At present, Manipur has extensive forest tracts, with over 984 sq km of reserved forests (RF), 3254 sq km of protected forests (PF), and 13180 sq km of unclassified forests, found in the hilly areas of the state. However, recent events have triggered protests as villagers in forest areas raise concerns over unauthorised land surveys. The issue came to the forefront on February 2023, when Songjang villagers in Churachandpur district were forcefully evicted from the area, drawing criticism from the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur and the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM).
On April 4, 2023, SDO Churachandpur issued an order announcing land surveys in Bungmual, Pearsonmun, HQ Veng, and Sielmat villages scheduled to take place from April 10 to 13. Upon learning of the government orders, village authorities and leaders of the Kuki Students’ Organization (KSO) and Zomi Students’ Federation expressed concern about the motive behind such surveys. In response, they decided to set up a vigil at HQ Veng, only to find out that teams sent by the Manipur Government had already surveyed their areas using Geo-Tagging without their knowledge. When they rushed to Sialmat, village authorities (VA) and tribe leaders engaged in heated arguments with the surveying teams, urging them to inform the VAs instead of acting like “undercover agents”.
The villagers of Sielmat chanted slogans of “Go Away. Go Away” to the survey teams, who left without completing the work.
According to Paolienlal Haokip, MLA of Saikot Constituency, the state government cannot simply nullify the orders of the Assistant Settlement Officer (ASO), who is the statutory authority to settle any claims of pre-existing land rights. Interestingly, several villages, much older than the date of declaring the protected forest areas have also opposed the survey.
L.M. Khaute, MLA of Churachandpur Constituency, wrote an open letter to Th Biswajit Singh, Forest Minister to “issue appropriate directions” to the survey teams to “infuse confidence in the minds of the general public”. He also revealed that he had earlier communicated with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and DFO, Churachandpur about the matter as well. He claimed that he has told the apprehensive village authorities to cooperate with the survey teams by showing their necessary records.
On the other hand, the Chief of Sielmat, VL Mawia has called for the surveys to be ceased indefinitely until the real motive of carrying out the surveys is established.
It is reported, though an emergency meeting was called by Esther Laltankim Serto, the Divisional Forest Officer of Churachandpur, the invited Students and leaders of the civil organisations walked out of the meeting as the Divisional Forest Officer was absent.