The dreaded cycle of bamboo flowering returns after forty eight years to render the Tipaimukh agrarian population in hunger. While the epicentre of the phenomenon negotiates with famine after the food crisis, the Government of Manipur is yet to address the plights of the hungry constituencies.
The predicted fear of famine did not spare the distressed agrarian villagers in Tipaimukh sub-division in Manipur’s Churachandpur district, which is the epicentre of the dreaded gregarious bamboo flowering or mautam (in Hmar Mizo). Sub-divisions adjoining Tipaimukh, Thanlon, Singat and Henglep were also chronically affected by severe food crisis after the natural phenomenon. The alarming increase of rats, rodents, birds, insects, and wild animals after the bamboo flowering has severely destroyed all standing crops, leaving the self-reliant farmers with nothing. Since the latter part of 2007 the bamboo flowering has resulted in a full blown food crisis. “There was nothing left for us to harvest. Not even a sheave of grain. Not even the chillies, sesame and maize. We battled with the rats, rodents, insects and wild animals over our hard toiled crops. In the end we get nothing out of it. We are not even left with seeds. Today we are living with hunger. We are doomed and shattered. Only God knows what holds for us”, Fimlawithang of Parvachawm village said. Fimlawithang and his son, Hmangailien walked for more than eight hours to Senvon village with the quest to buy rice. They met with their anguish when they discovered that the merciless local inflation has severely reduced their buying power. “What little is available is too costly for us to afford. The other day I was told that AAY/BPL/APL rice is available for Rs. 15 a kilo, today it is being sold at Rs.18 a kilo. How on earth could we afford such soaring prices when we don’t have any other source of income at all?”, Fimlawithang added.
The natural phenomenon of bamboo flowering has been recorded to have happened in 1862, 1881, 1911-12 and 1959 too. It re-occurs after every forty eight years. All of them resulted in severe famine. According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests 159th Report, the 1959 famine claimed between 10,000 and 15,000 lives in Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and Barak Valley of Assam. Not only that the food crisis and unrest in the midst of the bamboo flowering during 1958-60 gave birth to the Mizo National Famine Front in the year 1960, who then took to arms under the banner of Mizo National Front (1961), waging for more than 20 years of arms struggle for secession and sovereignty from India.
This time the food crisis and hunger after the bamboo flowering has once again stirred public discontentment and distrust with the Government of Manipur. The hunger in the belly of the fringe Tipaimukh constituency has become fiercer when the government, despite the predicted phenomenon, failed to bring any succour to the distressed agrarian population. While the helpless hungry population sees no immediate sign of Manipur Government’s intervention to address their deteriorating plights, Vawmkapthruom Pulamte said, “Our trust has ended with the Manipur government. Our situation under the government of Manipur is worse than that of any abandoned orphans or surrogate children. See the state of absence of any form of government’s intervention in the interest of welfare and development. There is none. Even the National Highway 150 and the bridges have not been maintained for more than 20 years. We are not provided with any lifeline. On the other side in Mizoram while AAY/BPL/APL rice is available for Rs. 3 and Rs. 6 a kilo, here in our village in Lungthulien it is priced at Rs. 18 a kilo. Even that is hardly available. Our existence as human being would not survive under such irresponsible government. We cannot belong here.”
Saikapkim of Pavachawm village said that their crop destroyers rendered them “hopeless and helpless.” She said, “They gnawed and ate everything that we had in one night. Our family did not harvest even a handful of rice from our jhum field. They also destroyed all the other crops. They did not spare us anything for seeds too.” Majority of the Tipaimukh villagers shared the same view with Saikapkim. Cornered with the situation, many of the jhum farmers could not even imagine of preparing new jhum fields for this year. Sangrem of Leisen village said, “How on earth could we prepare our jhum fields without any seeds? We are at loss. The bamboo flowering has shattered our livelihood system and it will take us many more years to recover from this big loss.” Lalchunghnung of Senvon village said, “I will never forget the day my wife returned from our jhum field crying like a little kid. I asked her what she was crying over to which she replied that there is not even a sheaf left for us. That day was like a mourning day for the family.” The same fate took a toll on many of the villagers too. Sangneikhum of Senvon also said, “I have no words when I found my ripen sheaves all gone in one night. I stood frozen in my jhum field. I had no courage to return home and tell my family that our long and weary toil has vanished. Seeing my ravaged field was like seeing the end of everything. It was like losing the most important battle in my life.” Hrangtlunglien of Leisen village also said, “After the rats, rodents and wild animals invaded our crops the entire village was left with nothing. Our hope of celebrating a grand 2007 Christmas was all gone. So with whatever little we had we thought of celebrating Christmas in October because we would have no food to eat after October.” A Pastor from Leisen village said, “That October morning I hired a good number of our villagers for the harvest. But when we reached my jhum field there was nothing left for me. All was gone. The invaders did not leave behind even a single sheave for me. I was shocked and nervous. I did not know what to do so I said a prayer with the villagers in the middle of the ravaged field and returned in silence with a heavy heart.”
