Politics

Photo Story: In Blockade-Hit Imphal, Anger, Helplessness and a Simmering Hope for Normalcy

As the second round of tripartite talks failed to put an end to the over three-month-long economic blockade, a look at the lives of the people who are most impacted.

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Shopkeepers in Ima Keithel – the renowned women’s market in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Imphal (Manipur): Even as the second round of tripartite talks between the Centre, the Manipur government and the United Naga Council (UNC) in Imphal on Tuesday failed to reach a solution to lift the over three-month-long economic blockade, the everyday life of the common people continues to reel under its impact.

A trip around the capital city sheds some light on what the people have been facing since November 1; the day the blockade was called by the UNC against the state government’s decision to create seven new districts in the state. Since then UNC has continued to block the two arterial highways – NH-2 and NH-37 – that connect the northeastern state to the rest of the country.

Several people that these correspondents spoke to in various parts of the city expressed anger and helplessness over the exorbitant prices of essential goods and local transport.

Even as they claimed that in the last few days there had been a slight decline in prices due to the sporadic arrival of trucks in Imphal through NH-37 with the help of security forces, the hopes of further improvement seem to have sunk for the moment.

In a press release on Tuesday, the UNC general secretary S. Milan “resolved to continue to fight against the insidious design” of the state government to “grab” the land of the Nagas “under the pretext of administrative convenience.”

He said the blockade would continue till the state government withdrew its decision to create the new districts, as doing so would bifurcate the ancestral land of the Nagas.

After the first round of tripartite talks on February 3 in New Delhi, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had stated in a press note that an agreement had been reached between the state government and the UNC to lift the blockade soon.

The UNC leaders had thereafter returned to their headquarters in Senapati for “further consultations” within the organisation.

On February 6, the chief minister further built on the hope given by the MHA by telling the media that the UNC president Gaidon Kamei and publicity secretary Sangkhel Stephen – who have been in jail since November 25 for spearheading the blockade ­– would be released on Tuesday and thereafter the blockade would be lifted.

He, however, did not mention the core issue of creation of the new districts.

With Satyendra Garg, the joint secretary (Northeast) of MHA, arriving in Imphal a day later to take the talks “to a definite solution,” the hope for normalcy in the poll-bound state was further reinforced.

However, the UNC general secretary later accused the chief minister of “triumphantly stating in the media that the core issue has not been put on the agenda and that the UNC protest would be called off”.

“The government of Manipur and the government of India, for creating a conducive atmosphere for the next tripartite meeting, agreed [on February 3] that none of the parties would go to the press on the sensitive matters discussed in the talks. But the chief minister of Manipur didn’t stand by it,” he said.

Garg, along with additional chief secretary Suresh Babu had a talk with Kamei and Stephen at the office of the additional director general of police (prisons) P. Doungel on Tuesday which failed to overturn the decision of the UNC’s presidential council to not lift the blockade without an assurance from the state government to revoke its decision to create the new districts.

Later, both Kamei and Stephen were produced before the court of the chief judicial magistrate in Imphal and remanded to judicial custody for 15 days.

Meanwhile, late in the evening, the state government in a release urged the UNC to lift the blockade keeping public interest in mind. “Keeping in view the sufferings of the people living in both the hills and the valley, the state government again appeals to the UNC to reconsider their decision and withdraw the economic blockade immediately,” the statement said.

The next date for the tripartite talks has now been pushed to March 25, after the polls.

With the present deadlock between the state government and the UNC set to continue, life in the blockade-hit capital city carries on for another day. The Wire captures the on ground impact in Imphal.

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With a bag holding 20 litres of petrol in bottles near the Kangla Gate, Premlata waits for customers. Credit: Amanat Khullar

With petrol and diesel openly sold in the black market throughout the year across Manipur, it has for long been Premlata’s livelihood, just like it is of several other poor women who make a small profit from it after procuring a few litres from the hoarders.

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Premlata fills the tank of a customer’s vehicle outside a closed fuel-filling station. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Since Imphal has a few petrol stations, it is not very common to see women like Premlata selling petrol in used mineral water bottles in the heart of the city. However, with the economic blockade leading to scarcity of petrol in the capital city, Premlata, like so many others, have shifted shop to the footpaths of the main areas of the city.

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Premlata claims she is often forced into giving petrol to policemen for free. Credit: Amanat Khullar

While she sold a litre for Rs 300 a month ago, on February 7, Premlata claims she now sells a litre of petrol for Rs 100. Premlata claims she buys a litre from the black market at Rs 90 and receives only Rs 10 as profit. She complains that policemen often take petrol from her for free and threaten to put her behind bars.

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Vehicles line outside a fuel filling station in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

This fuel filling station near Kangla Gate is closed for the common public but not for policemen.

Shopkeepers in Ima Keithel – the renowned women’s market in Imphal – say the business is limping back to normal after the Centre demonetised the high currency notes in November.

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Ima Keithel market in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

The continuing economic blockade has been an additional blow as it has led them to raise the price of their goods “a bit” as they have to now pay a higher fare to the vehicles that cart their wares to the market.

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A woman sells meitei clothes in Ima Keithel market in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

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Business is limping back to normal in Ima Keithel market in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

With the supply of vegetables and fruits coming from other parts of the region affected by economic blockade, the vegetable vendors in Imphal only sell local produce.

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A local variety of potato sells for Rs 50 per kg. Credit: Amanat Khullar

While a kilogram of the small variety of local potatoes is for Rs 80 a kg, the larger variety is for Rs 50 a kg. A kilogram of cauliflower and peas is for Rs 40 each.

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A vegetable vendor in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

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A local variety of potato sells for Rs 50 per kg while the peas are priced at Rs 40 per kg. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Dhanjit from Uttar Pradesh has been running a spectacle shop in Imphal’s Paona Bazaar for the last 20 years. He says prices of all essential goods have increased post economic blockade. While a kilogram of atta sells for Rs 40, a cylinder of cooking gas is for Rs 1400. He heaves a sigh of relief as he talks about the decline from the December rate of Rs 3,000 per cylinder.

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Dhanjit has been running a spectacle shop in Paona Bazaar for the last 20 years. Credit: Amanat Khullar

While the prices of all the goods, including clothes, have shot up across the markets in Imphal post economic blockade, the Moreh market has remained largely unaffected. The goods to the market come from different parts of South Asia through the Myanmar border in Moreh.

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A shopkeeper in Moreh market in Imphal. Credit: Amanat Khullar

Vendors say since the fuel prices have gone up, they have transferred the burden to customers only nominally, “say by a hike of Rs 10 or so.”

Rates of shared three-wheelers that operate in Imphal have doubled post the economic blockade. A ten rupee ride now costs Rs 20.

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Locals claim that price of shared three-wheelers has doubled since the blockade. Credit: Amanat Khullar