Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sixty Six Days of Economic Misery: Life Under Economic Blockade in Manipur

On 5th of July, the opposition parties of India called for a nationwide shutdown, to protest against the federal government’s failure to check price rise, especially that of fuel.

The 24 hour shot down call came under heavy criticism by media which was prompt in pointing out that the country would suffer a loss of 13,000 crore or 2.8 billion US dollar because of a 24-hour bandh.

Now, imagine this: a state shut down for, hold your breath, 66 days!!!

And this is a landlocked state with very little cultivable land producing very little food. So starting from rice and good items, all things of need, including cooking gas becomes difficult to access. Schools and colleges shut down because students can’t travel and dorm kitchens have no food supply.

Sounds shocking? Well, it IS the truth.

On 12th of April this year, two Naga political groups (though, incredibly they call themselves ‘students groups’) called for the blockade on National Highway 39 (Imphal-Dimapur) and National Highway 53 (Imphal-Jiribam). The groups were protesting elections to the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in Manipur hills and Manipur government's decision to ban entry of Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isaac-Muivah group) – the outfit fighting for separation from India for decades – into Manipur.

Within days of the blockade, Manipur plunged into an unprecedented crisis in Manipur. The two highways under blockade are the lifelines for the state where all supplies reach through trucks. The blockade meant supply trucks couldn’t move in. Before a week had passed, Manipur had shortages of all essentials, including life saving drugs, foodstuffs and fuel.

Finally, on June 18, the All Naga Students’ Association of Manipur called off the blockade. But by then the misery of common citizens was complete. Hostels in schools and colleges had been shut, as there was no food in the kitchen and no power supply. Students were forced to leave. Hospitals stopped taking in patients. All construction work stopped. Temporary workers became jobless. Daily wage laborers were the worst hit.

Now, braving this chaos and agony, a community correspondent kept up her effort to report the story of a state under sieze. But how hard was it for her to do the story? Here is a picture:

The blockade created a huge fuel shortage which, in turn, crippled the transport service. Petrol prices, shot up to Rs 160 a litre and auto and bus fares multiplied. Due to this, shooting of the video itself became an uphill task for Achungmei as she couldn’t travel. Because of power cuts, she couldn’t charge the batteries of her camera for days. Many a times, there was no food at home as the market was closed and sometimes there was no food because there was no cooking gas. While shooting, she was also treated with suspicion and disrespect by many as she was a Naga tribal. Even after the end of the blockade, her family, like thousands others, do not have cooking gas as cylinders are not available.

Achungmei’s video, published only after the blockade that captures the community perspective as vividly as it can be. And it leaves one with the mixed feelings of frustration and hope. Frustration, because, even after 69 days of agony, the fear of yet another new blockade still looms large.

And hope, because, there is a lone community voice that would never keep shut, no matter how difficult the time is.

Varsha breaks the silence

"Hi, I am Varsha. Three days after I was married, my husband beat me unconscious."
Not a conventional opening line -- but then, Varsha is not a conventional reporter.

A correspondent for IndiaUnheard, India's first ever community news service, Varsha is a woman whose brings her own experience of violence to every story she writes.
Varsha writes on a single issue -- domestic violence.

"I represent those women who are being victimized by domestic violence every day of their life... my community is not the one I was born into, but the one I identify with," she says.
Born in a well-to-do family in Pune, 31-year old Varsha had her first brush with cruelty when her father refused to even look at his newborn daughter and kept away from her for eight months because he had wanted a son.

The neglect continued as she grew up. "Every single day of my life, someone always reminded me that I was a girl child, the unwanted one. And that someone was from within my own family," she recalls.

It was sheer grit that kept Varsha going.

Fortunately, her family did not deny her an education. After getting her university degree, Varsha joined a human rights organization in Pune.

Marriage followed soon after. "I was happy, finally, to have a job and to be starting a new life, with someone who liked me. The fact that he was a fellow human rights activist gave me hope for my future."

But her hopes were shattered on the third day after her marriage, when her activist-husband beat her till she fell unconscious.

"First, I was shocked. Then hurt and scared. For everything I said, for every word of protest I uttered, I got a blow on my face. But then came the day when I told myself -- there is something wrong. Either I am not speaking out loud enough, or I am thinking of myself as a lone individual. The truth is, there are many others like me."

It was this realisation that finally brought Varsha to IndiaUnheard.