On being asked what their most urgent need is, the distressed villagers response was “food.” However, the quest of the hungry population in Tipaimukh is not limited to their demand for food alone. This time it has gone beyond their nagging hungry quest to aspire for a government that has the political will to be responsible and proactive and a government that could be close to them. Tipaimukh, which is marred with sub-human poverty, food insecurity and near famine situation even in their best of times, is today a simmering pot of anger and discontentment with their unabated hunger. It would not be a mistake if the expressed public sentiment is read as a threat to the security and stability of the present government. The MNF inspired arms movement compelled by the food crisis during the previous bamboo flowering in the early part of 1960’s is still fresh in the memory of Tipaimukh villagers, who were also part of the historic movement that eventually ended with the birth of Mizoram. The desperation of the hungry and unrepresented population touched a new height as they talked of a “different government”, which they said is “necessary.” Besides confronting many such discussions, I was told that the subject have already become a “popular and necessary past time” in the cut-off villages where “governance”, “democracy” and “decentralisation” fails to speak for itself. The quest for survival has necessitated the marginalised villagers to dream of a government, which they are yet to live with.
“After all these years of deprivation”, Ralkapthang said, “what we have realized is that the Government of Manipur did not exhibit any political will towards us. Civil administration did not exist here at all. I will give you a prize if you could spot anything to say ‘this here is handiwork of the government’.” Rosang added, “There is no road. Even the National Highway 150 that is supposed to exist is lost in every nook and corner. No bridges. No health centres. No public distribution system. Nothing. We are surviving miraculously by God’s grace. If there is any government that is representing us, that government should be ashamed.” Zawllienkung said, “I don’t think it would matter to the government even if we all die of hunger or epidemics.”
A peculiarity of these affected constituencies in the heart of the epicentre is that the traditional jhum cultivation is not only a source of food, but also a source of income for the farmers who are still trapped in the slash and burn method of cultivation. These practitioners form the most important group exposed to the risk of hunger. The growing food insecurity is directly associated with a crisis of food production. Such situation has compelled the necessity for instituting a body like the Public Famine Committee (PFC) in Senvon village in the latter part of 2007. Kawlhmingthang Khawlum, chairman of the PFC said, “We are pushed to the brink of hunger and distress as there is no government intervention in sight to address the food crisis. PFC was set up with the objective to activate the government in the interest of relieving the already intolerable situation. Despite that we have severe limitations and our voices are too small to be heard. Moreover we don’t have the resources to travel all the way to Imphal to continuously pursue the government for its intervention.” While there is a body that petitions the government, there are also a band of hunters in Lungthulien village who called themselves Mautam Do Pawl or Fighters of the gregarious bamboo flowering. The leader of the Mautam Do Pawl, Vawmkapthruom Pulamte said, “Mautam Do Pawl was formed by a group of hunter friends who had nothing to harvest in the previous year after the rats, rodents and wild animals invaded our jhum fields. Our livelihood prospect was shattered and we have no other means for survival so we formed the band to hunt down the invaders that destroy our food crops. We have trapped and killed thousands of rats and hundreds of wild animals that destroy our crops and left us doomed. Despite that the increase in population of these invaders is alarming. Had not we hunted them they would have attacked us too.”
The bamboo flowering, which turned out to be the doom flower, has wrecked the entire livelihood cycle of the jhum farmers who are totally dependent on their jhum fields. In the face of hunger, the recent epidemic that shook the hungry constituency has tolled more than 50 lives, mostly infants. The Government of Manipur is yet to reach the cut off villages threatened by the “mysterious disease” with necessary medical aid. The epidemic is equally taking its toll on their cattleheads too. Moreover, many children could not continue with their studies too as the primary focus has shifted from education to “bringing home something to eat.” Rolawm said, “Today, in the face of hunger, the big mad race is to bring home something to eat.” As a result many of the children between the age group of 9-15 are sweeping the vast jungle trapping, hunting or fishing. Many children combed the jungle with their home-made rifle or Hmarkhangzep hunting for any living creature. Immanuel Pulamte said, “I am supposed to join college last year. But my parents asked me to discontinue my studies as we did not harvest anything and there is nothing in the family. Today I am growing ginger with my parents and if we get a good harvest I hope to continue my studies again.” Many young girls like Lalhlimpui, a fifth standard student, left school to toil in the jhum fields.
