On the brink of irrelevance ?
The neglect of the tribal hill districts in Manipur is obvious. The local self-governance which is purportedly hyped as the base and soul of democracy remains merely on paper. The rural hinterlands and grassroot democracy continues to be overlooked, underrated, marginalised without any tangible signs of ‘autonomy’ or ‘republic’ in the truest sense of the term on the ground.
Contrast to the bottom-up concept, everything comes from the top. The most visible indicator of this is the continued delaying of the election to the six Autonomous District Council ( ADC). The last election was held in June 2015 and the five-year term of its members ended this year. Voters, the members, and intending candidates are still awaiting permission from ‘authorities concerned’ and the higher ups in the Government for holding polls, even as it is well over six months after the expiry of the term.
Until now, there seems to be no hurry and elections are unlikely to be held any time soon. Even though the latest circular of the Chairman of the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) on 8 October proposed and recommended to the State Government to hold the ADC election.
In early January this year, the HAC had recommended to the State Government for extending the term of the ADC members for six months - from June to November. It is quite interesting that the committee seems to have foreseen the unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic, or it did so after keeping the annual monsoon rains in mind. Whatever be the reason, the HAC had recommended postponing the election and sought extension as early as in January, more than six months before the scheduled end of term.
Subsequently, in March, the State Government in its Cabinet meeting chaired by the Chief Minister decided to defer the election on grounds of proposals from the HAC. The reason was reportedly that June-July being "rainy season" it would not be ideal to hold election then.
In August, when the extension period was gradually ending, the State Election Commission urged the State Government to issue notification for publication of the draft of electoral rolls of the district councils of each constituency in order to enable the Commission to conduct the election on time–that is in November. The Commission though remarked “However, the opinion of the State executive’s committee of the State Disaster Management Authority, Manipur may be taken into account regarding holding of election during this time of Covid-19 pandemic”.
The priority seems clear. While monsoon rains or the pandemic are being cited as a hurdle for conducting ADC polls, the same problems do not seem to matter for the Assembly by-election. The preparations for the first phase by-election to five Assembly Constituencies in November are in progress. All together 13 Constituencies are vacant after mass resignation and disqualification of MLAs.
Perhaps, empowered by the announcement of the by-election, intending candidates for the six District Councils under the “Forum for ADC election intending candidates” banner, have called for dissolving of the present ADC , which would pave the way for conducting polls in November. Formed in early October, the forum insists that the incumbent ADC must be dissolved for a free and fair exercise, and the election must be held on time. It has warned that if the State Government fails to meet the two demands, they shall resort to a democratic agitation and the State Government shall be held responsible for any untoward outcome.
All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur also echoed the demand for holding the ADC election. The student union alleged that if the State Government is not serious, they are ready to take up 'any mode of agitation'.
It may-be recalled that the six district councils – Churachandpur, Chandel, Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Senapati, Sadar Hills, was established under the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1971. Beginning from 1975, four elections were held until it was boycotted from 1990. The reason being the demand for implementation of the 6th Schedule of the Indian Constitution in the District Council areas. Meanwhile Naga areas had also boycotted the District Council election in demand for a solution to the Naga political issue. After a gap of 20 odd years, the District Council was revived and election was held in 2010. Initially though, as the district councils were limping back to life, there were not much public response, while Naga areas still witnessed boycott with most of the candidate elected un-contest or nominated. The following 2015 election saw a wave of public response. Since then there has been some activity and momentum in the hills, given that the district councils are grassroots governance and have direct touch with the masses. It generated public interest and hope.
And yet, the ADCs are not without grievance and those are genuine ones. The ADCs, being the lowest level of governance are left at the mercy of the State Government and its legislatures. The council members and general public are left high and dry due to lack of financial resources and autonomy. There has been disenchantment over the devolution of power. Elected members have sent representations and memorandum, umpteenth time, demanding for devolution of powers particularly financial powers.
In fact, in the true practical sense the ADCs are merely implementers of projects for rural development. The council members were not empowered to have their own development plans or financial budgets. The only power they were entitled were of customs and cultural matters. In tribal societies wherein traditions are still prevalent and the custodians are the traditional institutions such as the Chief or village authorities or clan-base, the district councils and its members are unlikely to be powerful in this matter. Moreover there have been no reported incidents or cases wherein the members of the district councils intervene in any case related to custom or culture.
There is no doubt therefore, that the ADC as a unit of local self-governance in Manipur’s tribal hill districts are unable to function as desired. It is time to review the role and function of the Hills Areas Committee of the state government.
This article has appeared in The Statesman