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Relocate the Security Forces to Lift Economic Blockade on NH-2

Shivananda H. is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 12, 2011

    A significant section of National Highway (NH) no. 2 (earlier known as NH-39) connecting the border state of Manipur remains cut off from mainland India due to (an indefinite) economic blockade imposed by the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee (SHDDC) in Senapati district since July 31, 2011. The SHDDC’s demand for the conversion of Sadar hill areas, originally dominated by Kuki tribes, into a full-fledged district has been opposed by several Naga organisations including the United Naga Council (UNC). The Nagas are apprehensive that the creation of the Sadar hills as a new district would split them. In protest against the demands of SHDDC, the UNC began its own blockade from August 21, 2011. As a result, life in the Imphal valley is being held to ransom, and rising tensions among the various communities could lead to open conflict. Despite two meetings held on this issue in the state legislature in August 2011, no amicable solution has been arrived at. The state government with support from the Centre has been striving for a solution to secure the line of transportation. What can be considered is the strategic positioning of troops along the vulnerable points of the highway in order to deny the blockaders the ability to continue with their blockade.

    The economic blockade of national highways in Manipur has been a frequent practice in recent years. It has become a new means of protest for the hill tribes of the state. Geographically, 90 per cent of the state area is hilly and contains 35.45 per cent of the tribal population; these encircle the valley which contains 64.55 per cent of the state’s total population. Such blockades have greatly affected the people of the valley, primarily the Meities, as well as other settlers (including non-Manipuri businessmen), and has created hatred and distrust against the tribes.

    Manipur is connected with three national highways - NH-2, NH-202 and NH-37 (see map). Besides these, NH-102 extends from Imphal to Moreh (an Indo-Myanmar border town) which is a part of the Asian Highway and linked to Bangkok through Myanmar. Among these highways, only NH-2 is operational but it is full of potholes and broken culverts. Successive blockades have created shortages of basic commodities like medicines, oil, cooking gas, etc. This has led to black marketing in petrol and cooking gas, which are sold at more than Rs. 120 per litre and Rs. 1000 per litre, respectively.

    The blockade also demonstrates the lack of strategic planning to ensure that the road network remains operational in insurgency stricken states like Manipur. Though much has been projected at the national level to enhance road connectivity for integrating the remote border areas of the northeast, the ground reality is different. For instance, during the 10th Five Year Plan (2002-2007), the central government had sanctioned Rs. 1690.26 crore for building 36 roads of a total length of 1905.60 km and Rs. 31,000 crore in the 11th Five Year plan under the Special Road Development Programme for the North East (SARDP-NE). But, till now, these roads have not been completed; they are said to be in various stages of construction. This state of affairs is particularly sensitive because numerous insurgent groups are exploiting the fact of poor governance and negligence. In addition, the prolonged economic blockade has also damaged the image of state and the central governments. With national highways being continuously blocked, the people of the Manipur valley have started looking to the Indo-Myanmar border trade even for daily essential commodities. Items like petrol and rice that do not appear in the list of 22 items that are exchangeable under the Indo-Myanmar border trade agreement are being smuggled in. This could have a negative impact in the long run, wherein the affiliation of the masses towards the country may start weakening, besides encouraging black marketing and smuggling. Ironically, this is in contrast to the national strategy of countering insurgency which talks about winning the hearts and minds of the masses and encouraging national integration.

    The blockade has meant trucks loaded with essential commodities remain stranded on NH-2 at the Mao gate along the Manipur-Nagaland border, which is a mere 110 km from Imphal. Manipur has thus been held to ransom by the local tribes. One option to end the blockade could be the strategic deployment of troops on the highways instead of the present practice of providing convoys for transportation of vehicles. In many cases convoy deployment has proved ineffective. Whenever there has been an economic blockade on NH-2, the choke points are between Keithelmanbi and Mao (a distance of 76 km), where the local tribes block the roads near the towns and villages they inhabit and at a few U-curves on the hill roads. In all there are approximately eight main locations (as shown in the satellite image of NH-2) between Keithelmanbi and Mao, namely Kangpokpi, Hengbung, Taphou Kuki, Senapati, Karong, Lairouching, Maram and Tadubi. This stretch of 76 km can rationally be secured by a force of merely four battalions, giving the responsibility of keeping 5 km open to each company (approximately 125 personnel). The normal practice is to allot 10 km to a ROP (Road Opening Party) company in the plains. Currently, the state has six battalions of Manipur Rifles (MR) and an equal number of India Reserve Battalions (IRB). The paramilitary forces deployed in the state include 28 battalions of Assam Rifles, six battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF) and seven battalions of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Moreover, 10 battalions of the army comprising the Maratha Light Infantry, J&K Light Infantry and Gorkha Rifles are assisting the state. Given the presence of these forces, the government can redeploy them at the choke points to prevent the various tribal groups from imposing the blockade and keep the line of communications open.