A meeting of homestay owners to discuss concerns with large scale developmental plans for Loktak lake. Homestay owners say the phrase “eco-tourism” in plans like the development of Loktak lake is “deceptive” because they rarely take communities and the local environment into account.  Photo: Rishika Pardikar

Manipur’s tourism department currently has a slew of active tenders for a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model of development. A few of them are:

But why is the state government pushing for the PPP model of tourism? Who does it benefit, and at whose cost?

There is recognition that tourism needs to be developed in Manipur, but the state government “lacks the financial power,” said Robert Oinam, PhD scholar, Department of Economics, Manipur University. So the state government seeks entrepreneurs who are willing to share the risk of tourism ventures along with the government.

The other reason the Manipur government looks to the PPP model of development: state incapacity to administer the implementation of developmental projects. “Given failures of existing models and projects, PPPs are a way to hand over state responsibilities and liabilities to the ‘private’,” said Donald Takhell, a student of Development Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi. In a 2018 research paper, an associate professor at Manipur University too made similar arguments to support the PPP model. The professor highlighted that “statutory requirements” as well as “safety” and “security” can be ensured with the PPP model because it would curtail “corrupt practices” of public authorities. Other researchers too point to the PPP model as a potential solution for “infrastructure bottlenecks” in the state’s hill districts

The Manipur tourism policy too highlights the advantages of PPP models in light of both risk-sharing and service delivery. More specifically, it says the model is an opportunity “to improve service delivery, improve cost-effectiveness, increase investment in public infrastructure, reduce public sector risk…” It highlights the risk transfer from the public to the private sector as “a critical element” of all partnerships. 

The larger question, though, is who forms the ‘private’ entity. “Do they breathe the common aspirations as that of the ‘public’?” Takhell asked. Oinam too, said the PPP model remains a murky area in Manipur because there is little understanding of who the government is partnering with. 

Ibohal Singh, Director (Tourism), Manipur Government, did not respond to multiple requests for interview, including a detailed questionnaire on the PPP model of tourism development in the state.

Privatisation of commons

Other departments of the Manipur government have also encouraged the PPP model of development. For instance, consider the proposal by the fisheries ministry to lease out government-maintained fish farms across the state via a PPP model or PM Modi’s announcement entailing Rs 160-crore worth of projects in the healthcare sector on a PPP basis.

The PPP model of development has to also be examined in light of the Rs 2,600-crore ‘eco-tourism’ project that has drawn widespread criticism, including a court case. According to the tender floated by the tourism department, the plan to ‘develop’ the lake with golf courses, adventure sports and an artificial beach, among other things, includes projects to be executed on a PPP basis. But how will the rights of those living on the phumdis and fishing in the lake for livelihood purposes be protected in light of such developmental plans? It remains unclear. Communities had previously suggested a community-owned model of eco-tourism as opposed to a model that entails a transfer of ownership and usage rights to private entities or the government. 

The eco-tourism project for Loktak Lake has invoked sharp criticism from locals and experts. Photo courtesy Rishika Pardikar

Similar concerns arose in the town of Andro too, with the plan to develop Santhei Natural Park for Rs. 4.78 crore. Soon after the tourism department floated the tender on September 7, 2020, the plan was met with protests citing loss of access to the park for livelihood and water needs and the fact that local stakeholders were not consulted. And this was when the locals had managed the park until now. 

The biggest fear with the PPP model of tourism development is “the privatisation of commons,” Takhell said. Avli Verma, a researcher at Manthan Adhyayan Kendra agreed. A fundamental issue with PPP projects is the scope for “exploitability” because control and access go to private players and the government in a manner that “takes away natural resources” from other users and “subtracts or disturbs” the natural ecosystem processes with interventions, she explained. 

Elaborating on such concerns related to the Santhei Natural Park, Bele Asheibam, a resident of Andro, said that even though the land belongs to the people of Kharam leikai, the government announced a tender without their knowledge. Members of the leikai use the land for grazing while the wetland supports the community’s water needs. “There is a fear that people will not be allowed to use the land and the water if the project goes to someone outside the community,” Asheibam said. It is likely that the project will be developed by those not belonging to the local community because “people there don’t have a lot of money,” Asheibam added. This is true of other areas too. Local stakeholders rarely have the kind of money it would take to bid for capital-intensive PPP tenders. So PPP projects and ensuing rights over land and resources could very likely go to outsiders at the risk of marginalisation of local lives and livelihood. And all this in a state where communities collectively hold land rights.

The other issue with the project in Andro was that the government did not conduct impact assessment studies for the project. This raises questions of accountability concerning the PPP model. If costs and risks of projects are privatised, and if the state looks at this aspect as a core element of the model, to what extent will the state scrutinise for compliances like those related to the environment? Incidentally, the 2014 Manipur tourism policy states one of the roles of the government in PPP models as directly related to environmental safeguards. 

Homestay owners, too, expressed concerns about the government partnering with private entrepreneurs for developing tourism in the state. Maipakchao Oinam, who set up the first homestay in Manipur in 2013, said that such models are primarily “for the benefit of contractors and bring nothing to the people.” Ashok Sapamcha, another homestay owner, said that the phrase “eco-tourism” in plans like the development of Loktak lake is “deceptive” because they rarely take communities and the local environment into account. 

The path ahead lies in testing the PPP model and empowering local communities to make decisions, Oinam suggested. One way to enable this is to hold public hearings to mutually discuss the costs of benefits of the PPP model with the local communities. The Manipur tourism policy also underscores the role of local communities and even civil society, alongside the government and the private sector in PPP models. It charts their role as “advise partners” to communicate local needs. 

The other worry is that ill-conceived PPP models could become the standard to be replicated elsewhere if they’re not set right at the present stage. “Eco-tourism projects with PPP models are the third most important set of infrastructural projects after roads and ports,” Verma said. Similar tourism projects also exist in other eco-sensitive regions like the Andaman and Nicobar islands. 

“We don’t know if the PPP model could bring us some benefits. The government should tell us what this model is… all the advantages and disadvantages,” Asheibam said. 

Also Read: Manipur’s trouble with disputed Loktak eco-tourism projects

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