Dialogue  January-March, 2007, Volume 8  No. 3

Poverty, Development and Conflict among the Manipur Tribals

John S. Shilshi


Manipur is one of the seven states of North East India. It is flanked by Nagaland, Assam, Mizoram and Myanmar on the north, west, south and east respectively. It has a total geographical area of 22,327 sq.km and a population of 2, 388, 641.1 Out of this almost 90% of the geographical areas are hilly, occupied mostly by the tribal communities.2 The tribals of Manipur, who account for 34% of the State population, are distributed as follows: The districts of Ukhrul, Senapati, Tamenglong and Chandel are predominantly occupied by the Naga tribes namely Tangkhul, Mao, Paomei, Maram, Rongmei, Zemi, Liangmei, Maring, Anal, Lamkang, Moyon, Monshang and Tarao. Other non-Naga tribes like the Mizo, Zou, Paite, Ralte, Simte, Vaiphei, Kuki and Hmar dominate Churachandpur district. The Kukis are well-spread and they have a sizeable presence in Senapati, Chandel, Ukhrul and Tamenglong districts as well. Apart from the above distribution of tribals on the hills, there are also sizeable presence of Rongmei, Kom, Chothe and Chiru tribes in the valley and the foothills of the Manipur valley.3 Tribal economy continues to center around agriculture, and the forest remains the main source of their livelihood. Health institutions in tribal areas are inadequate, education expenditures by government are not well directed, and land ownership and its usage are typically tribal. Shifting cultivation is the main method of agriculture. Population growth has put tremendous pressure on the natural resources in tribal areas. Forests are being cleared for agricultural activities as well as for other commercial purposes at a pace faster than the natural regeneration process can cope up with. In the absence of industries in these tribal areas, and the government cutting down on employments in government offices, the numbers of unemployed youth are on the rise. Excessive portrayal of the violence in the region, particularly, the tribal unrests in the northeast by the observers4also do not help the tribal cause as these districts attract no investors from outside. This poverty ridden society, therefore, is heavily dependant on government largesse. And in a situation where the aspirations of the people heavily outweigh the availability of resources, ill-directed and politically motivated development delivery system have become a source of conflict.


Poverty continues to be the main problem with the tribal population. Very large percentages (58.34%) of tribals still live below the poverty line. For the tribals, poverty is a relative term and its measurement is not supported by any given yardstick or a bench mark. In the tribal parlance, the family that struggles to manage day-to-day food or one who does not have enough grains to last for the year is considered poor. In fact, poverty measurement among these tribals is a complicated affair. It cannot be measured only in terms of income index, but would require various other factors and variables through Human Development index; the society being a forest dependant communities5 The actual picture of tribal poverty in the state, therefore, is not accurately measured. Apart from tabulation deficiencies, the stigma that follows the categorization of a family as poor also prompt the individual family head to misrepresent the actual position of his family. These handicaps apart, the fact remains that majority of them are indeed poor as indicated by factors like physical assets, low employment ratio, lack of sustained income generating enterprises etc. Therefore, if the $1 expenditure per day yardstick is applied as the criteria for determining the poverty line of Manipur tribals, well above 70% of the population indeed falls below the prescribed poverty level.6 The distribution of the poor among the districts are also not uniform. While Churachandpur, Ukhrul and Senapati have lesser percentage of households with extreme poverty, they are higher in Tamenglong and Chandel, the two most under-developed tribal districts.

