What Are the Impediments to Road Infrastructure in Manipur?

This article examines the dynamics and nexus in building road infrastructure in India’s Northeast-east border, that is, Manipur, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ways infrastructure is planned, executed, and politicised. 

In an ethnically volatile, militant prone, and landlocked state like Manipur, roadways are the only form of physical connectivity. They are vital for the supply of goods and services and yet, they are underdeveloped. The state heavily depends on the goods imported from other parts of the country. Non-state actors—Student organisations, ethnic groups and insurgents, among others, often block highways as a means to negotiate with the government[1]. In Manipur and other north-eastern states infrastructure projects such as roads, schools, dams, hospital, stadia, etc, see multiple delays in their construction. Not even a single large project in the state has seen its completion to date in its stipulated time frame.[2]

The Key Players

The key stakeholders in road infrastructure in Manipur are, (i) the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, who collectively they comprise of the international stakeholders; (ii) the Government of India (GoI), Ministry for Development of North Eastern Region (MoDNeR), North Eastern Council, and Border Road Organisation form the national stakeholders; (iii) the state stakeholders include the Government of Manipur, ministers and members of the legislative assembly, bureaucrats, insurgent groups, elites, contractors, civil society; and (iv) key ethnic stakeholders, who are the Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis, and Zos, among others.[3] Each of these stakeholders has different roles and linkages in the creation of road infrastructure. The larger the number of stakeholders involved, the deeper the corruption. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and the GoI are the major funders for road infrastructure development, while it is the state stakeholders who implement development projects by appointing contractors. Ethnic stakeholders influences the dynamics of planning and location of the projects of the funders.

Social and Political Processes of Building Road Infrastructure

Creation of infrastructure is a relatively longdrawn process in Manipur.[4] This is mainly due to unavailability of raw materials, law and order problems, poor governance, etc. It also involves layers of stakeholders as discussed above. Construction materials for any infrastructure project are transported from other states which add to the heavy transportation cost. Further, the system of governance and the underlying social dynamics and political processes involved in the creation of road infrastructure in Manipur gives out clandestine nature of operation. According to Pillai (2012),

“If you have the DGP of police, his very close relative is heading one underground group. You have the Chief Minister; CM brother-in-law will be in the underground group. There is a minister; his nephew or cousin is an important functionary in Meitei underground groups. It is that close, there is no difference between the government and underground because I still believe that they all are there to finally protect Manipur's territorial integrity”.

Oliver[5] , a contractor, calls the process of bidding for a tender in Manipur a mere formality. According to him, the process of identifying contractors is done much before the bidding actually starts. It is usually the concerned department, minister and those who are close associates who know exactly when the work order is to be released. A contractor with limited assets—finance and machinery—has a higher chance of winning the tender if they enjoy a good rapport with the concerned minister. Work orders are either purchased or given to close relatives of ministers even before the tendering process begins. Oliver narrates: 

“I recently purchased a work order of Rs. 1 crore by paying Rs. 5 lakh to the concerned minister. The minister assured me of the contract work and also agreed to pay me 50% of the total bill in advance, so that the process of bidding for the tender would be a mere formality. But in order to begin working, I have to take a recommendation letter from the insurgent group operating in the project area, to whom I paid 5% of the total budget. Thus, much before the work begins, I have already spent Rs.10 lakh. It is also mandatory that the government of Manipur take 11.75% of the project’s total budget. When the project started, the Public Works Department official again took 10%. So in total, 31.75% of the total budget is gone and am left with only Rs. 68.25 lakh. When the project begins, I have to pay the contractor dealing assistance (CDA) since he is the most important person as he maintains each and every file of the contractor. Since the billing is done at Imphal and the PWD is in Imphal, I have to again pay insurgent groups operating in the valley and normally we have a round table negotiation with these groups in a closed-door meeting. Again, to sanction bills, the cashier has to be given certain amount or else he creates lots of problem. During every visit by PWD staff for work inspection, I have to pay them to approve the work. Since all the raw materials are transported from outside the state, every load of goods has to pay taxes to both police departments at checkpoints as well as to insurgent groups. I am left with barely 50% of the total budget so ultimately, the work quality gets compromised.”

Since the principal contractors are usually from the valley, they pass the contract to a subcontractor who is close to the insurgent groups operating in the area. This affects the work quality as all the parties involved try to extract a profit.

One of the many factors responsible for poor quality of road infrastructure is due to the politics and dynamics of contracting. Officially, the state government maintains that it follows the rules and regulations stipulated by the GoI (Ziipao 2016). Stakeholders involved in road construction manipulate the modus operandi of awarding contract work. The government awards the contract to a particular contractor, who in turn outsources the work to other small-time contractors. Often, the unevenness of repairing the same highway is the result of multiple contractors working on the same project. One of my respondents, Daniel Pou, a social worker, pointed out that “contractors from hills are just like busconductors, who are busy collecting money but the real driver sits and directs from the front”. This modus operandi of awarding contract work is best captured by Pillai (2012):

A contractor comes to the minister and the minister says it is 10 crores work. You pay me two crores. So, he pays him two crores. Once the 2 crores is paid the minister then writes, please sanction this road work from here to here at the cost of ten crores. Send it to the PWD secretary of Manipur. Who opens the files, sends it to finance, who clears it—all this is the Minister’s order. The money is given with 50% advance written so that 5 crores may be released. So, by evening, the contractor who has paid 2 crores already received 5 crores. Then the work is sent to the concerned person in the field, and that is when the PWD engineer comes to know that such roadwork has been sanctioned.

