Incomplete Social Contract and Divergent Interests: Manipur`s sinking Titanic


By Amar Yumnam

John Maynard Keynes wrote in his The Great Slump of 1930 thus:

“We have involved ourselves in a colossal muddle, having blundered in the control of a delicate machine, the working of which we do not understand. The result is that our possibilities of wealth may run to waste for a time – perhaps for a long time”.

A similar crisis resides in Manipur today. We have not understood the social and societal machine of Manipur both at collective and individual levels. Each individual and each ethnic group are articulating the visions of the future in an absolutely disconnect way as if the present does not have any relationship with the past. This makes the future even more uncertain. At a time when the whole world is increasingly discovering the values of interdependence in order to enhance the safety and reduce the uncertainty necessarily associated with the future, the primary preoccupation of the minds in Manipur today is for envisioning an isolationist future.

Here I would like to quote Julie Nelson of Tufts University where the Economics faculty is now actively engaged for an inclusive new paradigm of the discipline. She writes in a recent piece thus: “And, of course, economists should recognize the issue of opportunity cost: Research is not done in a vacuum, and the very question of our salaries and research budgets is based on decisions that value some lines of research above others. If we are absorbed in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic when we could have helped chart another course, we will bear some moral responsibility for the ship going down.” In the same vein, the ethnic groups in Manipur now seem to be so fully engrossed in rearranging the deck chairs such that the whole Titanic sinks. Instead of evolving a world of coordinated efforts to face the expanding uncertainties of the unfolding future, each ethnic group is busy with the articulation for designing isolationist strategies.

Now this atmosphere has led to the emergence of a situation with very negative social outcomes. First, the social contract which has sustained the economy, polity and society of Manipur so far is now under serious threat. This has led to the fast depletion of our forest resources – we are incurring rising overdrafts of our environment. The global lesson about the environment is that, as the climate scientist Wallace Broecker puts, it is “an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks.” The crumbling of the moral fabric underlying the social contract in a context of slow development has given a very convenient atmosphere for some to draw huge overdrafts on our forest resources. This has further deepened the macroeconomic limits to bringing about development in the province. Second, with the decline in the depth of the social contract, the binding social morality for collective commitment to strengthening the social capability has also reduced. While we should rather be preoccupied to avoid social catastrophes and enhance our competitive efficiency for the widening world consequent upon wider linkages with South East and East Asia, the emotional motivation to do so is declining. In the absence of any such motivation, the societal strength would never get any stronger. In Manipur, we now find justice to be the casualty with rising tendency for people to act in an unjust way if it would benefit the self. Third, there is a rising inequality in Manipur in a context of slow development process. While rising inequality has occurred only in a context of fast economic expansion, we are facing it here in a context of low growth and non-diversification of economic activities.

We may rightly ask at this moment why such a scenario has emerged in Manipur. There could be many reasons for this. I would like to mention one at this moment; the African experience of widespread conflicts is telling a lesson for us. The provision of public goods – like roads, electricity, public health, etc. – is critical. In a society where the provision of these facilities is good, the public develops a moral obligation (norm) for paying the taxes. In the otherwise case, they shed their norm for obliging the government and state, and instead evasion becomes the norm. Manipur’s poor record on public goods provision during the last half century must have been a factor in the reduced effectiveness of governance through the province. This in turn must have created a boost to the designs of people with ulterior motives to exploit the sentiments of people for personal gains. Once such a trend starts, global experience tells us, it always has a tendency to perpetuate.

But are the situations prevailing in Manipur today sustainable? Of course, not. The adverse impact on the environment of the weakening social contract needs to be immediately addressed. There are now groups who thrive on the failure of public goods provision. This is not a case of substitute provision, but rather a situation of exploitation with effects of widening and deepening social inequalities. This has to be fought with a world of action. First, the state has to act definitively to bring about an effective and reliable provision of public goods. Second, the public also have to evolve a strategy for eliminating the excessive advantage being taken by some unscrupulous individuals and groups in the prevailing scenario. This would help in reducing the social uncertainties associated with the future.

The time is now for a new imagination to take over the experiences so far. Our experiences during the last five decades do not constitute the right link between the past and the present. Isolationist approaches are not a proper and enough foundation for our future. The only option is for us to act collectively by evolving a new motivation for a thriving social contract; there is already enough muddle and we should not deepen it. Let us save our future, our environment and our collective society.


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