The construction of a railway track in Tamenglong district has raised concerns among the villagers.
Land grabbing is a highly topical issue in India today. Across the country, the state is claiming land in the name of development. Often, the controversial Land Acquisition Act is used, that renders legal the acquisition of land for public purpose. But lately, what falls under the concept of public purpose has been heatedly debated. From protests against the Tata Nano project in West Bengal to the ongoing resistance to Posco investment in Orissa, activists and ordinary villagers have stepped in to question the legitimacy of various projects backed by the state. People have started raising doubts about the ideals of development and economic growth, which are repeatedly brandished to justify lands being snatched away, populations displaced, and communities shattered and impoverished.
In Tamenglong district, in Manipur,a similar conflict is taking place between the villagers and the state. The discontent has crystallized around the construction of a railway, leading from Jiribam to Tupul, via Imphal. Honest observers would concede that the state of Manipur, and the North East regions in general, suffer from an acute shortage of infrastructure. In particular, the state is lagging behind on many development indexes, due to its geographical isolation and to the underdeveloped road network.
In this context, railway construction should have been welcomed heartily by Manipuri people. But, as often happens, the process of land acquisition was marred with blunders, provoking reactions of anger among the villagers. Achungmei, Community Correspondent in the state, has collected the grievances of the villagers from Tupul, the town where the railway is meant to stop. All of them deplore the fact that they have not been consulted by the government prior to the construction. What’s more, the project has resulted in numerous farmers forcefully having their land taken away. Thus, the construction project disrupts the entire traditional economy that still prevails in these parts of India. Around 80% of the workers in the region are still living off agriculture. The villagers will be compensated with cash, but they will have lost ancestral lands, that were an economic safety net for many of them. It is commonly known that in such cases, the little cash amounts received in exchange to the land is often misused and rapidly blown away.
What’s more, most of the villagers are still waiting to be compensated by the state. Those who already received their compensation have often been heavily taxed by insurgent groups that proliferate the region. Last but not least, the railway construction has disrupted the ecosystem of the region, causing massive mudslides. The whole chaotic process exemplifies what is likely to happen when projects undertaken in the name of development are imposed on people without any form of prior consultation.
A villager states wisely: “The railway project will be a boon for some people, but a bane for others.” And rightly, the railway track is likely to benefit a choice few who can afford the luxury to travel. For the villagers along the track who have watched their land being taken away from then, the railway construction is a constant reminder of what they lost.