Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

In the entangled hill-valley friction, where should the interests of valley end and those of hills begin in an integral geography

Only an Unjaundiced Assessment of Hill-Valley Disparity Will Help Bridge the Gulf, Physical and Psychological

Set a juggernaut rolling and it rolls on virtually out of control, needing a great deal of effort to put it to rest, if at all possible. Otherwise, the juggernaut would roll on until it loses all its kinetic energy on reaching a point of no energy differentials, but after possibly causing big damages crushing or maiming all within its path. Even then, the hurts from the damages would remain, and those who wish to continue pushing their false agenda can again reawaken the issue and set into cycle the same juggernaut of falsehood again till it exhausts its energy yet again, but after causing more damages on the way. The old story of the hills of Manipur getting less than 2 pc of the state’s budget each year is one such. Despite many clarifications on why this is not so, and documentary proofs to the contrary made public, it gets raked up over and over again on different forums.

To very briefly put records straight, there is the openly accessible document of “Demands for Grant” which the Manipur Legislative Assembly compiles into a book each year. Otherwise, these Demands for Grant of every government department are closely reported in local newspapers during the annual budget session of the Assembly, so those who follow the news will have an idea of the expenditure pattern without even having to look for a copy of the book from the Assembly. What is absolutely clear from these is, Manipur budget constitutes (this year) of 76.44 percent non-plan and the remaining 23.56 percent plan funds. In other words, there is very little plan fund to distribute as it is, which is why the state is considered poor. Its tax and non-tax revenue is just about Rs. 4000 crores, while its budget estimate for this year for instance is about Rs. 37,000 crores. In other words, there is a pitiable and depressing imbalance between the state’s spendings and earnings even after taking into account the state’s share of Central taxes.

The expenditure heads are also categorised rather clumsily. In the expenditure of the non-plan funds segment for instance, there is no separate head for expenditures which are common for both hill and valley, such as police modernisation, government salaries, transportation etc., and these are simply put under the valley head, probably because the headquarters of the responsible departments are in Imphal. This is also probably presuming all will know the expenditure pattern listed in the demands for grant and so the accountants resort to this short cut to avoid making the balance sheet unnecessarily more tedious and complicated. However, if all expenditure were to be divided as per actual heads, the picture would be much more different. For instance, government salaries would roughly be as per population structure between hills and valley communities as per the state’s job reservation norms. Likewise, if the construction or upgrade Moreh road were to be divided between hill and valley sectors, probably hill expenditures would shoot up higher than valley. The same with so many other infrastructure projects including the railway line construction etc.

The apparent gross expenditure imbalance on paper between hill and valley is mostly on account of this simplifying of the balance sheet. This impression of imbalance is again augmented by the tendency to generalise Imphal, the state capital, as synonymous with valley. This again is a very false presumption. There are disparities between the two regions no doubt, but for many other reasons than those often assumed to be, such as the few I have spelled out already. A more accurate comparison to see the actual disparity would be to compare villages in the valley such as Phayeng or Andro with Purul or Kasom Khullen. In most cases, valley villages will be bigger, but not always more affluent. Valley villages will also generally have more flatland to cultivate. There will also be one more big difference. Even the poorest valley villager will have the guarantee and security of his saleable, therefore encashable land holding to depend on when money is desperately needed, whereas a poor hill villagers will not have such means to raise money even in situation of utter desperation and will have to depend on other sources. If there is one good reason why the hills also need a land reform, this must be it. At the moment, hill villagers either have no bankable land, and in the case of most Kuki villages, the ordinary villagers are virtually landless, regardless of how big their village is.

One is reminded of the iconic line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem The Ancient Mariner: “Water, water, everywhere; Not a drop to drink”. Only here substitute water with land. Different communities may be strongly tied emotionally to their land, but for the bank no asset, land or property, which does not command a price in the market and therefore cannot be converted to cash, has no value, therefore will not be acceptable as collateral against loans. This should make sense to everybody, for if a loan is not repaid for whatever the reason, the bank would want its money back from other means, one of which is by selling the collateral against the loan. Loans and interests from it, are precisely the business logic of all banks and if this snaps, their business will sink. This arrangement would also put the pressure on the borrower to do everything possible to ensure the loan is repaid so that he or she does not end up losing possession of their land or property.

To remind ourselves of the fact again, let there is be no doubt there are indeed development differences between the hills and valley, but these are not always out of administrative biases, but also a lot to do with topography and cultural outlooks. Of the first, James Scott, author of Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland South East Asia has a nice phrase to describe it. He says the road friction to development is much more in the mountains than in the plains. The inference of course is, there will have to be asymmetric investment to keep balance, but the problem with places like Manipur is, there is not much plan fund in hand for such augmented investments, over 76 percent of its annual budget being consumed by its ever-growing non-plan overheads. Of the second, the effort must be for the hills to integrate to the modern economy so as to take the best advantage out of it. One of the ways to this end is, land reforms, not necessarily the same as in the valley, but in manners which suit the needs of the hills and ones which also take care of its genuine insecurities. In this immense project of outlook overhaul, it must also be remembered that development has great rewards, but it has its costs too. Only those who can embrace this understanding, will be ones who get to ride the high tides of the modern economy.

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