Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Missing Intersection: Environment & People’s Movement in Manipur

If environment signify our physical surroundings, the social and political state of a given society also equally become an integral realm of what we generally called environment. Degrading physical environment and human rights are the two conditions which have become an anti-thesis to grounds on which human world is to supposedly thrive on. This time again the World Environment Day strikes back with the theme ‘Your Planet Needs you to Unite to Combat Climate Change’. This theme reiterates the fact that environment and human lives share natural relations. In the absence and inability to understand and pay due attention to this reality of relations, human existence is altogether to become infeasible. The world has seen enormous conflict over resources and dispossession of the same. Manipur is not an exception. As the world observes environment day, several questions over environment and human security in the region can be revisited. This revisit will be incomplete if one fails to decipher the urgency emerging out of the fast degrading environment – both physical as well as political environment. This piece of writing on the issue is to rethink the framework, understanding and strategy enforced by the State, nature of response from the Civil Society and parameters of engaging environment issues adopted by the global discourse and its agencies.
For obvious reasons, environment has become a very important and urgent topic to be seriously thought about in the context of growing hazardous exploitation of environment and its associate resources. In the name of development projects such as construction of dams, roads, railways, etc. have enormously put ecology at a greater risk situation. The issue of environment has become so serious that in the last 15 years (since 1990) at least eighteen violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources all over the world. Recent studies have shown that over the last sixty years at least forty per cent of all intrastate conflicts have a link to natural resources and exploitation of ecology. For example, civil wars in Liberia, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have clear causal links with control over resources like timber, diamonds, gold, minerals and oil and so on. Other conflicts, including those in Darfur and the Middle East, have involved control of scarce resources such as fertile land, water, etc. Thus, if environment is the mainstay of livelihood, it also been a major source of conflicts as highlighted above. An inattention to this global backdrop can invite and generate similar intensity of conflict in Manipur.
Degradation of environment invokes a deeper connection between general risks and political suffocation both of which equally makes human existence either difficult or unviable. Such is the situation of Manipur as it becomes a constituency of global environmental crisis. On the other hand, the socio-political and cultural viability of the State also remains imprisoned. Systematic militarization of tourism industry and militarization avenues of employment in the State is something that has left durable constraints on environment and economy, which in the long run carries the potential to discourage popular participation and opinion formation among the civil society on environmental and human security.
In this regard, the recent claim by the State Tourism Department, Manipur, is revealing as the Department has been incurring a loss of Rs. 48,46,700 with a break up of different tourist homes being occupied (and unpaid) by the Indian security forces. The occupation of almost all the tourist homes in the State seems to auger well with the project of militarization that the State and the region have been subjected to. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, which militarizes the civil spaces with absolute impunity, is another fitting case in point. In recent times, there have been frequent reports of barring wild life officials from entering into Keibul Lamjao, home to the Sangais, by the security forces. As a result, severe hindrance is caused to ecology and sources of livelihood for the community inhabiting around Loktak Lake. Another interesting point of reference in this regard is the issue of mega dam projects with disastrous environmental and ecological fallout. There has been evident protest against the construction of Tipaimukh Dam for it falls under dangerous seismic zone and may end up destructing environment – flora and fauna – and displacement of communities in upstream and downstream as well. What is distressing to the environmentalist and concerned citizens is the way the State has opted to disengage the concerns by resorting to deploy paramilitary forces along the areas of Tipaimukh. The impact of Tipaimukh dam is so huge that it is estimated to submerge areas of about 311 sq. km covering a total of 90 villages with 1,310 families, including 27,242 hectares of forest and cultivable land and posing serious threat to the rich biodiversity.
Similarly, daily reports of human rights violations by various actors, brutal killings, involvement of “accountable” agencies in crimes, etc. conforms to the growing infeasibility of human security in the State. Therefore, the urgency of observing World’s Environment Day appears to have not found committed takers at the civil society and popular level despite the enormity of the issue. This disadvantaged-enormous-concern is due to the non-intersection of two important existential realities –the reality of global environmental crisis and the daily existential insecurity in Manipur. The issue of militarization is so inherent that outcry for any rethinking on development projects on the grounds of ecology, environment and human security finds no substantial engagement. In other words, it can be said that an event of disagreement and gesture of public dissent can prove to be a tragic occasion of regulating people’s voice and further militarization. Currently, for instance, proposed installation of police pickets inside Manipur University for “surveillance” deserves mention as a fitting example of militarization which is to severely restrict academic freedom and voices of the student community.
Another trajectory of environment and human security can be discussed in the light of numerous global agencies with huge capacity to invest money in carrying out big projects such as dams, roads and railways, etc. Asian Development Bank and World Bank can be mentioned in this regard. The increasing role of this agencies can also been understood as a part of the global neo-liberal economic campaign. One of the important logics of this campaign is to open the local resources and markets to the global economic forces. For example, natural resources, forests, roads, railways and dams would make the Northeast region a suitable place of world business.
Though, it is advisable to participate in the global politics and economics, there are several questions which are still to be answered. Can the Northeast be a competent force to participate in the policies which are mainly guided in the interest of the stronger powers? Can our people benefit from this ‘Open Market’ economy? Do we have the skill and capital to reap benefits from the open competition? Can we make our traditional economic base such handicrafts, handloom, fishing and agriculture sustainable in the wake of a global mix? What about the existing absence of a manufacturing economic base mainly in Manipur and other Northeast states? And, can we go ahead with this global economic agenda without addressing the “political situation” such as demand for autonomy, human rights and dignity, etc. in the Northeast part of India? How these global agencies are different from earlier form of colonialism or in fact are they re-incarnation of a new colonial empire in the region? These are some of the questions Yenning would like to leave with you to think and respond as the wholesome impact is going to be on what we called environment.
What is needed is the necessity to work out a holistic approach on understanding / responding to issues concerning physical environment on one hand and political environment on the other. Hitherto existing debates on the two has been rather lacking in finding any substantial intersection. As a result, apex bodies of civil society movements seem to be primarily “confined” in their own fields such as dealing with issues of immediate victims, rights, justice etc. This has amounted to a more political framing of the regions political affairs and its identity. This “hyper political” of the movement discourse has altogether discouraged from engaging issues of environment and ecology. The format of environmental discourse in the State like Manipur is overshadowed and conditionally peripherialised. Therefore, the INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) which seem to have acquired a global network to campaign on environmental issues should rethink their strategy and conform to what Yenning calls Political Environment of given society and region. Similarly, the people’s movements should also take into account of the crises that may emerge out of environmental degradation which in no is way is going to be less crucial since it involves resources, feasibility of habitation and ultimately human security.
(Posted on The Sangai Express, Sunday, June 6, 2009)

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