MANIPUR IN DECEMBER 2014
A collection of five editorial columns written by Pradip Phanjoubam for the Imphal Free Press in the last two months of 2014
Enterprise or Sloth
It will come as no surprise that there is an exodus of young aspiring professionals away from the state. In a way this is good, for if and when they return, they will bring back new skills and outlooks. But there is also a fairly good chance that a majority of them will not return, for at this moment, job prospects befitting their skills and aspiration are virtually nil. Nor is there a climate for them to want to return and build enterprises from scratch. It is in this sense a very critical period for the state. Push matters a little farther and things can reach a point of no return, where the best talents leave permanently to find their fortunes elsewhere. If however the state does not allow the situation to drift beyond the critical point, who knows, in the years ahead, it may be time for a new renaissance, when the prodigals begin heading home. At this moment though, the picture is rather grim. As for instance, few jobs outside those offered by the government are worth today’s wage standards, and the government job sector is super-saturated. Selection tests for a few dozen state civil servants, or lecturers, once or twice a decade, cannot come as any consolation to the ever growing number of job seekers. There are no signs that the situation can improve in the near future either. The government neither has the resource to create more direct jobs, nor the will or imagination to foster the growth of employment outside itself. All it can do, and has been doing, is to blame the bad law and order situation for its failures. Nobody can deny this is a factor, but it is precisely the government’s duty to ensure the rule of law exists, and it can best begin by practising what it preaches.
The rule of law is another story, but the immediate challenge is about creating jobs and since the capacity of the government to employ has a definite ceiling, it will have to look at the private sector. For this sector is multidimensional with practically the sky as the ceiling. An article by journalist Michael Hasting, comparing the resurgence power of Vietnam and Iraq, is interesting in this regard. Hasting covered both the Vietnam War and Iraq War. While still on assignment in Iraq, he visited Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) for a story that compared to two wars. Forty years after the war, Vietnam is bouncing back. Its economy is buoyant, everybody is raring to go and win his share from it, and in the process contribute his share too. In comparison, forty years hence, he is not hopeful Iraq can emulate the same feat. Individual entrepreneurship was always very strong in Vietnam, unlike Iraq which was for too long hooked to easy petrodollars. Vietnam’s economy was built around the enterprising spirit of its people, as well as the skill and discipline of its labour force. By contrast, Iraqis in general have come to be addicted to subsidies, so that in times of crisis, such as wars and their aftermaths, while Iraq had nowhere else to look for resurgence, Vietnam could draw strength from within and pick itself up much sooner. Moreover, unlike Iraq which is dominated by a revenge culture, Vietnam was much more practical and outward looking. Even in the midst of the bitter war against America, it was never bitter toward Americans, so much so that Ho Chi Minh was supposed to have written a letter during the war to the American President, Lyndon Johnson, that Americans would be welcomed back as friends after the war. And Americans are now indeed rushing back to Vietnam, not to make war but as tourists and businessmen.
The uneasy thought is, Manipur seems to be much closer to Iraq than Vietnam. It is possessed by a culture of revenge and bitterness. It is also almost completely dependent on government subsidies. Private entrepreneurship has been dwarfed, and at best it is about dishonest government contract work or else, with the exception for a few, has not risen above retail trade, which promise money perhaps, but no creative contribution to the economy. Its education system is in the pit, incapable of producing quality skills or knowledge. Parents who can afford the cost look away from the state increasingly for their children’s education. These children may not feel inclined to return when they come of age, and they are not at all to blame. Shouldn’t a rethinking process begin? Shouldn’t the government be thinking of evolving policies to nurture back to health the general entrepreneurial spirit?
