The blockade fuelled ethnic enmity. But was it a political ploy?

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By Avalok Langer

Running on empty While petrol pumps remain dry, fuel is being sold outside pumps in black
Photo: UB Photos

WHY DID Chief Minister Ibobi Singh say — midway through the double blockade of Manipur — that the crisis would sort itself out? With good reason, apparently. When the United Naga Council (UNC) and the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee (SHDDC) barricaded NH-39 and NH-53, cutting off supply lines, it brought life to a standstill for 121 days. Common people suffered while political capital was accumulated.

“The cost of living was crippling. The choice was between waiting in line overnight and buying petrol in black for Rs 140 a litre. LPG had spiked to Rs 1,650 a cylinder before eventually running out,” explains Kshetrinium Onil, coordinator of civil society group Reachout.

But Indian Oil Corporation’s (IOC) Northeast General Manager B Dey says IOC was able to supply 90 percent of its usual quantity of petrol to Manipur per month, suffering negligible losses. While Central forces escorted the occasional convoy of essenessential goods, sources on the ground suggest that the CRPF and army had offered to escort all trucks carrying essentials into the state, but the state government did not take up the offer, allowing the shortage to be created. It seems bizarre that petrol pumps ran dry but everybody knew petrol was reaching the state and being sold in black.

“Meiteis of the valley blame the Nagas and Kukis (hill tribes). The Nagas and the Kukis blame the Meiteis. But the truth is the state government is to blame,” explains a Manipuri social worker. “Elections are around the corner and the government wants to use this ethnic anger to its advantage. As it is, they have been on an inaugurating spree, opening new institutions to win over the people.” Manipur has no real Opposition, the Congress government enjoys a huge majority in the House. Only 20 of the 60 seats in the state Assembly are reserved for tribes.

While the media has been full of stories of soaring prices and petrol scarcity, the reasons behind the parallel blockade have gone under-reported. On the face of it, the SHDDC called for their blockade, demanding the creation of a full-fledged Sadar Hills Autonomous Council, while the Nagas demanded an alternative arrangement and that the Sadar Hills issue be resolved only with their consent. While both blockades have been temporarily suspended as both groups wait to see how things play out, real issues of development and a sense of discrimination remain unaddressed.

A short trip to interior Manipur makes it clear that running water, electricity, roads and hospitals are empty promises. G Vashum, member of the Alternate Arrangement Committee, explains the state of affairs in Ukhrul and Senapati districts, “There is only one X-ray machine for 4 lakh people in Senapati, and it doesn’t work. Areas like North Tusm and Wahong, were all ‘electrified’ on paper under Central schemes, but there is not only no electricity, there are also no posts, no wires, nothing.”

The standard of education in the hill districts is abysmally low, job opportunities are next to nil. “Most government schools here have chalk and blackboards but no teachers, they sit in the towns collecting their salaries, while schools remain empty,” says a school principal on condition of anonymity, “While girls can still become air-hostesses, boys have three job options — the underground, harvest drugs or get into the illegal timber market.” This has resulted in an exodus of 80 percent of tribal youth from Manipur, who can generally be found working in call centres, restaurants and shops in the metros.

While the Centre gets the brunt of the flak, not only has it allotted Rs 5,104 crore to Manipur for 2011-12 (86 percent of the state budget) the home minister has personally intervened in both blockades. At the end of the day, onground decisions need to be taken by the state government. However, when crisis diverts attention from corruption and lack of development, an economic blockade serves its purpose.

Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
avalok@tehelka.com

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