Deep in Manipur, on the border with Myanmar, in a village with 400 people, is coming up one of Modi government’s planned 100 smart cities. Power is here as is a new road, but from local protests to an unclear agenda, there are miles to go.
Photographs: DEEPAK SHIJAGURUMAYUM
Haollenphai is an unremarkable village. Like thousands of others scattered across the many hill ranges and flatlands of Manipur state. A village of 70 households and approximately 400 people scraping a living off the land and through daily labour in the bustling township of Moreh, 2 km away.
But life in Kuki-dominated Haollenphai, located right on the Indo-Myanmar border, is set to change. Last year, it was named as the site of one of Narendra Modi government’s much-touted 100 smart cities, and one of the nine to come up in the Northeast.
As the cool Manipuri hills descend into thickly forested humid Burmese plains, one stumbles upon Haollenphai down a newly-built road from Moreh, in Chandel district. With the sun directly overhead, it is unbearably hot here even in the middle of winter. The river running next to the village forms a natural boundary. On the right side lies India, on the left, Myanmar.
Haollenphai is one of Manipur’s newer villages. It was established in 1992 after violent clashes between the Nagas and the Kukis left nearly 1,000 Kukis dead, and around 100,000 homeless. It was in Moreh that the clashes had first started, with the NSCN(IM) trying to claim dominance and facing resistance from the dominant Kuki clans.
There is some fresh construction in the village, including a gate that is only now being built as Haollenphai finds itself on the map. The houses around are quite like the houses across the border in Myanmar, all standing on stilts. A white spiralling dome of a Burmese pagoda is visible from the road.
A young man sputters past on a Kenbo 125 — a cheap, Chinese-make Burmese bike — breaking the quiet. But before long, the silence rolls back and settles on Haollenphai again.
The village has only one basic grocery store, stocked with packets of preserved fruit called Pinme and Poe Poe, as well as mackerel in tomato sauce, ‘Flying Tiger’ sardines, and XinXing and Win cigarettes — all from Myanmar, smuggled across the porous border.
There is no drinking water supply. A stream runs to the west and villagers fetch water from there in makeshift pipes.
The sole car belongs to the village chief, 55-year-old Lalkholen Haokip. He also owns Haollenphai’s only television —the Tata Sky dish antenna atop his pucca house stands out. His television runs on power drawn from solar panels, also brought from Myanmar.
The only electricity the rest of Haollenphai had seen till 20 days ago was a single bulb strung from a pole, powered by a number of inexpensive solar panels at the centre of the village. Since the past few days, power comes — if intermittently — and lights up small hutments.
There are other signs of the coming change. Such as the 130-km-long highway from Moreh that has reached up to Haollenphai, and is into its last 30 km up ahead now. The construction of the Moreh-Tengnoupal-New Samtal (MTNS) road began in 2011, when Manipur planned a new township in these parts and much before the idea of the smart city.
However, with the Haollenphai Smart City now set to be linked to Imphal and New Delhi, construction has gathered pace.
The village was identified as site for a smart city because of its proximity to Moreh, seen by both the Indian and Myanmarese governments as a key town for development of trade between the countries as well as Delhi’s gateway to other South East Asian countries.
Currently Moreh is both small and unplanned, as well as undeveloped, with little scope for in situ redevelopment. Back in 2012, the Manipur government had sent a proposal to the Centre for a New Moreh Township. When the Modi government took over, it converted that into a smart city proposal.
The idea is to develop Haollenphai as a trading centre for business with South East Asia, complete with immigration centres and checkposts. Haollenphai will also get healthcare and educational institutions, and provisions for an information technology sector. Tourism will get a boost through amusement parks, shopping and cultural centres. Residential colonies are also being planned. However, the state administration is not very clear on the “smart city” angle of it.
A smart city is a city designed to use technology to run itself and manage resources efficiently, from public transport and water distribution to waste-disposal.
