From Despair To Dream: The Fundamental Change Manipur Has Undergone Over Last Five Years
The biggest achievement of the coalition government in the state seems to have been steering Manipur to normalcy and seeding hope of a better future.
Till a few years ago, a blanket of dust used to envelop Manipur’s capital Imphal. Dust kicked up by the city’s abysmal infrastructure. That haze was also symbolic of the hopelessness that hung like a perpetual dark drape over the state.
Hopelessness created by perpetual cycles of violence, human rights abuses, endemic corruption and terrible backwardness. Decades of despondency had led to widespread acceptance of their miserable plight by the helpless people of Manipur.
Wracked by insurgency and its resultant griefs, ethnic strife and racial tensions, frequent bandhs and disruptions, a cynical political class focused only on power and pelf, an apathetic and even non-functional bureaucracy, corruption of epidemic proportions and piteous health, education and physical infrastructure, Manipur had sunk into a bottomless pit of misery.
So stark was the difference between Manipur and the rest of India that stepping out of the state into neighbouring Assam was akin to journeying from a ravaged sub-Saharan country to Europe. Manipuris had resigned themselves to their fate and had stopped even expecting anything from the government.
That’s because successive governments in the state that has been ruled for most of the last five decades (since it attained statehood) by the Congress have never delivered on their promises and failed to ensure even a modicum of decent existence to its citizens.
People of Manipur had accepted that their state would continue to be backward, mired in ethnic conflicts, insurgency and mindless violence, that corruption is a way of life, that they would continue to be deprived of even basic education and healthcare, and that the only signs of governance were the symbols of power like the venal and trigger-happy police.
With little or no expectations from the government by Manipur’s citizenry, the state existed only in the peripheries of people’s lives and made little difference to them.
That changed significantly in 2017 when a BJP-led coalition government came to power. In fact, the year marked the beginning of what has become a paradigm shift in Manipur’s trajectory.
“Our first priority was development, especially infrastructure development. We undertook massive infrastructure projects and made it clear to bureaucrats, engineers and contractors that no delays or cost overruns would be tolerated at all. We insisted that all projects would have to be completed in a time-bound manner. That was the first time that deadlines for completing projects were made sacrosanct in Manipur,” chief minister Nongthombam Biren Singh told Swarajya.
The chief minister credits the Union Government for bringing about this change. “Prime Minister Narendra Modiji and other Union Ministers like (road transport & highways minister) Nitin Gadkariji told us unequivocally to undertake infrastructure projects very sincerely and assured us that funds would not be a problem at all. They took personal interest in implementation of development projects over the last five years and that inspired us to ensure proper and timely execution of projects,” he added.
The results are there for all to see. Well-paved roads have replaced the dirt tracks that used to exist not only in state capital Imphal, but all over the state. Bridges have been built and more are being constructed. Highways connecting Manipur to neighbouring states are being laid at breakneck speed and the state got on the railway map of the country late last year.
Manipur is now poised to become a gateway to Southeast Asia with the expressway connecting it to Myanmar and beyond almost ready. That will open an exciting chapter for the state.
“People of Manipur could never have dreamt of the infrastructure development that has happened over the last five years. It is nothing short of revolutionary and has changed the face of the state,” said public works department minister Thongam Biswajit Singh. “But much more than only physical infrastructure, it is the sense of security and normalcy--necessary as they are for development--ushered in over the last few years that has benefited people the most,” said the minister.
Th. Biswajit Singh, who also holds the power, commerce and industries and other important portfolios, told Swarajya that while activities of the militants, who had a free run earlier, have been effectively curbed, the government has also been successful in bringing about racial harmony.
“There used to be a lot of ethnic strife in Manipur earlier and sharp differences between different communities would result in frequent bandhs and lockdowns, thus paralysing normal life. In fact, such disruptions had become the norm in Manipur. But we have, through good and responsive governance and equitable development that has benefited all communities, been able to end racial and ethnic tensions and bring about social harmony,” said Singh.
The end to what is commonly called ‘bandh culture’--the reference to the frequent shutdowns called by the many powerful civil society and pressure groups over even non-issues--has made a world of difference to the lives of Manipuris and removed the shroud of uncertainty that had made their lives miserable.
Over the past five years, there have been barely any bandhs in Manipur, and the state government has been quick to intervene and prevail on organisations that have given calls for shutdowns to either withdraw them or convert them to non-disruptive forms of protest.
Along with this end to the ‘bandh culture’, Manipur has also witnessed and gained immeasurably from a sharp decline in activities of militants. “Acts of violence, threats and extortions by militant groups have come down drastically and are almost negligible now. There has been a sea change in the law and order situation over the past five years,” said Manipur director general of police P. Doungel.
That has happened because of the incumbent government’s resolve to erase insurgency. “Apart from strong anti-insurgency measures, the government involved influential civil society groups to open channels of communication with insurgent outfits and prevail on them to agree to a ceasefire. A number of well-calibrated steps were taken to curb insurgency,” said a senior police officer who did not want to be named.