 Occupation and Economy

 Like any other tribal community in the country, the tribals of Manipur are also agriculture dependant. The average percentage of tribals employed in government and other organized sectors is 6.80%, with Ukhrul district having the highest percentage of people employed (9.47%) and Senapati district at the bottom with 4.18% persons employed (see table 1). They, therefore, depend largely on ‘Jhum’ (shifting) cultivation for their food, and on agro and forest products (NTFPs) for their income. The system of land ownership for the tribals of Manipur is also peculiar in as much as there exists no individual ownership over land.7 Land, forest and trees are collectively owned by the village/community as per existing law and age old tradition. However, in spite of this system of collective ownership, there are no uniform norms with regards to the sharing of the resources extracted from the forest. In most cases, the manner and quantum of extraction of the resources from these collective properties (forests) are also dependant on the individual capability and the extent of tree access the household has.8 While the more resourceful and richer household, who can afford manpower and transportations engage themselves in felling timbers in large scale, fetching them bigger profits, the marginalized and the poorer tribals confine to extraction of dry firewood, wild vegetables, brooms, and bamboo shoots etc., which are sold on day-to-day basis to meet their immediate requirements of funds. Ownership over agricultural land is uncommon among tribals. Therefore shifting cultivation is one form of agricultural activity which is common to all the tribals of Manipur, irrespective of their community, district or social standing. Jhum activity is undertaken not only for growing food grains, but also for cultivating variety of vegetables alongside the main crops. For building/construction of dwelling houses, 80% of Manipur tribals depend on forest resources such as timber, cane, bamboo and creepers as raw materials. There are no small industries in any of these tribal districts.9 Potential entrepreneurs are left helpless because no financial institutions are willing to give loan without ownership of land that can be mortgaged as security. So in theory, the tribal, is one who has plenty of land to his disposal, but in practice, he is an individual who has nothing to fall back on, apart from what little is made available to them by the government.

Table 1. (Figure of persons employed in government and organized sectors as per 1991 census)

Districts        Chandel     Churachandpur    Senapati    Tamenglong    Ukhrul

Population     71041            176184           208406         86278        109275

Employed       6285              12484              8732            3864          10352

%                      8.84                7.08                4.18             4.47            9.47

Population Pressure

As per 2001 census, the total population of these tribal districts stands at 9,83,074. The decadal increase in percentage of tribal districts for the period 1981 to 1991 is 32.6%, whereas during 1991 to 2001, it jumped to 48.5%, which is 12% higher than the earlier one. During 1991-2001, the increase in population have been the highest in Senapati district, which stood at a whooping 81.96%, followed closely by Chandel district with a growth rate of 72.80%.(see table 2&3). High population growth in Senapati and Chandel districts is chiefly due to the outbreak of ethnic violence among the Nagas and Kukis, and Kukis and the Paites in the early and mid-90s respectively. There have been large migrations from the districts of Ukhrul, Churachandpur and Tamenglong to Senapati and Chandel districts and as a result, these three districts have reduced percentage of population growth. But the over all growth rate of population in the tribal districts of the State stood at 48.5% which is indeed an alarming figure. This high percentage in population growth has tremendous pressure on the natural resources of tribal land.

Table 2.Population of tribal districts(1951-2001) Source: Directorate Economics& Statistics,Government of Manipur.

      1                       2           3           4             5             6                  7

District               1951      1961       1971       1981       1991              2001

Senapati           43189    72039   104175   155421   208406     379214(P)

Tamenglong    37688    36518     44975     62289     86278     111493(P)

CCpur               42695    62418     98114   134766   176184     228707(P)

Chandel            24049    27679     38723     56444     71014     122714(P)

Ukhrul              42491    48590     62229     82946   109275     140946(P)

Table3. Decadal growth 1981-91,and 1991-01. (Total population 9,83,074. Source: Census of India 2001)

 District                    Population          Decadal growth          Decadal growth

                                                                  (1981-91)                    (1991-01)

 Chandel                     122714                   25.81%                       72.80%

 Churachandpur          228707                     31%                         29.81%

 Senapati                     379214                   36.13%                       81.96%

 Tamenglong               111493                   38.51%                       29.23%

 Ukhrul                       140946                   31.74%                       28.98%


 In the health sector too, most tribal people remain deprived of the basic health care due to inadequate health facilities. The institutions on ground are not properly functioning. A comparison between Senapati district which is the most populated tribal district and Chandel district which is the least populated tribal district shows that in Senapati, a doctor is required to attend to 5,887 patients and a hospital bed is available for 1,729 patients (see table 4), while in Chandel district, patients per doctor is 2,731 and a hospital bed caters to 756 patients (see table 5). The primary health centers set up in tribal districts do not cater well to the medical needs of the people. Excepts for the Primary Health Centres and Sub-Centres located in the District Headquarters, the rest of the Centres in Sub-Divisions and tehsils remain closed within days of their inaugurations. Larger chunk of the population, therefore, remains without basic medical care, only to take refuge in quacks and local ancestral healers.

