By Jiten Yumnam
The Imphal Free Press, 14 June 2019
Pic: Wakha Village and the foundation stone of Manipur University of Culture in the Village
The Wakha village in Imphal East District in Manipur features in media recently again for another development onslaught on an indigenous peoples’ land with historical and cultural significance. Media establishments highlighted comments of villagers expressing concern with the Manipur University of Culture proposed in Wakha Village. At a press conference on 19th May 2019, president of Wakha Youth club, Mayanglambam Vishma stated that the Government of Manipur is preparing to divert 100 acres of community forest area for the construction of the said university apart from the land they had allocated. “The area which is going to be diverted without consulting the villagers is one of the most culturally significant places of the Wakha people,” Mr. Vishma said while adding that this type of exclusionary process undermines the traditional rights of Wakha villagers over their traditional community forest and land in Nongmaiching Hills.
Indeed, the Government of Manipur laid the foundation stone for the university on 28 December 2017. Villagers also expressed concern that the Manipur University of Culture already applied for Forest Clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in June 2018 for diversion of 38 Hectares of community forest land without consulting and taking consent of the villagers of Wakha Village. A portion of community forest land in Nongmaiching Hills, which Wakha villagers managed and rely for their livelihood since time immemorial, has been included in the area marked for construction of the proposed University without the consent of Wakha Villagers. The Villagers are compelled to raise objections with the MoEFCC to refrain from conceding the Forest Clearance on grounds that villagers whose physical and cultural survival depends on the forest are excluded from decision making process for the University.
The villagers of Wakha village with Seventy Four households and population of close to Five Hundred people belonging to the Meitei community, depends on their community managed forest for their livelihood and survival for generations. No agreement or memorandum of understanding has been signed between the Government of Manipur and the villagers of Wakha Village for the construction of the University. The villagers of Wakha village has been depending on their community managed forest area of Nongmaiching Hills for collection of firewood, grazing their cattle, collecting seasonal forest produces and for water since time immemorial. Most villagers eke out their livelihood from their forest. Villagers also fish and collect other aquatic species, such as crab, to support their livelihood.
The ongoing efforts of the Manipur Culture University for diversion of community forest land of 38 Hectares in Wakha Village from the MoEFCC constitutes a clear violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 due to failure of the project proponents to consult and seek consent with the traditional bodies and local institutions of the Wakha village, either through the Singlup, the Meira Paibis (Women’s organization) or the youth club. The University of Culture also admitted that settlement of community rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006 has not been completed for the Wakha Villagers in completing Form A as prerequisite for Forest Clearance.
The right of Wakha village and occupation over their community forest has been recognized by the Manipur Durbar resolution, 10 (a) of 1932 along the territories along Komhao Lok (Stream) in the North to Komla Ingkhol Lok in the South, Khongjaitabi hill in the East and foothill of Nongmaiching hill in the West. Earlier, the Chief Forest Officer, Government of Manipur also conferred traditional rights of villagers to access and use their community forest land on 6th January 1969. The community ownership, management and use of forest in Nongmaiching Hills was also recognized by the order of the Forest Settlement Office, Government of Manipur under Misc Case no 2 of 1994 as outcome of legal cases to repeated attempt of the Forest Department of Manipur to curtail the rights of Wakha villagers to their traditional community forest. The effort of Manipur University of Culture to divert forest land is a clear disregard to the Durbar resolution of 1932 and order of Forest Settlement office in 1994.
The Government of Manipur commenced construction of road for building the University of Culture in the forest land for Wakha village, destroying a portion of the forest areas. The leveling of ground for construction of the university near Komhao Lake already affected agriculture land cultivated by Mr. Lousambam Gouramani of Wakha Village. A community ecological centre established by locals of Wakha village is also affected as the area is now included in the proposed site of Culture University complex. The water supply to the ecological centre is also affected. Further, a traditional healing centre will also be affected by the University.
The Forest areas in Nongmaiching Hills are not only source of livelihood of the Villagers, but also the source of traditional culture, indigenous belief system, medicinal practices and traditional worship. Firewood has to be collected for “Sairen chanba” ritual from the community forest for annual Lai Haraoba ceremony of the sacred Wakha Lakpa Deity. The Lai Haraoba Ritual also involves a ritual that specifically mentioned that “Wathou”, a type of bamboo should be collected from Wakha Village to complete the ceremony. The complete control of forest by Manipur Culture University will disturb the traditional cultural practices. The firewood for cremating deceased bodies from Wakha Village is traditionally collected from the community forest as well. The forest diversion will only lead to their impoverishment and will constitute violation of Article 21 of the Constitution of India, on right to life.
The pattern of introduction of the University of Culture in a community forest land without the consultation and consent of indigenous peoples and without considering the long term impacts on livelihood, culture and tradition will only constitute a violation of the indigenous peoples rights, as guaranteed under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007 in addition to violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The curtailment of indigenous peoples’ access to their forest land in Nongmaiching Hills will lead to their impoverishment and a loss of their culture and identity. A portion of the community forest of Nongmaiching Hills has been declared as Nongmaiching reserved forest by the Government of Manipur under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 on 4th January 1990 without the consultation and consent of the villagers of Wakha Village. The villagers of Wakha already lose a huge tract of their forest land due Reserved Forest Area declaration, affecting their livelihood and survival.
Establishing a University of Culture is extremely crucial to uphold and revitalize the unique, rich and diversified cultures of various indigenous peoples of Manipur. However, it is extremely crucial to acknowledge the intrinsic relationship of the indigenous cultural relationship with the land and resources of Manipur. For instance, “Leirol”, the song of flowers of the Meiteis is one of the folk songs of Manipur, where many of the traditional folk dances and ceremonies and rituals such as in Lai Haraoba are premised with. The Wakha Village itself is indeed unique for its historical and cultural significance as many of the rituals and dances of the Meitei people are incomplete without reference to Wakha village and its forest. Hence, the Manipur University of Culture should uphold the indigenous cultures of Wakha Village, which also imply its forest land should be protected as well. The University of Culture should exhibit an exemplary culture of respect of community rights and relation with their forest, land and environment, which is integral to the flourishing of traditional culture, identity and survival of the indigenous peoples of Wakha and other villagers of Manipur.
The Government of Manpur and Manipur University of Culture should stop forced acquisition of the community forest land of Wakha Village in Nongmaiching Hills without their consent and further should take the free, prior and informed consent of Wakha villagers before introduction of University of Culture in their village land and forest areas. The introduction of University of culture should not lead to human rights violations, like forced displacement and impoverishment of the communities of Wakha Village. The Government of Manipur and Manipur University of Culture should also recognize the close physical and cultural, spiritual relationship of Wakha villagers with their forest by recognizing their ownership and sustainable management of forest land in Nongmaiching Hills in Manipur.