Negotiating the Hills–Valley Divide

The wide variation in infrastructure development between hills and valley districts is also a serious concern. This development has led to contestation and discontentment among various ethnic groups in the state. Table 1 details the road density and quality of roads for all nine districts in Manipur. All five hill districts rank at the bottom. In contrast, the four valley districts fall within the top 10 ranks out of the total 80 districts in the North East.

Table 1: District-wise Ranking on Density and Quality of Roads

 

District

Rank in North East Region

State Rank

Road Length per 100 sq km

Surface Road as % of Total Road

Valley Districts

Thoubal

3

1

143.97

92.16

Imphal West

7

2

120.6

85.4

Imphal East

8

3

120.6

93.6

Bishnupur

10

4

84.68

88.81

Hill Districts

Senapati

62

5

24.73

77.65

Ukhrul

63

6

24.47

70.56

Tamenglong

65

7

22.77

68.21

Churachandpur

70

8

21.23

70.01

Chandel

71

9

19.32

71.53

 

Source: NER District Infrastructure Index, MDoNER, 2009

           

There is a huge disparity between the hills and valley districts in all key indicators of development. Major infrastructure such as roadways, power, medical services, banking, educational institutions, telecom services, and airways are mostly located in valley districts. Apart from various department headquarters, institutions such as the Central Agricultural University, Government Polytechnic, Indian Council of Agriculture Research, Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Science, and the National Institute of Technology, to name a few, are all located in Imphal valley, which makes access for tribal communities difficult.

Further, for decades, Manipur has had institutionalised mechanisms of exclusion, discrimination and denial of rights in various forms against the tribals. This discrimination manifests in job reservations, building of infrastructure projects, subversion and diversion of funds to valley districts, concentration of all major infrastructure projects in the valley, budgetary discrimination to hill districts, disproportionate political representation in the state legislative assembly, among others (Ziipao and Kamei 2013). The dominant Meitei community are themselves guilty of such practices against the hill areas. Since attaining statehood in1972, tribals in Manipur have not been given a fair deal in economic, political and in the sphere of employment (Ziipao 2016). This is also evident in the disparity of infrastructure development as presented in Table 1. The observation of Bodhi (2013) on widening politico-historical gap between the Indian state and the Adivasi is equally relevant in the context of Manipur between tribes and the state as the empirical data emerging from the field points towards this.

“The manifest situation, unfortunately, is the widening politico historical gap that already existed between the Indian State and the Adivasi peoples. The end result of this problematic, characterised by a brutal imposition of the state framework on Adivasi realities, being the disconnect, deprivation and further estrangement of Adivasis from Indian State couples with a wringing subjective distortion of Adivasi lived-reality. This is related in many ways to their subjective alienation and felt-loss of command over what they conceived to be their naturally endowed resources and their culturally embedded life worlds.”

Structural domination by the Meitei community continues to be a hurdle for infrastructural development of tribal dominated districts in Manipur. The development disparity, widening of social relation between state and tribes, Meiteis and tribes, and among tribes goes beyond the popular concept of centre and periphery. The dynamics of articulation between the Meiteis and tribes is problematic since there is a domination which is deeply rooted and has led to the structural inequality of various ethnic communities. This structural domination finds expression politically, economically, socially and numerically.

In Conclusion

Apart from skewed infrastructure development between hills and valley districts, the state is faced with political instability, law and order problems, layers of corruption, systemic loopholes in implementation of various programmes, contradiction between different ethnic communities, issue of uniform land laws, political manipulation of ethnicity, deeply embedded hostility between hills and valley, increasing securitisation, and mushrooming insurgencies. All of these have a bearing on infrastructure development. In the words of Calvin[5], the then chairperson of the United People’s Front, “If one can understand the cross-cutting issues in Manipur and resolve these with an amicable solution acceptable to all ethnic communities in the state then one can become an international consultant."

Siphoning of funds, structural inequality, wide disparity, linkages and relationship among different stakeholders are the key factors leading to poor and uneven distribution of infrastructure, widening infrastructure gap, and disempowerment of ethnic minorities. Hence one can conclude that creation and maintenance of poor infrastructure and the disparities between the hills and the valley go beyond the infamous "Unholy Trinity," that is, nexus of politicians-bureaucrats-contractors as articulated by Thumra (2000) and Horam (2000). It includes insurgents, elites and Imphal-centric influential people—Meitei politicians and public intellectuals, as well as certain civil society leaders. This vicious cycle perpetuated by the state gets legitimatised in the realms of operation. Whomsoever disturbs this nexus is either excluded or sidelined from the process either by the state or non-state actors.

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