Behind the violence, grabbing Hill lands for palm oil manufacture: Manipur

Behind the unchecked targeted violence against the Hill peoples who are a numerical minority in Manipur, be it the Kuki Zo or Nagas lie a myriad theories; what is least spoken about however is the calculated game plan to capture hill land (currently home to Kukis) for the “production of palm oil” combined with enabling steps by influential Meiteis to get hold of the Adivasi and Kuki land which is in the hilly areas.
Image: AFP

Manipur has been under siege of sectarian strife, uncontrolled by the state machinery, for the past two and a half months. The visible violence began on May 3 has not yet been quelled. A May 5 report in the Wire, which is one media portal that has consistently covered the plight of people in the state, revealed then that without any formal announcement or order, public government officials announced at a press conference that Article 355 of the Indian Constitution was imposed in the state and, as a result a security advisor had been assigned by the Union government to the state. It was the head of Manipur’s state police that made the announcement on May 6 and the state has seen an unrelenting internet ban (bar a few days before the infamous and shocking video of two Kuki women being stripped and violently assaulted surfaced on July 19).

The continuing violence has resulted in human rights violation in the state which is bordered by Bangladesh and Myanmar has seen the cold blooded massacre of over 130 people killed, numerous churches (and some temples) torched, women sexually assaulted by mobs, , and thousands of people displaced.

The violence in the state appears to have erupted after a protest by all tribal student union (ATSUM) in opposition to the judgement of high court which has favoured the majority (in the plains) Meitei community being granted the scheduled tribe status in the state where they make up around 53% of the total population. There have been varied speculations and a myriad of theories behind the actual reason behind the eruption of such large-scale civil war in the state that is home to about 3.3 million people.

Some of the most common theories that are making rounds on the internet are that it is a drive of the Biren Singh government against the minority Kukis who are alleged to be involved in illegal poppy cultivation, for some it is because of the migration from Myanmar which is hampering the state’s demography , for others it is the game plan to capture hill land (currently home to Kukis) for the “production of palm oil” combined with a steps by influential Meiteis to get hold of the Adivasi and Kuki land which is in the hilly areas.

It is therefore important for us to understand the geographical division of the state, Manipur has 10% of the total area as Valley which is home to Meitei people and the rest of the area is Hills which are inhabited by the Kuki Zo and Naga community. The state has sixty assembly seats out of which 40 are in the valley and the rest are in the hilly areas. From government’s office to crucial educational institutions like NIT, hospitals, offices, and various infrastructure, these are concentrated in the Valley area. The Meitei enjoy privilege in terms of political representation and enjoyment of infrastructural facilities that are scarce in the hilly areas. Major business and trade are also carried out in the valley region contributing to the growth of the community and exposure to major progress. On the contrary the hill areas have poor performance indicators according to the data provided by the ministry of development of the northeast region (DONER).

There was a long standing demand from the Meitei community to be included in the Scheduled Tribe list, too, a matter that needed to be addressed: it is also a complex demand because the community is privileged in terms of their counterparts; they also enjoy reservation as scheduled caste (SC) in the state and also enjoy the reservation of other backward classes (OBC) and as economically backward classes (EBC) categories. The Meitei language is also the lingua franca of the state and is included among the 22 recognised languages under the VIIIth schedule of the Indian Constitution. On the face of it, the majority community’s claim for inclusion as Scheduled Tribe (STs) looks indefensible as among the specifications for tribes (and communities of forest dwellers) who fall into the scheduled category include traits of origin in the area, tilling of lands, distinctive culture and traditions (as indigenous peoples), geographical isolation, and backwardness in access to economic and socio-political status and resources. Though this criterion is not spelt out in the Constitution, it is reasonably well established.

There have been aggressively voiced concerns (bordering on hysteria) from the majority community and the elected government about the illegal immigration of Burmese and people from different Indian states in the state which “threatens the culture and traditions of the majority”. According to chief minister N Biren Singh there are about 2000 Burmese nationals in the state. If this is true the number is too insignificant to pose threat to the state population of around 2.8 million as per 2011 census data. It is also important to know that Manipur is one of the most protected state in northeast with an inner line permit system which restricts the entry and stay (residence) of people from across India as well requires them to have a special permit to do so.

It is evident now that the issue of inclusion of Meitis within the ST list is an issue related to easy access to land. Once effected (recognition as STs), the community will obtain rights to purchase land in the hill areas. This right was earlier restricted to the Meitis under section 158 of MLR (Manipur Land Reform) Act and LR (Land Reform ) Act 1960 under the constitution article 371C.  Besides, there are other threats that the hill community face compared to have which are that the educated and more powerful and wealthy Meitei community will use their influence to buy the land in hills and can even use a different approach to oust indigenous people from their land. Large sections of Manipur’s indigenous peoples are economically vulnerable and unlettered and also do not possess political power in the state due to the assembly seats allocation which is 40 to the plains and 20 seats for those from the hills. The other fear of the Hill people is that there will be no such reservation which is 31% for the scheduled tribe in case of jobs and examinations. The fear of the Hill community gets its ground from the latest action of the government where there was a re-drawing of the boundaries and various areas which had been parts of the hill were adjoined in the valley region. The government has been accused of working in a partisan manner in favour of the majority because their appeasement can ensure them long term political dominance in the state.

There is another interesting backstory behind the targeted violence that remains unchecked by the state government in Manipur. This dates back to 2021. At a seminar organized by the chief minister N Biren Singh (also a Meiti himself) outlining his 100-day action plan on Oil Palm Mission for Manipur.

