Winds Of Change In “Samtal Salient”

1110

By RS Jassal
INTRODUCTION
1. Manipur is a real gateway to SE Asia in its look East Policy in all aspects. It is also a cultural; bridge in between Bangla/NE culture of India and the SE Asian countries. It indeed is a sparkling jewel, the glitter of which refuses to be dimished by tumultuous tests by fire. It is also true; one with an inclination for tourist, adventure will be greeted in this state with pleasant surprises ranging from virgin forests to cascading waterfalls, breath taking hill- sites, valley views and streams flowing to lakes levelled by shades of emerald. The hills of Chandel district in particular echo and reflect different sounds and sights . They are inhabited by ethnic group with a global outlook. Dingpi region in further southern box has different information to enchant the readers, Not very far back , area & its inhabitant (mainly Kuki- Haokip tribe) remained under heavy stress and conflicts due to insurgent activities for more than a decade till 2004-2005. Valley based Insurgent Groups and Kuki National Organization groups also had to face each other for domination of area and many a times fights ensued on inter and intra reasons too.

2. Other than capital Imphal the suburbs and the bordering areas have seen negligible growth since independence. The districts like Chandel, Ukhrul and Churachandpur which share their one side boundary with Myanmar have been least developed as they were affected by insurgency and government`™s apathy both

Know the Dingpi
3. Dingpi region is located in the South of Chandel district and further southern part of it is called Khengjoi block named after Khengjoi hill range. The Khengjoi block or Khengjoi hill range holds mesmerizing natural beauty but sadly the area remains the most under developed because of its remoteness and lack in infrastructures.
4. Whatever growth and stability this region has witnessed of late has largely been after the deployment of the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles since 2005-06. This terrain in the area is very difficult and inhospitable. It is connected from zero point in Tegnoupal town about 90 Km south east of Imphal through macadamized road constructed by BRTF called New Samtal road. The wear and tear of this road has been comparatively lesser as vehicular traffic is absolute minimal. The bad patches on the road are either maintained by BRTF or by the companies of security forces deployed along the road on self help and need based. The condition of the road worsens after Moltuk and remains same till New Samtal, despite the fact , continuous efforts are put in by the Assam Rifles deployed along the road to maintain their line of communication in bad weather too with their own resources.

Ethnic denomination
5. The major tribe in this area is Haokip, a clan of Thandou – Kuki group but few are Beitei kuki also. The Haokips are further divided into two sub-tribes Mangbung and Telsing. On New Samtal road, after Moltuk there is Joupi where Headquarters of an Assam Rifles Battalion is located . Other major inhabited villages are Hengshi, Hollengjang and Sehlon where Headquarter of another Assam Rifles Battalion is placed. Hengshi is the only village which has Telsing tribals in majority. Average population of these villages is hundred to hundred twenty with around twenty five houses in each village. Other villages in the area are Tolbung, Tuijang, Pheiphenkot but the population of these villages is comparatively lesser. The population of all these villages increases in the month of February and March because the – hired labour from Moreh ,Tengnoupal, Sugnu, Churachandpur and bordering villages of Myanmar migrates here for harvesting of poppy and extraction of opium out of the same.

AIM
6. This write up is an endeavor to highlight two major aspects of this area, first about the cultivation of poppy, the procedure, growth, marketing and other issues related to it and second is about life in the region when undergrounds used to dominate the area and the role played by security forces to attain stability and security over the years. The facts brought out in this write up have been obtained after regular and deliberate interaction with the villagers, their experiences and the Assam Rifles authority including the Sector Commander Brig. SK Bhanot, man on the spot.

THE LAND OF POPPY
7. If one travels on the New Samtal road from Moltuk onwards, patches covered with white and maroon flowers can be noticed on either side of the road on spurs and leeward sides of the mountains. These covers of white flowers look pretty beautiful but actually they are poppy also known as ` Kani`™ in local language. Whatever is seen on either side of the road is just tip of the iceberg, the rest of the iceberg is present in depth approximately two ridges beyond.

