Highway projects in Manipur and stabilising role of agriculture; not as backbencher

Mohendro Nandeibam
Physical infrastructures said to be the foundation of sustainable development, have captured the critical attention of all countries in the world. The whole world has witnessed some kind of revolution of connectivity breaking the geographical barrier. To-day the whole world has become a global village.
America, the most powerful nation was saved from the growing clutch of Great Depression by the prompt and carefully designed policy of Public Works which subsequently paved way to a new lease of life of recovery and perceptible development.
As catalyst, physical infrastructures while forming lasting economic asset, confer upon the economy four distinct advantages. It increases production. It raises productivity per unit of factor of production. It stimulates the impulses of innovation and larger market interaction. The gradual reduction of unit cost of production is, perhaps, a great contribution leading to economies of large scale production. Above all, the social vision of greater horizon and larger competition could be a perennial hope for a new world of growth with stability. In short, one can expect larger production, better quality of life and increasing contribution to economic development.
The strong relationship between infrastructure and economic growth is substantiated by the fact that “A 1 per cent increase in the stock of infrastructures is associated with 1 per cent increase in GDP across all countries” (World Bank 2002). In India a target of 5 per cent increase of economic growth would require the rate of increase of 8 per cent of infrastructure (Economic Survey 1993-94)
The recent inauguration of Highways worth more than Rs. 3000 crore in Manipur in addition to a number of on-going projects speaks volume. But the high sounding advantages of Highways depend largely upon the way they are taken advantage of by the people in and around the area. Today the National Highway, Dimapur-Imphal-Moreh, has become a fine route for Drug Trade, the unpalatable, perhaps, highly disturbing offshoot of the Indo-Myanmar Border Trade, 1994-95.  
There are two schools of thought. One school is the view that infrastructure should be available before the development initiatives. The contention of another school is that better infrastructure would be required only when the said area has enough potential and passion for larger development. The case of Highways constructed for defence purpose is nothing new. Right now Ladakh is witnessing phenomenal expansion of highways for defence. Of course, the people in the territory may gain economic advantages of trade and commerce.
Look at huge lack of physical infrastructures in Manipur. The length of National Highways in the state remained constant with 959 km till 2011. The length of single-lane accounted for 48.49%; while 2-lane for 49.11%. The length of 4-lane was only 23 km.
The density of road was extremely low with 85.70 km per 100 Sq. Km. of Area in 2011 as against 287.06 Km. of Goa and 517.77 Km. of Kerala. Interestingly, only 971 Km were surfaced out of the total length of 1,137 of State highways in 2011.
The length of National Highways was only 4.30 km per 100 Sq. Km. of Area in 2011 as against 7.27 Km. of Goa and 21.05 Km. of Chandigarh while Manipur shares international border of 352 Km. with Myanmar and national border of 502 km with Nagaland, Cachar of Assam and Mizoram.
Although Manipur lives in the villages, the condition of rural road was pitiably low in all respects. Out of 6305 Km, only 41.06 per cent was surfaced (2010-11) while 100% and 95% were surfaced in Mizoram and Gujarat respectively. During rainy season, people struggle hard to undertake a short journey. The Panchayati Raj roads were in awful conditions full of mud. The whole length of 3716 Km was not surfaced. They were hardly motorable. 94% of Gujarat and 51.6% of Goa were surfaced. They were all-weather roads.
It is not a surprise that Manipur belongs to the North-Eastern Region which has income level lower than the national average by over 30 per cent (DONER, 2004). The recent inauguration of a number of projects of highways may go a long way to make up the huge backlog of infrastructures suffered by Manipur in the last 68 years.
Two challenges     
When heavy investment is made in the process of construction of the projects, Manipur may face two challenges:
1.    The Economic Insecurity suffered by 60% of agricultural households in Manipur remains fairly high with indebtedness of about Rs. 56,596 per family in 2015-16 (NABARD).     The new opportunity for engagement in multi-crore projects is viewed as favourable chance to tackle the age-old issue of Economic Insecurity. A portion of unskilled workers would leave farming engagement and move to the projects.
The farm sector may eventually suffer and production may decline. Right now, to bridge the supply-demand gap in Manipur, there is need for stepping up production by 25%. On the other hand, rising liquidity in the hands of workers is bound to put pressure on demand for foodstuff. As such, there is every likelihood of experiencing the uneasy phenomenon of sectoral inflation in food-sector. We should not forget the stabilising role of agriculture to meet the challenge.
The Government of Manipur should put in place a pre-emptive measure to control the heat of inflation which may be spiralling. A pragmatic Action Plan for Accelerated Production with NABARD, CAU and BANKS would be the right strategy. Remember, man does not eat guns and coins.
2.    The population of inter-state migrant workers would increase. The Construction Companies normally prefer migrant workers from other states. Their lifestyle, language and social norms are positive points of attraction.
The simultaneous commencement of major road planning and farm planning could be the right intervention. Now, the Department of Agriculture should rise to the occasion. Even today, agriculture is, by and large, just a subject of study, an object of reference and occupation for mere survival. This stigma should go; because agriculture is the foundation of modern development. Those days of agriculture as backbencher should be closed. It should be scientifically designed to act as efficiency-driven-enterprise to ensure the required goods and services. In fact, today Manipur needs a Revolution of Small Farmers.      
 Dr. Singh, the writer, was Professor of Economics, Manipur University.