Some 110 km from Imphal is this tiny town made up of markets and 22,000 people. The town has been quietly and legally doing business with Tamu, its counterpart in Myanmar, for a decade since the two countries signed a barter trade agreement on 22 items on January 21, 1994.
Part of Tengnoupal constituency, Moreh goes to polls on February 23 in the final phase of the assembly election. It has its familiar share of problems. “Power, water, healthcare, telephone, transport, roads…” rattled off Y Ibochou Singh, assistant manager of UBI branch, the only bank in Moreh. “We have to send someone to Imphal to purchase pen and paper,” he said.
Civic problems, unfortunately, have been taking their toll on the only source of sustenance for the town — trade. From a high in 1997-98 of exports worth more than Rs 25.16 crore and imports worth Rs 37 crore, the volume of trade has dipped to Rs 4.59 crore and Rs 2.03 crore (till January 2007 for 2006-07). Another telling figure is the sharp reduction in trade license holders. “From 99 trade license holders (those who can barter goods included in the list of 22 items up for export and import) in 1999, there are now only five,” said KD Singh, inspector with the Land Customs Department. In fact, till five years ago, the department had eight inspectors. Now Singh is the only one.
A trader who did not wish to be named said it was more profitable to do trade illegally. “For example, the Supreme Court recently declared betel nut and leaves — the main import items — as food item. That means every consignment now has to be sent to a laboratory in Guwahati to ensure the consignment is good for consumption. That’s a delay of three to four weeks. It would be easier to simply smuggle it across the border,” the trader said.
The porous border between the two towns has hit legal trade hard. “A meeting was held between authorities of the two countries in December on a proposal we sent about fencing 10 km of the border. It ended without any decision. We can only conduct random checks,” said V Sahni, commanding officer of the Assam Rifle's Moreh-based battalion.
The town continues to be a destination for those who want to purchase cheap goods from Tamu. Indians can simply walk into Tamu after submitting identity proof, buy vegetables, shoes, ‘phunshi’ rice and cigarettes, and return by 3 pm.
One result of declining trade has been the steady change in Moreh's demography. “It used to be called mini India, with a large number Tamilians, Sikhs, Punjabis, Marwaris besides tribes and people from other northeastern states. But many who settled from other states have now left,” said Brojen Singh, a member of the Meitei Council.
Insurgency groups have to take their share of the blame as well. “You pay high taxes and custom duties and then keep a separate chunk for insurgent groups when you are transporting the goods. Nothing much is left but one has to comply,” said a trader in medicines.