India: Economic Blockade Paralyzes Life in Manipur

Jhumur Deb
2016.11.23
Guwahati, India
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161123-IN-Manipur-trucks-620.jpg Trucks carrying essential supplies are stranded at the border of Manipur, India, Nov. 22, 2016.
Courtesy of Sonam Tassaduq

More than three weeks have passed since Bishnupriya Devi, a resident of the northeast Indian state of Manipur, has been able to purchase kerosene, an essential commodity used to light cooking stoves in rural households.

Devi is among some 2.7 million people in Manipur who are struggling to go about their daily lives because of an acute shortage of food, fuel and medicinal supplies resulting from an indefinite economic blockade imposed by a tribal body since Oct. 31.

“I’ve been going door-to-door begging for some kerosene so I can cook for my family. Sometimes I get lucky. Other times, we are forced to fill our stomachs with raw food,” Devi, who lives in the suburbs of Imphal, the state’s capital, told BenarNews.

The United Naga Council (UNC) – an umbrella group representing over 35 Naga tribes scattered across the northeastern states of Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh – has blocked arterial highways leading to Manipur to protest the state government’s decision to turn two tribe-dominated areas into full-fledged revenue districts.

On Monday, the blockade saw its first instance of violence when suspected UNC supporters torched a goods-laden truck headed for Imphal on the outskirts of Manipur.

The government’s move to turn Sadar Hills and Jiriban sub-divisions into districts of Manipur is a conspiracy to snatch away ancestral land owned by members of the Naga tribe, the UNC said.

“If Sadar Hills and Jiriban are turned into districts, the government will set up administrative offices there after snatching away land rightfully owned by Nagas,” a UNC member told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.

“The Naga indigenous people in Manipur want an alternative arrangement. We want to be treated as a separate entity and want a separate administration,” he said.

The nearly 2.1 million-strong indigenous Nagas, some 625,000 of whom live in Manipur, have opposed any arbitrary bifurcation and division of their land for decades.

The outlawed National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), a Christian extremist group, has been waging an armed rebellion against the Indian government since 1980, demanding the establishment of a sovereign state separate from India.

Activists of the United Naga Council (UNC) block a highway leading to Manipur, India, Nov. 22, 2016. [Courtesy of Sonam Tassaduq]

Humanitarian crisis

The UNC-imposed economic blockade has left nearly 2,000 trucks transporting essential supplies to Manipur stranded on the state borders, which have been blocked by group activists.

As of Wednesday, the blockade had resulted in a loss of about 700 million rupees to the Manipur government, according to the state’s taxation department.

The situation is fast turning into a humanitarian crisis, according to residents.

“A liter of petrol, which is otherwise priced at about 67 rupees ($1), is now selling in the black market for 300 rupees ($4). Essential commodities like rice, potatoes and medicines are no longer available in the market,” N. Satyajeet, a journalist from Imphal, told BenarNews.

Manipur Chief Secretary Oinam Nabakishore said the state’s stockpile of petrol and diesel had run out on Nov. 10, adding that nearly 200 oil tankers were stranded on the border with Assam.

He said a shortage of paramilitary personnel in the region prevented state police from removing protesters from the borders.

“We are trying our best to escort the stranded trucks to Imphal. We have requested intervention from New Delhi to help lift the blockade,” Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi told BenarNews.

New Delhi indifferent?

Sources in the state government said a delegation from Manipur met with Home Minister Rajnath Singh on Tuesday, but no concrete solution emerged from the meeting.

Singh told the delegates that New Delhi had no authority to intervene since Ibobi had not submitted a clear proposal for assistance required from the central government, sources said.

If there was a concrete proposal from the state government, New Delhi would provide all necessary assistance, Singh said, according to sources.

Noacha Singh, a Manipur-based documentary filmmaker, said successive governments in New Delhi always ignored issues plaguing northeast India and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was only following suit.

“Instead of waiting for paperwork, the central government should pay attention to our plight and try to come up with solutions to end this crisis,” he told BenarNews.

“About a year ago, Modi had said he had come up with a historic framework to resolve Naga issues. That framework has yet to be revealed,” Sanjoy Hazarika, a well-known expert in affairs related to northeast India, told BenarNews.

“This is also the reason tribes in the region are fueling unrest. They are using strikes and blockades to attract New Delhi’s attention so they can press for their demands,” Hazarika said.

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