Background of the Poppy
8. Has the poppy been the major crop of the people in this area since they started inhabiting this place? No that`™s not true. Poppy is being cultivated here only since 1996 – 97. Before that, residents of this area used to grow ginger and sell barks of cinnamon trees and efforts were made to grow paddy also but with very little success. Lack of markets and transportation facility in this remote area discouraged them to continue with that, background of the poppy `“ Poppy seeds were brought from Ukhrul District areas & Myanmar to where people of lesser fortune were doing throbbing business through poppy, ganja & other such crops. But poppy found the soil in this region more suitable. Moreover continuous demand in the natural resource humiliation and harassment by the insurgents further compelled them to grow poppy. Hence, people here looked for a profitable crop which could give them a good income & easily available markets too hence resorted to cultivation of poppy. Cultivation of poppy is a relatively easier job because it grows with much lesser care and tendering with added advantage of conducive weather. With equal investment as in other crops and very high returns, more and more people were lured to come into poppy cultivation that is why 30 – 40 % people in this region do not stay here for entire year but only migrate from other districts of Manipur to these villages during the poppy cultivation/ harvesting season.

9. The procedure of cultivation of poppy is pretty simple, compared to cultivation of other crops in mountainous regions. Poppy cultivation is also done `™Jhoom`™ type and abundance of land and availability makes it easier. The season for growth of poppy is from September to March. Seeds are sowed in the month of September after clearance of the forests. Sowing of seeds does not require much of effort hence is done by the villagers themselves.

10. Almost every house in the village owns a poppy field of approximately 10,000 to 12,500 sq ft which are divided by either natural or man fixed boundaries, however the village chiefs gets comparatively more share of the land. All the members of the family are employed in farming including women. Once the seeds are sowed the poppy plant gets nourished on its own in three to four months without much care and tendering by the farmer. White and maroon flowers begin to appear by December and January.

11. After one month from the growth of flowers the fruit develops completely at the centre, with petals of flower starts shredding by the month of February and after there starts the tedious process of extraction of opium which continues till March end. For this the strength available in the village is not enough hence hired labour is called in from other parts of Manipur such as Moreh, Tegnoupal, Churachandpur, Sugnu and bordering villages of Myanmar also on a daily wage of Rs 100 `“ 120 per hand .This hired labour is called ` Hazra`™ also in Kuki language. The accommodation and meals of these laborers is responsibility of the owners who hire them. These laborers stay at fields in `Jhoom huts`™ from Monday to Saturday of the week and on Sunday they fall back to village for visit to church .

12. After the poppy fruit is completely matured, fine cuts are made on the walls of the fruit with the help of blades. A white coloured sap leaks out of these cuts and the fruit is left as it is for 24 hours at least, thereafter white coloured sap dries and turns into brownish viscous liquid which is opium. The opium is collected with the help of any small container/utensil with sharp edges generally called `Dibbi`™ in local language having capacity of 25 gms.

13. The utility of the fruit is not over yet. After four days from the first extraction cuts are made on the fruit again, same process is repeated again and second extraction is done. Similarly four rounds of extraction are possible from one fruit with possible yield of 7 – 10 gms per fruit. For extraction of opium from one field 15 – 20 persons are required. The yield per poppy field of approx area 10,000 sq ft is 4 – 5 Kg that implies each house in the village is capable of producing at least 5 Kg of opium per annum and production from one village can touch 70 – 100 kg per annum. Hence, one can imagine how much opium is produced in this particular region only. Ironically the place where accessibility to this drug is so easy, nobody in this area is addicted to it. The reason assigned for this is, if anyone consumes opium then he/she is fined Rs 10,000, his family is debarred from poppy cultivation and forced to leave the village. This is the law of the villages and everybody has to abide by it.

Dynamics of return in income

14. As mentioned earlier, main reason for hopping to poppy cultivation are extremely high returns, favorable weather conditions and easily available markets of the same. Opium is sold at an amazingly high price of Rs 30,000 per kilogram with an investment of mere Rs 3000 per year which includes clearance of forest and labour charges and other expenditures. The rate further hikes up to Rs 60,000 per kilogram when the balance between the demand and supply increases by end of the year, the quantum in which opium is sold is in terms of Dibbi (25 gms) and cost of one `Dibbi`™ is approx Rs 700 – 900. Share of profit is given to the village chief which varies from village to village. It becomes pretty obvious how profitable venture it is and why more and more people are attracted to it.

