The prime minister’s ambitious 100 smart cities project is still in the incubator, but opposition to it has already taken off in at least one part of the country.

On November 19 and 20, the Thadou Students’ Association organised a 48-hour blockade of a 70 km stretch of national highway in the hills of east Manipur, where a 3,000-acre smart city has reportedly been proposed around Haolenphai village near the border town of Moreh.

The Thadou Students’ Association that organised the highway blockade – a common form of protest in Manipur –represents the Thadous, one of the many Kuki tribal groups of the region. The bandh ended at midnight on November 20 after teargas shells were fired by the security forces.

Boulders blocking a highway during the TSA bandh. Photo: Thadou Students' Association.

Their main objection it that the city is being planned on tribal land without officially consulting local people. News about the proposal has appeared several times in the local papers in the past few months, but the state government has refused to formally acknowledge or discuss plans with the Thadous, fuelling uncertainty.

“The government is trying to snatch our land without consulting the people,” said Lamminlun, the president of the Thadou Students’ Association’s General Headquarters chapter in Moreh. “It is against our customary laws to sell land to anyone outside the tribe, even if it is to the government.”

Even after the 48-hour highway blockade, he said, government officials have not formally confirmed or rejected the smart city plan, but have invited association members for talks on December 4.

Thangso Baite, member of parliament from Outer Manipur, did not deny the plans for the smart city in Moreh. “The proposal is not final,” Baite told “But land can be acquired whenever the necessity for development arises, as long as due procedures are followed and it is beneficial to the tribal people.”

Meanwhile, the Delhi chapter of the students’ association has submitted a memorandum to the prime minister’s office to register their protest and demand a clarification on the issue. More than 100 students plan to stage a peaceful protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on November 22.

Status unknown

Moreh, the town around which the smart city is supposedly being planned, is a small but significant trading point on the border of India and Myanmar. It has a population of just around 15,000 but, because of its strategic location, it is has been developing as a commercial hub and is set to be an important point on the planned road link between India, Myanmar and Thailand.

For the 3,000-acre smart city, seven villages neighbouring Moreh would have to be urbanised, including Haolenphai, which is home to about 100 tribal families whose main occupation is shifting cultivation. “Our community also depends on timber and firewood from our forests for survival,” said Lamminlun.

Tribal residents in and around Haolenphai started small agitations last year, when news of a “new commercial township” in the area began appearing in the media. After the Bharatiya Janata Party government took over at the Centre in May, the plans took the shape of an information technology-driven smart city under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new project.

According to the Thadou Students’ Association’s memorandum to Modi, Manipur’s chief minister O Ibobi Singh had reportedly stated, during an assembly session in July, that the proposal to acquire 3,000 acres at Haolenphai would be sent to the Central government. A week later, the state’s industries minister Govindas Konthoujam was quoted in a local paper saying that the state had “acquired 3,000 acres of land in Moreh for the proposed smart city”.

Alarmed by these developments, several Kuki associations sent memorandums of protest to home minister Rajnath Singh and the chief minister, while the village chief of Haolenphai issued a written declaration stating that “it is against our customary law and tradition to sell land for any reason”.

During the highway blockade this week, Konthoujam met the protesters to pacify them, but his informal clarification only added to the community’s fears. “Instead of an official response, he verbally clarified that he did not say that the land had been acquired, but that it will be acquired,” said Cain Singson, the general secretary of the student association’s Delhi chapter.

Laws of the land

The protesting residents of Haolenphai claim they are not against development or urbanisation, but they will not agree to any form of land acquisition that flouts their customary tribal laws.

In Manipur, the dominant Meitei community is concentrated largely in the central valley region of the state, while various other communities – many of them Scheduled Tribes – live in the surrounding hilly regions. The various Kuki and Naga tribes have traditionally followed their own landholding practices in which the village chief is typically the primary owner of all land and plots are never sold to people outside of the tribe.

The Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act of 1960, although controversial among the hill tribes for various reasons, does uphold the spirit of tribal land ownership by delegitimising the transfer of land from a Scheduled Tribe member to a non-member (unless the land is mortgaged to a co-operative society).

For the Thadous and other Kukis, the government’s acquisition of land for a smart city would violate their traditional connections with their land.  “If a smart city is constructed, the tribal chiefs will have no power and the land will belong to the government," said Lamminlun.

Development must be welcomed

While many experts from Manipur sympathise with the tribal communities’ insecurities over the lack of transparency in the smart city proposal, they believe the development of a city would greatly benefit the region.

“With the Indian government’s Look East policy and the road being planned to connect SAARC countries, it is important that Manipur start looking ahead,” said David Boyes, a social worker from Manipur’s hill region and the chairperson of the North East India Forum Against Racism. “If a township comes up near Moreh, the locals will be the first beneficiaries.”

Moreh’s position at an international border is an added benefit, says Amarjeet Singh, an associate professor at Jamia Millia Islamia’s Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research. “Because of Manipur’s distance from mainland India, it is important for it to develop strong economic ties with its immediate neighbours such as Myanmar,” he said.

Singh is among those who believe that the hill tribes should be more flexible about their landholding traditions in keeping with the times. “All ethnic communities in the world have customary laws on land, but that is not a valid reason to oppose development,” he said.

Boyes, however, emphasises that the state government ought to have been more transparent in its approach. “So far only middlemen have had talks with the Haolenphai village chief, but the government has not properly consulted the locals about its plans,” said Boyes. “The government has to rethink its approach and communicate the benefits of the smart city to the people.”