North-East Scan

Law and Order Smokescreentc "Law and Order Smokescreen"

Pradip Phanjoubam*tc "Pradip Phanjoubam*"

Issues of human security in places of deadly conflicts often get overridden by concerns for the law and order. Obviously this has been at tremendous cost of neglect to other equally vital components of the same issue. This neglect is not totally of the government, although its contribution is sizeable, but also on account of a desensitization process the entire population exposed to such situations are prone to. Let me illustrate with Manipur, arguable the most trouble ridden northeast state today, as example. For far too often, the bad law and order resulting out of the insurgency situation is cited as the explanation for practically every ill that the state is afflicted with, ranging from lack of development, to non-performance of governments, to inflated prices of essential commodities. While the law and order situation is undoubtedly a factor, it cannot be the sufficient reason for all of the malaise. Let me explain.

It is amazing, but the general interpretation of the results of the elections in the two states of Punjab and Uttarakhand that went to the polls with Manipur in February was that the Congress was undone by inflation caused by the Indian economy overheating. That it was the price of onion (and those of other consumables in the Indian market) that predetermined the Congress’ doom. This may very well have been so, but all the same, for any ordinary citizen in Manipur, it would still appear strange, especially if they found out what the prices of these commodities were that made the electorates in these states so very outraged.

Take for instance, the price of cement. The rest of the country found it so incredible that it touched Rs 200 a bag. In Manipur the same commodity has been selling for Rs 350 a bag for a long time, and yet it never even occurred to anybody that this merited a complaint, or anger against the government in power. The story is practically the same with every other commodity. Onions at Rs 20 a kg that had consumers elsewhere screaming in despairing alarm is nothing strange for Manipur. Pulses and other dry rations too are far more expensive here, so too steel and other building materials. Even motorcars. A mid-level model of any brand can be as much as Rs 6,000 more expensive in Imphal than in any of the neighbouring state capitals. The exception perhaps is in the case of locally grown vegetables, and items that come in from Myanmar because of the grossly asymmetrical market values of the currencies of India and Myanmar against each other. Just as marriages are supposed to be made in heaven, for the consumers in Manipur, prices seemingly are also made by factors in a supernatural realms, too abstract to be under their control or the government. Therefore, nobody even thinks it is worthwhile to blame anybody for this sorry predicament. No government needs fear they would have to answer for the phenomenon at election times too.

What exactly can be the matter? Why does Manipur not link prices of essential commodities with government policies? Why is its mood so detached on this matter from the rest of the country? Perhaps, it is a question of being desensitized by excessive and prolonged exposure to stimuli that induce these sensibilities, and the successful rationalization of the phenomenon behind half-truths that hide more than explain. Behind this desensitization works many vested interests, political, commercial, communal etc. In it, all of them have found a convenient smokescreen behind which to carry out their dishonest agendas. Many would have guessed already, this smokescreen is insurgency and insurgency related extortions. Insurgency and extortion are indeed menacing realities in Manipur today. A lot of fund leakages from the official coffers are a result of insurgency related extortions, likewise prices of commodities will have to carry an extra insurgency cess as no businesses can buy for more and sell for less. But once a breach has been created, a lot more get leaked out of the breach than what was designed to.

Hence, just as very few businesses have gone on a loss because of extortion, the officialdom still wallows in corrupt ways despite insurgency. In fact, because of the leakages created by insurgency, corruption has become even less accountable, after all now whatever goes missing from the official coffers, and whatever unreasonable heights prices rise to, the blame can be totally shifted to insurgency. In this sense, there is every reason to believe in the existence of vested interests which would curse insurgency on the face of it, but would have the breakdown of the rule of law that results from it, perpetuated. Amidst the ever expanding maze of ghettoes in Imphal (call it leikais if you will) many of the opulent marble mansions that pop up are an indication of these vested interests. The same vested interest is also evident when the price of a bag of cement rises to Rs 350. The task before good administration in Manipur is then daunting, nay intimidating. First, it is a question of administering what goes on behind the smokescreen of insurgency. The second is to find ways to lift the smokescreen itself.

Poverty’s Other Factors

So what then are the other factors that have a bearing on human security. One of these of course is income. Like all other northeast states, Manipur is an income poor state. But can this be taken to be poverty per se. I will argue here that there must be qualifications.

This year till well into the middle of March winter lingered on. On the Meitei lunar calendar, it was already New Year, coinciding with the onset of Spring or the first day of the lunar month of Sajibu. This came as strange or weird if you like. For another, the famous April showers which Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized in Canterbury Tales, were still missing. The refreshing rains that are to awaken the hibernating roots and bring them forth to life again, or to prompt the vegetative world to begin sprouting new leaves, did not show up. Climate change?

The implications are scary. A delayed summer or a delayed rain may not have a direct impact on the human body, as a matter of fact many may even be thinking that the extended winter that we are experiencing is actually pleasant. Think again. The human body may have acquired the resilience to accommodate a greater degree of climate variations, or may have surrounded itself with technology to beat severe weather conditions, but not so the plant world, especially the domesticated variety. If the hibernating roots do not awaken in time, or there are no April showers to trigger the sprouting of leaves, in the worst case scenario, crops would fail. And if freak unpredictable climate conditions continue for a couple or more years, the disaster can only be imagined.

