Fed up with blockades, Manipur's wage-earners defy strike calls

Imphal, Sep 6: In Manipur, if there is a constant, it's the crippling effect of unending strikes and blockades. But people in this northeastern state no longer seem willing to passively acquiesce to the diktats of the various militant outfits that call for these lockdowns and bring the state to a grinding halt.

Much to the chagrin of these outfits, small businesses, daily wagers and drivers of goods-laden trucks have started to defy strike calls. Despite the danger of being kidnapped or shot dead by the militants -- and there have been several such incidents in the past -- the truckers especially ply on the highways during the strikes, transporting essential items.

Manipur's wage-earners defy strike calls

They are guarded by paramilitary forces who daily escort about 500 vehicles on the highways of the state. Even then there have been instances of trucks being torched, the drivers killed and goods looted.

However, the fear factor has now seemingly turned into fatigue, which in turn is prompting the drivers to defy strike calls with nonchalance.

In the state capital Imphal, there is an encouraging tendency to defy strikes also among people who eke out a living as daily wage-earners. Driver Biren and some of his friends, for instance, now ply their vehicles with pasted handbills saying: "We are fed up with the strikes." They are not afraid and are willing to take risks.

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Similarly, hundreds of autorickshaws ply around the city. Shops and kiosks, especially in the residential areas, remain open. Women vendors sell vegetables and other consumer items, ignoring the strikes and the fear associated with it. People come out on the streets to go about their daily lives.

Autorickshaw driver Kishan said: "I had taken a loan from the government to buy the autorickshaw. I have to repay the monthly instalments. How can I repay and feed my family when there are strikes 20 days in a month?"

Realising that people are unhappy with the strikes, the Bharatiya Janata Party -- which had called a 12-hour general strike on August 30 to protest the arrest of its two MLAs -- shortened it to six hours. Some other groups, including one militant outfit, followed suit.

Encouraged by the public's negative reaction to the strikes, Manipur Industries and Commerce Minister Govindas Konthoujam said: "The recurring strikes have had a crippling impact on the state's economy and this must be resisted by all."

G. Sharma, who owns a plant which produces bottled drinking water, said: "In Manipur, these water bottles are like the life-saving medicines since tap water is a rare sight. Production, sale and distribution of such water bottles should not come under the strikes."

At the other end of the spectrum is Keinahanbi, who sells vegetables and other essential items on the city's streets. He earns about Rs 100 on a normal day with which he buys rice and meets other expenses. "On the days of strikes, my children have to go to bed without food. Those who call the strikes should consider our plight," he said.

However, even as people try to escape the cycle of strikes, there seems to be no end to the shutdowns.

Most have lost count of the number of general strikes and blockades imposed in parts or the whole of Manipur -- many of them overlapping. Any group of persons, clubs or organisations of very little consequences can impose these strikes and blockades, even as the state government remains a silent spectator. Despite a Supreme Court ruling, so far no organisation has been pulled up.

In the last few days alone, the Joint Action Committee Against Anti-tribal Bills had imposed an economic blockade in the tribal-dominated areas which affected the entire state as these areas surround the valley districts.

The candidates of the 2013 police constable recruitment test had also imposed economic blockades along the national highways, besides calling for a general strike.

The Maoist Communist Party, a banned insurgent group, imposed another strike alleging corruption in a government hospital. The surrendered insurgents imposed a general strike which ended on the evening of September 5. It went unnoticed because people ignored it.

Some tribal groups had also imposed a highway blockade in the border district of Chandel over local issues. People in other parts ignored it although legitimate border trade was affected.

And as the call for strikes keep emerging from all nooks and corner of the state, related problems persist.

There have been allegations that during the strikes, the traders indulge in profiteering. With the fuel pumps shut down, some people make money by selling bottled petrol with impunity.

R. Jain, a wholesale trader, admitted that traders are indeed accused of hiking the prices during strikes and blockades, but in reality they have to bear additional costs which lead to a price rise.

"When trucks are stranded for days together, there are additional charges for the expenses of drivers, cleaners and loss of perishable goods. Besides, non-state actors extort various illegal taxes. Since these expenses are added to the wholesale prices, everything becomes expensive," Jain told IANS.

No one expects the rather unique Manipur phenomenon of strikes being called by all and sundry over any and every grievance to vanish overnight. But the people's resistance is a beginning.


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