By Shreya Shah
The economic blockade of the Imphal-Dimapur and Imphal-Silchar roads, through which most goods enter the state, has overshadowed all other issues this election year in Manipur, the North-eastern state with one of India’s highest poverty rates, high youth unemployment, and low growth. Elections in Manipur, a state half the size of Harya, with one-third the population of Mumbai, over 30 tribal groups, and six active terrorist groups, will take place in two phases, on March 4 and March 8.
The economic blockade — a manifestation of the state’s ethnic conflict — is the “burning problem” right now, said Binod Kumai, a research associate with the Institute for Conflict Magement, a New Delhi-based nonprofit. Prices of necessary commodities have skyrocketed, with cooking gas cylinders being sold for Rs 1,000 (Rs 651.50 in Delhi) and a litre of petrol for Rs 200 (Rs 71.33), he explained. “People are not able to see beyond the hope of peace,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, Editor of the Imphal Free Press, on the blockade ongoing since November 1 last year. On December 8, 2016, the Manipur government issued a gazette notification dividing seven districts into 14 districts.
The blockade has been imposed by the United ga Council, which demands the government go back on its decision to create new districts in the hill areas of Manipur. The group contends that ga groups were not consulted before the decision, and some new districts divide what gas consider their ancestral land. The government, led by Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, said that new districts will help administer the region better. The new districts do not change assembly constituencies. But the focus on the blockade has pushed other important issues in Manipur to the background. The per capita income of Manipur, at Rs 24,042, is one of the lowest in the country, and trends over the last 10 years show a slow increase and, sometimes, even contraction in both the net domestic product and the per capita income of the state, according to information compiled by the NITI Aayog. Tepid growth is also one of the causes of high urban unemployment. As many as 188 out of 1,000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 years in urban areas of Manipur are unemployed, compared to the Indian average of 139 people per 1,000 — a challenge in a state with 23.3 per cent of its population between the age of 18 and 29 years.
“Unemployment should have been a big issue, but isn’t because of the blockade,” said Phanjoubam. “This election is removed from everyday realities.” Two of those realities appear to be in conflict: India’s third-poorest state also has among the country’s lowest infant mortality rate (IMR), which, at nine deaths per 1,000 live births, is better than Brazil, Argenti and Saudi Arabia, according to World Bank data. Some reasons for low infant deaths include better medical facilities, more doctors and nurses and women empowerment. Manipur has one doctor for every 1,000 people, as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and better than the all-India average of one doctor for 1,700 people. The trained nurse to population ratio is 1:600 compared to the India average of 1:638. The number and proportion of people below the poverty line in Manipur has fallen since 2009, but, in 2011-12, over a third of Manipur’s population still lived below the poverty line of Rs 1,118 per capita per month in rural areas and Rs 1,170 in urban areas. Only two states — Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — have a higher proportion of people below the poverty line than Manipur.
Women in the state are also better off than most in India. A girl born is more likely to be educated; more likely to be working as an adult; more likely to survive childbirth and more likely to not be the victim of crime, than in most Indian states. These health and gender indicators are high in spite of the insurgency, which began in the 1960s, after Manipur, home to over 30 tribes, became a part of the Indian union. There are broadly two insurgent demands — one from the gas who want Greater galand, a state which would contain parts of Manipur. The gas are one of three major ethnic groups in Manipur, along with the valley-based Meiteis and the hill-based Kukis. The other insurgent group, comprised of the majority Meiteis, wants to secede from India, and form a separate sovereign state. Despite the turmoil, deaths related to the insurgency have fallen. Overall, since 2009, fatalities because of insurgent activity in Manipur have reduced, with a greater reduction since 2012. In 2016, 14 civilians and 11 security officers died, down from 107 civilians and 37 security officers in 2006, according to data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Another issue of contention is the 59-year-old Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), which provides special powers to Indian armed forces in disturbed areas of Aruchal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, galand and Tripura. These include the power to fire, even if it causes death, at any person who breaks a law, including assemblies with more than five people. Detractors say it gives armed forces too much power and allows them to act with impunity. Residents have demanded the act be rescinded from Manipur.
Irom Sharmila, a Manipuri activist who was on a hunger strike against AFSPA for 16 years, broke her fast this year, to form a political party with the aim of repealing the Act from Manipur. Her party, People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance, the Bharatiya Jata Party, and the ga People’s Front, are some major parties contesting for a government that has been run by the Congress party for 15 years. (IANS)