Not Gaza, but the one that seems to slipping under everyone's radar.
Writing from Manipur, between power cuts, a guest post from Chitra Ahanthem.
Looking up “Economic Blockade”
Living in Manipur has its moments of great discovery. For instance, Google “Economic blockade” and you will find some links on Cuba (one wonders how they work there) while the rest are all centered around Manipur. But what makes Manipur particularly linked to Economic blockades, one may ask. The answer lies in the topography and manner of inhabitancy of a small land locked state that depends on its two National Highways through which essential commodities like food supplies, medicine, fuel products (petrol, diesel, LPG) come in. The majority, Meiteis live in the plains while various other minority tribal groups live along the hilly regions through which highways pass. Every time the Highways are blocked, life not only gets affected but the economics of it play into the picture since several people depend on the traffic on the roads: drivers, transporters, bus passengers doing inter state and inter district travel. Every time there has been real and imaginary causes to block the highways, Manipur has had to shrug it off in casual acceptance and wait for the blockade to be lifted till the next one comes along.
The decision of the Manipur State Government to hold District Council elections led to the current blockade imposed by a tribal student group. Despite the imposition, goods vehicles trickled in till the point it came known that the leader of a Naga separatist movement wanted to visit his hometown in Manipur. Except that the said movement also calls for the inclusion of 4 hill districts of Manipur within its fold; except that this movement had led to a long history of blood shed against other minority tribal groups and that there were criminal charges against the gentleman; except that the leader wanted to have public meetings in all the areas of contention. The Central government instructed the State Government to provide security to this person and escort him. This, when the police of the State were looking for him. Can one imagine such travesty from the Central Government? But why not, if it is some small state on the periphery? And so, the blockade became a subtle political play: one community against the other. Trucks carrying goods got attacked and burnt and vehicle drivers and transporters refused to drive on the highways.
So, not only are commodities being over priced and in short supply, but you would consider yourself lucky if you managed to get through to someone using a mobile connection: with no diesel to operate the mobile towers, network connections often go for a toss. Electricity? Well, that is what we get on a constantly irregular basis: at most, 5 hours out of a 24 hour cycle and we consider ourselves fortunate that blockades do not mean more power cuts. Just last night, my son’s school authorities sent a notification that the school would be closed since the vehicles would have to stay in line to get their fuel ration. This is an improvement: before security forces brought in fuel supplies under heavy guard after escaping from stone pelting on the highways; schools had earlier been shut off totally since vehicle pick ups could no longer function. A courier service called me to say I should come to their office to collect a letter addressed to me: they had no petrol to deliver it. I was in Chennai for a week and bought packs of sanitary napkins for myself and my mother and do not find it amusing that a Guest speaker from Guwahtai, speaking at a public discourse in Imphal got packs of baby diapers for a friend.
There was a 52 day economic blockade on the highways in 2005, which was imposed by a Student Association that demanded for a separate Tribal University. The crisis then was the same: medicines and food stock in short supply, serpentine queues for petrol and diesel rations, LPG cylinders getting all costlier and lighter. But, thanks to “National” newspapers and TV channels that keeps the entire “North East region” total blanked out except for one paragraph news items hidden somewhere on page 28 and running tickers on the TV screens; not many people know how in the world it feels like to live with this oddity called “economic blockade”.
To be fair this time, it took only a month long blockade to make a news channel feature a panel discussion on prime time TV, called “Is Manipur part of India?” The moderator and also the Editor in Chief of the channel had to loudly put the point across and said, “when I was getting this discussion organized, my producer asked me ‘why a panel on Manipur?” He was rubbing it in.
A second news channel (the rival, of course) did another panel discussion on prime time on the eve of the blockade turning two months old and penciled in the Home Secretary. This time, the anchor whiled away time asking whether the Center had made a mistake on agreeing to letting in the said leader into Manipur. It was too little, too late: we wanted to know what was being done after the mistakes. However, print media continues with only sending back news of the region to the region while TV media does its breathless compositions of “life in the times of blockade”: focusing on the house wife who may soon have to cook on coal and fire-wood after the LPG cylinder that she paid Rs, 1,200/- finishes; the farmer who cannot till his fields (and through that story highlighting the possibility of rice produce in the state). The grim reality is that EVERONE in Manipur is affected and that not many people outside know that a State that had over 300 goods trucks coming in every day with various supplies for a near 25 lakh population is making do with bare essentials. Those who do know a bit prefer to comment on what happens at Gaza but happily blanks out their immediate brethren nearer home.
Water, electricity, roads and food: bare essentials for surviving but in Manipur, they may well be fermenting into larger frictions. Already, the people living in the valley are calling what is known as “counter blockades”: stopping essential items from reaching the hills. Certain groups along the inter state border of Assam and Nagaland have also imposed a counter blockade on Nagaland which they say will continue till the current one on Manipur is not taken off. And while we wait for people to wake up and the highways to open, private hospitals are on the verge of closing due to medicine and other essentials running out. A group of non resident Manipuris living across the country (and some, abroad) raised money to buy medicine stock which were to be distributed to people living in areas cut off by the counter blockade. Half of the medicine stocks still remain undistributed due to the scare of the medicines being stopped from reaching those intended for.
Yet, we also live with the weary resignation that the region is not on the radar of most people. Neither does it have Arundhati Roy writing in indignation for or against the blockade or with anything to do with the region. Perhaps, it is time we outsourced our angst to the brand ambassadors of civil rights. Anyone interested?
Chitra Ahanthem is a freelance writer based in Imphal, Manipur. She has been following issues around HIV/AIDS, conflict and gender in the region.
Update: The EPW's June 5 issue has an editorial on Manipur.