To escape supply crisis due to road blockades and to stop extortion from transporters by NSCN, the state government plans to minimise the use of nh-39 passing through Nagaland and rely more on NH-53.
Manipur’s highways are its lifeline. In the absence of any rail-link, these are the only source of contact with mainland India.
In the last decade underground groups and various tribal groups, have blocked these highways to arm-twist the government in conceding to their demand. Just last year, there were blockades that lasted more than four months; first over the issue of amendments to a law governing the state’s autonomous councils and later over the controversy surrounding the visit of Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), to Manipur.
- Promote the use of NH-53 (connecting Manipur and Assam via Silchar) instead of NH-39, where underground groups resort to extortion from transporters
- Expedite work on the railway line between Jiribam and Imphal, which, at present, is expected to be completed by 2016. The rail-line is part of the TransAsia rail-link
- Construction of a gas pipleline between Assam and Manipur
- Lobby for import of oil from Myanmar via Moreh, which is just 110 km away from Imphal
Now, after a rap on the knuckles by the Supreme Court and an Assembly election less than a month away, the Manipur government has sprung into action and is taking immediate steps to find ways to counter the blockade. There is also a suspicion, which the government concedes, that another blockade is not far away.
Most goods in and out of Manipur travel through NH-39, which connects Manipur to Assam via Dimapur in Nagaland. A major portion of this highway passes through Nagaland, where, according to senior officials in the Manipur police, most sympathisers of underground Naga groups exist. Other senior government officials in Manipur also claim that all trucks travelling into Manipur through NH-39 are required to pay extortion money.
“Every truck passing through Dimapur and travelling to Manipur has to pay ~10,000-20,000 as extortion money,” claimed a top- official in the Manipur government. “Where is this money going? It fuels insurgency against Manipur.”
To avoid this, the government says it has an alternative plan, by which they want to completely minimise the use of NH-39 and promote the use of NH-53.
Though usually avoided by transporters, because of its bad road and its economic non-viability, the highway has the advantage of travelling mostly through Manipur into Assam. The government says it has started repair work on the road, and the state police have guaranteed armed escort to all trucks taking this highway. The larger reason, however, the state police claim, is to cut the supply of money to underground groups by blocking the source of extortion money.
“We can guarantee security in Manipur, but we cannot stop extortion in Dimapur as it is out of the Manipur police’s jurisdiction. Shifting to the other highway is required to win the war against extremists,” said a top-level police officer in Manipur.
Pradip Phanjoubam, editor, Imphal Free Press, agrees. “Most extortion from trucks takes place in Dimapur,” said Phanjoubam. “But, the change of highway will take some time as the road needs a lot of repair,” he added.
Former home secretary GK Pillai, who has had a long experience of working in the Northeast, expressed his reservation. “The immediate need is to quell the shortage. The Manipur government may have a long-term goal, but the need of the hour is to provide safe passage of trucks on NH-39.”
The highway apart, the other option which the Manipur government is banking on is the construction of a railway line between Jiribam and Imphal. The railway line, expected to be completed by 2016, will connect Manipur to the rest of the country via Silchar. This railway line is part of the trans-Asia railway network. For the time being though, the United Naga Council claims to have stopped all work on this railway line for two years.
Another option, which the government is promoting, is the distant dream of creating an oil pipeline from Guwahati to Imphal. “In the long run we would want to construct a petrol pipeline connecting Assam and Manipur,” said Food and Civil Supplies Minister N Biren Singh.
Almost all actors in North-east agree that the present ending of the blockade is momentary. They say that for peace to return to this region — even more significant than the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) — a solution to the demand for Greater Nagaland problem has to be drawn.
The United Naga Council (UNC) and other Naga groups have long demanded formation of a separate state consisting of Naga-dominated areas of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and even Myanmar. The present economic blockade is also linked to the issue as Nagas consider Senapati district as part of Nagaland. And they consider the Kuki demand of bifurcation of the district, as a tactic against the Naga groups to weaken their movement.
UNC says it is ready to go to “any extent” to fulfil their desire of having a separate state. “Since the colonial rule the lands of the Naga people were bifurcated without the knowledge of the Nagas. Our people are in Burma, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland. The younger Naga generation is duty bound to protect the history of our people. Without consulting the Nagas, Sadar Hills cannot be upgraded into a district,” says S Milan, information and publicity secretary of United Naga Council. “For the realisation of our objective we can go to any extent. You may call our methods wrong, but I am morally correct,” he added.
“There will be economic blockades, until the government resolves the issue of Nagaland,” says Pillai. Phanjoubam agrees, “The Central government needs to find a solution to the Naga problem, until then peace will not return to Manipur.”