Manipur: 1 more body of Territorial Army personnel found, death toll mounts to 49 in Noney landslide 
File image | Manipur landslide

The recent landslide in Makhuam village in Manipur’s Noney district has become the state’s most devastating disaster in recent times. At the time of writing this, the death toll stands at 46, with over a dozen missing. The hill community reported that before the disaster, two engineers had warned of the possibility of landslides after examining the soil condition. There are further predictions of impending landslides, putting many lives at risk. The landslide created a dam-like barrier on river Ijai, which, when breached, could wreak havoc on the low-lying areas of the Noney District. 

Manipur experiences numerous disasters due to floods and earthquakes, and the most common in the hilly regions are landslides or mudslides. The Manipur public works department (PWD), in their Disaster Management Plan of 2017, had mentioned:

“As it is a hilly state, landslides and mudslides are quite common…… Even at present, mudslides due to the construction of the Jiribam-Tupul Railway line have affected many families in Tamenglong District.”

Here, one must note that heavy rainfall on the hilly topography (of loose soil conditions) makes landslides a common phenomenon. Tamenglong and Noney districts face regular landslides. So, one can imagine the disastrous outcome of constructing railway bridges in hilly terrain: it is common sense that such an undertaking involves risk and contingencies.

December 5 report by Deccan Herald mentioned a comment of the railway project’s chief engineer. “the northeast region is the 6th most quake-prone belt in the world, the soil of the young Himalayan region is weak and due to the heavy monsoon for a longer period, the working season is very less in the hilly region,” he said. 

The highly-ambitious railway project, part of the Look East and Act East policy through the Northeast Railway Frontier (NRF) aims to connect with ASEAN countries. The 111-kilometre, Jiri- Tupul- Imphal railway connectivity is a broad-gauge railway line for freight and passenger transport that would pass through 46 tunnels, and 22 major and 129 minor bridges. The railway project has brought unwelcomed changes in the landscape and manufactured discord within the complex land ownership pattern of the hill community. 

An article by Makepeace Sitlhou published in February 2020, titled ‘Ground Report: As a Railway Line Grows, a River in Manipur Is Fighting for Survival’ captures the ground reality of the community directly affected by the mega railway project.

The daily activities of the railway construction depicts the lack of social and environmental impact assessment, evident from the reckless excavation of sand and stones from the river beds to the dumping of cement and untreated chemical waste in the river. To achieve the target completion of the Jiri-Tupul- Imphal line by December 2023, the nonstop construction increased unregulated and haphazard activities without any consideration of the state of the land, forest and river.

The hill communities continued to be blamed for contributing to deforestation and the overall climate crisis (Chanu, 2017, Sophia & Devi 2020), citing Jhum cultivation as the main factor. Jhum cultivation has long been under the scrutiny of non-tribal groups and criticised time and again for causing damage, without knowledge on the living reality of the hill communities intricately linked to the natural environment. The narratives from non-tribal groups push for the elimination of Jhum cultivation, and in hindsight, are a rationale for the extension of the contentious uniform land law in the hill and the valley. Characterising the hill communities as incompetent in managing their commons (natural resources) is an outright mockery of the hill people who sustainably balance their lives with the fragile ecology. 

The recent report on July 3 in the Times of India by Kangan Kalita perpetuated these narratives while arguing that Jhum cultivation enhances the possibility of landslides.

Such debates are shallow and irrelevant in the face of the disaster. The ‘woke’ talk on climate change, suggesting the hill people should plant more trees to avoid disaster, is a strategy to shift the entire blame on the hill community with no bargaining capacity against the state’s development policies while justifying the state’s undertaking.

The landslide analysis without considering social and environmental justice is fallacious. The processes that lead to the compromised position of the hill people at the cost of their lives and land must be understood foremost. The discussion on the landslide should serve as a portal to critically examine various infrastructural projects undertaken by the Government of India to espouse economic growth.

The landslide-disaster sparked opinions from netizens on various social networking sites,. Comments on communal lines based on the ‘ching -tam’ (hill- valley) dynamics of the state triggered anger, while many outpoured their grief on the loss of lives of the hill people and personnel. Nevertheless, such a tough time suggests that we must revisit the concept of justice (social and environmental), though there is no straightforward solution to the conundrum of development. We must find a way, where human lives and the environment cease to endure as collateral damages at the footstool of development projects.

The author is a Ph.D. scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Also read: Manipur landslide: Death toll rises to 45, search on to trace 17 others

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