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69 days of solitude

india Updated: Jun 26, 2010 23:31 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times
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Bhabini Devi hates breaking tradition. No mother in the Meitei tribe does during heijingpot, the most important ceremony 48 hours before her daughter is married off. “Please don’t mind,” she mumbles as she oversees a kin hand over a sealed plastic glass of a Burma-made synthetic orange drink to each of some 150 guests at her house in Imphal’s Nagamapal locality. The 55-year-old matron of the Thingnam family has a reason to be apologetic — welcoming guests without shaa (tea) on an auspicious day is unthinkable. But she doesn’t appear as remorseful as the Sharmas, the family of the groom, who brought the heijingpot that ritually finalises a marriage. For, their heijingpot — traditionally, an assortment of ripe fruits to be feasted on — is minimalist and, thus, without some colours.

Bhabini Devi could have prepared tea. But she had to make a choice; she opted for the kerosene to be used for the generator to make the guests comfortable in the sultry heat. These are hard times, a kin reassured her, the guests would understand. They did.

The home fires still have to be lit. So Keke Phongthan, 45, a gadget repairer and the Thingnams’ neighbour, has gone back to the “days of charcoal”. He agrees cooking on charcoal isn’t healthy for his wife, but this is better than waiting for LPG at four times the market rate.

Colour of blockade is black

M. Ojesh’s mobile phone keeps ringing. This 28-year-old government officer had taken leave to attend the ceremony at the Thingjams’. But something urgent has come up; he has to return to Kangpokpi, 45 kilometres north of Imphal on National Highway 39. Naga organisations had from April 11 imposed an economic blockade on this arterial highway. It was lifted on June 18, but Manipur transporters are refusing to ply. They want their losses during the blockade days compensated, and the illegal tax collectors along the highway ejected

From the Thingjam residence, Ojesh pushes his wife’s Scooty 750 metres to where housewife Memba Devi is selling petrol in Bisleri bottles near a gas station that’s been shut for over a month now. At Rs 90 a litre, the petrol is ‘cheap’ but Ojesh is wary of adulteration. “I have no option,” he says, refuels and zooms off on the potholed, narrow highway up into the hills of Senapati district.

Memba Devi refuses to say where she gets the petrol from. Whoever sells it ensures her a profit of Rs 10 per litre. “The colour of petrol varies from from vendor to vendor, so you have to be careful,” says cabbie Ph Suresh, 25. “The cheapest petrol is smuggled in from Myanmar (via border town Moreh, 105 km east of Imphal) but it vapourises fast and heats up the engine faster.”

Suresh’s oil quality check almost coincides with civil supplies minister Y Erabot’s announcement that 70 of 100 fuel trucks bound for Manipur went missing. “So you know how fuel reaches the black-marketers. The colour of blockade is black,” says R. Yumnam, the mainstay of a local television channel.

And it’s not the oil that’s painted ‘black’. At Thangal Bazaar, Imphal’s commercial hub, every essential commodity comes at a premium. This is nothing new, say nonchalant traders: “Blockades are temporary, what’s permanent is the taxes militants here impose on goods”.

Bullocks don’t drink oil

At Tengdongyang village 25 km north of Imphal off NH39, excise inspector Kh Bhorot, 58, is on paid leave to till his half-hectare paddy field. Much of his monthly take-home pay of Rs 19,000 goes into funding his sons’ studies in New Delhi. Under ‘normal’ circumstances he would have hired 20 persons to prepare his field for sowing. He took on only 10, working overtime himself to finish the job. He also used the services of his neighbour’s bullocks.

Bullocks, outdated across Imphal Valley as ploughers, are cheaper than power tillers that come at Rs 700 per one-fourth hectare instead of Rs 300, the normal rate. “And they don’t drink oil,” says Bhorot. He should have sowed 15 days ago, but waited for fertilizer prices to come down. “Looks like I will have to shell out Rs 750 per (50 kilo) bag in the black market,” he adds. The official rate for urea: Rs 350 per bag.

Where is the PDS rice?

Paying more doesn’t ensure supply. Prakash Gupta’s general store at Hangbung village, 30 km beyond Tengdongyang, is awaiting replenishment — and customers. Gupta, 48, from Gorakhpur in UP, had set up shop five years ago. Most of the biscuits and chips he sells are past expiry, but “locals don’t mind as long as they get it”.

Five kilometres ahead, in district headquarters Senapati, Deputy Commissioner Nidhi Keshwani waits an hour for the JND Oil Pump to open. Fair Price Shop Agents’ Association secretary Sahriinii, 45, has waited longer — more than two years — for his quota of public distribution system rice. “Some 125 fair price shops have received only two months’ quota of rice since 2008 despite depositing money till November 2009. This blockade gives the government an excuse to deny what is due to the people in these hills,” says Sahriinii, a Poumai Naga.

“Everyone is taking advantage of the villagers’ ignorance about their rights,” says Alice Pampuinath, who works with a Senapati-based NGO. “Thank god, people here grow some rice and indigenous vegetables to sustain themselves.”

Yu are welcome

Manipur went dry in 1991. But that hasn’t robbed Sekmai’s reputation as a watering hole. Sekmai, 20 km north of Imphal, is believed to grow the best sticky rice in Manipur. And to brew the best yu, a potent rice wine.

Sekmai is also a popular stop for passengers to and from Imphal on NH39. Among the ‘rice hotels’ is Arabia Hotel. Owner A Tombi Devi probably came up with the name to salute the land that supplies the fuel that drives passengers to her eatery. “You want yu?” she asks, cautioning it would come at a price. Because rice is precious, and not enough can be spared to brew the intoxicant.

But there’s nothing like a shot of yu for special occasions. Such as an ‘expensive’ low-spend marriage.

Exporting survival tactics

Krishna Sharma, in his mid-30s, gets married to Sophia Thingnam. He has overshot his budget by Rs 1 lakh, which means the honeymoon will have to be on hold. He will have to save enough after the blockade-induced crisis is over.

Will it get over? “The irony is everyone is accepting the consequences. Either you pay more for your needs or you stay at home,” says Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Free Press. His eight-page daily was reduced to four pages in apprehension of a newsprint crisis. A week ago, the daily was “back to six pages”.

But there’s a bright side to the crisis Manipur continues to face even after the blockade was lifted ‘temporarily’. As rights activist Babloo Loitongbam puts it, “Think of a time when the world runs out of petroleum and a blockade-like situation is enforced. We can then perhaps export our survival strategies”.