PUCL Bulletin, October 2001

Panchayati Raj:
The Manipur experience
-- By Dr. N. Vijaylakshmi Brara

In my earlier note on the northeast (Tribal Areas), which was tabled in the first meeting of this project in the Institute premises (Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi), I had stated that considering the specific historical situation in the hill areas of the north-east the areas of exclusion have to be different, i.e.,
1. The hills people at large vis-à-vis the state administration. 2. The complete exclusion of women in the formation of ADCs, and 3. The ethnic minorities and the non-ethnic groups vis-à-vis the major tribal societies. But it seems that the perspective of this project is different. The guidelines sent by Prof. Baviskar of Delhi University do not seem to incorporate the ideas behind my note.

As I have understood the points raised by Prof. Baviskar he wants us to study the involvement of the three kinds of gram Pradhans in the running of their respective gram Panchayats, their relation with the Zilla Parishad and with the state, along with other variables of the region to bring out a contextual study, for the people to understand the problem in the ethno-specific background of the region. Needless to say that to bring homogeneity of the study I will need a shift in my paradigm by shifting my focus from tribal areas to the non-tribal areas of Manipur. Unlike the hills which has (Autonomous?) District Councils, the plain of Manipur has PRIs as envisaged in the rest of India along with the specific social structures, which are peculiar to this region. I have already dealt at length with the status of PRIs in Manipur in my project," The Status of Panchayats in North- East India", for this esteemed Institute.

Now my focus will narrow down to the in-depth study of one district in the plain areas of Manipur.

The plain area of Manipur comprises of four districts: Thoubal, Bishnupur, Imphal East and Imphal west. When the Manipur Panchayati Rai Act, 1994 was enacted, there were three districts in the valley area, viz., Imphal, Thoubal, and Bishnupur. The Imphal Zilla Parishad was subsequently divided into Imphal East and Imphal West after the bifurcation of the erstwhile Imphal District into Imphal East and East Districts.

Before the introduction of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, Manipur also experienced Panchayati system of governance since 1964 under the adopted U.P. Panchayat Raj Act, 1947. The second general elections to the Panchayats were held in 1971 under the aforesaid UP Act. Subsequent thereto, in the year 1975 Manipur enacted its own Panchayat Act providing a 3 tier system of gram Panchayats and Panchayats samities were held. Zilla Parishads were never constituted under the aforesaid Act of 1975. The functioning of these institutions ensured their involvement of the people in the governance at the grassroot level. Because of lack of infrastructure, lack of adequate funds and non- cooperation from the existing government departments in sharing power with them, these Panchayat institutions remained merely as advisory bodies rather than a vibrant democratic institution. Perhaps the most important stumbling block was the resistance from the local MLAs and Ministers to allow them to function as autonomous bodies as this would directly dilute the enormous influence and power wielded by the MLAs and Ministers. Lack of infrastructure and lack of funds came as convenient excuses for the non-performances and stagnation of the Panchayat bodies.

Things have not changed in spite of the epoch making 73rd constitutional Amendment which led to the enactment of Manipur Panchayat Raj Act 1994. Even though the Constitution envisages a three tier system in Manipur Panchayat Raj Act, 1994, only the Gram Panchayats and the Zilla Parishads are provided and there is no provision for Panchayat Samiti. The authorities here have explained this lack of the middle level body as due to the inadequate population ratio in the state. This argument however, does not carry much weight in view of the fact that in the earlier Act of 1975, three tier system of Gram Panchayats, Panchayat samities and Zilla Parishads were incorporated and the State of Arunachal Pradesh which has much less population than Manipur has already incorporated Panchayat Samiti under the Act. In any event the Panchayat Samiti was already a functional body under the earlier Act of 1994, which could have been continued under the New Act of 1994.
The Manipur Panchayati Raj Act of 1994 as in the past extended only to the valley area as the hill areas come under the jurisdiction of the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1971 and the Manipur (Village Authorities in Hill Areas) Act, 1956. The municipality areas in the valley districts have been also excluded from its operation. Thus this Act is applicable only in the valley districts of Imphal East, Imphal West, Thoubal and Bishnupur.
A Brief Historical Background of This State

Manipur is quite categorically an indigenous society. I have also observed in my book (Politics, Society and Cosmology in India's North East) that even while opening up to the outside world, Manipur is at the same time returning to its roots, its culture, and its belief systems, informed with an understanding that such a return could help preserve the identity that is constantly being threatened by the inroads made by more dominant cultures.

