The recent violent incident in Kangpokpi, Manipur brought to the fore the conflict between various communities and the government over land issue. The government justifies its act of demolition of structures and eviction of the alleged encroachers from government land, while those who are affected and its community claim that the act is arbitrary. However, one fails to understand the claim of illegal imposition of CrPC 144.
Many have expressed concern about the increasing number of illegal immigrants in the state who through hook or crook manage to enter the state and get Aadhaar registration and or inclusion in the state voters list and claim that they are Indian citizens.
Some others even claim that they are migrants from other states of India. But the fact of the matter is that many have come to Manipur from neighbouring countries. And, there are official records to show that many of them are refugees and their descendants settled in the state.
The demographic profiles of the various censuses strongly indicate large-scale immigration from as far back as the 1950s to the 1980s.
All along, the state government has been keeping mum on the issue of large-scale illegal immigration but has awoken recently to the matter and started taking strong action. This was perhaps due to the large-scale poppy plantation carried out in the hills of Manipur and the employment of illegal immigrants in the cultivation of poppy, which is not unexpected as the illegal immigrants have to earn a living and what better than to be involved in high yielding poppy cultivation? (Despite pledges given by various tribe organisations to join the War on Drugs campaign 2.0, there is still widespread poppy plantation in the hill areas, as poppy cultivation fetches hard cash quickly with little effort while traditional agricultural activity requires hard work and a long process).
If the government had after the series of conflicts in Myanmar and Bangladesh had ensured proper registration of the immigrants or refugees and had looked after them as refugees in the state, the problem of unchecked influx of immigrants in the state could have been minimised.
A report last year indicates that there is an explosion in the number of new villages in the state, with many seeking recognition from the government.
It was mentioned that in addition to the existing 2803 villages recorded in the state, another 966 villages are seeking fresh recognition.
The new villages are reported to be 308 from Kangpokpi, 281 from Churachandpur, 205 from Chandel, 130 from Tengnoupal 27 from Senapati, 14 from Pherzawl, and five from Ukhrul, though there is a discrepancy as the total of the district-wise breakup is 970.
The explosion in the number of villages in the state is after the Hills Department took on over itself the responsibilities of granting recognition to new villages sometime in the early 2000s. This is despite the fact that under the Business of the Government of Manipur (Allocation) Rules, 1972 and subsequent amendments district, sub-division, circle and village boundary is within the domain of the Revenue Department.
After the Hill Department was established only, the election of village authorities was transferred from the Revenue Department, which was then handling the matter to it.
One of the reasons why large-scale recognition was given to new villages was lack of proper enquiry and nexus between various groups at different levels. So much so that in 2008, the Revenue Department issued an OM (Office memorandum) clarifying that the power of recognition of new villages vests with the Revenue Department as per the extent Rules but the grant of recognition by Hills Department continues unabated leading to suspensions of some senior officials in the Hills Department.
The Hill Department in its orders invoked the power under Section 3(2) of the Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act, 1956 while granting recognition of new villages which does not at all deal with recognition of villages but rather the establishment of village authorities.
The purpose of village recognition is to assess the Hill House Tax payable under the Manipur Hill Areas (House Tax) Act, 1966 and recognition of hill villages is done under the sovereign power of the State Government and not under any law. The State Government must, therefore, review all such arbitrary and illegal recognition orders issued by the Hill Department till date and make necessary fresh verification and cancel recognition where such villages are located in the Reserve Forest, Protected Forest, Sanctuaries or Government land.
Another claim made is that while declaring forests as reserve or protected, no notice was given to those who had settled therein. When the State Darbar declared Reserve Forest or Valley Forest Reserve, there was no village within the declared areas in the late 1920 and early 1930s. Similarly, when such a declaration was made in the 1960s, objections were invited and based on the claims and objections and hearings, specific areas within the declared areas were set apart for the genuine villages. Perhaps, those who are claiming were either not born or had not migrated by that time.
There are cases where the deputy commissioners of several districts have granted recognition of new villages and this was also illegal and need fresh verification. There was even a case where the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest, Manipur in 2011 had issued a certificate to the effect that a particular village located within Lokchao Wildlife Sanctuary in Chandel district is a recognised village, which was sold to the Assam Rifles; and even now the matter is in limbo with the Assam Rifles still unable to get the necessary documents for land ownership despite tremendous pressure mounted as this was in violation of the orders of the Green Bench of the Supreme Court (The Supreme Court, in a judgment in 1995, states that any settlement by an individual or a group of individuals within reserve forests or protected forests will be treated as encroachment and needs to be evicted.)
