A familiar routine of life in Manipur and more so specifically true of Imphal is the sight of long winding queues: for petrol, at the post office, at the bank, at ATM booths, on the road (the queues of un-moving vehicles), at the air-port at check in and security check areas etc. In the good old days, a queue was an almost alien concept that would be often short and made up of polite people willing to wait it out for their turn to come up. Cut to present day where everyone is in a painful rush to get to the head of the queue on one side while the person at the other side of the queue remains slow trying to figure out which keys to hit on the computer key-board or worse, making small talk on the mobile!
The spectacle of serpentine queues at petrol pumps are thankfully over though the manner in which the huge black market of petrol vanished into thin air looks like an unsolved mystery. There are many theories: that the black market folded after the pressure from the Central Government; that there wasn’t much point selling petrol at hiked prices considering that the market price was getting hiked across the country because of inflation. For whatever reason that the long queues at petrol pumps have gone away, it has only brought much relief to consumers who no longer have to set off in a maddening rush with vehicles and stay up a night or think of innovative ideas to mark a place amongst people waiting their turn: a cardboard with vehicle number, a vehicle spare-tyre and what not!
The queues at post offices and bill payment counters are a bit painful, considering that mostly it is because of slow computer typing speeds. The more the senior the employee is, the more time it takes for the consumer service to be completed and sometimes, one wonders if it would not be better off for everyone if older/senior people who man counters can do manual data entry or be working on computer touch screens so they don’t have to fumble across the key-boards. Queues also mean an opportunity to make some quick money: many enterprising people would stand in line in lieu of senior citizens standing to take their monthly pensions. They would then call the senior citizen concerned from their mobile numbers once their turns would be coming in.
Not so long ago, there would be common queues in Manipur at least but with time, there came separate ones for men and women. In most cities of India, separate queues have brought welcome relief from groping male bodies but here, standing in a shorter line for women often means having to fend off “requests” from men who are total strangers asking to be “helped out”. There are the humourous aspect of it too: on one occasion, there was no one in the women queue while the line for the men was quite long. As I walked in, the men chimed in, “nupa mangaa gi nupi ama” (literally meaning five men for one woman, clearly alluding that five men would have their turn before a woman would be allowed but look at it in another context and one would be forgiven for thinking something totally different!). Another time there was no one in the women line and seeing a long line of disgruntled men, I promptly stood behind the last man thinking that it was the best. My egalitarian spirit went for a toss as those in the line were the ones who made me to stay in a seperate line, which also meant that I was walking off while they remained behind, waiting for their turns to come.
Currently, it is the queues at the ATM booths that are giving ulcers to consumers and the larger public. The popular long form of ATM is “Any time money” (technically, ATM stands for Automated Teller Machines) since the setting up of ATMs have taken away the need for long queues in banks and having to wait for long periods of time while bank transactions take place. In most places in the country, there are ATM booths for under a radius of 5 Km and it operates for 24 hours for 7 days of the week. In Manipur, no one can think of taking out money before 11 a.m. Reason? No cash in the ATM machine. Any inquiry to the ATM staff won’t help at all: they simply do not know. If you are having those lucky days where there is indeed cash in the machine, there is the server connection to contend with. Yes, having more ATM booths open would help but mostly, it is about the kind of service that the respective banks and their ATM machines are dishing out. If the cash stock is replenished at regular intervals and if the service is a 24 hour non interrupted cycle, one does not have to stick it out in the queues for long.
The queues at ATM booths are the most insightful ones on social norms here: there is no concept of an individual’s privacy. Most times, there is a crowd of people inside the booth looking beyond one’s shoulders as you hope and pray that the money gets transacted, that the server does not break down, that the machine does not swallow up your card etc. Apart from the funny side to it, it is a huge security breach and actually shows the irresponsibility of the staff at the ATM booths. But till the time some serious efforts are taken up to address the long queues at ATM booths, it would mean lining up on the streets and adding to the traffic volume on the streets.