Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Earth Lovers of Manipur

World Environment Day came and went. My Facebook was full of messages and thoughts on the world’s environment and its condition. I spent it in Imphal, watching other people plant trees. I must admit, there was a point when I was wondering, looking at people clearing jungles, digging pits, carrying saplings, planting them – ‘I have not lifted a finger in this thing. Does this make me a complete idiot?’

My friends’ 10 year old daughter made me feel better. When I met her just after WED, she blurted – ‘You know Mamu Miss, they are so stupid, they asked us to carry chart paper to school on World Environment Day. It is going to do more damage to the environment na. Because you have to cut more trees to make the chart papers.’

‘You must not call people stupid.’ – Her mother reminded her. 

Her elder sister chimed in the stories. ‘You know Mamu Miss, we were asked to make posters. One boy from my class drew something and wrote  - How Are We Going to Save The Environment by Making Posters on World Environment Day – on it and submitted. I raised a thumbs-up to the boy.  My feeling of being useless eased a bit hearing this and when I thought about my World Environment Day. I was after all in good company and not making any posters or using chart paper at all.

A few of my friends in Imphal are doing a wonderful thing that started 10 years back. When they returned to Manipur from various parts of India after their studies, all they did for the first few months was to smoke up and do what smokers to typically. Dream of doing something nice. 

Near Imphal there is a reserve forest that belongs to the government forest department. Although it is a reserve forest, there is no forest there. The trees have been cut long time back and the foothills only had cropped tree stumps and small bushes. My friends decided to build a hut, live there and ask people not to cut the trees anymore in the area around. 

Soon the trees protected by the group of boys started growing and now it is a young forest that covers two small hills. It is a small place but is the only one around with trees. The boys pulled in whatever little resources they had and kept the place going. They added a kitchen, a tree house, bamboo benches strewn in here and there to sit around in the middle of the jungle, a cowshed and a cow, cats, a dog (his name is Jacky) and rabbits. They planted saplings and made fire lines in the dry season to protect the little forest from wild fire. Seeing all these activities the birds started stopping by and staying back depending on their nature. It has become such a safe space that even the rabbits are not scared of people. 

I spent my day here at Punt Shilok small forest on WED. The place had a festive air around. There was a bunch of people who had gone to visit the place on WED. Like a pilgrimage. And the place has more than one sacred connection. 

There is a sacred spring there that the Manipuris call Puntshilok – the spring of life. Loiya who started living in the hut since the beginning claims he feels his life is expanding every time he takes a bath in that spring. 

Close to the spring of life is a small temple dedicated to the father of a Meitei clan. Ram told me this clan is one of the seven original clans Meitei’s believe they started with. Since the clans came directly from heaven the father of the clan is now worshipped as a god. This is one thing I like about being from the North-East, our people came from no where less than heaven. Ask anyone and nearly all tribes from Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim will tell you their people came straight from heaven. This kind of explains the godlier than though feeling that I carry in myself when I meet people whose people did not come from heaven. 

Talking about heaven, the energy at Punt Shilok is very close to heavenly. Seeing the older boys do this work, young people have started joining in. They come and help run the place. On WED they were all working from morning to evening clearing the forest and planting new trees. 

A lovely lunch was also organized. It made me feel like I have come to a sacred festival. So far my WED participation was limited to poster and drawing competition, seminars, rallies and such government and NGO like activities. This was like a local festival. What people would do during a holy festival in this part of the world – gather, work and eat. 

In the early evening, when the boys finished planting the last of the saplings, we sat on top of the hill, cooling in the breeze and looking at Imphal valley turning golden.  Suddenly the air filled with wild cries coming from the boys. One started and the others joined in. Then they all did it together. 

‘Being close to nature has made me very happy’ one shouting champion told me. Another looked deeply into the distance and said, ‘you know I have been coming to this place for many years. There was nothing here. One day I came here after a gap of 2 years. I suddenly saw trees growing here. I got curious and came to find out. I saw Loiya living here and working really hard. I liked it so much and seeing his hard work was so inspiring, I started coming here regularly and helping him.’ 
Isn’t that just great? A group of boys trying to make a jungle. For many generations now Manipur has been a difficult place to grow up in. The presence of Indian Army and Armed Forces Special Power Act has restricted the youth of Manipur and many other parts of the North-East for generations. I find it incredible that they can still laugh and tell stories of being beaten up by the army while going on bikes to the river nearby for a picnic. They have adopted humour to normalize the terror created by the state. What I find even more incredible is that they are finding their own ways of countering the violence, the restrictions. If a generation before, to cope with the indignation, my generation resorted to arms or drugs, the younger generation is finding other means. It is as if they have evolved out of a need to retain love and creativity. 