Further this official, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), had issued an order referring to an order of Sub Divisional Officer (SDO), Saikul earmarking 20 sq miles of land within the Nongmaiching Forest Reserve in Imphal East district for a particular village which after an RTI (Right to information) application and resulting enquiry found to be not a proper order as neither the relevant file was available in the office nor the order of the SDO, Saikul quoted was found genuine; and the said order of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest cancelled.
With the efflux of time, action cannot be taken against many such officers as some of them have retired long ago or are no longer alive, but they should be named and shamed while those in service must be penalised. The action taken against some officers and staff for land record manipulation is a proper step and must encompass all those who violate the law to make all understand that the long arm of law will reach them ultimately, though it may be slow.
The series of eviction notices issued to such villages located within the Reserve Forest to prove their bonafide is a step in the right direction as opportunity of being heard is the basic principle of natural justice. There is a claim that there is violation of the Indian Constitution and if the claimant feels genuinely about it, let them file a case before the Supreme Court, which is tasked with the interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution.
Another claim is that recognition of villages should be within the domain of the Manipur Hill Areas Committee, which is not an executive but a recommending body just like other Standing Committees of the Legislative Assembly. The only difference is that in all other committees, the decision of the House is final but in the case of the HAC, if there is difference with the House, the arbiter is the Governor.
It may be mentioned that the effort to make the Manipur Hill Areas Committee the sole authority for the governance of the Hill Areas is in violation of Article 371C and the subsequent Presidential order of 1972 and is a total misinterpretation of the provisions.
One fails to understand why the civil society organisations (CSOs) of a particular community in the state are so vexed with the eviction drive conducted by the government against encroachment in forest reserve areas, as in that community all land is owned by the chief and the plebs have no say. That is the reason why private investments are not forthcoming in places where they settle, hindering development, except in those areas where MLR & LR Act (The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, 1960) is extended in places like in Moreh, Churachandpur and Kangpokpi among others.
While the problem of new villages may not be that serious in the valley as villages grow organically by expansion, without any planning and very few new villages were established, there is a need for a land law which is applicable throughout the state with specific chapters for the valley and the hill areas.
Even in the valley, the present classification of land like Ingkhol, Phourel, Anganphou and Taothabi had outlived its utility. In Manipuri context, ingkhol means a plot where there is a residential house with space for kitchen gardening, pond, cattle shed, etc and is not purely a residential plot. Farmland needs to be categorised as irrigated and non-irrigated land.
The sudden realisation of the linkage between illegal immigration and encroachment on forest lands and the linkage with poppy cultivation in the hills of Manipur by the government caused a sudden and sharp reaction which many see as arbitrary and high handed.
If one is aware of the first law of ecology propounded by Barry Commoner in 1971 which states that “Everything is connected to everything else," one would not have been taken by surprise. (Barry's first law reflects the existence of the elaborate network of interconnections in the ecosphere: among different living organisms, and between populations, species, and individual organisms and their physicochemical surroundings).
The state government’s outburst over encroachment in reserve forest areas is understandable but consultation with affected village community leaders should have been taken up with the understanding that those who violate the laws of the land will be dealt with strictly as per the law. No one should be spared.
A more holistic and humane approach would have reduced the sufferings of the eviction drive affected people, but to claim that the government targets a particular community is not borne by facts. It may be recalled that other communities in the state were also affected as is evident in the June 12 and August 4, 2022 Waithou area eviction cases. The target is not a particular community per se but those who encroach on public land.
The Waithou eviction, which drew a strong hue and cry from several sections, included illegal encroachments for settlement, fish farm or commercial fish farm in the Waithoupat water body area. Waithoupat, which once was famous for its indigenous fish lake in the state, with historic significance, is located at east of Tangjeng Ching, Thoubal district, along Imphal-Moreh National Highway.
On June 12, 2022, as per the state government order, as many as 69 houses which illegally encroached upon the Waithou Protected Forest Area were demolished, with heavy reinforcement of police and special security forces.
Forest officials had then said, the eviction was carried out following an eviction notice served on Friday to 71 illegal encroachers or illegal pattadars among the encroachers in the area. The eviction notice states that the encroachers were served -how cause notice under Rule number 73 of Manipur Forest Rules, 2021 to submit their replies why they should not be evicted from the forest land and why the structures should not be dismantled.
It may also be mentioned that 19 houses in Langol Reserve Forest, 26 houses in Iroisemba-Langol Reserve Forest, 86 houses in Heingang Reserve Forest and 76 houses in Nongmaiching Reserve Forest were recently demolished as a part of the eviction drive.
(The views expressed are personal)