Shutdowns, blockades: Manipur`s main poll issues

The common man in Manipur has one big hope from Saturday`s Assembly polls - a lasting solution to shutdowns.

Imphal: The common man in Manipur has one big hope from Saturday`s assembly polls - a lasting solution to shutdowns. They are still smarting from last year`s debilitating 120-day economic blockade, which laid bare the vulnerability of the landlocked northeastern state.

The blockades not only lead to sky high prices of food and fuel but also disrupt education, trade and commerce.

P. Kuki, a school teacher said: "The student population of the entire state has suffered due to bandhs. There are some people who can afford to send their children to Delhi and other places for higher studies. But for an average person like me it is difficult. I cannot afford it."

Manipuris want the government to ensure that highways are not blockaded and to provide better marketing facilities to farmers so that they can sell their produce in other areas of northeast India.
"Owing to the prolonged blockade clamped by different organisations last year, the farmers from Churachandpur were not able to send their consignment of passion fruit," L.B. Sinate, a farmer based in the district said. Churachandpur is 67 km from state capital Imphal.

"In the whole season, only one truckload, carrying around nine tonnes, could be dispatched," he said.

The state went through a gruelling economic blockade which was launched by the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee (SHDDC) Aug 1 for conversion of the Kuki tribal majority Sadar Hills area into a full-fledged district.

The move was opposed by the Nagas, who resorted to a counter blockade. The highway blockade went on for over 120 days.

Mahendra Thouthang said business was hit hard in the state of around 2.7 million people.
"We had to sell our produce at throwaway prices as we could not sell them to markets across the state. On top of that, prices of essential commodities shot up."

Petrol was sold at Rs.400 per litre in the grey market, while a single LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinder came for Rs.3,000.

In 2010 too the state saw a blockade of around 60 days.

"That year, we managed to supply around 52 truckloads of fruits to the rest of the country. However, in 2011 the fruits had to be sold in the local area as Naga organisations blocked the highways," said Sinate, who is also secretary of the local trade body.

Geographically, Manipur is like an amphitheatre where the valley is surrounded by hills. Nagas, Kukis and some other tribal communities are in majority in the hills.

Two highways -- NH 39, which connects Manipur with Nagaland in the north, and NH-53 that connects Manipur to the rest of India through Jiribam on the Manipur-Assam border -- pass through the hills.

Tribals, primarily Nagas, have repeatedly enforced blockades on the highways over various issues.

Sensing the mood, the ruling Congress has said it will bring legislation to regulate bandhs and blockades if it retains power.

"We`ll enact the Manipur Highway Protection Act to effectively counter and control the menace of blockades on highways," said K. Debabarta, working president of the Manipur Congress, adding it was not aimed at gagging anyone`s freedom of expression.

The Congress` poll manifesto promises to construct an alternate road to connect Manipur with the rest of the country.

Other parties like the People`s Democratic Front (PDF), a five-party conglomerate, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) too have made similar promises.

"We are going to ensure protection of the highways if voted to power," PDF convener Nimaichand Luwang said.

Polls to the 60-member assembly will be held Saturday.