15. The opium can be easily sold at Moreh, Churachandpur, Molcham and Bokkan ( bordering villages in Myanmar). But it is not transported to these areas via road because of the fear of being caught at various vehicle check posts established by security forces, villagers use foot tracks on Khengjoi – Kemdo axis to reach Molcham or Bokkan where the deals are finalized by mediating agent who takes Rs 700-1000 per Kg from both the parties. Opium so sold in Myanmar is further smuggled to Thailand where it is sold at even higher rates. HOWEVER IN PAST FEW YEARS THE RATES OF OPIUM PRODUCED IN MANIPUR HAVE REDUCED IN INTERNATIONAL MARKET BECAUSE THE OPIUM SMUGGLED FROM AFGHANISTAN IS WIDELY AVAILABLE AND CONSIDERED OF HIGHER GRADE BY THE BUYERS

Extortion amount to be paid.
16. Whatever earnings are generated out of poppy cultivation are not 100 % for these villagers.They have to pay extortion money or so called tax to undergrounds on an average of 10 `Dibbi`™ approximately Rs 5000 – 7000 per house, the chief pays 25 ` Dibbi`™ that is Rs 15000 per year but when inquired from them most of them deny it because of fear. Village chiefs receive message of extortion vide a letter by January and they are responsible for collection from all houses in the village to deposit it to the representative of the underground group at a prefixed location mostly at Sugnu.

17. All the villagers do not stay put in the village for entire year, 30 – 40 % who migrate in August/ September from other districts of Manipur to lay their hands on this profitable crop fall back by April. It is a well known fact to them that cultivation of poppy without government sanction is a punishable offence but they give an excuse that there are no other ventures for sustainable livelihood possible in this area, else they look for aid and initial capital investment from the government to start off something afresh other than poppy. Though there have been efforts by the Assam Rifles in conjunction with the state government to diverge them from poppy cultivation, but that requires a bit of time, dedicated attention and willingness of the villagers to start new farming techniques which may not be equally profitable as poppy but with devotion & hard work it can be developed up to that level. They also foresee a contingency when they are forced to stop the cultivation of poppy, then a unanimous thought which prevails is to leave this region and get settled at a place where they can grow paddy or work as labourers ( Hazra ) with any construction contractor./ alternative business.
End of Part I

ROLE OF THE SECURITY FORCES

18. The obvious reasons for slow development of this region in past has been dominance by insurgents groups, absence of Security Forces and geographically being one of the remotest location in India. During that period locals had to bear humiliation and brutal beatings by the undergrounds who were supposedly fighting for restoration of freedom for these people only without defining nature of freedom. The education of their children and provision of basic medical aid was totally forgotten. After taking in to account what used to happen here around half a decade ago and comparing it with the today`™s scenario, undoubtedly there has been a paradigm shift , the standard of living has raised, availability of water, medical facilities and schools has made this forgotten land as acceptable place to live in. Needless to say that the area is now apparently bustling with activity.

19. In 2003 Hengshi village was completely abandoned when the harassment by insurgents crossed limits. At that time the village had around thirty houses and somewhat similar number in Hollengjang. A primary school was established in Hengshi village in early 90s but due to lack of funds and unavailability of teachers it remained generally closed. The houses were made of `chim`™ (flattened bamboo) without strong overhead protection and bad weather acted as doomer to add to their miseries. Water was so scarce that a walk of forty minutes down the hill was required to get the potable water to the village. There was not even a single dispensary or medical attendant in the region, the nearest place where medical attention could be sought was Sugnu which took approximately one day to reach, even normal viral fever sometimes proved to be fatal. There were no means of transport available with the villagers neither public or private and electricity was a farfetched dream . All the children – above ten years of age were sent to either Sugnu or Churachandpur for higher studies. The UGs had their writ obeyed and children lost interest in schools.

20. However the conditions described above were not the same always, the detachments of road construction company of BRTF were first deployed at Joupi, Hollengang and Sehlon in 1983-84 for construction of New Samtal road, and it is also learnt that there was a private bus service also from Tegnoupal to Joupi and sometimes to Hollengjang also. But in mid and late 90s, Undergrounds such as UNLF, KNA started threatening BRTF`™s civilian labour, used their – transport for illegal purposes and had put undue demands before them , drivers plying civil buses were forced to pay unauthorized tax and were beaten at times. In 1997-98 companies of BRTF were de-inducted from this area and gradually the bus service also stopped. The transport of BRTF was sometimes of great advantage to the villagers for evacuation of sick in emergency and fetching up of items of daily use from Tegnoupal.

