Indigenous peoples of Manipur need development, but it should not be at the cost of their survival, identity and culture. The development process in Manipur needs to respect the needs and rights of affected villagers. (Langol Hills and settlement affected by ADB ring road Imphal. Photo from CRAM.)
The health and social crisis unfolding amid the Covid-19 pandemic situation during 2020 and 2021 in Manipur is also accompanied with aggressive push for large infrastructure and energy projects in Manipur, such as the Imphal Town Ring Road project financed by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project, envisaged for financing by the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Forced eviction during Covid-19 pandemic is an obvious reality in Manipur, which heightened the risks of community infections. Indeed, at least 66 Kuki households were evicted by the Deputy Commissioner of Tengnoupal District, Manipur from November 3 to 13, 2020 in villages along M Chahnou village till the Integrated Check Point, Moreh to construct the Moreh Integrated Check Point (ICP) ByPass Road as a component of ADB-financed Imphal to Moreh road.
The Imphal Town Ring Road project caused wide controversy in Manipur with threats of forced eviction, again amid the Covid 19 pandemic. Villagers of Tharon village were forced to organise a protest amid the Covid-19 on June 26, 2021, when the daily Covid-19 cases stand close to around 700 cases, a high number given Manipur’s low population density. The Sub Divisional Order, Lamphel, Imphal West District, Manipur issued an eviction order on August 27, 2021 under the Manipur Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorized Occupants) Act, 1976 to establish the project corridor for the Imphal Ring Road Project.
The Imphal Ring Road Project is a part of ADB’s South Asia Sub Economic Cooperation (SASEC) Road Connectivity Investment Programme. Manipur is one of the states targeted for US$ 300-million loan agreement signed between the Government of India and the ADB on March 26, 2015, aiming to improve road connectivity and increasing domestic and regional trade along the North Bengal-North Eastern region international trade corridor. Two roads in Manipur envisaged for construction under the Project are Imphal-Kangchup-Tamenglong Road and the Imphal Town Ring road. The project proponents reasoned that India’s Act East Policy and trade expansion with South East Asian countries would enormously increase traffic volume, thus requiring the Imphal Town Ring Road.
The project was first pursued in the year 2014. In September 2014, the Public Works Department (PWD), Manipur issued a tender inviting consultants to take up a feasibility study and prepare a detailed project report with support from ADB. A team of experts from the Erieye Ground Interface Segment (EGIS International), France subsequently inspected roads and crossings in Imphal city. However, affected communities from Langthabal, Patsoi, Tarung, Kongba etc objected to the survey due to lack of consultation, limited impact assessment, and faulty assessment of their assets. The affected villages submitted complaints to the Office of the Compliance Review Panel of ADB on December 15, 2014. The Project was thus delayed for years, till the Government resumed the project in 2020 after meeting with ADB on January 17, 2020.
The Survey works for the Imphal Ring Road again resumed in September 2020. Series of notifications for survey and land acquisition followed. The Deputy Commissioner, Imphal East District, Manipur and the PWD issued notifications on September 7-8, 2020 to commence demarcation of road in the villages to be affected by the road. The Deputy Commissioner, Imphal West also issued notice on July 16, 2021 for direct purchase of land along Langjing to Ghari via Lamjaotongba and FCI Godown in Imphal West District, followed by eviction order for Tharon village.
An initial assessment indicates that the Imphal Ring Road project will affect over 1000 acres of agricultural land in Kongba, Langol, and Lamphel in Imphal West and Imphal East districts. Over 500 families will also be affected in the villages of Tharon, Thangmeiband, Tarung villages, etc. The project will destroy part of sacred hills, Langol, Langthabal, etc and adjoining forests areas.
The eviction order of August 27 was based on a prior notification of the Deputy Commissioner, Imphal West district, July 28, 2021, that leveled villagers of Tharon villagers as illegally encroaching on the Langol Reserve Forest Areas. The Tharon villagers decried the eviction notice levelling them as encroachers, maintaining that records of Royal chronicle (Cheitharol Kumbaba) in Manipur confirming their village as established nearly 500 years ago during the reign of King Lamgramba (1512–1523). The villagers confirmed settling in the Langol Hills and Forest areas for generations before enactment of Forest Conservation Act, 1980 of the Government of India and before declaration of Langol Reserve Forest by the Forest Department, Manipur.
The proposed eviction plan will affect around 20 households of Tharon Village belonging to the Kabui Tribe. The villagers expressed concern that the pursuance of the proposed ADB financed Imphal Town Ring Road with a width of 100 feet, will uproot the Tharon village. The construction of the ring road will create an artificial gorge which will cause disconnection of 40 households residing above the road. The excavation of earth and forest for the ring road will render most of the households close to the road unfit for settlement. The eviction and road building will directly affect over 300 villagers in the village.
The eviction notice for selected Tharon villagers is despite the fact that the detailed project document, the rehabilitation and resettlement plan, Indigenous Peoples Action Plan, Social and Environment Impact Assessment were not finalized and concealed from the communities. Definition of alternative measures in consultation with affected communities is still lacking too.
The proposed Ring road will involve destruction and removal of many graves and tombs of ancestors, which is a taboo to the Kabui customs and traditions in Tharon village. The road building will lead to destruction of temple of Tingkao Ragwangh Chapriak Phwam, which is an ancestral worship of the Kabui people, besides destruction of church close to the road. The proposed road will lead to filling up of the only village pond and removal of a hand pump in the middle of the village that serves as the main water source of the village. This will affect water sources and cause water shortage in the village.
