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Economic blockade numbs Manipur

Last updated on: June 14, 2010 10:28 IST

On June 11, the state had 470 kilolitres of petrol against the daily requirement of 75 kilolitres and just 7,400 LPG cylinders against 5,508 needed daily

Three men, dressed in white with marigold garlands around their necks, have resolved to fast unto death.

On a makeshift platform before a doorway, ensconced between a garment shop and another selling plastic flower, they sit posing as custodians of humanity in India's eastern frontier, where ancient tribal rivalries and ineffectual governments have colluded to push a state and its people to the brink.

For the last two months, Manipur has had to endure an economic blockade, enforced at its borders by organisations emanating from neighbouring Nagaland, which has virtually stopped the import of goods, essential and otherwise, into the valley of Imphal.

The three men, Maniton Mangang, Md Aurangajeb and Th Dilip Meitei, of the Manipur People's party, which is part of the state Opposition, are but replacements.

Two senior leaders of the party, who had initiated the hunger strike on June 7, were arrested and taken to hospital last week. The MPP has continued with the protest as it believes that an extension of the present situation could eventually lead to a humanitarian crisis.

"This is the season for planting paddy here, but the farmers have no diesel for their tractors and no fertilisers for their fields. But if there isn't ploughing, and the fertilisers don't arrive, in the next few weeks, there is certainly a possibility of famine next year," party general secretary and spokesperson Y Iboyaima Singh said.

Manipur had been hit by a drought last year and if agriculture fails this year too, then households here, many of who tend to stow away certain quantities of essential food grains, may not be able to sustain themselves.

"According to us, the situation is illegal. It is the government's duty to clear the blockade, but the state government is a puppet in the hands of the Centre. So, we have taken a strong stand on the matter," he added.

The cause

The economic blockade first took place in early April after student groups from the Naga-dominated hills of Manipur, that borders Nagaland, opposed the Autonomous District Council election.

The All-Naga Students' Association Manipur, after eliciting no response from the state government, then restricted truck movement on NH-39 from April 6, the primary route for goods movement into the state.

Subsequently, the proposed visit of Thuingaleng Muivah made matters worse, after the state government disallowed his entry into Manipur. Muivah heads the separatist group National Socialist Council of Nagaland - Isak-Muivah, or the NSCN (I-M), which demands, among others, parts of Manipur be dissociated to form a distinct homeland for the Naga tribes. The NSCN (I-M) is currently maintaining a ceasefire with the Government of India.

"But the Government of India knows that the NSCN (I-M) ceasefire does not extend into Manipur, and since law and order is with the state government, Muivah was not allowed to come here. And ANSAM has now enforced a blockade on NH-39, our main lifeline through which there is transportation of imported items," explains Yumkham Erabot Singh, who is Manipur's minister for consumer affairs food & public distribution, co-operation and commerce & industries.

The effect

Not far from where the three MPP members are starving for justice, 27-year-old Ibomcha sullenly mans the counter at his father's restaurant. The New Laxmi Hotel in Paona Bazaar, at the heart of Imphal, has been perfecting the art of serving the traditionally elaborate Manipuri lunch for a decade.

But behind Ibomcha's warm smile, as you pay the bill, is the numbing headache of steeply rising prices that is cutting into his margins. "I would usually pay Rs 450 for an LPG cylinder that lasts for about three days. Now, I have to pay Rs 1,500 for one, and that's only if I can find it. So I now rely on kerosene, but that's becoming hard to find too. My monthly profit has come down from Rs 3,000 to Rs 1,000, but what can I do?," he asked.

With an uncannily similar tone of helplessness, that Y Mohen Singh, the medical superintendent of Imphal's Regional Institute of Medical Sciences, explains that his 881-bed hospital may have to close in two weeks unless crucial supplies come through. "We are contemplating closing routine operations as we have only two weeks' worth of oxygen cylinders. Life-saving drugs, too, are only enough for two weeks. If normal supply doesn't resume, we will have to close down," he said.

RIMS, which is a joint-venture between the states of Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, is having other problems too. "My doctors are not being able to travel to work. Fuel is mostly available in (the) black (market) and that too for at least Rs 100 per litre of petrol. The government has sanctioned 500 litres of petrol for me, but I have 1,900 employees. I need at least 3,000 litres," Mohen Singh added.

Imphal is ostensibly becoming accustomed to the absurd sight of middle-aged women sitting by the roadside with petrol glistening inside bottles, which were originally meant for mineral water. That this adulterated fuel, sold for as much as twice the government-set prices, mauls engines from the inside deters few. The city moves resolutely with a quiet resignation.

The economics

The numbers tell only half the story. According to the estimates by Manipur government sources (as of June 11), the state has 470 kilolitres of petrol against the daily requirement of 75 kilolitres per day. Of the 220 kilolitre of diesel that the state requires everyday, the government has a total of 1,371 kilolitres available, and of the 5,508 LPG cylinders that are needed on a daily basis, only 7,400 are in stock. Kerosene, too, is in short supply with only 281 kilolitres available. The state uses 1,823 kilolitres every month.

The other half smacks of ineptitude on the part of the Manipur government, and Minister Erabot Singh minces no words. "After NH-39 was blocked, I spoke to the Indian Oil Corporation and the Food Corporation of India to bring provisions through NH-53. We sought mobile security from the state home department. They assured us that we would be provided the same on 10, 12, 14 May. But in spite of their assurances, they failed to deploy. No reasons were given," he said.

And possibly, it is this absence of answers and accountability that is unfortunately likely to define the future of a state that, in some ways, defies the norm: the Congress and the Communist Party of India share power here, while Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party is part of the Opposition.

Manipur, understandably, needs special treatment.

Devjyot Ghoshal in Imphal