Manipur still paying for blockade blues

by Yambem Laba
The Imphal Free Press, Hueiyen Lanpao, The Statesman
August 3 2010

A rumour doing the rounds during the 68-day blockade of National Highway 39 that petrol was available at a nearby pump resulted in a kilometre-long queue of two-wheelers forming overnight, only for their owners to be told early the next morning that it was all a hoax. The non-availability of petroleum products forced schools to close and fields remained untilled because tractors had stalled due to a shortage of diesel. High court lawyers also struck work and even hospitals closed their operation theatres because the stock of bottled oxygen had run out. On the other hand, blackmarketers had a field day, with petrol selling for Rs 150 a litre, diesel for Rs 120 a litre and an LPG cylinder available for Rs 1,800. Also, bags of cement and urea were selling for Rs 750 and Rs 1,000 apiece, respectively. Adding to these woes was the fact that thousands of Manipuris used to travelling by road to the rest of India and back were almost completely stopped in their tracks because no buses plied between Imphal and Guwahati. The supply and demand situation has even caused airfares between Imphal and Guwahati to jump from about Rs 2,000-plus to Rs 10,000-plus now.

With Manipur under siege — reminiscent of the Berlin blockade by then Soviet forces in the post-World War II scenario — the government of India was obliged to ferry in fuel, rice and life-saving drugs using Indian Air Force IL-76 aircraft. But these token shows of concern were not enough, thanks to the economic blockade of the state by the All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur, the United Naga Council of Manipur and the Kohima-based Naga Students’ Federation, which banned all vehicles with Manipur registration plates from entering Nagaland. And all this with the blessing of Th Muivah and his NSCN(IM) group, which is at the moment in the 13th year of negotiations with the Centre.

Thankfully, the situation has improved, with the Nagas capitulating to the Centre’s gunboat diplomacy. When a Naga delegation met the Central leadership, it was told in no uncertain terms that “force would be used to break the economic blockade”. This was also apparently coupled with the NSCN(IM) realisation that its support to a continued blockade of NH 39, Manipur’s lifeline, was akin to killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. It apparently realised its own source of revenue would be squeezed off, namely the “tax” levied on trucks and passenger buses plying through Nagaland to Manipur. The amount is said to run into a couple of crores of rupees a day, which pays for its leadership’s travels and stay abroad and also feeds its cadres.

The blockade was withdrawn on 18 June 2010 – ironically, a day symbolised all over Manipur as “Integrity Day” when the state rose in revolt against New Delhi on 18 June 2001 following the Bangkok declaration to insert the term “without territorial limits” to the ceasefire between the two sides contrary to when the two sides, in 1997, agreed to formal talks to usher in a ceasefire. This was seen as an impending move to balkanise Manipur. It had then resulted in the burning of the state Assembly, the chief minister’s office and almost all the residential quarters of ministers, even the Congress office building, not to forget hundreds of Indian flags and copies of the Constitution. The Centre rolled back and dropped the “without territorial limits”, but 18 people had died in the police firing on that day and in the skirmishes that followed.

Now a month since the blockade was called off, petrol pumps are still shut and state-run hospitals recently declared their inability to allow MRI facilities or conduct operations because of the non-availability of essential gases. The price of petrol has slumped a bit to around Rs 100 a litre, with diesel at about Rs 90 a litre. An LPG cylinder continues to remain out of reach of most people since it costs over Rs 1,500. Even more worrisome, the entire Public Distribution System has collapsed and it is apparent that profiteers of the blockade have taken over Manipur.

There is no reason why petrol pumps continue to remain shut but for the fact that those who invested in petrol stocks and are said to be connected with the powers-that-be in Imphal have, in some way or the other, cleared their stocks to reap a profit. The same is true for rice and other daily essential items. The All Manipur Students’ Union recently unearthed huge stockpiles of hoarded essential items in godowns belonging to the state’s trading community. Their abortive attempt to sell these items at prevailing prices elsewhere was nipped in the bud.

And in between lies the decision by the powerful United Committee Manipur, Amsu and the newly formed Transporters’ and Drivers’ Council to ban all movement on NH 39 till it is rendered safe. They are demanding compensation for trucks and goods destroyed during the heydays of the blockade plus other assurances like no future harassment, etc. But all this seems like a ploy to shut off the NSCN(IM)’s main source of revenue and, at the same time, force the state government to develop the alternate lifeline — NH 53 — that connects Manipur with Assam via Jiribam without touching Nagaland territory. But this highway, in terms of road worthiness, is akin to a “Highway to Hell” because it takes more than four days to cover the approximately 260-km stretch with the bridge over the Barak river considered unfit for heavy loads and large stretches prone to landslides. The economics of supply and demand did prompt a few daredevil drivers to use NH 39 to bring in goods from Dimapur in Nagaland but they were caught by UCM volunteers, forced to confess their “crime” of ignoring the ban and seek an apology from the people, coupled with their photographs featuring in the “confession columns” of local newspapers. Earlier, drug addicts and anti-social elements would make these columns, as directed by various proscribed groups, but it now seems it is the turn of the UCM to issue such diktats.

But since the UCM writ does not run in Senapati, the hotbed of Naga intrigue, a market has sprung up there and caters to buyers from Imphal. A bag of cement costs Rs 450 there, compared to Rs 550 in Imphal. The same is also true for petroleum products. Caught in a bind, chief minister Ibobi Singh, in the course of a National Development Council meeting in New Delhi last month, pleaded for the Centre to import rice and petroleum products from Myanmar via Moreh. This resulted in New Delhi forcing transporters to use NH 39 to stream in oil tankers and rice-laden trucks, complete with CRPF escorts. Last reports indicated 79 heavy duty vehicles, including 20 oil tankers, making the trip. It is also reported that the Centre plans to send in a team headed by the border management secretary, Union ministry of home affairs and inclusive of top Food Corporation of India, Border Road Organisation and petroleum ministry officials, apparently to take stock of the current food crisis as well as the shortage of other essential commodities.

[Originally featured in the Aug 1 2010 edition of the Statesman]

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