Table 4. Senapati district (Source: Government of Manipur official website)

No. of             Primary          P.H.S.C/     Total number     Patients       Patients

hospitals    health centres    Dispensary     of doctors      per doctor      per bed

 1                        14                    68                  38                5887           1729

Table 5. Chandel district (Source: Government of Manipur official website)

No. of             Primary          P.H.S.C/     Total number     Patients       Patients

hospitals    health centres    Dispensary     of doctors      per doctor      per bed

 Nil                      6                    25                  26                 2731            756




In the hill district of Manipur, Christian missionaries had laid strong foundation in education. Hence the tribal people of Manipur are on a better footing as compared to their compatriots of mainland India. According to the 2001 Census, the literacy rate in these tribal districts is an impressive 61.98%, as against the state figure of 68.87%. Though on paper, the education Department is one of the highest employment providers among all government departments of the state, in terms of deliverance, the performances are far from satisfactory in most hill districts. Therefore, for quality education, tribals mainly depend on Missionary-run schools, and other privately run schools who charge higher fees than government schools. The poor therefore are even more hard pressed in meeting education expenditures of their children. The enrollment ratio during 2001-02 was 109.40 (boys) and 92.46 (girls) between classes I-V and 65.96 (boys) and 54.50 (girls) between classes V-VIII.(see table 6). The drop-out rates among the tribal students is 49% at the primary level and marginally low 46.12% at the high school and secondary levels.10 These figures apart, quality education is given by the missionary and other private schools.

Table6. Enrollment ratio of boys and girls in school between classes I-VIII (2001-2002)

Classes               Boys              Girls          Classes           Boys         Girls

I-V                       109.40             92.46           V-VIII            65..96        54.50

(The combined dropout rates at the primary and high school levels are 49% and 46.12% respectively-

 Source: The National Education Policy Annual Report, 2002-2003)

The Institutions of Development

 Department for the Welfare of Tribals & other Backward Classes, stands at the apex of Tribal Development Institutions in the state. All development activities of the State government towards tribal people are executed through this office. This premier development agency of the government, however, is the hottest centre of tribal politics and its delivery system of the development activities are highly partial and community-centric.11 It is indeed the centre of tribal conflict. The state of affairs is such that, the inability of the state to meet rising aspirations of diverse ethnic communities, and perpetual conflict within the democratic set-up for allocation of power, continued re-alignment of hill groups within the corrupt system of administration and governance, annihilating intrigues amongst leaders continued to plague the social and political scene of Manipur.12 The above statement says it all. Since the time Manipur became a state in 1972, a tribal Minister has always headed this key Institute, with this rationale in mind that a tribal politician would be able to understand the problems of the community better. The reality, however, is the other way round. The Department is commonly seen by the tribals themselves as an Institution of deprivation rather than one that can be relied upon as welfare provider. Apart from keeping the various welfare schemes as closely guarded secrets, known only to the insiders, the selection of beneficiaries are highly selective and devoid of merits. Even in this age of Information Technology, the Department has no website where one can not see the details of welfare schemes, nor are these details available to the common man in the form of brochures/information booklets. Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) is another development activity which is operationalised from the offices of the Deputy Commissioners. The delivery system of this Institution is no different from that of the Department of Tribal Welfare. The IRDP not only lacks consistency of approach, but the delivery is equally confined to the very select elite groups of people - the headman, and his coterie. The functioning being highly political, it is the unscrupulous few who benefit most from it. Therefore, even at the lowest level of approach, the tribal development activities generate considerable discontentment. Apart from poor and corrupt governance of the Government delivery systems, the situations on ground level are also conducive for those indulging in ethnocenticism (the belief in the unique value and “rightness” of one’s own group), as this help them grab power and wealth, and personal security in conflict situations.13 B.G. Vergeese rightly pointed out that, “Insurgency impede developments while lack of development breeds the discontents that feed insurgency. …development activities which the northeast has been exposed to is purely extractive and exploitative”.14 For years together now the tribal districts of Manipur, particularly those inhabited by the Naga communities have lived in disturbances due to Insurgency. Even the non-Naga district of Churachadpur, which remained peaceful and free of unrest and turmoil caught up with insurgent activities since the mid 1990s. The entire tribal population is therefore exposed to violence and unrest. Though it is much debatable as to the extent of impediments insurgency throws on development, the reality on ground is that the vested interests within the system are making full use of the prevailing state of affairs for their personal gains. The disturbed situation continues to be blamed for failures to deliver, but on papers the funds meant for various development activities continues to be spent. The unwritten policies towards welfare activities are also exploitative in nature as much as they are directed only with some considerations, political, or otherwise. Alleviating income poverty or sustainability of resources is not in the agendas. Spending is the primary objective and whether this spending filter down to the lowest in society is not the concern.