According to data available from the government there has been 9,67,981 hectares of land marked for the plantation of palm trees which will be deemed to produce palm oil after which imports from Indonesia and Malaysia will cease. Out of the earmarked area plantation has already begun on 38,000 hectares of land.

In an interview to the frontier Manipur MS Khaidem who is the consultant of the Oil Palm Mission, Manipur said that the Union Government had given assent to the initiative with an outlay of Rs 11,000 crores for a five-year period. Out of 11000 crores 80% of the money will be union government’s share and the rest will be the share of state governments in northeast. He later added that 66,652 hectares of land had been decided as potential areas for the scheme across six districts of the state. The six districts are Imphal West (14,516 hectares), Thoubal (18,475 hectares), Bishnupur (10,389 hectares), Chur Chandpur (11,662 hectares), Chandel (6,803 hectares) and Ukhrul (4,808 hectares).

In addition to these potential areas, the State Level Standing Committee has identified another 7,715 hectares for plantation in Jiribam District of Manipur where Arecont and Coconuts which belong to the same family of Oil Palm are already cultivated commercially by the farmers of the district, he said. Manipur will be the 22nd State in India to indulge in palm oil production. The districts where the land has been decided are majorly Hill districts which means that the vast areas are home to the minority and tribal communities in terms of population.

Ecological costs of palm oil production

The problem with the palm oil production which is a product of palm plantations is that it is a high-water intensive monoculture which requires around 45,000 litres of water per hectare of land, and it is hazardous for soil fertility. There needs to be a minimum gap of 30 feet in between the trees and the palm trees restrict the growth of any other plant/tree along with them which means that there are various ecological drawbacks to these plantations. This is evident from the Mizoram’s model where they have planted trees in 29,000 hectares of land making it one of the biggest players in palm oil production in northeast where due to high water requirement the soil has lost its fertility and resulted in mass deforestation.

There are a myriad studies which have been conducted by environmentalists across the globe that suggest palm oil is a threat to rich flora and fauna of the area it is being conducted in as the soil loses its nutrients and becomes largely infertile. There was a separate international body named RSPO (round table on sustainable palm oil), established in 2004 to address the environmental concerns which arise out of the palm oil production.

The most crucial question that arises is who is going to take charge of this palm oil production plan because the local farmers in the state may not or will not  be able to carry out production on such a large scale due to exclusive monetary intake needed to ensure production, something which tribal and local farmers lack. This brings in the “big corporate players” into the picture. For example, politically influential ministers, contractors, bureaucrats and (not to forget) armed groups, these are the sections likely to snatch their unfair share in the pie through fair or other means of negotiation. Then come the companies namely, Godrej Agrovet Ltd, Ruchi Soya Industries Ltd of Patanjali group and 3F Oil Palm Aggrotech Private Ltd who will extract the maximum out the project. The union government has introduced a Forest Conservation Bill 2023 on March 29, 2023 in the Lok Sabha after amending the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The battle is for land, under the rights and ownership of Adivasis and forest dwellers

In T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs. Union of India and Others [(1997) 2 SCC 267], the  Supreme Court interpreted the provisions of the FCA to apply beyond ‘notified forests’ to all areas ‘recorded’ as forest in any government record, thus widening the scope of the forest clearance mandate under Section 2 of the FCA. The amendment bill specifically targets such ‘recorded’ forests and proposes to include only those lands within the ambit of the FCA which are recorded as the forest on or after October 25, 1980 – thus restricting the scope of the Godavarman judgement. The new amending act states that the original law needs amendment because it poses challenge to ecological, social, and environmental development. The amendment seeks to convert forest land for non-forestry use while providing easy access to private corporations. The bill (now passed by the Joint Parliamentary Committee) talks about forest which is within a 100-kms area from the international border line which is a “gateway for the entry of private players to establish infrastructure” and “carry out palm oil plantation production”.

As almost all regions of northeast are not more than 100 kms from the international boundaries the amendment is a clear signal for more and more private corporations to enter the scene and carry out the conversion of this forest land into money extracting infrastructure projects. It is clear from this that the government is also eyeing to enhance their economic growth at the stake of a huge ecological and environmental cost.

Behind the targeted and brutal violence that has reigned unchecked in Manipur, where human lives have been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency, lies a sinister tale of impending land capture and dishousing of Adivasis and Hill and Forest dwellers from their traditional lands and habitat. Such a display of political cynicism that eyes “economic growth, money, and power” in ecologically degrading and humanly deprivation-al terms will cost generations high and leave an arid impact for a long time to come. [i]

(The story has been authored by an intern with the organization, Nabeel Masood)

[i] 1) Palm oil production –

2) interview of consultant for palm oil production-

3) 2023 bill on forest conservation amendment –

4) Manipur land reform act –!&&p=bc9d06b597d870d8JmltdHM9MTY5MDE1NjgwMCZpZ3VpZD0zMDIwNDkyMy0yYTRhLTY1NWEtMjA2Zi01OWVkMmIyYjY0ZDUmaW5zaWQ9NTE5OQ&ptn=3&hsh=3&fclid=30204923-2a4a-655a-206f-59ed2b2b64d5&psq=mlr+and+lr+act+1960&u=a1aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuaW5kaWFjb2RlLm5pYy5pbi9iaXRzdHJlYW0vMTIzNDU2Nzg5LzE1MzEvMS8xOTYwMzMucGRm&ntb=1

5 criteria for schedule tribe –,but%20has%20become%20well%20established.


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