21. The influx of insurgents or underground groups in this area actually started way back in 1995 – 96 when KNA (Kuki National Army) with a strength of 15 – 20 cadres established a post at a hillock near Hengshi village currently known as `Karan Post`™ with few cadres in the village as early warning elements. The KNA post commander of that time still resides in Hengshi but had quit KNA after an accident. KNA received a healthy support from the villagers because of being from same tribe and villagers considered them as their so called `Own Private Army `™. But there was another group which was establishing its strong footholds in the region and was emerging as a very well equipped and strong group, that was UNLF (United National Liberation Front) with its armed wing known as MPA (Manipur People`™s Army). KNA started noticing small patrols of UNLF/MPA trying to dominate the area. By now UNLF/MPA had established their camps at Old Samtal, Sehlon and Hollengjang. KNA realized the upcoming threat and futility to engage the much stronger UNLF in a fire fight left the area in 1999 and shifted their camps towards Moreh. Fig (5) shows the pictures of observation / sentry post for early warning elements made by undergrounds on a tree in the village where they had their camp.

22. After KNA vacated this area UNLF established a camp at Hengshi village also with a strength of 30 – 40 cadres of MPA, these cadres used to stay in the Hengshi Church with few early warning elements in the village. The interference of UNLF now extended from Myanmar border till Hengshi Village with camps in between at Hollengjang, Sehlon, and Old Samtal. Initially UNLF did not receive much support from the villagers as they were not of the same tribe. UNLF started distributing rice and provided basic medical aid to the villagers to get their support and goodwill and also tried villager`™s to withdraw support to any other group by regular interaction with them. The distribution of rice and medicines was done once or twice in a year, that too for first two or three years since their arrival. The UGs insisted that the villages go to Myanmar to purchase their basic needs rather than going to Sugnu. In a way they tried to cut off the populace from rest of Manipur. This was basically to ensure that no information about the UGs reached the mainland Manipur.

23. Another group that was trying to establish foothold in the region was UKLF (United Kuki Liberation Front) which had already established a post at Khanbarol and Kemdo. UNLF started doubting that the villagers are spying against them and giving their information to the other insurgents group and then started a series of humiliation and brutal beatings of the villagers. They often snatched their chickens and pork without paying, but they abstained themselves from extortion. The children of the village who were in Sugnu for studies were often beaten by the MPA cadres when they came to meet their parents in the village suspecting them of being informers. This resulted in resentment amongst many students, forced them to quit their studies pick up arms and join other insurgent groups mainly KNA and UKLF.

24. As revealed by the village chiefs there were some monitory allotments by the state government for the development of the area and for the primary school but the money could never be utilized for the purpose it was meant for because it was all impounded by UKLF cadres, though UNLF never took any tax but UKLF had been collecting money on the pretext of protecting the villagers from other groups and security forces.

25. UKLF in order to strengthen its hold and to shake UNLF`™s dominance in the region many a times fired upon the MPA camps in the villages and also ambushed their patrolling parties. Villagers had to bear the cross firing, so for their own protection they used to cover the walls of their houses with sand bags or stones. One of the major encounter between the two insurgent groups took place in August 2003 at Hengshi when firing continued for more than fifteen hours and as per villagers MPA lost around 15 men and the UKLF lost four cadres. After this incidence MPA cadres burnt all the houses in the villag. All the villagers ran to either Tegnoupal or Sugnu and village remained abandoned for six months. MPA cadres also vacated the post in next three months. After MPA cadres moved out, the village was reestablished in 2004.
26. After 2004, the last camp of MPA remained at Sehlon and Aibol Joupi. By the end of year 2004 the Army was inducted in this region and operation `ALL CLEAR`™ was launched. Many encounters took place between Indian Army and MPA and the Security Forces started demolishing MPA camps till Sehlon by year 2005. Subsequently Assam Rifles was inducted and the posts were handed over to Assam Rifles. Since then the undergrounds tactically withdrawn in to Myanmar and the region entered into a new chapter of development, security and stability.