Haollenphai has only one small school of 20 students currently, called the Ebenezer Model Academy, a church that also bears the name Ebenezer, and no health centre. The nearest hospital is in Moreh.
Chandel district, with a population of 1.4 crore, has two government hospitals, four community health centres and 26 dispensaries. But there is a severe shortage of both doctors and nurses since most do not want to be posted in distant hill districts.
Manipur, an agrarian state, has virtually no industry. The smart city will essentially give a push to setting up an IT industry in the state.
Setting up the basic infrastructure for the new township alone will cost
Rs 1,647.88 crore.
Says Additional Deputy Commissioner, Moreh, Robert Kshetrimayum, “We have conducted a preliminary survey of 3,000 acres of land which is to be acquired for the smart city. Beyond that, we have received no further instructions from the revenue department of the government.”
Under the Manipur Land Revenue Act, hill districts of the state are not to be surveyed. The lands in these areas are jointly owned by the community and have no private ownership.
The main road of Haollenphai, like the villages and hills here, hugs the Burmese border. As many as 200 labourers have been working on it round the clock — 50 of them brought in from Dumka, Jharkhand, 1,037 km away, and the rest from nearby Timinon village.
Timinon village, where the road ends currently, hosts an Assam Rifles camp. Officer in-charge Ramlal Thakur of the Border Road Task Force says the road will be completed by this year-end. The Assam Rifles personnel are excited. “First we got the road and now we have got electricity. Before that, this area used to be in darkness and it was a difficult posting,” says a personnel from Haryana.
However, even with the many obvious advantages of a smart city, there is much local opposition. Moreh, Imphal and even New Delhi have seen protests. Ministers and officials arriving to survey the area for the proposed smart city have been turned back by mobs.
Seikholen Haokip, 24, is a carpenter but does odd jobs to make ends meet. Along with his family, Haokip had moved to Haollenphai from Chassad village in the NSCN(I-M)-dominated Ukhrul district during the clashes. “No one in the village is happy with this idea of a smart city.
We have been told that 3,000 acres of our land is to be acquired. Many officials and even ministers have tried coming here but we have turned them away. We are surprised that you have come or even heard of us. We’ve never had the media come here before,” says Haokip. Not even when the same village was in the eye of a storm during the Indo-Myanmar dispute last year over pillar 76 on the border.
The border pillars were placed by the Indian government some time in the 1950s. The Burmese have now set up a makeshift army camp as well as raised a wooden fence. “The camp and fence came up just a month ago. The Burmese have taken a lot of our land but the government doesn’t seem to care,” says Letjangam Haokip, the son of the Haollenphai village chief.
He adds that his father did not give permission for acquisition of land for the smart city. “This project is not helpful to us. We are jhoom (slash and burn) cultivators and land is our mainstay,” Letjangam says.
“When we first came to know that a great city would be built here, we were excited. We thought it would be like the cities we see on television — with big buildings, trade centres, all lit up by electricity with lots of roads and markets. We heard that the Manipur government would acquire 300 acres.
Then we heard 1,000 acres, then 2,000 and now we have been told 3,000 acres. This changing figure makes us very suspicious. The Meiteis (Manipuri Hindus) rule the whole state. Now they will take our lands as well,” says Seikholen.
It’s this mistrust between communities in Manipur, going back decades, that forms the crux of the opposition. The Kuki Students Organisation (KSO) has been at the helm of the protests. While talking about the changing government figures, Seiboi Haokip, KSO general secretary, says, “We don’t trust the state government. We find them communal and they never do anything to benefit the tribals. What is the secret agenda of the government? If they really want a smart city, why can’t they just build one in Imphal? They are trying to take control of Moreh.”
A dusty untopped road branching off from National Highway 39, on the other side of Moreh, takes one to Chehlep village. The road dips and then ascends suddenly to three adjacent knolls surrounded by an expanse of unending mountains. Tucked away on these three knolls are three Kuki insurgent camps. One of these three camps — Hermon — houses the once dreaded Kuki National Army. It is still well guarded with armed insurgents patrolling tall iron gates round the clock.