 Widening the Gap

The term development really is a misnomer for tribals. Though it would be unfair to state that incidence of development activities are non existent, the reach of this activities are as much debatable. Last three decades have seen tremendous pattern change to execution of tribal development activities. With democratic process of electing a leader becoming more and more competitive and rigorous, development activities are not only confined to people with connections, but are also vastly directed towards bigger villages with higher populations with the obvious aims of reaping the fruits during elections. Therefore, tribes, or for that matter villages with lesser populations always get step-motherly treatments. The disparities in the living standards of tribes with more populations and villages with larger households with that of small tribes and smaller villages are steadily widening. In other word, the rich among them (tribals) become richer while the conditions of the poor deteriorate. Though under Article 275(1) of the Constitution, Grant-in aid for promoting the welfare of Tribals is promised,15 no such aids are forthcoming for them in a sustainable manner. Institutions such as Tribal Co-operative Marketing Development, National Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Finance Development Corporation (NSFDC) etc. are unknown to the Educated Tribal Youth of Manipur. Successive Five year Plans laid emphasis on improving the quality of life among tribals. The Sixth Plan (1980-1985) sought to ensure a higher degree of devolution of funds so that at least 50% of tribal families could be provided assistance to cross the poverty line. Likewise, the Ninth Plan (1997-2002) aimed to empower Schedule Tribes by creating an enabling environment conducive for them to exercise their rights freely, enjoy their privileges and lead a life of self confidence and dignity, on par with the rest of the society.16 But in the context of Manipur Tribals, these government benevolences are within the reach of very few microscopic minority of people who has the necessary contacts and connections. The emergence of an Exclusive Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the Centre may have facilitated the State Tribal Welfare Deptts. to have easy access to Central funds, but this does not in any way effect the delivery system to the stake holders.

Selective Myopia

Within the State Government, the functioning of the Department of Tribal Welfare is considered to be the exclusive affairs of the Tribal people headed by the concerned Minister. Therefore, except when the Chief Minister of the State is from Tribal Community, who himself has stakes of interests, the spending/selection of beneficiaries, Welfare Scheme, and the delivery systems are hardly under any kind of proper monitoring. The state media, which emerged as a very strong force of social awareness in the nineties, find no importance in exposing the malpractices with tribal development activities because the media is predominantly controlled by the valley Meitei community who see no reason in interfering with the affairs of others. In other words, the watchful eye of the media becomes squint when it comes to exposing the malfunctioning of the Tribal Welfare Department/Agency. Likewise, the numerous Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the state often watched the activities of the Tribal Development Institutions from a telescopic end and remain speechless. Even strong tribal lobbies like the All Tribal Students Union, Manipur (ATSUM), All Naga Students Association, Manipur (ANSAM), and various Tribe Student bodies and Social Organizations see no faults in the development approaches of the Government towards the tribals. To this date, no student body has raised its voice against the Tribal welfare department for reasons mentioned above; other than making occasional noises here and there with regards to post-matric scholarships. This selective myopia from the media and also from powerful social and students organizations, who claims to be the watchdogs of society is a disturbing trend.

