While identity politics drives the various narratives on the causes of the violence, what is missing in most of these accounts is the link between poverty and poppy cultivation. It is almost impossible to find any thoughtful reporting on the deeper problems facing the people across the ethnic divide. Nor have community leaders properly addressed the problem of the growing poverty and impoverishment in the state. They seem content to articulate demands for homelands based on their respective ethnic or religious identities.

Scattered across the media, both local and national, we do come across reports of how the lack of economic development in Manipur has affected people in both the Hills and the Valley. But rarely does anyone delve into the underlying causes of growing impoverishment in agriculture and the increasing number of poor people in the state. In fact, Manipur is ranked the third poorest state in India with 36.89 per cent of its people living below the poverty line, behind Chhattisgarh (39.93 per cent) and Jharkhand (36.96 per cent). Urban poverty is the highest in Manipur.

Several writers have pointed out that there has not been a policy for development in Manipur from the time it joined the Indian Union. In the 1970s, the Centre set up the North East Council, a statutory authority charged with the duty to ensure the balanced development of the region. Yet agriculture and industry have been neglected and “central agencies such as the North East Council and the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region have failed to fulfil their roles as catalysts for development. Manipur is now a dependent state that serves as a captive market for products from the rest of India. Bolstered by the huge inflow of central funds for infrastructural development, its economy is a purely monetary phenomenon, which in reality has no leg to stand on”.

One report notes that “Manipur’s economy is largely based on the agriculture sector, with 52.8 per cent of its workforce engaged as cultivators and agricultural labourers. Despite the agrarian sector occupying a major share of the workforce, surveys suggest that not much has been done to improve the sector”. Agriculture in the state remains largely rainfed due to the lack of irrigation facilities. What is worse, the irrigation projects that do exist have proved counterproductive as they have destroyed local ecologies.

In fact, many of the developmental projects have adversely affected agricultural growth. For instance, one of the first projects of the North East Council in Manipur was the cement factory at Hundung, in the Ukhrul district. This was where the best wet paddy fields in the entire district were located. To set up the cement factory, on January 6, 1981, the government of Manipur brought out a notification announcing that the compensation for villagers who would lose their land would be 0.04 paise per square foot for second-grade land and 0.06 paise for first-grade land. The villagers challenged this notification, but they lost the case at the lower level because, they said, they could not afford to pay a bribe to the judge.

In 1990, the case was still pending and the villagers asked me to help them. I filed a public interest litigation on their behalf that year. The focus of that petition was the effect of the Nungshangkong Mini Hydro Electricity project; the water had been diverted to the cement factory, thus converting the prized wet paddy fields into dry fields.

The wet paddy fields provide more than just rice. In them, the cultivators have fishponds and their fertility allows for inter-cropping of maize, beans, soya beans, etc. Thus, the yield of the wet paddy field is 80 per cent higher than a dry paddy field. Apart from higher yields compared to a dry field, a wet paddy field is also a source of fish, frogs and a variety of insects which are eaten and are a cheap source of protein. People cannot buy meat which is expensive, so the deprivation of these sources of protein has a very adverse effect on their diet.

This is just one example of how development projects have led to the impoverishment of the people. There are eight major, medium and multipurpose irrigation projects but, as noted above, they have led to more grief and sorrow than to progress or prosperity.

One report from 2018 notes that, at the very outset, the Thoubal Multipurpose Project, or the Mapithel Dam, saw over a thirty-year delay leading to a revision of the cost several times. “Tumukhong is the immediate downstream village,” the report goes on, “hardly around 600 metres away from the main reservoir. [P]ost construction of the dam, the Thoubal River’s riverbed has shrunk and the village is transformed into a dry barren [land]. Small-scale sand mining from the riverbed constituted the economic domain of the village [which subsisted on] farming, fishing, harvesting of local forest resources, etc. Loss of livelihood in [the] absence of alternative arrangements is the concern of the villagers. The once flourishing vegetables around the village riverbanks [have disappeared and a weary appearance has become an] inherent feature of the village.”

The tragedy is repeated in the Tamenglong district where there has been massive deforestation and soil erosion and dumping at several places along the Tamenglong-Tousem to Haflong double-lane road construction, which could lead to climate change effects in the region. The official report from the forest division of Tamenglong district records the destruction of at least 431.656 hectares of forest land. This is in addition to the many natural rivers, streams and rivulets that have been destroyed, which has led to several villages facing drinking water problems, apart from affecting local wet fields as well.

It is reported that “these irrigation projects are viewed as failures and the Manipur farmers feel that they are not only a curse to the farmers, but they also limit paddy as a mono-crop. In 2022, the harvest of rice – the staple food of the state – amounted to up to 98 per cent of the total food-grain production… Earlier, one sangam (1/4th of a hectare) would yield approximately 30 bags of rice, but in 2022, yields declined drastically to about six to ten bags per sangam”.

The people living in the hills and closer to the international borders are much poorer. In a study by the North Eastern Hill University, professor of economics Utpal Kumar De came to the conclusion: “The district-wise analysis results [are] in line with our expectations that the poorer districts of Senapati, Churachandpur, and Chandel record higher levels of deprivation than the richer districts of Imphal-West and Imphal-East. However, it is to be noted here that STs [were] the most deprived category in 2011–12 and [were] replaced by OBC in 2015–16.”

Excerpted with permission from Shooting the Sun: Why Manipur Was Engulfed by Violence and the Government Remained Silent, Nandita Haksar, Speaking Tiger Books.