column, except those for departments which are exclusive for the hill or the valley – such as ADC for the hills and Panchayat for the valley. This again would be for accounting convenience. It would have made no difference if this expenditure was kept under the “hills” column too. Again, all government offices, in the valley or in the hills would have a mix of population from the hills as well as valley, approximately in proportion to Manipur’s job reservation norms. This would again be with the exception of those few departments which are exclusively for the hills or valley.
This being so, if the non-plan expenditure were left in a neutral column, and only the fund earmarked for the state’s plan budget were to be assessed, probably there would be little or no consistent disproportionality between the shares of the hills and valley. In fact, this is how it should have been done in the effort to see if there is any motivated fund allocation discrepancies. The minute non-plan expenditures are also factored in, it will no longer be possible to show any investment pattern, for the non-plan expenditures are about existing liabilities and commitments, not new investments at all.
A very simple way of distinguishing between plan and non-plan expenditure is to distinguish between productive investment in new or ongoing projects, and expenditures towards necessary and routine commitments such as maintenance of existing institutions, employees’ salaries, loan repayment etc.
Again, if only the plan funds were to be assessed, by identifying new projects launched in the hills or valley in any given year, the funds balance can, and would, swing either way from year to year depending on where new project are coming up. For instance, Churachandpur medical college is coming up this year, so in all likelihood the plan fund allocation balance will weigh a little more towards the hills, that is, if these expenditures are treated as hill expenditure. Likewise, there is an Imphal ring road being planned and as and when work on it begins, the balance again would shift.
What also needs to be noted is, after setting aside the non-plan fund commitments, the state’s plan fund is small. In fact, in recent years, most developmental schemes are Centrally sponsored and the state government is merely their implimenter. The Anganwadi scheme, the MGNREGA scheme and so many more are examples before everybody’s eyes. There is also a railway project in progress, and if Central project were to be counted in this assessment, surely investment ratio would swing heavily towards the hills, given that so far the railway work has been almost exclusively in the hills. But this would have been unfair, for the railway line, though much of it is in the hills, is still for the benefit of the whole state.
Similarly, National Highway and Border Roads constructions are now the responsibility of the Centre, and the state is left to handle only inter-district and village roads. But take even the case of the fund for building a road linking a district or subdivision with the capital Imphal. Take for instance the Imphal-Tipaimuk road if there were to be a plan for its upgradation. The expenditure head would probably in under “valley” because the PWD head office is in Imphal, but a greater length of the road would be in the hills, therefore a greater expenditure in building it too would be in the hills. None of these possible permutations are considered by those who came up with the figure of 97 to 3 ratio in fund distribution between the valley and hills.
However, tragically, this criminal falsity has already added more poison to what is already a toxic relationship between the hills and valley, and correspondingly, between the tribals in the hills and non-tribals in the valley. Despite the cacophony created by the noisy cabals of camp followers and pretenders on both sides, either playing victims or beating war drums, it is time for all sensible folks of this beleaguered state to sit back and take a more rational and honest look at the facts and figures. While hiding accounts in the absence of close scrutiny may be possible for some time, development projects which are out there in the open cannot be. Mentally recount the number of development projects already in progress or in the pipeline, and moderate the skewed visions which may have already resulted from the venom that mean and sinister people in leadership positions routinely leave as residue in the society.
But beyond this falsity and the animus generated by it in our society, it is time for all to also sit back and rethink the idea of autonomy. In view of the dangerously prevalent mistrusts and mutual suspicions between the hills and valley, let a comprehensive autonomy model be worked out. Let the hills have the autonomy they want, but let also the valley have the same autonomy. Each must no longer be left to be suffocated by the tantrums of the other, continually building up the residue of toxicity amongst all, threatening to ultimately explode and devastate. Such an eventuality may leave relationship between communities beyond easy repair. Right now, the approach is to call for the valley to be left open for everybody to claim as theirs at will, while restricting the hills for hills only. This logic may hold for some time, but obviously cannot forever, and especially now that the valley dwellers are increasingly beginning to feel the squeeze, leaving them in a siege mentality. The ascending voice among them for inclusion in the schedule tribes list, the demand for strict immigration policy, land protection law, population register etc., are just some indicators.
There is already an autonomy model being considered for the state in the wake of a search for a settlement to the Naga problem. Increasingly, the prospect seems to be for a two-pronged settlement for the Nagas – one for Nagaland and the other for Nagas in other states. Like it or not, while Nagas in other states may be unhappy about this, a great many in Nagaland seem to lean towards such a resolution. Understandably too, for if the sovereignty question is no longer under consideration, and the settlement is for a state within India, Nagaland is happy as Nagaland, buttressed and enhanced by the peace deal, and with no further complications in competition for resources that would come with more tribes joining it.
The proposed autonomy model for Manipur is to have three autonomous regions – North, Central and South. The Central would coincide with the valley while the North and South would be the hills. This model needs to be given more serious consideration by all. The three can remain as good neighbours – interdependent, but not sharing the same purse.
The valley needs not worry too. The Meiteis must shed some of their historical baggage. The times have changed and they must think of adapting to the new realities. Their traditional home ground, the Imphal valley, is comparatively small area-wise, but it is also resourceful. In this year’s state budget, the state’s own tax and non-tax receipts together was shown as about Rs. 3,000 crores. An overwhelming majority of this amount would have been raised from the valley. Given a little more expansion of tax base, and closer mobilisation of the existing base, this amount probably can be doubled or tripled. Again area-wise Imphal valley may be small, but let it also be remembered that it is two and half times the area of Singapore – a prospering city state. If those in the hills crave for some space for themselves they should be made entitled to it. However, the valley too should be allowed the space where they can be themselves without guilt.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author