Life’s food chain is delicate. Break it at any point, and the rest of the chain would be useless. Life is beautiful. Life is resilient. Life is precious. But let us remember, life is vulnerable too, and one other thing that seems a certainty about all life forms is, as Bill Bryson says in his celebrated book, A Brief History of Nearly Everything, they do go extinct periodically. The more immediate point is, unpredictable Spring showers will ultimately tell on the quality of human life, or even its survival prospects in the long run – very long run indeed for in evolutionary terms, the scale is millions of years. There are certain cosmological determinants to climate change which we can do nothing to control, but there are also down to earth causes for climate disaster that we can either hasten or delay, so why hasten it? Our time starts now to set things on the right track. We can begin by being more sensitive about what we do to our environment, in our context this will have mostly to do with preserving our forest covers, even as the developed world tackles issues of greenhouse gas and ozone layer etc.

There are more reasons to make the agenda of forest protection, and for that matter, rivers and lakes, everybody’s enlightened vested interest. For a traditional society like Manipur, the health of its forests and water bodies has been its most reliable guarantee against dehumanising absolute poverty. A lot many in rural Manipur are “income poor”, but not so when it comes to nutritional intake because of the forest and natural water bodies, and the people’s intimate knowledge of these resources. They may not have the money to buy a new pair of slippers, but they can always depend on the forest, rivers and lakes to sustain them nutritionally.

But if the forests go, or lakes dry, poverty is going to be grinding. Imagine the number of people whose livelihood would be destroyed if the Loktak lake dies. The same can be said of the forest covers in the hills. Hence, fighting poverty, and indeed the definition of poverty itself, will have to take these factors into consideration. The one-size-fit-all definition of poverty, accepted internationally as a “dollar a day” income, may be misleading in this sense. And when the definition of the subject is misleading, the prescription for the object – that of poverty alleviation – is also as likely to be off the mark. Therefore, our contention is, along with the effort to alleviate the general income standard, environment protection must be made a part of this vital campaign. In this, the government’s leadership as well as the people’s willing participation are essential.

Governance role

Irresponsible governments add to the problem. The Manipur government’s generous pre-poll declaration of the extension of retirement age for its employees for instance must evoke mix feelings amongst many. To the already employed, especially those approaching retirement age, it must be good news, but not so to the multiplying multitude of young qualified job seekers. The contradiction should be even more pronounced in a stagnant economy with not just an arrested but a supersaturated job market. At this moment, the only way the government can make room to create more jobs for its younger generation is by retiring off its veterans who have had their innings to the full. If the reality was otherwise and the GDP was on a ascendant path, in keeping with the trend of the national average, such policies of optimism would have been welcome.

A recent report by the state chief secretary himself, quoting the current state economic survey report, pointed out how Manipur was faring amongst the worst in the country in terms of economic growth, recording only a little over 4.09 percent growth during the 10th Five Year Plan which is now drawing to a close. The growth in the agriculture sector was even more dismal, showing only 1.05 percent, and the backbone of Manipur’s economy is supposed to be agriculture.

And so while the government’s protected service sector remain relatively shielded from the direct impact of this harsh reality, those in the wide unorganized non-government sectors are sinking deeper and deeper into misery, and with each passing day, especially with no real or intelligible concerns shown by the government, hopes for redemption too are fading.

The attitude of the government reminds one of the haunting refrain from a popular Meitei folk tale Sandrembi Chaishra: “Sandrembi, Imadi khwang yow-re”. Sandrembi and her younger brother who lost their mother young lived with a mean stepmother and stepsister (Chaishra). Sandrembi one day discovered her mother had reincarnated as a tortoise and brought the creature home, but her stepmother decided to make a meal of it, and while being boiled in a pot, even as Sandrembi watched in helpless agony, the tortoise periodically called out to her, telling her in despair as to what extent death has overcome her.

Sandrembi’s torturous experience might very well be what Manipur is going through today. The insensitivity of the powers that be is beyond outrage. Manipur is still being cooked alive. In better times, it would have been a matter of jubilation that government employees’ retirement age is being extended or their salaries and perks are being hiked. But in times of economic depressions, shouldn’t such generosity be kept at a hold? In any case, what our system needs today is a liberal infusion of skilled young blood and this process is what is being delayed by a whole year every year for at least another generation. Can this time be afforded? Again, in government services, all of which are pensionable, retirement does not mean the end of the world. No, it could not have been considered economic thought that led to the government declaration. On the other hand, it would have had to be “election generosity” aimed at pleasing the 90,000 or so government employees who are all without exception, of voting age.

All is not lost yet though. The government has been in the habit of living beyond its means for decades, and it would be unrealistic to expect it to change overnight much as one wishes it was not. The best that it can do is to work towards augmenting its means so that it can afford all the generosity it is wont to throwing around every election time. For a beginning, end corruption so that the best and the most skilled hands get absorbed into its work force.

Get its work culture in order so that its departments become optimally productive. Think beyond the government sector in considering a solution to unemployment, for the government possibly cannot employ everybody. The government, need this a reminder, is also not for the government employees alone. While the first two strategies have to do with personal discipline, the latter will depend on policy vision. This will entail imaginative and substantial policy support to private entrepreneurship (which is not scarce by any means), especially those with employment capacity.