Sustainable development and community aspirations : The case of Chadong

Dr Jeebanlata Salam
The Brundtland report of the World Commission on Environment and Development conceives of sustainable development as a blueprint of promoting social justice for all keeping in mind each of the matrixes—social-economic and environmental sustainability with an overriding focus on the poor and vulnerable sections of community. With the pledge that ‘no one left behind’, all United Nations Member States adopted 17 Sustainable Development goals (SDGs) in 2015 to be achieved by 2030. The SDGs are functionally interrelated that performance in one goal will affect the outcomes in others. Having played a prominent role in the formulation of the SDG agenda, India is expected to play a pro-active role in effective implementation of SDGs.
In development paradigm discourse, the modern State is often identified as the principal actor in political, cultural, social and economic normative of societies. To conceptualize it, State is at the centre stage as policy making actor with the public interest carefully chartered to bring about development or to end poverty. This indeed presents a very powerful view of the state with its notion of a benevolent leviathan as in the works of Hobbes while philosopher such as Hegel eulogized the State in the realm of higher ethical order, capable of pursuing as neutral arbiter of public interest.  However, in actual practice, both the interpretations have remained a fallacy.
State pursues competing agendas that tend to normalize people’s grievances, especially the weak and vulnerable communities. As also observed by the British political scientist, Steven Lukes who introduced the concept of radical power of State to convey the idea that State exercises radical power by preventing grievance narratives of people in the first place; and then gradually shape their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in ways that the aggrieved people begin to accept their roles and positions in the existing order of things. Thus, issues never arise, so neither do decisions to include or exclude them from the political agenda. This observation lends credence to the grievance narratives and collective sufferings of the people of Chadong village.
It goes without saying that the Mapithel mega dam construction in and around Chadong village in Manipur’s former Ukhrul district brought structural destruction to the old-age social structure and habitus. The French sociologist, Bourdieu, on human practices, argues that social structure and habitus are constitutive of each other. Habitus constitutes a range of socially acquired human practices such as beliefs, ideas, value systems, customs, worships and rituals, traditions, human creativity, economic activities, collective identity, social relationships and so on. It’s the habitus that produces practices that tend to reproduce the regularities in structures.
Mapithel dam destroyed both structure and habitus of Chadong tribal populace, who once enjoyed a life of abundance and exuberance in their pristine world. As the rising dam water began to engulf their habitat, it separated the community into two groups—one community moved to the western hillock that is easily connected to the valley population, while the eastern occupants preferring to remain in their ancestral abode moved to the higher elevated hilltop amidst surmountable obstacles ahead. During my recent visit to the village and close interaction with the community discovered that their grievance narratives are inexplicable hardships of inner pain, psychological trauma, angst and despair caused by the reverberation of losing their sacred ecology—collective habitus with which they had constant reaffirming existential ties that they are only beginning to rebuild.
However, one most dominant grievance is against uprooting livelihood after the dam construction destroyed their paddy fields—the only viable source of their food security, while other subsidiary economic activities such as community fishing cannot be undertaken any longer. Going by the Food Insecurity Multidimensional Index of the UN Food and Agricultural organisation, the Chadong community is currently facing food security crisis in terms of food availability, access, utilization and stability of food. Hence, timely and appropriate State intervention is the need of the hour to avert the crisis of chronic food insecurity and collective hunger.
One of the important goals of sustainable development is to transform the conditions of the poor and vulnerable community by taking community aspirations of development into consideration alongside protection of community rights over economic resources, ownership and control over land and other forms of natural resources, access to basic services, appropriate new technology and so on. It’s delightful to have witnessed the Chadong mountainous village as not only a hot biodiversity but also awash with rich horticultural plants, fruits and medicinal herbs of different varieties – papayas, bananas, oranges, apples, pears, plum, pine-apples, grapes, cabbage, cauliflower, beans, tomato, red potatoes, mushroom, radish, beans, king chilies, black pepper, cinnamon, sesame, ginger, turmeric to mention a few. From my close dialogical engagement with the villagers, it’s understood that there is strong community aspiration for horticultural development on sustainable model as they see in it as the immense possibility of improving their economic situations and overall quality of life.
Their collective demand of developing horticultural activity on sustainable model is worth considering as the best option for several reasons: it can help in improving their present socio-economic conditions by taking care of their resource base; prevents the adverse effects on their environment and its ecology or other surrounding natural resources. The community aspirations of development model also clearly align with the sustainable development model without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. What’s more, the logic of the Chadong Community aspirations of development is justifiable as the famous Anthropologist Appadurai rightly stated, people’s capacity to aspire is conceived as a cultural in which the ideas of the future, as much as those about the past are embedded and nurtured. It’s this culture that shape collective horizons that constitute the basis for collective aspirations located in the larger map of local ideas and beliefs that hold good for community themselves.
The Chadong villagers have made enormous sacrifices—their traditional ownership over land, forest, water and other resources that cannot be compensated with piecemeal cash distribution. In unequivocal terms, the previous Government caused much humiliation, material deprivation and catastrophe to the lives of Chadong community. It can also be recalled that it was during this political culture that the State of Manipur witnessed frequent ethnic conflict and other forms of violence—a visible political climate adverse to peace and development. It was this political culture that shaped the development agenda of the State which often misused its overriding power by diminishing the poor and vulnerable communities of which Chadong community is an experiential glaring example.
Taking cue from the mistakes of the past Government, it would be prudent for the present Government to bring development reforms rooted in local community’s aspirations and choices to address sustainable development goals with equity and inclusion.
The writer is a faculty at NIAS, IISc Campus, Bengaluru.
She can be reached at [email protected]/[email protected]