Chief minister Ibobi's fad for Five Star Hotel threatens homes and churches in Imphal
Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh is an austere man as politicians go. He does not suspend cooks and waiters if the rice is overcooked, or the "dal fry" stale, as some other chief ministers and governors are prone to do. But he does seem to have a fetish for getting Imphal to have a five star hotel, an ambition he shares with his tourism minister T N Haokip.
It was a chance visit, as one gathers from people involved, by the tourism minister to a three star Imphal hotel he had attended at its inauguration, and his talk with the owner, a pathologist businessman that has metamorphosed into a monstrous undeclared policy that now threatens to make over 500 men, women and children internally displaced persons. It also spells doom for three Christian churches, a temple and a few graves of the ancestors of the place called Naga River, a 100 year old village Kabo Lsikai some distance behind Hotel Imphal, the landmark built by the government of Imphal.
The villagers' nightmare started when the Tourism minister casually asked the three Star hotel owner if his company could modernise Hotel Imphal, a government property. Dreams, which began with modernisation soon metamorphosed – with nothing yet as government policy – into a fully-fledged plan to create a five star hotel on the land that Hotel Imphal stands on, and some more to be acquired from nearby government offices and elsewhere.
Now anyone who has stayed in Hotel Imphal, as this writer has done a few times – knows that that rat-infested dilapidated public sector hostelry is not fit for human consumption. Its government staff do not know a word of convivial welcome, its marketing staff could not care for hospitality, and its cooks and waiters are so sure of their monthly package that they do not care for the residents' daily bread. Several offices of Enquiry commissions set up by the government a long time ago in the past, keep the first floor busy. The only good thing about the hotel is its garden with some lovely trees, and its location, right on the national highway bang in the centre of the city. With Manipur now open to international tourists after the scrapping of the "inner line permit" requirements that once kept sensitive north-eastern states out of sight of international travellers, it is quite clear that Hotel Imphal requires a much needed upgrade.
But not in the ham-handed and lawless manner in which the government wants to do it.
A fact finding team, consisting of human rights national activists and their colleagues in Manipur investigated the situation in response to a painful cry from the residents, who represent most of the tribes and religions of Manipur – but dominated by Naga and Kuki tribes professing the Christian faith, who fear they will soon be rendered homeless and will be transported to the hinterland where they would have no jobs, no schools, no means of livelihood.
It was soon quite apparent to the fact finding committee -of which this writer was a member – that in their haste, the government had not only thrown the rules and the methods to the winds, they had learnt nothing from the experience of states which have faced a crisis over acquisition of land for commercial purposes. And fearing being thwarted by the agitation of the people, the government is now threatening to declare them trespasser and cheats who allegedly bought fake "patta" or land registration certificates and therefore are not even eligible to compensation.
Aggravating the situation is the Chief Minister's political wrangling with factions opposed to him, and who are now supporting the agitation of the villagers.
Adding to the fear of the villagers is the backdrop of other demolitions and planned demolitions in Imphal. In Lamphel in Imphal West where 14 houses were demolished at a 12-hour notice. The expansion of Imphal airport poses an imminent threat to 114 families Ningobam on the east side of the runway for which notices were served on 31 March. This project faces a Public Interest Litigation in the high court. A case is actually in court pertaining to the Lei Ingkjhol capital project. It is surprising that the Master plan for development has not yet been published. Another issue is the stink of communalism as the demolition of churches is on the cards. Imphal area in recent years has seen increasing complaints of the targetting of local Christians, some of whom are first generation converts.
The Fact finding team visited Naga River, spoke to the village elders and to the local activists. It also spoke with the chairman and member of the State commission for Minorities, and it reviewed existing documentation relating to the 100 year old habitation where the villagers were given their "pattas" of ownership about twenty years ago. These pattas, they now fear, will be seized by the government as the chief minister is bent upon declaring the documents to be fake. The vigilance department swung into action within hours of the fact-finding team's village visit.
A perusal of the documents speaks of the inexplicable haste of the government, disregarding rules of procedures and all pretense at due process.
The sequence of government orders and actions speaks for itself:
17th December 2010 Vide notification number 4/35/LA/2010/Com (rev) Manipur governor issues order under Section 4 (1) of Land Acquisition Act of 1894 that the area actions described in the schedule is likely to be needed for a public purpose i.e. construction of 5 Star hotel in Hotel Imphal premises and the surrounding area at 25(A) Kabo Leikai Nongpok village in Imphal east district.
20th May 2011: Governor issues notification under section 7 of Land Acquisition act
2nd June 2011 Executive engineers PWD Imphal east orders villagers to show pattas in assessment. Villagers refuse entry to government staff.
4th June 2011: Committee formed under chairmanship of chief secretary to "assess the value of assets and to frame the principle on which the assets and management of the Hotel Imphal to be leased out to private party on PPP model.
9th June 2011 Under Secretary Tourism writes to Director Tourism informing him of the setting up of the assessment committee.
20th June 2011 Assessment of village done under heavy police presence
20 June 2011 - Minister for Industry Yumkham Erabot Singh joins protest at Naga River. All Manipur Christian Organisation
21st June 2011 Hotel staff and land assessment done.
25th June 2011 - Chief Minister Ibobi reported in the media his proposal of alternate resettlement site in Mantripukhri in Imphal or near Don Bosco outside municipal limits.
The fact-finding team concluded that:
The Government of Manipur has learnt no lessons from the evolving situation in various parts of the country from Orissa, Bengal, and Maharashtra to Delhi, Noida and Haryana on issues of land acquisition. Many governments are now agreed that they will not interfere as procurement of land meant for the private or joint sector and will let the entrepreneurs negotiate directly with the landowners and residents.
It is equally clear from the narrative of events that the government has shown undue haste in the entire process of acquiring land, issuing notifications even before assessment of the hotel's needs were identified and available. This gives credence to the apprehensions of the villagers that the government's intentions are malafide and the entire exercise may be just for the benefit of some unknown rich and politically powerful persons. The village with a population of 500 in 32 houses consists of all major religions including Hindus, Muslims and Christians who are in a majority. Ethnically, they represent as wide a diversity including Meitis, Nepalese and various tribes of Nagas and Kukis. There are three churches, one temple and several graves. Demolition of the churches and graves will be desecration and will violate the freedom of faith guaranteed under the constitution.
Villagers are also apprehensive that the tension in the areas and the heavy police presence - as the area is under section 144 - may aggravate the situation and may in future become a communal and ethnic issue with outsiders becoming involved. The villagers are firm that they do not want to leave the village, both for sentimental reasons and for economic reasons, including employment.
The land in the village is very expensive, and those who acquire it will make huge profits. The villagers fear the authorities may forcibly confiscate their pattas to rob them of their legal rights to the land.
The interim team recommended that Chief Minister Mr O Ibobi must call the villagers for face-to-face discussions to allay their apprehensions. They called for the revocation of Section 144 and demanded that there must be no effort to stop free movement of the citizens. There is sufficient land in the hotel and nearby government properties to construct a really huge luxury hotel. It may once again be stressed that modern luxury hotels throughout the world --- including those in New Delhi are in less land than currently under Hotel Imphal. PPP [private-people-participation] models must not be for benefit of a few. In future, effected people must be given an opportunity to be a part of the PPP with guarantees of profit sharing, employment and other befits that may accrue. Also, livelihood, security, and community life must not be disrupted.
Prima facie, there does not seem to be any need to acquire the village land to make a luxury hotel. Hotel Imphal's expansion and upgrading can be fruitfully done on existing land of its owners