The people of Manipur have witnessed many conquests of their society over time. Hinduism invaded Manipur around the fifteenth century but established a strong hold in the state only in the eighteenth century. Christianity, which crept in with the British invasion, got firmly entrenched in the hills after displacing the traditional beliefs, rites and rituals. But administratively they were unable to win the confidence of the people. And this trust of the alien did not change even with Indian Independence, as the Indian government too, failed in gaining the respect and confidence of our people. All the three structures of religion, colonialism and the broad Indian political framework were impositions from above. And all the three structures failed to get assimilated with the Manipuri world-view.

In the year 1950, when the governor of Assam, Shri Prakasa and his adviser met Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, the first Home Minister of independent India, they explained the difficulties regarding the merger of Manipur. Patel in return asked if there was no Brigadier of the Indian Army there. In other words, the Indian Union was to use the same methods as the British to 'annex' Manipur The manner in which the state of Manipur was included in the Indian Union, whereby it was given only a peripheral status added to the feeling of alienation of these people from the country of which they were a part. Even after the merger with free India, the people of the state were not free to choose their own rulers. With the coming into force of the Constitution of India, Manipur became a 'Part C' state.

The special feature of Part C states was that the they were administered by the President of India thorough a Chief Commissioner or a Lieutenant Governor, acting as his agent. Parliament had legislative power relating the Part C states, but the Constitution empowered Parliament to create a Legislature as well as a Council of Advisors or Ministers for Part C states. In exercising this power, Parliament enacted the government of part C states Act, 1951 by which a council of Advisors or Ministers was set in each part C State to advise the Chief Commissioner, under the overall control of the President and also a Legislative Assembly to function as the Legislature of the State, without derogation to the plenary powers of Parliament. Manipur was thus virtually governed by the non-elected Chief Commissioner, the Council of Ministers being merely advisors to him. Similar administrative set-ups continued even after the States Reorganization Act, 1956 when Manipur became a Union Territory. It was only after the North Eastern Areas (Reorganization) Act, 1971 that Manipur was granted statehood with a responsible government. It was only thereafter that the people of this state were able to directly choose their government.

Its rich language (Manipuri) was included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India only in 1993 after a prolonged and at times violent agitation. With the geographical barrier between Manipur and the rest of the country because of its mountainous terrain and with no sincere efforts made to bridge the communication gap with the mainland, the State remained and still is isolated from the rest of the country culturally and economically fostering a sense of alienation amongst the people. Today the people are made to feel insecure about their territory. The attitude of our present Home Minister has not changed. At present due to insensitive and casual handling of the situation, the State is witnessing unprecedented violence and massive popular protest against the extension of the ceasefire between the Government of India and the NSCN(IM) without taking into confidence the majority of the people in Manipur. 14 people have already died of CRPF firing because they were protesting against the extension of cease- fire. Things have not changed after 50 years of 'India's Independence'. The sense of alienation is still existing.

Background of the Panchayati Raj Institutions in Manipur
Elections to the 3 Zilla Parishads in three valley districts of Manipur, viz., Imphal, Thoubal and Bishnupur districts and also to 166 Gram Panchayats were held in 1997. The Imphal Zilla Parishad was subsequently divided into Imphal East and Imphal West Zilla Parishads after the bifurcation of the erstwhile Imphal District into Imphal East District and Imphal West District. Though elections to the Zilla Parishads and the Gram Panchayats were not on party lines, nevertheless, only those persons with strong local party affiliations could get elected. Elections however, were not completely free and fair. There were allegations of rigging of elections.

Wide ranging powers touching almost all the important developmental functions of the state had been envisaged for the Gram Panchayats and Zilla Parishads under Sections 35 and 61 respectively of the Act of 1994. However, soon thereafter, before any elections could be held under the Act of 1994,the State Government amended the said two provisions, viz., Sections 35 and 61 as per Amendment Act of 1996 with a simple provision that the Gram Panchayats and the Zilla Parishads shall perform such functions and activities in respect of items enumerated in the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution of India as may be notified by the State Government and published in the official Gazette. This amendment Act of 1996 was another retrogressive act on the part of the State government. Instead of making the powers and functions of the Panchayat bodies as statutory provisions in the Act, these have been sought to be notified from time to time by executive orders, thus subjecting to political expediencies of the Government. These acts of the State government in tinkering with the provisions relating to the powers and functions of the Panchayati institutions do not indicate any keenness on their part to make the Panchayat bodies a vibrant democratic institution. It was only after sustained struggle by the elected members of the Panchayat bodies that the State Government took certain steps towards identifying and devolution of powers to the Panchayat bodies. There are hardly any executing role assigned to the Panchayat bodies and these are mainly supportive and advisory rules.

