No Longer A Dream: Construction Starts at Songpi
(July 27) Three years ago, in September 2020, our Newsletter ran an article entitled “200 Acres and A Dream.” Its subject was a tract of rural land in the hills on the outskirts of Churachandpur, or Lamka as the city is increasingly called by its Kuki inhabitants who have reverted to its old native name in the wake of the Meitei-Kuki violence of recent months. The land belonged to Lalam Hangshing, today chairman of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe Council, and Lalam hoped, our Newsletter said, to put it at the disposal of members of the B’nei Menashe community to live on and farm. “It could be a kind of B”nei Menashe kibbutz,” he told us at the time.
This month, Lalam’s dream has begun to take shape. True, it hasn’t done so under the happiest of circumstances: Manipur’s B’nei Menashe continue to live in the shadow of the ongoing Meitei-Kuki conflict, which left 650 persons, nearly a fifth of the state’s B’nei Menashe population, without a home.
Yet these very circumstances have moved the Songpi project from dream to reality, since the urgent need to house the homeless has intensified interest in it and enabled the Bnei Menashe Council, with the assistance of Degel Menashe, to raise the initial funds necessary to get things rolling. Already, a first three-family unit is going up at Songpi. “The land has been cleared and work has begun on the structure,” we were told this week by BMC finance secretary Jesse Gangte, who is overseeing the project. “By the end of August or the beginning of September, the families should be able to move in.”
How can a three-family unit can be built in a month? It’s possible, Gangte says, because the traditional-style construction makes use of simple methods and materials: a light, foundationless wooden frame anchored by two-by-fours and finished with bamboo canes for the walls; packed, dried mud for the floors; and corrugated tin sheets in place of the thatch once commonly used for a roof. Much of the labor is being provided by the families themselves.
Each unit, Gangte told us, will be 100 x 25 feet and divided into four spaces, three for the resident families and a common area for cooking, eating, and socializing. Water will be pumped to a tank from a nearby stream and there will be a separate outhouse and bathhouse. In the first stages, Gangte says there will be no electricity, since municipal power lines are far away and generators are too expensive, but in the future he hopes a solution will be found.
“Songpi will not be just a place to live in,” adds Yitzhak Thangjom, Degel Menashe’s managing director. “It will also be a place to make a living from. Each resident family will be given a plot of land on which it can grow food, both for its own consumption and for sale. The produce will be marketed collectively, and any profits will be plowed back into Songpi. Land for farming will also be allotted to B’nei Menashe families in the Lamka area who have homes but are in economic straits. We only need to buy them tools and provide daily transportation to Songpi and back. B’nei Menashe don’t need to be taught to farm. Nearly all have farmed at some point in their lives and it’s in their blood. Give them the land and they’ll know what to do with it.”
One of the three families that will move into the first structure is that of Benjamin Thangneo Haokip, his wife Iska Hoineo, and their four children, aged one to ten. The Haokips, who have been staying on the premises of Lamka’s Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail School, come from the village of Sajal, which was burned to the ground by Meitei assailants in early May. “The past months have been very difficult for us,” Benjamin says. “We barely escaped from Sajal with our lives, after which we had to trek for days through jungle, keeping off the roads where Meitei might spot us until we reached the safety of an army camp. From there we moved the shelter of the school, but we’ve barely managed to scrape by and each day has been a struggle to survive. Songpi means new hope for us. It’s a chance to start our lives afresh.”
News of the Songpi project has spread quickly among Manipur’s B’nei Menashe and aroused much interest. “Besides the first three homeless families,” says Jesse Gangte, “we’ve had applications from five others and many more are considering it. All that’s holding us back from building more units is money.” A 100 x 25 foot structure, Gangte told us, costs $5,000. “That’s less than $2,000 per family. We have all the land we need. Future units will go up with the help of those already living on the site. Everyone will pitch in. We could house many more homeless families if we had the funds, and we could do it in a hurry.”
But does it make sense, we asked, to invest such sums in construction, however simple and cheap, when the entire B’nei Menashe community of Manipur and Mizoram is awaiting Aliyah and hoping to relocate to Israel as soon as possible? “Look,” says Yitzhak Thangjom. “As soon as possible’ is a big question mark. It all depends on the government of Israel, which has been slow in granting B’nei Menashe immigration permits over the years. The Ministry of Aliyah and Absorptions is sympathetic and has been trying to get
government approval for all the B’nei Menashe still in India to come to Israel within several years, but there’s been little tangible progress so far despite the emergency situation in Manipur. ‘We could be talking about another three years or five years or ten years before every last B’nei Menashe is in Israel. Do we want families to go on living in shelters until then? The dignity of leading a normal life should not have to depend on Aliyah.”
Moreover, Thangjom points out, as quickly as families living at Songpi make Aliyah, others still awaiting it will take their place. ”Not all B’nei Menashe in Manipur own their own homes,” he observes. “Many are renting and it’s hard for them to meet the rent. They would welcome the chance to live rent-free at Songpi and grow and sell their own food while waiting for Aliyah. And the buildings we put up will only increase the value of the land. There’s no danger of any investment in them going to waste.”
Lalam Hangshing’s dream is off to its start. From here on it’s a largely a question of raising additional funds.