An initiative of Video Volunteers, IndiaUnheard was launched on May 3 -- World Press Freedom Day -- this year, with a team of 31 correspondents from 24 states. Like Varsha, each of these correspondents has experienced discrimination, violence and neglect in her own life and is committed to reporting on issues that remain largely untouched by the mainstream media.
(Video Volunteers is a media and human rights NGO founded in 2003 that promotes community media to enable citizen participation in marginalized and poor communities.)

Varsha completed a training camp organised for IndiaUnheard correspondents, despite breaking her leg in an accident. It was painful, but Varsha was determined to finish the training. "I have had fractures several times before," she says.

"Once, during the hearing of my divorce case, I was beaten by my husband in the court and left with several broken ribs and a dislocated... injuries do not bother me anymore. In fact, this is the first time in years that I have got an injury which is not the result of a beating."

Based in Danapur -- a satellite town of Patna in Bihar -- Varsha now shoots news videos on women who have been victims of sexual violence at home.

She plans to cover Danapur and Patna, where she says domestic violence is practically a way of life. "India still doesn't have a law against marital rape -- people do not see sexual assault by the husband as a crime," says Varsha.

Domestic violence is an ugly reality for lakhs of Indian women but is still shrouded in denial and silence -- a silence that Varsha is determined to break.

An unreported Korean invasion

It's common to blame the west for anything that goes wrong in India including loss of culture and heritage. But, an IndiaUnheard report shows a different picture where the North Eastern region is experiencing a cultural invasion from the East - Korea.

Wokha in Nagaland is just another hill town in North Eastern India with poor civic facilities and rich tribal traditions. Like the rest of the region, people here are emotional about forest, land and ethnic traditions. And like the rest of the state, people in Wokha too are supportive of the Naga's struggle for self rule.

Ironic, therefore, is the fact that, despite the decade-long violent struggle to save their tribal identity and refusal to be ‘Indianised', the youth of Nagaland have fallen prey to the spell of Korean culture.

The most watched TV channel in the state is the Korean channel Arirang TV, DVD and CD shops are bursting with Korean films and the hottest hair-dos offered by salons are the ones flaunted by popular Korean actors and actresses. All salons carry posters of a particular Korean actor who is much admired by the youth. Shops are selling street fashions that are currently in vogue in Korea, cultural evenings in the state have special ‘Korean song' contests and sports events have categories like ‘Korean wrestling'. Arirang TV is not only watched avidly but also receives requests from the youth of north-east Indian states and newspapers regularly carry a listing of its programmes. In the meanwhile, the entire media seems to be ignoring the issue and treating it as an inconsequential and natural phenomenon.

While it is difficult to date back the advent of Korean culture precisely, by 2007 it had already been around for long enough for the government of Nagaland to have included Korean wrestling and songs in the annual Hornbill Festival.

Breaking this incomprehensible silence, one IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent from Wokha filed a story on this Korean invasion. Shot on streets of Wokha, the video report of Renchano Humtsoe captures the disturbing trend of unquestioningly accepting all things Korean by the younger Naga population.

Says Renchano, “I felt it wasn't normal that everyone was adopting Korean style and culture but I wasn't sure if that was worth news because nobody seemed to be talking about it.”

Once Renchano did his story there were more revelations by IndiaUnheard's other correspondents from the region. It became clear that from Ukhrul in Manipur to Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh, the influence of Korean culture has been growing at an alarming speed. In Manipur the ban on Hindi films by insurgents has opened the floodgates for Korean films and videos.

A Kamei, a journalist with AIR stationed in Imphal does not at all find the advent of Korean culture surprising. She says, ``People always liked non-Indian things here. So we were anyway using non-Indian products. Korean products are just an extension. In fact Koreans are so similar to us.''

Renchano's video has raised a number of questions: How do Korean consumer goods manage to reach the market so easily? Why do cable operators subscribe to Arirang TV? Why have people chosen the culture of Korea over that of Thailand, Taiwan or, for that matter, any other Asian country of the region? Why do people, who are so vocal against Hindi, have no issues with everything Korean?

Above all, the story leaves me aghast at the media which has been so quick to point out all types of foreign invasions and yet ignores the onset of an alien culture which is bound to leave a mark on the younger generation.

While these issues are being debated, reporters like Renchano should take a bow for bringing to light a story that has gone unheard for so long.