Henlen is the commander-in-chief of the Hermon camp, which houses around 150 insurgents. While the Kuki groups in Manipur may all be under a Suspension of Operation pact with the Centre, they still wear their dark green uniforms — modelled, ironically, on the Indian Army.
“We will not let the smart city come up,” says Henlen. “Let there be a separate political boundary for the Kukis first. If the Manipur government sets up a smart city, control will pass over to the Meiteis. The UNLF and PLA and other valley groups will have control. It’s an important trading centre and we cannot allow this to happen.”
According to him, “Ninety-nine per cent of Kukis do not want the smart city. We are an oppressed people and the plan seems economically unsound. As far as we can tell, when the smart city is in progress, only 5 per cent of our people will actually be working on the project and benefiting from it. Our livelihood is the jungle, the land, and they are taking that away from us.”
THE BIGGER BROTHER
Two kilometres away, the bustling Moreh has the distinction of being the Northeast’s most lucrative trading town as well as a hub of cross-border smuggling, in both arms and drugs.
Moreh also has another distinction: of being a town with a dwindling population. Moreh once had over 1.5 lakh residents, but various clashes have left its numbers at 40,000.
Interestingly, once those 1.5 lakh comprised a significant number of Tamils who had migrated from Myanmar. The British had taken their ancestors to Rangoon as indentured labour. By 1995, the Tamils had become the most populous and most powerful community here.
The clashes that started around then between the Tamils and Kukis, who were growing in population and power, led first to the exodus of Tamils and then of members of other communities such as Punjabis and Marwaris. Soon after, the Nagas left entirely. Now Moreh is dominated by the Kukis, closely followed by the Meiteis, the Tamils and then the Manipuri Muslims. But since most of the Meitei underground groups are based in Chandel, the district as well as Moreh developed very differently from other parts of the state.
In 2010, for the first time, barter trade between India and Myanmar was formalised, with finalisation of a list of 62 permissible items to be exchanged without currency. Today, trade amounts to approximately Rs 40,000 crore annually, though it is heavily skewed in favour of Myanmar.
With Myanmar being the second largest opium producer in the world and heroin too being in abundance, Moreh forms the fulcrum of the drug trading route as well. Sources in the Assam Rifles say they have recovered Rs 20 crore worth of heroin in the past six months. Long lines of waiting vehicles snake along the road every day as teams of Assam Rifles carry out searches, tapping on car bodies to look for hidden cavities.
“We are constantly recovering either drugs or arms,” says a personnel. “Once we found several revolvers inside the body of a car’s doors.”
Like Haollenphai though, Moreh is a town in flux. There are many signs of government projects on hold. A great mound of rubble and sand marks the proposed Integrated Check Post, an ambitious project to streamline and monitor border trade and formalise movement of people from Myanmar and back. But Myanmar now claims that the checkpost area is spilling over onto their territory. It’s the same story with the border fencing, which is also on hold.
Meanwhile, there are three three-star hotels slotted to come up in the township and property prices have been soaring. The state government is also trying to develop a bus terminal here. The trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand is due to be completed and opened by 2016, while Asian Highways 1 and 2 — one from Singapore, the other from Tokyo — are to enter India through Moreh before moving on to Wagah border and then Istanbul.
It is because of the trade, the smuggling and the potential that lies ahead that the control of Moreh becomes extremely important. A senior officer in the Assam Rifles says that all the factional fights that happen within underground groups are about the control of the township.
The smart city next door will further strengthen Moreh’s position as India’s main road trade centre with other countries. People here, who unlike the residents of Haollenphai, are educated and well-versed in trade, don’t mind that at all.
Among them is S Subramany, of Tamil origin and a trader of Moreh. “The smart city will of course change the landscape. But that is if the Kuki people accept that there will be an influx of people — Meitei or otherwise.”