The petrol price hikes always cause great concerns meriting endless television debates and panel discussions on modern India’s many 25-hour satellite channels. Sometimes they have even resulted in political parties in the Opposition with diverse and sometimes antagonistic ideologies, like the right wing BJP and Left parties, agreeing nationwide strikes should be the protest response. On every one of these occasions, reams after reams of newsprints are spent on intellectually thick articles on how the rise in prices of petrol, cooking gas etc, and the secondary price spiral they cause, have a telling effect on the nutritional intake of millions of children of families below poverty line, and how the ultimate economic costs of such a consequence are frightening. A few rupees rise in petrol price would irritate owners of motor vehicles for with each rise their vehicles would give them less miles for their money, but they would nonetheless continue life as usual for they can afford it. But for wage earners, or the millions of India’s absolute poor who have no source of cash income at all and whose vision of the future does not extend from one meal to the next, many of whom depend on alms they earn as beggars, a rupee rise in the price of pulse resulting indirectly out of a hike in petrol price, can be a black warrant, condemning them and their children to life threatening malnutrition and related diseases. But in India, these creatures of the streets are not citizens, and are driven away like pests and beasts from their street homes, as was done during the recent New Delhi Commonwealth Games so that the unseemly sight of them do not distress foreign visitors during the period of the sporting extravaganza.
These are genuine concerns. Indeed the popular interpretation of the February 2007 elections in Punjab and Uttarakhand was that the Congress was undone by inflation caused by the Indian economy overheating. That it was the price of onion (and those of other consumables in the Indian market) that predetermined the Congress’ electoral doom in these states. What this interpretation did not and perhaps could not have touched was the third state which too went to the same elections at the same time – Manipur. The Congress here returned with a majority warranting the party to form the present government without much of a dispute, much less the constitutional crisis of hung Assembly that the state has come to be used to. In fact, for any ordinary citizen in Manipur, it would have appeared strange if they found out that it was the prices of these commodities that made the electorates in the earlier named states so very outraged. Take for instance, the price of cement. The rest of the country found it so incredible that it touched Rs 200 a bag. In Manipur the same commodity had been at the time selling for Rs 350 a bag for a long time, and yet it never even occurred to anybody that this merited a complaint, or anger against the government in power.
The story is practically the same with every other commodity. Onions at Rs 20 kg which had consumers elsewhere screaming in despairing alarm is nothing strange for Manipur. Pulses and other dry rations too are far more expensive here, so too steel and other building materials. Quite depressingly, consumers in Manipur have come to internalise the belief that the abnormal price of ordinary life in the state is the curse of living in a “disturbed condition”, too abstract to be under their control or even the government. Therefore, nobody even thinks it is worthwhile to blame anybody for this sorry predicament. No government needs fear they would have to answer for the phenomenon at election times too. By the same logic, the Disturbed Area Act, DAA, which mandates the promulgation of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, have all become part of life, and nothing very extraordinary or worth protesting.
And so life in the “disturbed area” of Manipur has come to be determined by a different logic. It was hence almost a natural thing that nobody thought it fit to utter even a faint protest at the recent petrol price hike to a little over Rs 51 a litre. The news for obvious reasons is redundant and meaningless. For currently, as a direct fallout of the long economic blockade along the National Highways, on the ADC issue, petrol as it is scarcely available and consumers have to buy it from the black market for Rs. 70 a litre. Likewise, cooking gas can cost as much as Rs. 1000. The disturbed condition is what is now normal for Manipur. Should this mindset not be purged?