“Links between insurgent groups and their overground supporters, defenders, financiers and others have been effectively snapped through sustained operations. What made a huge difference was the categorical brief by the (present) government that insurgency has to be not just curbed, but wiped out completely,” said the officer.
Ties between politicians and insurgents, with the former using the latter to win elections and suppress their political rivals, was common knowledge in the past. Politicians would turn a blind eye to the activities--kidnapping, threats, extortions and killings--of the insurgents.
“That has changed completely and all such links have been snapped. The entire support system of the insurgent groups is being wiped out,” said minister Biswajit Singh.
Peace and social harmony has come as a boon for trade and commerce in the state. “This atmosphere of peace, of a stable law and order situation and the absence of fear of insurgents that used to haunt businessmen in Manipur has boosted commerce in Manipur. Many investors are showing keen interest in Manipur,” said Manipur Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Radhesyam Oinam.
“I would have never considered investing a Rupee in Manipur in the past. No one would, given the insurgency, social strife and the poor law and order situation that used to prevail in the state. But all that has changed, and I am now looking forward to investing in a proposed logistics hub there,” said a prominent industrialist of Assam who did not want to be named.
“We have received many investment proposals and in the following years, we will make a major bid for attracting big ticket investments. Manipur will become the gateway to Southeast Asia and that will open up huge business opportunities,” said chief minister Biren Singh.
Manipur, says commerce and industry minister Biswajit Singh, will soon become a prime investment destination. “We have created the enabling environment for that by ensuring peace, social stability, a vastly improved infrastructure and world-class connectivity,” he said.
The MSME sector, said the minister, has witnessed many investments in the past few years. “People are now feeling confident to start enterprises. They (businessmen and entrepreneurs) know that militant groups will not send extortion notices to them and venal politicians and bureaucrats will not make lives difficult for them, as used to happen in the past,” said the minister.
Many entrepreneurs who spoke to Swarajya backed the minister’s claim. “Things are very different now. Peace and social stability are big enablers for business and people have started investing here now. I’ve set up a small food processing unit and the experience so far has been good. Five years ago, I would have not even given a thought to starting anything in Manipur,” said Thokchom Birendra Singh, a young entrepreneur.
Chief Minister Biren Singh says that not only roads and connectivity projects, even the healthcare and education sector have vastly improved. “We had increased the budgetary allocation to these sectors as soon as we came to power and the results are there for all to see,” he said.
The chief minister added that close attention was also paid to equitable development of both the Imphal Valley and the hill districts. That, he said, has gone a long way in bridging the ‘hill-valley’ divide that used to bedevil Manipur.
The hill districts of Manipur inhabited by tribals--mostly Nagas and Kukis--had faced neglect by successive governments in the past. This neglect, manifested in lack of development and backwardness of the hills, was a major cause of racial tensions between the tribals and the Meiteis inhabiting the Imphal Valley.
“We not only ensured equitable development of the Hills and the (Imphal) Valley, but actually gave priority to the development of hills to make up for the decades of neglect that the people of the hills faced,” said minister Biswajit Singh.
As a result, racial tensions have eased and the sharp ‘Hill-Valley’ divide of the past has reduced significantly. “A lot more needs to be done to erase this divide, but a beginning has been made and that is good. The intentions of the present government are very good,” said Nemjalam Haokip, an office-bearer of Kuki Women’s Union.
Haokip told Swarajya that the earlier mistrust and even animosity between the tribals (mostly Christians) of the Hills and the Meiteis (mostly Vaishnavite Hindus) of Imphal Valley has given way to harmony.
“I’m not saying that there is perfect harmony now. But a beginning has been made and it needs to be carried forward. And not just a thrust on development that we have witnessed in the Hills over the past few years, but also many measures taken by the government to gain our confidence and make us stakeholders in development and governance have gone a long way in easing the ethnic tensions of the past,” she added.
Chief Minister Biren Singh said that past governments followed a ‘divide and rule’ policy and thus encouraged the ‘Hill-Valley’ schism. “We have changed that through a number of measures, primary among them being time bound implementation of development projects and central welfare schemes. The largescale leakages that used to characterise all projects and schemes in the past have been plugged,” he said.
Elizabeth Pamei, a Naga women’s rights activist, endorses the chief minister’s contention. “Largescale corruption was a permanent feature in Manipur and the little money that used to come to the Hills for projects and welfare schemes used to be looted by the politician-bureaucrat-contractor-militant nexus. Nowadays, corruption has been significantly reduced and so we see a lot of development happening. But there’s still a long way to go,” she told Swarajya.
The change ushered in over the last five years is best summed by R.K. Inderjit, a young entrepreneur who is setting up a Thai restaurant in Imphal: “Manipuris are, at long last, experiencing a normal life. The nightmarish decades living in fear and misery have ended and we can now dare to dream of a better future”.
This--steering Manipur to normalcy and seeding hope of a better future among Manipuris--seems to have been the biggest achievement of the BJP-led coalition government in the state.
People of the state can, for the first time in many decades, breathe freely. And not just because the dusty haze that used to shroud Imphal has lifted.
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