It is unlikely the multidimensional conflicts in Manipur would go away immediately. This is in spite of so many other conflict-ridden places in the neighbourhood going through a healing process. Sad as the case may be, it is essential the people assert their will to keep the place afloat and away from insanity. This will entail keeping all the essential survival qualities of a society intact. Above all, it will be an absolute necessity for the place to continue honing its competitive skills and spirit in pace with developments outside. This is not an easy task even in normal times, and will definitely be uphill for a place immersed in conflicts. But, there is no other way than to do it, if survival as a society is important. Surely, none of us want the state to be reduced to impoverishment and despair beyond recovery. The apprehension that such a scenario may become a reality in our state is very immediate, considering it is slipping in many spheres of activities needed to keep an economy going. Its education is in the pit. Most of the thousands of graduates churned out by our colleges and universities are today employable only by the government which grades qualification standards for jobs by academic degrees alone, and not by the market worth of skills candidates possess. Because the market has remained stunted thus, job seekers with worthy skills probability would leave the state for greener pastures elsewhere. In the absence of a government with substance, or more importantly moral authority, policy matters continues to be decided from the streets. All these say very little for the shape of Manipur’s not so distant future. The vision of a weak and vulnerable people left to fend for themselves amidst the blinding rush of the competitive world, cannot fail to eerily haunt anybody who dares to imagine what Manipur’s destiny might be, given our present situation.
There is no doubt the place has done well in sports and performing arts. But these may actually be a direct consequence of the violence and conflicts that have enveloped our society. In fact, to use a Freudian interpretation, they may actually be the manifestation of the same violence, but in a sublimated way. The angst within the soul that has been the driving force behind all of the violence may actually also be the materials that form the building blocks of our sports and arts. But in enumerating and evaluating the achievements of a society, there are things that go far beyond. The erstwhile East Germany and the Soviet Union were sporting powerhouses and havens for the arts. Their failure to survive should be evidence enough these are essential but hardly enough. So let the state not rest content with the laurels earned in these fields alone. There will have to be more, much more.
One needs only to look around to discover how many people are actually absolutely incomeless even in the state capital. The traditional family structure has been providing the cushion to absorb the devastation this could have caused. The welfare state that our polity is supposed to be by definition, even if it is a begging one, has also helped. If not anything else, it has been providing close to a lakh direct government jobs, justifiably or not, with hansom salaries, which have been managing to keep the fluidity of our markets, artificially or otherwise. The question is, how much can the family system and the welfare government buffers keep the place from imploding under the surmounting pressures? At this moment, remove these buffers and there will be very few props on which the economy can stand on. Hence the insurrection and the political uncertainty as an excuse for the chaos must end. Whatever the outcome of the conflicts, at the end of it, the people must still have the legs to stand on, and this can happen only if they make the extra effort to prevent the economy from grinding to a halt in the meantime.
Price of Development
Can development be without price? Much as anybody may wish it, this cannot be so. Hence, the more realistic and pertinent question should be, what kind of price is worth paying for any development project. The basic principle in any walk of life – that of minimizing the losses and maximizing the gains, should very well apply here too. Just as in the law of physics which says matter (or energy) can neither be created nor destroyed, development, or for that matter anything else, can be snatched out of nothing. Only God knows how to do that and we are sure He would not be keen to demonstrate. Jokes apart, development must have to be a rational negotiation process in which we weigh the pros and cons of all projects envisaged, and then lean our decisions towards the arguments that are honestly weightier. Often this logic is abandoned in all our ongoing debates on the issue.