27. After the Assam Rifles has been deployed in this area there has been no looking back , besides guarding the international boundary, looking after the secure environs of the locals and domination of area, year after year strong steps for development and stability in region started. All the problems these villagers faced in the past are being ironed out by continuous and deliberate efforts of the security forces. Considerable change have been brought through MCA (Military Civic Actions) projects. The basic need of potable water for which these villagers had to walk for hours has been fulfilled by installation of water supply schemes in the villages. Now the water for daily requirements is available in the village itself.

28. The condition of houses in the village has also improved, from chim they graduated to wooden planks of the walls, C.G.I sheets on the roof. These C.G.I sheets have been provided by the Assam Rifles. Solar lights have been given to villagers so that their houses and villages can be illuminated after sunset. Fig (6) shows the water supply scheme of one village and solar light of another village.

Assam Rifles as traditional friends of the Hill People

29. Immediate medical attention for sick and wounded in this area is not a dream anymore, the unit hospitals at the battalion headquarters of Assam rifles for regular medical checkup and AID HIV awareness camps by the doctors have reduced the mortality rate considerably. Moreover civilians are also being trained by the doctors of Assam Rifles for imparting immediate first aid. Medical Inspection rooms at Company Operation Bases handle 70 % of cases. Community halls have been constructed for the villagers to organize meetings and their cultural festivals. Excursion tours to Imphal for the children are also conducted regularly. Fig (7) shows the medical camps conducted in one of the villages and community hall constructed under MCA project.

30. The educational standards in the village have also improved. The school at Hengshi village which was in shambles was renovated by Assam Rifles and the strength of the school has doubled in the past four years. Number of shelters for the boarding and lodging of children have also doubled. Another primary school is located at Joupi. There are more than 15 boys and girls in Hengshi village who have passed matric in past three years and few are doing graduation in Pune, Bangalore and Imphal. After the implementation of Right To Education Act in 2010 the primary education has become free and four government sponsored teachers are supposed to join the school from the next session. All the development activities of Assam Rifles have led to increased in per capita income in this area which has led to almost 60% villagers owning their own means of transport which is either a Burmese made motorbike which costs them Rs 25,000-30,000 or an Indian motorbike. Few people own cars as well in the area. With the advent of mobile communication in these villages the standard of living has improved even more. The sense of security and stability has increased among the villagers and they don`™t want to migrate to other places for basic needs. It is acknowledged by the villagers that their life has become much better compared to the past and look forward to a fast pace all around development. This is a result of the improved security situation, mainly due to Assam Rifles and Army battalions deployed there. The villages definitely need bus system, improved communication, tele connectivity and basic medical & education cover.

CONCLUSION

33. The primary aim of this write up was to bring out the facts about the poppy cultivation, related to which many myths prevail in the region and to highlight the selfless services of the Security Forces like Indian Army and Assam Rifles which have succeeded in achieving normalcy in the region and won hearts and minds of the people. It has made them realize what government of India visualizes for them and prevent them their systematic brainwash which inspires them to join insurgent groups. Poppy cultivation is profitable no doubt but is not in the interest of nation and individual character building because the money that rolls in the narcotics business and directly or indirectly used by anti national elements for purchase of illegal weapons takes people away from self reliancy and make them always living under fearsome conditions i.e., doing a business prohibited under law. Secondly, the Jhoom cultivation is causing decrease in water level by the year and year and reducing the forest cover hence causing increment in the soil erosion. The villagers agree with our views that opium cultivation is harmful to them in the longer run. Radical changes through other means are in the offering with the villagers agreeing to the security forces suggestion of completely forsaking poppy cultivation in future.

34. Efforts are being made by the Government and the Assam Rifles to train a core group of villagers who can become pioneers in the development of other methods of employment. The government needs to put in more thrust and must bring in more developmental projects in the region. But the efforts put in by the security forces towards development of the region, raising the standard of life of these people, maintaining sanctity of international boundary and attaining security and stability in the region have been commendable which needs wide acknowledgment . The prosperity pill energized through NREGA,PMSYS IAY and other such schemes have created revolution in the minds of locals. People power has awakened and now they have started asking for their rights . Once rights are asked for, day is not far off they will realize their duties too and those duties are honest contribution to make Manipur and India a strong nation.

RS Jassal
Chairman
Manipur Committee for Social Concerns

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