THE HEART of Manipur is ‘dry land’. That possibly isn’t the reason why this Land of Gems is prone to being left high and dry.
On the map, Manipur is like a set of concentric circles. The 238-acre, 400-year-old Kangla – it means ‘dry land’ in Meitei language – Fort forms the innermost ‘circle’. Around it stands state capital Imphal, encircled by the 1843 sq km Imphal Valley dominated by the Meitei community. And this valley is surrounded by 20,504 sq km of hills inhabited by several Naga tribes, Kukis and their ethnic cousins.
The moat-rimmed Kangla Fort is but a shadow of its royal past. After the Assam Rifles moved out in 2004, it ceased to be the symbol of ‘Indian colonialism’ that took over from British imperialism. But power remained in the vicinity. What separates the fort from the Raj Bhavan, Assembly, Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh’s official residence, Secretariat and DGP’s office is National Highway 39 running around its northern, western and southern edge.
The 436 km NH39 is more than just a highway. It is Manipur’s lifeline from either end – Numaligarh in Assam where it branches off NH37 in the northwest and passes through Nagaland to touch the Indo-Myanmar border southeast at Moreh. The highway is also an Achilles’ heel for this northeastern state – it gets choked whenever Manipur has ethnic, militant and inter-state problems.
NH53, the alternative terrestrial access to the world beyond, is no better. From Imphal, it runs southeast 220 km through Naga territory and another 100 km to touch NH44 at Badarpur in southern Assam. Manipuris of yore were perhaps prophetic in calling this road Tongjei Maril – ‘smoking pipe’ – before it was paved and given a number.
NH150 is hassle-free. But it is too circuitous –southwestward from Imphal via Mizoram where it joins NH54 that runs north to meet NH44 – to really be a viable option for Manipur.
Manipur’s highways are often likened to boa constrictors. No one feels it more than petty trader H Brajamani (48) of Thoubal, 25 km south of Imphal along NH39. Ever since Naga organizations imposed a highway blockade from mid-April – first to protest tribal council polls and then against the ban on Naga rebel leader Thuingaleng Muivah’s proposed visit to ancestral village Somdal in Manipur’s Ukhrul district – Brajamani is buying his vegetables dirt cheap. Because blockade-induced fuel scarcity has either made buses and trucks idle or too expensive compelling Thoubal vegetable growers to offload locally. But the vegetables can’t be cooked; LPG is too hard to get even at Rs 2,000 a cylinder and kerosene unavailable. “We are yet to get used to firewood,” he says.
Imphal’s masked rickshaw-pullers – they hide the ignominy of a ‘lowly’ profession – have a similar predicament. Fuel crisis has helped treble their income, but their expenses on essentials have quadrupled. No wonder, buying a colour TV in Imphal entails up to 10 litres of free petrol. Even Paona Bazaar, stuffed with Chinese goods brought via Moreh, is offering such schemes to ensure people spend beyond absolute necessities.
“Medicines and other essentials are being airlifted, but work without fuel is difficult. We won’t be able to take up at least 1500 cases if we continue to abstain from court,” says Bar Association secretary N Jotendro. Commuting constraint has also forced schools to declare early summer vacation while local newspapers have cut down the pages owing to newsprint crisis.
It is not only the Valley – it grows enough rice to sustain 60 per cent of Manipur in a year – that is suffering. The worst affected are areas that want to see Muivah’s homecoming become a reality. For the moment, they do not mind paying Rs 500 a kilo for sugar or Rs 110-150 for a litre of diesel so long as the standoff bleeds Manipur enough to relent.
But Manipur – CM Ibobi Singh to be precise – is in no mood to let Muivah in. For, in the visit it sniffs a design to reclaim Manipur’s hills for Greater Nagalim, the ultimate goal of the militant National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). The hills that Manipuri kings had ruled out of Kangla Fort.
An old Meitei saying runs thus: Ching na mayambani, tam na manao ni; animak thadoknaba yaroi (Hill is elder brother, Valley is younger brother; the two cannot be separated). Is Manipur paying the price of a role reversal bid?
(This report, with valuable inputs from Sabhapati Samom in Imphal, appeared in Hindustan Times)