The need to pursue this debate has acquired a sense of desperation in our situation. Just the consideration of the example of the acute power shortage in the state should suffice to demonstrate this. We note though that the situation has improved, not on account of availability of more electric power but because of better management which has prevented wastages as well as theft. Leave the question of why this was not done earlier for the time being and let us return to the original contention. On the one hand we have not enough electricity and on the other we also often put up non-negotiable oppositions to electricity generating hydel projects. It is true these projects will command a price but shouldn’t the debate be also about how heavy the price would be and how worthy it is to pay the price. If we foreclose the issue and say we should not pay any price at all, whatever the circumstance, then we should also not be complaining the scarcity of electricity, and in fact the absence of the fruits of development in our lives. We do not have to sell ourselves and our future just for the sake of development, but all the same, we must also have to be prepared to pay some price at least if we want development. As the saying goes, you cannot make an omelette without breaking the egg. Hence if you think it is absolutely wrong to break the egg then don’t even imagine how the omelette can be relished. The effort then must be to seek the right balance between what we end up paying and what we end up getting. To extend the aphorism of the egg a little more, the debate must be about taking care not to cook the goose that lays the golden egg just for one sumptuous meal, but also not to unnecessarily deprive ourselves of the simple delight of an omelette meal. As practical optimists, we believe there is such a balance. Maybe a series of small dams rather than a mega high dam is the answer?
Take another case. Other than electricity, tap water is also in acute shortage in the state. In rural areas, since there are still clean natural sources of water, the problem although bad, is not as desperate. But in the urban areas, say for instance Imphal, what would the people do without treated water. Luckily, there are some very well maintained community artificial water bodies which are an important substitute in times of extreme scarcity, but the problem can only grow in the days ahead. Under the circumstance, imagine what would have been the scenario if the Shingda Dam were not there and Imphal did not receive even the existing supply of tap water. Perhaps, Imphal with its ever growing population would not have been liveable at all by now. Here is, right in front of our eyes, what we may say is a successful, life supporting, small dam, and yet so many still insist on opposing any mention of dams. Of course, even in the case of small dams, the question of compensation and meaningful resettlement of affected population, if any, must be addressed seriously and adequately.
Enforce Work Culture
The Manipur government is estimated to have a work force of about 80,000 employees. If the government was run as an efficient private enterprise, with strict adherence to costs balancing benefits, it is also estimated that the work load on these 80,000 employees could have been optimally handled by 30,000 or so. For that matter, in the past we have seen how the responsibilities of the entire team of ministers and MLAs were easily shouldered by an executive body as small as three during spells of Presidents Rules, of which the State saw many and far too frequently until the introduction of the Anti-Defection Law. Ironically, in terms of physical presence in office, the government may be doing with only 30,000 employees actually working as they are expected to and paid for, at any given time. The absenteeism, late arrivals, early departures, unscheduled lunch breaks, numerous unwarranted tea breaks etc., in government offices, are testimony. “I saw him around a while ago,” is today a standard answer at any government office, when someone go looking for a staff for some work. In the districts and sub-divisional headquarters, especially in the hills, this would be much worse. As a recent report after a media tour of Tousem sub-division in the Tamenglong district indicated, absenteeism here could be as high as 90 percent. In these places, governance is becoming a receding memory, and it is unbelievable to read in this age that simple illnesses as dysentery and viral fever can still be life threatening. Few or no government offices are manned, all government facilities, including health infrastructures, are in advance states of decay, government schools have only ghost teachers, and as a result without students as well. The list can go on. A good percentage of the 80,000 work force constitute of these ghost employees, listed in the payrolls, but perpetually missing from their places of work. Yet few do enough to bring about a change precisely because everybody has come to have a vested interest in the perpetuation of the limbo of non-governance.
For the government, there can be no excuse. It has no choice but to extend its administration to all parts of its territory without fail. If its employees are refusing to obey its transfer and posting orders, there cannot be a more shameful indication of the government’s irrelevance. The government must also however listen to the sincere amongst its employees on what their problems are. Many of the complaints we have heard have to do with the lack of basic amenities, to the extent of water and food supplies running out at some of these outlying posts. At least these basics must be ensured to expect cooperation from employees. Not all outposts are as bad though, and so it calls for the government to identify the genuine from the fraudulent complaints to take up appropriate and justifiable action to rectify the situation, without fail. There is yet another angle to the story. In inculcating work atmosphere, the responsibility is not just that of the employees or the government. A good part of it must also rest on the local population. They must make employees from other parts of the State posted amidst them feel at home and want to stay. Perhaps another way the government can make its job easier is by suitably changing its recruitment rules. It could for instance grade the difficulty of its outposts, and make it compulsory for all employees to accumulate a certain number of points on the difficulty scale before he or she can qualify to opt for a posting of choice. Of course, it goes without saying that the government must first ensure that “difficulty” does not mean braving starvation death and physical harm. In this regard, it must be said the government’s stated move of making it mandatory for specialist doctors to serve a stipulated tenure in hill districts, is laudable. This administrative logic must be extended to other government departments too.