The apex body of the various Gram Panchayat and Zilla Parishad bodies, the Manipur State Panchayat Parishad, Manipur Panchayat Bhawan, Imphal submitted representations to the State Government for devolution of powers to the Panchayat bodies and also make a clear policy about the powers of the Panchayati bodies under Sections 35 and 6} of the Manipur Panchayati Raj Act which provides for powers and functions of the Gram Panchayats and the Zilla Parishads. However, as the State Government ignored their plea, the said body resorted to mass relay hunger strike for about two weeks in January 2000 and again in June 2000. They also threatened mass resignations for fulfillment of their demands. The agitation ended after the Minister in charge of the Panchayats assured them for implementation of their demands. In the 20th State Level Panchayati Raj Sammelan held in January, 2000 at Imphal, the Secretary (Rural Development and Panchayati Raj), Government of Manipur in his address had openly stated that because of the unwillingness on the part of the politicians to part with their powers, the Panchayat bodies and in turn the rural development have suffered. In spite of the assurances and promises made by the politicians, things have not changed.

The shortage of funds available with the Panchayati bodies has been the greatest handicap to the effective functioning of these Panchayati bodies. Because of non- devolution of power and lack of any taxing power given to the Panchayat bodies, there is no source of internal resources of the Panchayat bodies. The Panchayat bodies have to depend almost entirely upon the State Government for meeting their establishment expenditure. It may be mentioned that most of the funds meant for development are diverted to meet the establishment costs including payment of wages and salaries of the employees.

However, in spite of the lack of power and sufficient funds with the Panchayat bodies, at the village level, the Panchayat bodies had been discharging commendable works. It is at the time of crisis, especially during operations conducted by the security forces, the Panchayat members take up the mantle of the villagers and act as the mediators with the security forces. In the process the Panchayat members especially the Pradhans bear the brunt of the excesses of the security forces. Many have been badly beaten and harassed by the security forces. They are charged with sympathizing with the underground and also giving support to them. On the other hand they are also victimized by the armed underground on the charge of giving information to and collaborating with the security forces. On many occasions, the Panchayats have to seek the help of the security forces for health care and developmental activities, as these are almost non-existent as far as the government help is concerned. Thus they are sandwiched between the devils and deep-sea. Other problems faced by the Panchayats is that because of the bad law and order problems relating to insurgency, it is difficult to embark upon any developmental activities. They also say that the underground groups against which they have no means to resist also sometimes take the meager funds meant for the developmental activities away.

One aspect, which may be noted, is that Manipur, which is known for its strong women's organization in the form of Meira Paibies (torch bearing women) ironically, does not have women leaders of reckoning in the Panchayat bodies. On the other hand, women leaders of the PRIs are also not trusted by the Meira Paibies. They are considered part of the Government machinery, with official aura around them with very little interest in the public welfare. The women Pradhans and Adhyakshas are going through the stage where they have to adhere to what their husbands or any other male members of the family or the male members of their political parties say. Therefore there is a chasm in the women's movement and the women representative of the PRIs. One comes across very young women GPs who have become Pradhans because they were the only educated women in their locality. Since the locality was under the reserved constituency for woman, their minority in age was concealed to enable them to contest. These young girls surprisingly showed great sensitivity to the problems of their area. Unfortunately, because of their age and sex, they were completely ignored in any major decisions in the meetings of the GPs. On the other hand there are women Zilla Adhyakshas who have spent lacs of rupees for their elections to remain in office as Adhyakshas and have not shown any difference from their male counterparts in the matters of corruption and their insensitivity to the problems of the people. My hypothesis is that, if the Meira Paibies women can be brought into the decision making processes of the local self-governments, the Panchayat bodies will be understood better and appreciated by the people.
The situation of the scheduled caste is also a bit different from the rest of India. Here the SCs are not considered 'untouchables'. They are those people who did not embrace Hinduism, when it was made a state religion in the 18th century. Till today they believe in their traditional pantheon. The Hindu Meiteis since consider them a bit low in the hierarchy.