The Crisis

Poverty and sustainable livelihoods are closely linked to human rights. Indeed poverty is violation of human rights. Poverty and inequality can undermine human rights by fueling social unrest and violence and increasing the precariousness of social, economic and political rights.17 The tribal population of Manipur, as can be seen above, is very much income poverty ridden. Employments in organized and other sectors are low in numbers, and there is no entrepreneurship worth its name. With increase in population, scarcities of natural resources (on which tribals depend heavily) are becoming more and more pronounced. In the absence of clear ownership rights over land, there are no credit facilities available to potential entrepreneurs. There are hardly any viable gainful economic activities among the tribal population. Saving habits are unknown to 85% of the tribals. Improved agriculture productivity is not possible because the majority of the tribal population still stick to the ecologically unsound shifting cultivation practice. In a scenario as hopeless as this, the community largely depends on government initiatives. But as can be seen above, the delivery system of the government via the Department for Welfare of Tribals & Other Backward Classes and other Agencies of development are far from being transparent. Therefore, more than the lack of development initiatives, the corrupt manner in which the delivery system is being handled is becoming a major source of crisis. And within the multi-ethnic society, there emerge an unhealthy competition to some how grab their share via the illegitimate means. The competition is not only confined to the common men, but has in the recent times caught with the numerous underground organizations as well. Inter-Tribal rivalries or Intra-Tribal factional rivalries are, therefore, common among Manipur Tribals. Though it is difficult to disagree with Verghese on lack of development breeding discontents,18 in the case of Manipur Tribals, this contention may have to put on hold. On the contrary, development activities of the government, which are ill-directed and that falls into Clay Wescott’s definition of “grand corruption”, where important decisions are taken by high officials responsible for public funds for personal motives and disregarding the consequences to the wider community19 breeds more discontentment among the multi-ethnic tribal society of Manipur. Though the very poor, being too weak, are not source of rebellion, gross inequalities lead to social conflict.20 The tribal society is basically a village community where every one is watching everyone. Gossip about one’s misconduct gets easily circulated by words of mouth faster than any other means of communication. As such, injudicious distribution of development schemes by the welfare department and any other development agencies of the government gets circulated within an ethnic community and develops into insurmountable distrust and hostile relationship between communities of different tribes.21 Among Manipur tribals this distrust and hostile relationship has already developed into conflicts and getting back to peace appears to be hard, because once a conflict is developed, even when peace is re-establish, it is often fragile”.22 The remedy therefore necessarily needs to be via meaningful delivery systems of developments.


     1.   Census of India, 2001

     2.   Ajai Sahni: Survey of Conflicts & Resolution in India’s Northeast. (Faultines,).

     3.   Government of Manipur official website, www.manipur.nic.in

     4.   Jyotirindra Dasgupta ; Community conflict and the state in India. Oxford University press, 1998. Edited by Amrita Basu & Atul Kohli, p/183.

     5.   J.E.M. Arnold and P. Bird: Forest and poverty- environment nexus, UNDP/EC Expert workshop on poverty and Environment 1999.

     6.   Statistical Handbook of Manipur-2002, Directorate Economics & Statistics, Government of Manipur

     7.   Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act, 1961- According to this Act, the ownership of land among Tribals is collective, and outsiders (Non Tribal) therefore, are not permitted to purchase tribal lands.

     8.   During the late eighties and early nineties, villages in northern Ukhrul District became very rich mainly due to timber business. But the tremendous boom in the timber trade benefited selected few who has the necessary resources to hire labour, vehicle etc.

     9.   Investment potentials in Manipur: Department of Commerce & Industries, Government of Manipur- 2002.

   10.   The National Education Policy, Annual Report 2002-2003. See Statement 7.

   11.   During the term of every successive government, the distribution pattern of the welfare schemes by the Department of Tribal Welfare & Other Backward Classes are highly imbalance. The tilt is always towards the community from which the Minister hails from.

   12.   Lokendra Arambam: Ethnicity, conflict and development in Manipur, The Manipur Research Forum, Delhi Bulletin, December 2001.

   13.   Rockfeler P. Herisse - Development on a theatre: Democracy, Governance and Socio-Political Conflict in Burundi.

   14.   B.G. Verghese - India’s Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development. Konark Publishers- 1996 p.335

   15.   The Constitution of India and its amendments to the Constitution.

   16.   Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-2007), Chapter: 4.2. Scheduled Tribe, p.443-445.

   17.   Integrating human rights with sustainable human development: A UNDP policy document, January 1998.Can be viewed or downloaded from www.undp.org

   18.   B.G. Verghese - India’s Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development. Konark Publishers- 1996

   19.   Clay Wescott: Growing problems of corruption Worldwide: In a speech to Suva North Rotary Club (11 November 1997), can be view at www.undp.org.

   20.   Paul Streeten. Poverty: A dance of seven veils. Political Economy Journal of India, Vol.12 Issues 3&4,July – December 2003.

   21.   Anita Abraham and Jean-Philippe Platteau- Participatory development in  the presence of endogenous community imperfection. Department of  Economics and CRED, University of Namur, Belgium.

   22.   Paul Collier and et al, Breaking the Conflict Trap.- The World Bank and  Oxford University Press. See p.79


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