Beauty of Coexistence
The chief minister, Okram Ibobi’s appeal for coexistence, and by implication denouncing separatism, in his speech at the closing function of the Sangai Festival with none other than the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi as the star audience, brings back a thought IFP has often dwelt on in these columns. In a crux, he had said Manipur will not allow dismemberment of its territory even by an inch but will welcome coexistence not just in Manipur but with all in the neighbourhood. Appeals for peaceful coexistence have become commonplace today. That these appeals should at all become necessary is an indication that there are forces pulling the fabric of coexistence apart. There is another often heard appeal today and this has to do with tolerance. However, because of the multiplicity of connotations associated with the latter term, we are a little suspicious of this appeal. Although we are aware of the well intended spirit, there are other meanings, conscious or otherwise, inherent in the appeal itself. For one, tolerance presupposes that the object to be tolerated is offensive in nature. The equation sought hence is never one of equality, but of a superior entity putting up with an inferior counterpart even if this means having to make do with inconveniences, keeping in view longer term self-interests. The question becomes in this way reduced to making a choice for the lesser of two evils. Tolerance has another nasty connotation. It can portray a picture of passivity and inactivity. It can be taken to mean insensitivity and the lack of a natural sense of rights and justice, hence the failure to claim them. Some very often asked questions will illustrate: How can the people of Manipur tolerate corruption or violence the way it has? How can Manipur tolerate non performance by its governments the way it has?
We therefore prefer the word coexistence. The term first of all is value-neutral and there is no implied meaning of inequality buried in it. It suggests an equal partnership, where the different communities exposed to each other by circumstances of geography, economy and politics, live in a free interplay of ideas and customs. In Manipur, as in any other multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religion societies, such a formula will have to be the only route to lasting peace. The foundation for peace must be laid in a salad bowl scenario, where each ingredient remains distinct, but in their totality give themselves a new collective identity and personality. Adjustments, not tolerance, will no doubt become necessary to make sure the vital agenda of governance is given smooth passage. There will have to be, for instance, laws and norms applicable to all, just as all must be deemed to be equals before these same laws. But while an integration process cannot be overt, there will come about unseen, unobtrusive forces that initiate a meltdown of the different ingredients: The compulsions and bonds of economics being the most powerful of these. The salad bowl will then, at its own pace, begin to resemble a stew pot precisely at the marketplace which must have a lingua franca that no one can claim as their exclusive, a common currency, ethos, value system etc. Each ingredient will still retain their individual identities, but each of them would have acquired some of the tastes and smells of the other ingredients in the same stew.
Both these models of integration are beautiful. The individual can be beautiful but it is the collective which can transcend the ordinary and be in the realm of the grand. To push the analogies of the salad bowl and the stew, surely a single ingredient dish can never be as appetising as the multi-ingredient salad or stew. We can say the same of the society too. Isn’t cosmopolitanism beautiful? Isn’t the way Imphal is evolving beautiful too? So many different communities, bringing in so many different colours, flavours, skills, religions, cultures... And when they all come to be the ingredients of a composite identity of the place, that’s when a new beauty, greater than the sum of its parts, will emerge. Of course, this integration must be allowed to happen at a pace the social organism will be able to absorb and internalise without detriment to itself. In this light, the current demand for an immigration regulatory mechanism should not degenerate into xenophobia but remain as an effort to ensure this optimum pace at which cosmopolitanism evolves without causing social tensions.