The village authorities also informed that many children and youths have moved out to Mizoram, Assam, Meghalaya and parts of Manipur in search of work. Lalditum said, “We are all too poor to even move out of our villages to other place. Misery has trapped us in this forsaken place. There is nothing left for us here. But God gave us the hope and strength and we are still scratching for our lives.” Lalsawmlien of Leisen village said, “There is this wild root called Kamantari which is in good demand in Silchar and it is found in our community forest. We don’t know what it is used for. The entire village would hunt for this root, smoke dry them and sell it to agents in Lungthulien village. A kilo of the dry root would fetch Rs.15. If it is not well dried the price is bad again. But today the root is hard to find as the entire village goes looking for it. Everything is working against us. I don’t know what is in store for us.” Rotuoklien Joute said, “Our situation will deteriorate once the monsoon comes. The rivers would be flooded and as there are no bridges over the rivers there won’t be any way out for us. Our survival is at great stake. If the government did not intervene now we will be doomed.”
While the hope and expectation of the Tipaimukh villagers are diminishing, there is an urgent need for the Government of Manipur to draw famine codes for the hungry constituencies for identifying emergencies and measures to be taken up. The Government of Manipur should take the challenge of reaching out to the cut off villages and provide wage employment of public works, which later would become the mainstay of famine relief. This could be initiated by building roads and bridges, which are still absent from linking the villages. The government should also immediately intervene to check and control inflation that has severely hit the jhum farmers who have no other source of income. For this purpose, public distribution system has to be activated and stabilized and food storage facilities have to be installed. The absence of road, which has also paralysed transport and communication, has worsened the plights of the plagued farmers who are totally reliant on own-produced food. The Government of Manipur should also address the plights of the ruined farmers by providing them with seeds. Burdened with all the absence, the apprehension of the distressed villagers grow bigger and taller than their mountains as the rats, rodents and wild animals still eat whatever they sowed in their jhum fields. Lalnghatlien, in his choked voice, said, “We are in vain. Rats, rodents and wild animals are still raiding our fields. Our hope ends here.”
Tipaimukh in Hunger-II
by David Buhril
The withdrawal of the Government of Manipur from the epicentres of the bamboo flowering constituencies in Churachandpur district resulted in ushering the famine even when the alarm bell rang with the predicted phenomenon that struck with clock-like precision. The hunger situation in Manipur’s Tipaimukh and other adjoining constituencies has been worsened before it could get better. Indeed there was no chance to make it better in the absence of any proactive intervention by the Government of Manipur despite the predicted reoccurrence of the gregarious bamboo flowering that struck with a clock-like certainty. With the flower of doom that bloomed since 2006, food crisis deteriorated to create famine as the multiplying invaders – rats, rodents, insects and wild animals – ravaged the jhum fields and destroyed all crops. There was effectively no harvest in 2006. Crops severely failed again in 2007. The thin fabric of food security was depleted and the distressed agrarian population were not even left with seeds for the current year. “Rats and wild animals did not leave us even a single sheaf. It was like a great robbery. It is hard to believe how it all happened. Today it is our turn with the famine”, Rala of Leisen village said. Chawivel said, “I have seen the bamboo flower twice in my life. Our misery remains the same. Food shortage is again inevitably followed by famine, which is our reality today. I don’t know why we could not escape this deplorable situation.” Buongneitling of Senvon village also said, “This is the second time that I lived to see the bamboo flower. It came again with its merciless might. I thought that at least this time the government would act to erase our fear and worries. It is just another false hope. I am already 80 years old, but I still collect firewood to sustain our livelihood as everything failed in this doomed time.” While many of the hungry villagers accepted the destructive hands of the natural phenomenon, there is also a strong quest to explain why they have to live with famine when they are part of a State.” We have been living without any aid from the State for many decades. No roads, no public distribution system, no transport facilities, no health centres. We are living with the absence of everything. But in times like this we felt that it is the obligation of any responsible government to address our plights”, Vawmkapthruom of Lungthulien village said.
