Monday, June 14, 2010

The Other Blockade

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”

Chitra Ahanthem

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.


Falstaff said...

"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."

Gah! Apparently, Manipur suffers from a severe shortage of editors.

swar thounaojam said...

The conclusion of the EPW's editorial is written exactly in the kind of sophisticated but passive language I have started to fear in many of the public discourses we have in urban India. Its political naivety and nauseating liberal prescription appall me. The NE doesn't function within the comfortable ambit of moral judgement. Like Patricia Mukhim points out very clearly in her Telegraph article, "Not even the astute Chidambaram understands even a fraction of the underlying reasons for conflict here...By no stretch of the imagination is Muivah an ordinary “citizen”. His visit to Ukhrul at a time when Manipur is undergoing other internal contortions (boycott of district council elections in the hills) and the blockade on National Highway 39, is bound to conflate the unrest. Now Muivah has only heightened the animosity that was otherwise hidden under the veneer of a happy co-existence. Perhaps that was his intention. He was trying to gauge if the “movement” has reached a “fatigue level”."

"Those who understand the region by virtue of having to deal with it on a daily basis would know how terribly complex and tortuous the situation is and that it does not lend itself to simplistic diagnostic prescription." The only journalist from mainland India who has been able to crack the codes to an admirable extent is Shoma Chaudhury of the Tehelka. The rest just applies theory to a place they refuse to understand.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Great post. SB, I see why you were waiting after saying you need to post. Chitra, thanks for the perspective. We do read about a blockade that affects everyone and everything in the state except locally-produced stuff (and, indirectly, even that). But it is hard to imagine how life works under such circumstances.

One thing though: an article I read somewhere, while not absolving the centre for the situation, noted that there is another highway (NH 150?) that is in a considerable state of disrepair, and blamed the state government for this. Comments?

(How can we help? Oh, of course: air-drop them some copy editors. Thanks as usual, Falstaff.)

Chitra Ahanthem said...

National Highway 150 is the one that passes through Aizawl (capital of Mizoram). It is a distance of more than 500 km in rough terrain. The current highways that are being blockaded are far better in terms of quality. Also storage facilities were being located on the two other highways since Highway 150 has never been preferred by transporters and drivers.
How can the situation be helped? That is one question that we hope, can be answered. But, air dropping in copy editors won't help at all for the following reasons:
1. The editor would first have to reach the hotel from the airport!
2. There is roughly 5 hours of electricity in a 24 hour cycle. The copy editor would need lots of patience waiting for the copy to edit.
On a more serious note, the main culprit is the way in which issues get totally blocked in the "national media" that stops at coverage on West Bengal and to some extent, violence related news from Assam. At present, it is the blockade but later, it will be something as serious. That is a spectre we have been living with for long. The media says there is no TRP for NE related issues: no advertisements. Media consumers have to demand news from the region: serious news.

Falstaff said...

"that this was just the expected thin end of the edge for
the eventual disintegration of the state"

Apparently the EPW has a shortage of editors too. Still, at least their editorial goes some way towards laying out the issues, which is more than I can say for this entirely unreadable piece.

If the Manipuri people do actually want national attention, finding someone who can write a coherent account of their predicament would seem critical. So, yes, airlifting in copy editors (or real writers) may actually be the best thing we can do for them.

Space Bar said...

swar: i have to say, parts of that editorial made me uncomfortable - in a way similar to the way the telangana editorials did. will have t think and write more.

and thanks for sending me the link to the mukhim piece.

rahul: yes, i wanted to wait for a guest post. there might be another one some time soon (i hope).

chitra: thanks again. you say, "At present, it is the blockade but later, it will be something as serious." let's hope not. also, be careful what you wish for! the tv this evening is (sort of) full of news from manipur, but it's not good at all. and take care.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Chitra -- actually, the problem with lack of coverage of "serious" news extends all over the country. News is news only when it involves celebrities, or when it involves "people like us" ("human interest"). I suppose "mainland" Indians see the northeast as virtually a foreign country, so the human interest isn't there.

However, in the last week or so the media coverage seems to have shot up. Manipur will be famous for 15 minutes: the question is whether anything will be solved during that time.

Chitra Ahanthem said...

@ Rahul: the general media scene is there - the celebrity news etc. When it comes to the NE region, it is just the negligence and apathy. News channels have a NE bureau: one person manning the enitre region from Guwahati. That's how the other states go for a toss. In print, there are NE editions of TOI and Telegraph but they come back to the region.
on "human interest"..ah well! today, I got a call from CNN-IBN saying they wanted a phone in interview of me giving an update of ground situation etc. 2 minutes before I am to go on air, I get another call saying there has been another breaking story: a plane crash. But I won't say that the plane mishap is any less than import of the situation in Manipur and vice versa.
Manipur was in the media spot-light because of the meeting of Naga bodies with the PM yesterday.
The "mainstream" media is yet to realize that the body that "temporarily" lifted the blockade is NOT the body that called for it in the first place.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Plane crash? The only thing I spot on CNN-IBN's page right now is this. Yes, of course it's more important than what's happening in Manipur.

And relying as I do on the mainstream media, I didn't realise, either, that the organisation that has offered to temporarily "suspend" the blockade is not the one that imposed it.

Any links to good NE blogs?

Space Bar said...

Rahul: Blogbharti has a NE page: The last two posts there are on Manipur.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

SB - thanks. Sort of underlines the point doesn't it: a blog link site that averages 1 or 2 links a day mentions Manipur twice in the two months since the blockade began. The entire NE gets four mentions (including these two) in the past year.