Petrol Vanishing Act

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The meeting of government officials and Indian Oil Corporation, IOC, yesterday to address the acute shortage of petrol and diesel in the state is, to say the least, welcome. As a matter of fact, we would even ask what they were doing all this while. The fuel shortage had an excuse nine months ago, although not condonable. An economic blockade on the two national highways which connect the state to the rest of India by the ANSAM and UNC since April 11 to demand the cancellation of the government’s plan to hold district council election had reduced the inflow of essential commodities, including fuel oil, to a trickle. Much water have flowed down the many rivers of Manipur since, but and long after the blockades have been lifted, and normal traffic resumed on the highways, petrol and diesel remain extremely scarce. The two important commodities are today sold at random intervals and this too in rotation amongst the petrol pumps. The bizarre situation of 10 years ago, in the wake of the implementation of the recommendations of the 5th Pay Commission in the state which left the state government coffers empty, when the news of the Reserve Bank of India, RBI, releasing money for the state government to pay salaries were big news splashed across the front pages of local dailies, and equally eagerly lapped up by the readers, is now back in a different avatar. Hence, availability of petrol at any of the petrol pumps has now become a much thirsted after information of both the public and therefore the media. Can anything be more pathetic than this situation?

This is what has been allowed to continue in all these nine months and is still continuing. Under the circumstance, when the government cannot even ensure free distribution of petrol, how can anybody place faith in its ability to tackle larger issues such as the vexed problem of insurgency? Especially in the latter case, in the absence of imagination or commitment to address public issues politically, it is small wonder that Manipur is today emerging virtually as a police-military state. It is amidst this mess that the news of the IOC and government officials meeting to sort out the petrol scarcity matter came as music to the ears. It remains to be seen if the plans chalked out at the meeting would be put into action. Let nobody have any doubt, the Manipur public is in misery – nay agony. No petrol, inadequate electricity, inadequate treated drinking water… to name just a few of the causes for this agony. Imagine the plight of micro businesses, such as Photostat shops, photo studios, internet cafes etc, which depend on power to run their businesses. Imagine the plight of individual families having to manage their evenings in candlelight. It is once again back to the pre-modern, when sunlight was the hard dividing line between sleeping and waking hours.

Augmenting electricity availability may take a little time. But the government must immediately ensure that petrol, diesel and cooking gas are back to normal supply. However, after this has been assured, it must not stop. It must also bring out a White Paper on exactly why and where the petrol and diesel lifted into the state since the time the blockades problem came to an end, disappeared without a trace from the open market. The last point is important, for there is no doubt that these commodities are still reaching the consumers, otherwise the streets of Imphal and other townships would have been deserted of vehicles by now. On the contrary, the traffic jams in Imphal are getting longer and more unmanageable. Quite obviously there are vested interests in operation behind this crisis, making a killing out of the misery of the ordinary public. And since the government has not made any move so far to identify these vested interests, much less bring them to book, the popular suspicion is also that the influence of these vested interests extends deep into the Imphal corridors of power. Just a few months ago, the civil line of a Manipur Rifles battalion went up in flames, and it had become public knowledge that the fire was on account of petrol barrels stocked there. Again, there have also been substantial newspaper reports of organised hoarding of petrol in underground tanks by a well organised black market petrol cartel, not only to be sold for a premium at times such as now, but also to adulterate the commodity and multiply their profits by huge margins, and all this at the cost of hapless consumers. Yet, the authorities concerned pretend to be deaf, blind and mute, and have not lifted a finger to take up remedial action.

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