The tribes in Manipur have been co-existing with the plain Meiteis since time immemorial. A major gap was created between them when the Meities became Hindus and the tribals subsequently became Christians. These two alien religions could not understand nor could adjust with the age-old reciprocity between the two groups. Although every tribe in Manipur has their traditional areas, there are some pockets where we have mixed population of Meities and scheduled tribes. Therefore we also have Pradhans belonging to these tribes.

The specific field area:
I will study the extent of inclusion of excluded communities in the three villages of Imphal West District. The three villages will comprise of one woman Pradhan, one Pradhan from the scheduled tribe and/or caste and one from the general category. The Imphal West district is not a secluded area and hence prone to the changing influences. Hence the social setup and the attitudes of the people are susceptible to changes, which makes it a dynamic society.

The demographic composition:
The Imphal West district comprises of part I and part II
It has four sub-divisions: 1. Lamphelpat sub division; 2. Wangoi sub-division; 3. Lamsang sub division; 4. Patsoi sub-division.

General information on the gram Panchayats in Imphal West District:

Tentatively the three GPs that I have selected are:
lroishemba for studying the Panchayat run by a ST Gram Pradhan, Bijoy Govinda for studying the Panchayat run by a woman and Takyel Khongbal for studying the Panchayat run by a person from general category. I may also study a GP headed by a SC category since the reasons for their exclusions are very different from the biases against the Pradhans from the STs. In fact the choice of either or in case of ST/SC in the Guidelines sent by Prof. Baviskar is, according to me, untenable. The discrimination towards STs wherever ST population exists is very different from the discrimination towards an SC. Therefore, rather than studying them interchangeably one needs to examine the areas of their exclusion separately.

In Manipur we have three geographical positioning of the populace; the center, the foothills and the hills. While the Meiteis dominate in the center, the tribes dominate in the hills, the foothills comprises of a mixture from both along with the SC population and some Muslim pockets

As stated above hills go out of the purview of my research since it does not have PRIs. Iroishemba is situated near the foothills. It has a mixed population. The areas of exclusion will most probably come out in black and white. The Bijoy Govind area was the traditional power base in the king's time. Till today most of the 'Rajkumar' families reside here. The study of a woman yielding power as a gram Pradhan, where the atmosphere still emanates with royalty / manliness will be interesting. Takyel Khongbal is slowly coming up as a small industrial area. My study here will focus on the changing scenario of the political thinking of the people. These are the tentative field sites; I may change if I find some other areas give me more information on the extent of exclusions.

The questionnaire as well as the observations will revolve around:

  • The history of power relations.
  • The place of traditional institutions such as Ahallup (council of elders), Nahallup (council of youngsters), Piba (the clan chief) and the Meira paibies (the torch bearing women) who are still very active.
  • The introduction of PRIs. The role of the GP in the development of the area.
  • The functioning of the woman gram Pradhan.
  • The functioning of the ST Pradhan and/or SC Pradhan.
  • The functioning of the Pradhan from the general category
  • The reactions from the people; their verbal as well as nonverbalcommunications.
  • The role of the bureaucrats towards the pradhans from the excluded category.
  • The response from the local MLAs and the concerned ministers.

One should not forget that the region is ripped with the insurgency movements and ethnic conflicts. The study will focus on the reasons and the areas of exclusion keeping this background in mind.

The decision making processes in the Panchayats and the gram Sabha can only be assessed through informal conversations and observations during the meetings. The degree of empowerment of the excluded categories can be assessed through the extent of their participation in the developmental works, by studying the scale of their popularity and the degree of power he/she entails.

In conclusion I want to state that to understand the exclusivity in this region one has to grasp the understanding of the basic social structures, the ethnic groups and their relations with each other and a bit distinct form of gender relations. In short, to understand the exclusivity in this region one has to first understand the exclusivity of this region.

I propose to start my research paper by presenting a clear picture of the society at first. Which will pave way for other inquiries about the inclusion of excluded communities? I would like to end the paper with the changes brought about by the new Panchayati Raj provisions between the ethnic groups and the traditional gender relations

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