The absence of the role of the state actors has marred all prospects of life in these forsaken mountain villages. The rate of inflation is appalling. While in Mizoram, which also falls under the epicentre of the bamboo flowering, AAY rice is available for Rs. 3 per kilo, in Tipaimukh villages it is sold for Rs. 15 in some villages and in many other far-off villages the same rice is sold for more than Rs.20 a kilo. The distressed villagers are victims of entitlement failure. Going by the reality of the unacknowledged state of these hungry constituencies, it is apparent that the Government of Manipur lacked the political structure and the commitment for pursuit of comprehensive strategies of entitlement protection. However, in the absence of the State, entitlement failure seems to have nothing to do with the flourishing illegalities. “We are reduced to nothing as the prices of food have rocketted beyond our reach. There is no rice to buy in our village. We have to walk for more than eight hours to buy rice if we have the money, which is rare. Everything turned out to be so empty and we are so powerless. Many of us do not even have ten rupees in the family. I don’t know how we would carry on”, Vula of Lesien village said.
Seven villages in Tipaimukh, out of the 93 hill villages in the five hill districts of Manipur, were notified in September 2007 for establishing village grain bank by taking into account the realities of their inaccessibility and food scarcity. However, the listed villages are without the proposed grain bank. Worse, the famine stricken villagers did not know about the existence of any grain bank in their respective villages. The problems of famine and epidemics in Manipur’s Churachandpur district, despite the natural phenomenon, were purportedly caused by reasons that falls within the capacity of the government. Sawma of Parvachawm village said, “If the Government of Manipur had not avoided its responsibilities we would have found the great escape from these unfortunate epidemic deaths and famine. Our losing experiences will go down in history to tell the generations of the fear of the bamboo flower.”
For the usually self- reliant traditional jhum farmers, the bamboo flowering resulted not only famine but also a collapse of their entire livelihood system and social breakdown. With the destruction of the jhum fields, which is the only reliable source of security, the distressed villagers found themselves severely alienated as they are not left with any other alternatives to secure themselves. The growing sense of alienation has assumed a stronger assertion when in January 2008, the Tipaimukh Area Development Front (TADF) in its SOS call to the Prime Minister stated, “The tribal people of Tipaimukh sub-division would be obliged to, from now onwards, submit their Hills House tax to the Government of Mizoram as a token of their feelings of belonging and allegiance to the State”. While the hungry constituencies found themselves distanced and alienated, the authorities should act immediately to win them back. It must be remembered that such feeling, amidst the same bamboo flowering, ignited the Mizo National Front (MNF) that waged a bloody movement for “sovereignty” and “secession” in the 1960s.
With the bamboo flower shattering the livelihood system, the usually self-reliant and independent agrarian population were compelled to find an alternative means to support themselves. The options are running out with limited avenues in the cut-off mountain villages. “The entire village resorted to the forest and rivers to find anything that would relief our hunger. Everything is running out and there is not much left in the forest and the rivers. But for now they are all that we could count to”, Thuomlien of Sartuinek village said. Many parents told this correspondent that their children had moved out of their villages to Mizoram and other states in search of jobs. Besides, many families have migrated to other states to escape the famine. “We the remainders are the weaker lot. We are left with no choice but to hook on to this forsaken place despite the famine and the epidemics. If we could make our choice we would have moved out of this place anywhere”, Hrangtlunglien of Leisen village said. Efforts were made by various church organisations and NGOs to distribute rice in some villages. However, with their limited resources the church organisations and the NGOs could not do much to tackle the gigantic challenge of erasing the hunger and getting back the devastated agrarian population on their feet. Despite that many villagers said that they would be pushed to the brink of death if the church organisations had not intervened.
While the long inaction of the Government of Manipur in the face of the deteriorating famine has become intolerable, it issued an order on March 13, 2008 “to release a part of wages of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in foodgrain and part in cash as the situation demands.” Accordingly, the Deputy Commissioner, District Programme Co-ordinator and Programme Officer are authorised to facilitate the procurement and distribution of the foodgrain through the department of food and civil supply (FCS) on the condition that the village authorities deposit a part of earned wage of the household to the concerned district authorities. The order also made it necessary for the district authorities to charge for transportation, loading/unloading and other overhead charge to be incurred during the procurement and distribution of foodgrain from the beneficiaries. The government’s efforts to tie the NREGS money for procuring foodgrain was sharply confronted by the Churachandpur District Students’ Union (CDSU) who felt that the Government of Manipur’s response to the calamity was found “starkly wanting.”