The project proponents failed to apply the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which makes it mandatory to seek the consent of the traditional village institutions of the Tharon Villagers for any diversion of their village land. The eviction order caused mental and psychological problems on fear of losing their land and livelihood, which violates the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Additionally, residents of Khurai Konsam Leikai in Imphal East District, who opposed the project stated that Ipum Pat (wetland) which is being utilized by the locals for access to water, fishing, seasonal food collection and other purposes will be affected if the ring road is constructed. The Meitei and Meitei Pangal communities who settled near Ipum Pat filtered the water from the lake and consumed it since there is no regular supply of tap water in the locality. Besides, a community hall which is being used by the locals in different occasions and hundreds of homestead land will also be affected if the ring road is constructed.
The forced eviction plan without the consultation and consent of villagers and absence of rehabilitation plan will impoverish the affected villagers. The affected villagers are worried that any amount cannot compensate the loss of their land, property and heritages. The eviction will also affect their livelihood and threaten affected peoples indigenous culture and identity.
The construction of the Imphal Town Ring Road will also pose additional problems of air, noise pollution due to the increased vehicular movement in their village, causing safety and health problems among the affected communities. The construction process will also involve land and mudslides in the area, besides dumping of excavated earth and rocks in the area.
Further, a serious concern is the feasibility of Imphal Ring Road plan with its route concentration in congested areas of Imphal city, such as in Thangmeiband and Chingmeirong areas. The ongoing plan for Imphal Town Ring Road to pass through one of the most congested part of the town in Chingmeirong and Tharon areas with important landmarks such as Manipur High Court, Manipur Capital complex, Legislative Assembly, etc lacks rationality and defeats the objectives of the Imphal Town Ring Road to decongest the traffic in the Imphal Town.
Human Rights Implications
Several communities who eke out their livelihood through farming, fishing and small-scale economic activity will lose their livelihood and constitute a clear violation of right to life, as guaranteed both by Article 21 of Constitution of India, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Any forced displacement is violation of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The impact of displacement will be consequently followed by the loss of economic activities with no ways and means of settlement and basic services. It will create social turmoil to those evicted families as there is mechanism for rehabilitation and resettlement.
The proposed project clearly failed to take the free, prior and informed consent of affected indigenous communities of Tharon, Khurai, Kongba, etc as required under the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007 and even under ADB’s own safeguard policies. There is no room to suggest alternatives by affected communities.
The issuance of eviction order violates the ADB safeguard policy that requires the consultation of the affected indigenous communities and to advance their rights, besides violating Forest Rights Act, 2006. The eviction order at Tharon Village caused mental harassment of Tribal Kabui Villagers of Tharon, which violates the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
The proposed Imphal Town Ring Road plan already provoked wide concerns and objections from affected communities in Imphal West and Imphal East districts. The residents of Khurai Sajor Leikai, Kongba, Wangkhei in Imphal East District, Manipur already expressed objection to the proposed Imphal Town Ring Road project based on concerns of significant impacts on their land and livelihood means. The lack of information on the project, lack of consultation with affected communities and the lack of clarity on the rehabilitation and resettlement of affected communities are other concerns. Locals of Khurai Konsam Leikai and adjoining villages in Imphal East District, Manipur staged protest and blocked roads on December 17, 2020 in protest against the construction of Imphal Ring road that will pass through surrounding areas of Ipum Pat. The JAC against the construction of the ring road was formed to protest the ring road and resolved to protest if the state government failed to respect their demands.
Due to concerns of impacts, Tharon villagers also resolved to stand against the Imphal Town Ring road project in their village. The residents of Tharon village staged a sit-in protest at a community hall of the village against the proposed Imphal Ring Road project on June 26, 2021. Affected locals staged protest, raising demands, ‘Government Should Respect Human Rights’, ‘No Road Through Our Home’ etc. The villagers also organized a democratic call to stop forced displacement of Tharon villagers on 17 June 2021. The villagers filed a petition with the Manipur High Court in August 2021, which passed an interim order on 10 September 2021 to suspend the eviction order till the next hearing.
Indigenous peoples of Manipur need development, but it should not be at the cost of their survival, identity and culture. Respect of community rights and involvement in all decision making and finding alternatives is critical for just and sustainable development. The pursuance of large infrastructure plan and the move of the project authorities to evict communities during the height of Covid-19 pandemic in Manipur is highly unfortunate, as it further heightened the risk of further infection and community spread. The Imphal Ring Road Project should not be constructed in Tharon village without the villagers consent.
The Government of Manipur should desist from pursing forced eviction and acquisition of agriculture land, homestead land, wetlands, and forest of Manipur for the project. The Government of Manipur should withdraw the eviction Order issued by Sub Divisional Officer, Lamphel, Imphal West, Manipur on August 27, 2021 and the Deputy Commissioner, Imphal West on July 28, 2021. Feasible alternatives should be defined with rightful participation and acceptable to affected communities.
The development process in Manipur needs to respect the needs and rights of affected villagers. The Government and ADB should implement the Safeguard Policy of ADB, 2009 for the project. The direct implication of increased loans and indebtedness of Manipur and its people to ADB and other International Financial Institutions, including the loan for ADB-financed Imphal Town Ring Road project, Kangchup to Tamenglong road, etc need be fully assessed. With a range of loan and financings by these financial institutions, Manipur is simply destined to be trapped in a vicious circle of debt, conflict and an uncertain future, besides myriad impacts on communities and its fragile environment.###