The monsoons hit Manipur in the first week of June, but Hemang Sitlhou is yet to sow the season’s paddy. His home and field are in Kangpokpi district’s Motbung, an eyeblink of a village sandwiched between the state’s Kuki-dominated hills and the Meitei-majority Imphal valley.

With the ethnic violence in Manipur still simmering, areas such as Motbung which straddle the border between the hills and the valley in Manipur continue to be susceptible to violence. These foothill villages – “peripheral areas” in military parlance – resemble war zones, complete with “bunkers” housing armed “village defence volunteers”.

“We cannot go to our field because the firing can take place at any time,” said Sitlhou, who has also signed up as a “volunteer”. He claimed it was to repulse attacks on his village from “Sekmai side”, the neighboring Meitei area.

“I have to defend our village,” said Sitlhou, a Kuki by ethnicity. “I have been doing [it] day and night.”

An all-encompassing conflict

The scale of the conflict has meant that almost no one in Manipur is immune to the fires that have engulfed the state, particularly if you belong to either of the two warring communities. Consequently, all sorts of economic activities have come to a near standstill.

But for the thousands of farmers like Sitlhou who live in the “peripheral” villages in the strife-torn districts of Kangpokpi, Imphal West, Imphal East, Kakching, Churachandpur and Bishnupur, it has been especially punishing.

The onset of the monsoons signals paddy plantation time in Manipur. But with bullets often flying around indiscriminately in these areas, farmers say they are scared of going to their fields. State officials say this has already dented paddy production, and could lead to a “huge loss for a small state like Manipur”.

Caught in the crossfire

Priscilla Lhouvum, another farmer from Motbung, said around 700 families in the area were “completely reliant” on agriculture – most of them grew paddy. This year, though, Lhouvum said, “most of the fields are barren”.

“We are too scared,” he said. “Last month one day, we went to plough and till our fields but we had to flee as firing started in broad daylight. Every now and then, gunfights break out.”

The state government has deployed security forces in vulnerable places along the hill-valley border so that farming activities can continue, but large tracts of land remain abandoned.

L Ratankumar Singh, assistant coordinator of the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, a prominent Imphal valley-based civil society group, accused “armed Kuki militants” of “disturbing the farmers.”

Conversely, Kuki outfits and farmers blame the Meiteis.

A crisis brews

Regardless, the impact has been severe.

According to the state agriculture department’s data, at least 5,127 hectares of agricultural land in 149 villages across the state are currently barren. This, officials said, had resulted in the loss of production of 15,437.23 metric tons of paddy till June.

The worst affected district in terms of size is Bishnupur where 2,191 hectares of land remains uncultivated. In terms of the number of villages, the most impacted is Kangpokpi.

“This is a huge loss for a small state like Manipur,” the state’s agriculture department director, N Gojendro, told Scroll.

“We have formed a monitoring committee consisting of the home, irrigation and water resource departments,” he added. “But we are helpless without security. We are trying our best to ensure that these areas are cultivated, seeds and fertilisers are made available without any hassle.”

According to an assessment carried out by the Irabot Foundation, a farmers’ advocacy outfit based in the state, the decline in this year’s rice production could be as much as 40,000 metric tons. In 2022, Manipur produced 5,67,000 metric tons of rice.

More troubles

A lacklusture monsoon has exacerbated the crisis.

Even though the intensity of the fighting has gone down of late, the lack of adequate rain, too, has meant farmers are struggling to pick up the pieces.

Manipur has so far witnessed a rainfall deficit of 45% this monsoon.

This has left farmers in the state anguished.

“The situation is very bad,” said Sitlhou, the farmer from Motbung. “There is gunfire every day, there is no rain. What will we do?”