The creative energy in Manipur is ever charged with its dance, music, martial arts, theatre, cinema, poetry and literature. They have been using it to protest. If Irom Sharmila is a well known example, there are others who are at it relentlessly. These boys who have been growing a forest made me feel like I am part of resistance that is growing from the earth, fed with love. 

There is however a little twist in this fairy tale. The land where they are growing the forest belongs to the forest department. They do not want ownership of the land. They just want to protect it. Rationally speaking the forest department should give special award and allowance to the boys to retain the forest and make more such forests. They are doing the department’s job. Indian governance is not however known for being rational in history. The department keeps on handing out eviction notices to them along with other people in the area!

I feel outraged at the absence of logic in the whole thing. We talked about what could be done to save the forest, to carry on growing it. The boys are pretty relaxed. ‘We will see when they come. We will talk to whoever we need to. People can see what we are doing. Surely they will support us.’

I hope everyone in Manipur come together and support them. I hope everyone in the world come together and see what a different way of thinking this is. It moves away from the ideas of private property, individualism, consumerism and the non-reversibility of damages being done to the environment. I hope the world supports these kinds of beginnings wherever they are happening. Surely more meaningful than making posters and protest rallies on World Environment Day huh?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Cycling the Revolution - Manipur Diary 3

I am in my favourite place of being again. For Manipur is not just a place where you live. Here you be, a part of things happening around you. Some inspiring and some unpleasant. And you laugh at everything.  
I am here after what feels like a long time. In the meantime some economic blockade of the highway has happened. The congress won the last state elections completely. One sided. ‘No opposition?!’ I express my worries of basic western democratic understanding. ‘But many young people have won and 3 women MLAs too for the 1st time’ - I am assured. Thing in Manipur is never one sided.
The first meeting, I invite myself to, is the meeting of the Manipur Cycle Club – MCC as they like to call themselves. They are having their annual meeting and the elections for the new board. Ram my friend has already received domestic threats of divorce from his wife Nandini if he becomes the president. Going by the feel in the air, some lawyers might be able to make money if Nandini acts her threat. I try to mediate randomly few minutes before the elections. Turns out, Ram is the new president. Few who are at the know about the threat look worried. Nandini looks happy. There goes my story about the domestic drama. I try to pay attention to the MCC instead. 

MCC started in Jan 2011. Some people who like to ride cycles and think about their place, the world etc came together to ride and promote riding of cycles.
They are really enthusiastic about it. Already they have got people to pledge to ride cycles, bought cycles for people to rent, doing BMX stunts, giving away cycles to people, printed t-shirts. They are talking about including cycles in the Imphal development plan and talking to the government about making policies to make Imphal a cycle city. Through cycles they are ‘defining’ their city. They are talking about economic development, climate change, of health and life, memories and science. They have organized cycle tours to the Sangai Festival 2011 and have published a book with a collection of writing on cycles and the larger benefits of riding cycles. The book is called Cycle for Life and the writings cover from philosophy to humour around the cycle.   More about their hectic activities here
Imphal is always in some very interesting crossroad of time and things. Right now under the Asian Development Bank’s Jawharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (ignore the ridiculous naming), the city is planned for a change. There will be roads and markets made, arrangement for public transport and such designs done. The MCC sees this as the right time to include cycles in the city planning and make a city for people and the future. Great stuff! 

What I like best about the club about the club is the BMX riders. This is why Manipur is so cool. Where other people play cricket and kabaddy these kids are BMXing. And from what I read, in Bobo Khuraijam’s article E=MC2 is that kids have been doing it here for years. 

Really, cycling city is such a good idea. And I have a feeling Imphal is on its way to become one. That’s why I am going to move to Imphal. Can you even imagine Guwahati ever becoming a cycle city? Ram talks enthusiastically about cycles to everyone he meets now a days. That’s why he has become the president you see. He told me I should go and talk to the minister of Guwahati about policies to make at least some parts of Guwahati only for cycles. Really they should. But I told Ram I am not going. Because if I tell anyone in Guwahati about cycles, they will laugh at me. They will think either I am being loony or I am saying this because I do not have the money to buy the latest biggest guzzler. So I refused.
Ram says this is what everyone says. MCC went to meet the chief minister of Manipur to ask him to support the cycle revolution. He said – ‘Why do you want to ride cycles? Drive cars na.’ Amazing! Only a politician can say that.
They are however not disheartened. They have plans of popularizing the idea and getting public support. Every one I have met supports the idea when they hear about it. If they are already not a member of the MCC that is. When I move to Imphal, I am willing to become the member of any club for the first time in my adult life to join MCC. If my office does not support me, I will sell my car and do it.