The student body was severely dissatisfied as no relief or rehabilitation measures were initiated by the government despite the allocation of 9.9 crore in the State annual budget, 2006-2007 for rodent control, relief, resettlement and checking shifting cultivation in the bamboo flowering areas. The student body strongly asserted against the government’s attempt to provide rice at open market rate of APL rice from the NREGS money, which is seen as an “attempt to robbed the poor man’s share of the centrally sponsored scheme.”
The Government of Manipur’s efforts of procurring foodgrain from the NREGS money brought immense worry to the distressed villagers too. “What will remain for us if the government use our NREGS money to buy us rice and charge all the loading / unloading and transportation cost?” Vawmkapthruom of Lungthulien village asked. “There are no motorable road that links our village. The nearest village with motorable road is more than eight hours walk from our village. If the government charge all the transportation, loading and unloading cost as well as the head load charges, there won’t be anything left for us. All our NREGS money would be lost on the way”, Thanglien of Leisen village said. Zawla of Sartuinek village also asked, “When it takes more than two days to reach our village from the district headquarters, I don’t think our little share of the NREGS money would have any meaning anymore when it reached us. Is there no other way out to tackle the famine?”
The insensitivity of the government has further pushed the devastated villagers to perceived their status as politically inferior to those who governed them. This status, under the Government of Manipur, made their plights seem insignificant and much less urgent, which eventually caused it to be misperceived. The Trevelyan, if not Smith’s like attitude is influential in persuading the government to do nothing even when the distressed villagers in the epicentre of the bamboo flowering were being pushed to the brink of famine and epidemics. The inconvenient attitude has dulled and extinguished the possible space for active sympathies and intervention that might have sustained political will to alleviate the immense suffering associated with reliance on the poor civil administration that is actually absent in the fringe mountain villages where hunger and death stalk unabated. It is appalling how the authorities play the mitigating game despite the challenge that it grapples with the moral indefensibility of epidemic deaths and unabated famine.
The long tour across the hungry constituencies brought to light that the Government of Manipur do not yet have the policies to match its commitments, if it has any. The ravaged villagers are without any grain bank or godown. There are no health centres and doctors. There are no motorable road in most of the villages. Worse, the government’s public distribution system (PDS) does not exist at all. Despite the crisis bell that rang much in advance to announce the inevitable cycle of the natural phenomenon the government of Manipur did not take up any measures to combat the destructive consequences. There is an urgent need to contain the current spiral of price level of rice and other food items, which would be possible only if the government intervene to redress the ongoing crisis. This is where the role of PDS in containing price increase comes in. The uncontrolled price spiral in the absence of food stock is an evidence of the withdrawal of the government who, otherwise, ought to be the responsible actor. The famine that hit the epicentres of the bamboo flowering constituencies, therefore, resulted not merely out of the natural phenomenon, but mostly due to the withdrawal of the state from all avenues that requires its role. The vacuum left unoccupied by the State is the reason behind the failure to immunise these marginalised constituencies from epidemic deaths and famine, which are the two major problems confronted by the distressed villagers.
Intervention should come from the government primarily, which has to be urgent. Although it has missed the precautionary measures the Government of Manipur ought to act immediately to set its hungry house in order. It would relief the hungry and vulnerable constituencies that are devastated by the bamboo flowering if the government declares it as “disaster prone area”, which is their reality. The Government of Mizoram has, in September 2007, declared the State with the same tag when the same doom flower has overblown. The Government of Manipur is yet to recognise and identify the severity of the calamity in the cut-off mountain villages in Churachandpur district, which is the epicentre of the bamboo flowering. The government has to avail alternative resources, other than the NREGS, to combat the famine in Churachandpur district and other hill districts that share the same problem. The NREGS may provide a social safety net for the poverty stricken population, but procurring rice from the NREGS money to tackle the famine is more a reactionary haste and an all end approach. The Government of Manipur could avail funds such as Additional Central Assistance from the Planning Commission, 12th Finance Commission and , if necesssary, also from the Calamity Relief Fund under the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Government of Manipur still has to reach the fringe mountain villages to build infrastructures to link and interlink them with roads and bridges, which are still absent. Wage employment of public works should be availed to the famine stricken villagers, which later would become the mainstay of famine relief. Besides, public distribution system has to be activated and stabilised. The problems of hunger, food insecurity and epidemic deaths will continue to have long and wider dimensions and will persist and even increase unless urgent, determined and concerted action following a stronger political will is taken.