Hills of Neglect

North East SUN , november 1-15, 2009

Hills of Neglect
Ninglun Hanghal

“Self rule is not a new concept. Chieftainship existed and continued in Manipur even after passing of the village authorities act and the hill areas acquisition of Chief’ rights act in 1967, proving the villages not desirable for the common people due to their structures and institutionalised village societies.”

After 20 years of silence an independent District Council in the hills of Manipur will rise hopefully by the end of the year. All these years, the ADCs of Chandel, Churachandpur, Senapati, Sadar hills, Tamenglong and Ukhrul were without “power” and “authority”. With the Governor of the State pushing in and the Tribal Minister assuring his hope during the assembly session, the ADC poll fever kick started at several quarters. Spear headed by the hill people under the Indigenous Democratic Forum and the Tribal Council.

Decentralization is a popular emerging perception of good governance and a basis of development paradigm in India. It is a prerequisite as well as an important factor for a successful functioning of democracy. Decentralization process in Manipur was introduced in the form of Panchayti Raj in the valley and the “tier- less” District Council in the hill areas.

Post Second World War “nation state” boundaries were being drawn. The “hill areas” of the present Manipur too came under the Indian Union. Till then (if history was rightly understood) these areas were “governing themselves” under the administration of the village Chief who looked after all the affairs of the village under his jurisdiction. Social life, tradition and custom were centred on the Chief and his associate - advisers. The process of governing (democratically) these areas and establishment of administrative institutions were initiated during the colonial rule, way before India’s Independence. Many colonial officers served as Sub Divisional, Block and Circle Officers and other administrative heads (..by an order of Sir Nicholas Beatson – Bell , Chief Commissioner of Assam in 1919, the Sub Divisional Office head quarter of Churachandpur was established and B.C Gasper was the first Sub Divisional Officer )

To strengthen democracy, the existing systems were further furnished in post Independent India. The Manipur Village Authority (hill areas) act was constituted in 1956. The hill people exercised their adult franchise to elect the members. The number of members of the village authority was based on the number of tax-paying house. To further empower the hill people The Manipur Hill Areas Acquisition of Chief’s Rights Act, was passed in the Assembly in 1967. In an attempt to abolish chieftainship in the hill areas, which was regarded as a hindrance to people’ participation in the democratic process.

Moreover, when Manipur attained Statehood in 1971, the democratic status was elevated by the India Parliament with the passing of the Manipur ( Hill Areas) District Council Act 1971 under 5th schedule, article 244 and article 371C of the Indian Constitution. Accordingly the hill areas were divided into six autonomous districts, each consisting of 18 elected and 2 nominated members. The first district council election in Manipur was held in 1973.

This democratic institution underwent through rough ride. The District Council began to be suspended from 1988 and was fully dissolved in 1990. Since then, all the hill district of Manipur came under the concern Deputy Commissioners. The Manipur Assembly Hill Areas committee in 1990 passed a resolution that elections for District Council will not be held till the provision for the 6th schedule were extended to the hill areas. Once again since early this year talks of holding election to the District Council resurfaced in the State Assembly.

If the provisions in the act were rightly interpreted, the role and “power” of the District Council is limited to implementation of plans and projects authorized by the District Administrator. Centrally approved and allocated ‘funds’ requires a protocol to pass through the State Government, the concern Department Commissioners and the District Officials. In terms of legislative matters the District Council can only ‘recommend’ that too on matters related to socio – cultures and customary practises like marriages. While all cases are decided in the District court, the Council does not hold any judicial power. In financial matters, the district council can levy tax on various items like tradable commodities or tax from a “paan” – betel shop, which is submitted to the District Administration.

Though there is no level or tiers in the Hill Areas, village authority is understood as the lowest level and the District Council as the next level of local governance in Manipur. Participation in the form of exercising adult franchise is regarded as one major success of a democratic process. The Village Authority and District Council were to replace the traditional village courts and administration. As a governing body, the District Council is supposed to function in the interest of its stake holders – the hill people, to adopt policies, make decisions and evaluate. On the other hand administration, development and particularly law and order in the hill areas are under the control of the District Administration – the Deputy Commissioners, the Superintendent of Police and other Departmental Commissioners of the State.

The forces of democracy and decentralization of power are shaping the world of the common people in the hill areas. Thoughts and practices are being transformed in tandem to the changing world order. Showing the way out of the hierarchical and feudal lordship of the Chief in the hill areas. Breaking from geographical barriers and isolation, the hill areas are liberated to take its own form and shape. Bestowed with individual freedom, fundamental rights and constitutional legitimacy, it is now open before the people to decide for the people.

Self rule is not a new concept; autonomous “chiefdoms” existed and continued even during the colonial times in the hills of Manipur. By and large these “autonomous villages” may not be desirable for the common people, due to its structure and institutionalized village societies. It may be also noted that even after passing the Village Authorities Act and the Hill Areas Acquisition of Chiefs’ Rights Act, chieftainship continues to prevail. The architect of the Indian constitution Dr Ambedkar himself do not think highly of “the little republics” a term given by the Governor-General of India 1835-36 to the self contained village communities govern by a body called Panchayat. Ironically, these village panchayat were the central ideological framework of India’s national movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.