Two Hundred Acres and A Dream
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Manipur native Lalam Hangshing has a dream. He also has 200 acres of hilly land to go with it.
Lalam, as he is known to everyone, bought the land, which lies a ten minutes’ drive from Churchandpur, Manipur’s second largest city, at about the time that he retired two years ago from the Indian civil service, in which he served in senior positions. His last post before his retirement was of Chief Commissioner of GST (Good and Service Tax) and Customs for all of Northeast India. More recently, he has been the volunteer chairman of Degel Menashe’s Emergency Relief Committee on Covid-19, whose rice distribution in Manipur and Mizoram he oversaw.
“The dream was born,” Lalam told our Newsletter, “when I acquired the land upon moving back to Manipur after my retirement, before which I lived for years in Bombay and New Delhi. Originally, I thought of turning it into a little nature reserve. One of my government positions was Director of the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests, and environmental issues have been a concern of mine. Much of the land in Manipur has been denuded and degraded by slash-and-burn agriculture, overcutting for firewood, and foraging by villagers. I planned to restore the acreage I bought to a state of natural vegetation and tree cover, perhaps even turn it into a nature park.”
Then, however, came Covid-19. As chairman of the Relief Committee, Lalam became more familiar with the problems of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe. “They weren’t just suffering from the Corona lockdown,” he says. “Many families were in a precarious economic state before that. They had uprooted themselves from their land and occupations in their villages and come to Churachandpur and Imphal in the expectation of soon making Aliyah to Israel. This is what was promised them. But Aliyah was delayed and they were reduced to being low-paid day laborers and burdened with rental costs and other expenses of city life. Many have not been able to pay for the education of their children, who will reach Israel, when they do, with no schooling.”
It was then that Lalam had an idea. Why not use the land he had bought to help alleviate this situation? “Building a simple home in Manipur,” he says, “is cheap. The basic materials, like bamboo for walls and floors and thatch for roofs, are easily gotten. The expensive item is land. If I were to make it available free of cost, many B’nei Menashe families could build their homes on it and stop paying rent. It has a clean stream to provide water and electricity could be brought in.”
One idea led to another. “It struck me,” Lalam relates, “that if there were B’nei Menashe families living on the land, it could be turned into a kind of kibbutz . There could be cooperative enterprises. The stream could be dammed for a fishery. There’s enough pasturage for some cattle. We could start a poultry farm. Although rice cultivation is environmentally destructive, we could grow specialty vegetables and get a good price for them. The land could be a source of income.”
But if these families will depart for Israel, we asked, what would be the logic of such investments?
Who knew when their Aliyah would take place? Lalam replied. Many B’nei Menashe families in Manipur have been waiting for years to go to Israel and may have to wait many more. Besides which, “Even if all this only serves these people as a stepping stone to Israel, I’ll have set up a self-sustaining nature preserve, operated by a trust, in the midst of all the deforestation and harmful commercial exploitation going on all around. I would like to see my land become a little oasis, an example of living with nature instead of at its expense.”
Once you start dreaming, it’s hard to stop. Lalam has also thought of opening a guest house on his land for Israeli travelers and backpackers who wish to get to know Manipur and the B’nei Menashe community. And if young Israelis were to come, why not a mini-peace corps in which they would work together with the B’nei Menashe living on the trust’s land? “They could also teach Hebrew and other Jewish subjects,” Lalam says. “We might even start a Jewish school.” It sounds a bit like what once used to be called a hakhshara, a communal farm in the Diaspora that prepared would-be Zionist pioneers for life in the Land of Israel.
Meanwhile, first things first. A road has to be run in to make the land more accessible, and this can’t be done until the monsoon rains come to an end. Lalam hopes this will be in November.
The venture is for Lalam part of his return to the B’nei Menashe community. “My initial involvement with Judaism was in New Delhi all the way back in the 1980s,” he told our Newsletter. “My mother’s sister, the mother of Isaac Thangjom [Degel Menashe’s project manager], was there at the time with her family. The Thangjoms were among the founders of the Judaism movement in Imphal, and through them I began attending Sabbath services. Not long afterwards my father in Imphal, who later settled in Israel, began to observe Judaism, too,
"Subsequently, though, I didn’t lead much of a religious life. I lived far away and had no communal structure to belong to. When my wife died in September, 2019, we flew her remains to Manipur and held a Jewish funeral for her in Kangpokpi, where I was born. The members of the Kangpokpi congregation were caring and supportive, especially during the Shiv’a, and the rituals and prayers brought me back to Jewish worship, I hope that what I’m doing now will be a way of reciprocating.”