by Yambem Laba
MANIPUR is poised for another revolution. And it’s not because a new insurgent outfit has been floated but because the Centre, having administrated the state since 1949, has decided — after 63 years — that it no longer needs to be “protected” from the evil influence of foreigners and has lifted the much-hated “Protected Area” status. This came as a pleasant New Year’s gift, for it was on 1 January 2011 that Union home minister P Chindabaram had the “protected” status denotified. Foreigners are no longer required to obtain Protected Area Permits to visit Manipur and two other states in the North-eastern region, though initially for a one-year trial period.
A highly elated TN Haokip, Manipur’s tourism minister, told The Statesman that the lifting of the Pap system would open the floodgates for foreign tourists who had been wanting to visit a state that Jawaharlal Nehru once described as the “Jewel of India” and which Lord Irwin had dubbed the “Switzerland of the East”. Haokip added that he had been trying to persuade the Centre to lift the Pap since 1990, when he first headed the ministry.
According to him, after the “Bamboo Curtain” had been lifted and the Berlin Wall had fallen, where was the need for New Delhi to “protect” Manipuris like animals in a zoo? He added that as part of the expected rush of foreign tourists, he had already got in touch with a five star hotel chain and a resort group that were keen to set up establishments in Manipur and that the state was willing to give a 99-year lease on land and start ventures as a public-private partnership.
Haokip said his administration was already in touch with big time tour operators like Thomas Cook and Cox & Kings to ferry in foreign tourists and put Manipur on their circuit. He added that eight ambassadors and high commissioners of Southeast Asian countries had already visited Manipur and, as a fallout, Thailand had agreed to construct the highway from Maso to Bagan and Myanmar would construct the Bagan to Kalemeyo portion to link up with Moreh in Manipur to form part of the Asian Highway that will be passing through Manipur.
The Pap removal, in spite of the pleadings of the Manipur government, took a quantum leap last year when a group of Manipuri expatriates now settled in Canada launched a global online campaign to have it lifted and obtained signatures from people in 72 countries and placed these before the Parvasi Bharatiya meeting in Delhi at the end of last year — which incidentally was sponsored by the Development of North-east Region ministry, government of India. According to RK Shivchandra, convener of the Local Support Group on removal of Pap, about 1,000 people signed the petition, including Haokip and sports minister N Biren. Haokip recalled meeting Union home minister P Chidambaram and being quizzed by ministry officials who asked him if Manipur could take the responsibility of the safety and security of foreigners visiting the state, to which he replied, “Can the government of India take that responsibility for foreigners visiting New Delhi?”
There were no more queries after that. Activists and officials apart, the fledging hotel industry is already agog with the new prospects. According to Thiyam Deepak, who had earlier worked in Goa and is the front office manager of the Classic Hotel, the latest and only three-star hotel of Manipur, they are expecting an influx of Russian tourists before the season ends. He said the flow of international tourists had shifted from Goa to Manali and then to Kathmandu, then Thailand and now this could be turned towards Manipur, with the Pap obstacle having been removed. I noticed there were seven foreigners staying at the hotel — three Germans, three Britons and a Swiss national — who had come to “see” and “feel” the place. This hotel has 58 rooms with tariffs ranging from Rs 650 to Rs 5,500 and is confident of holding the fort.
The same sentiment was echoed by S Ashok Singh, manager of Hotel Nirmala, one of the first better residences in town, which is the choice of most foreigners, including diplomats, visiting Manipur. They are busy renovating 50-odd rooms in anticipation of the oncoming rush and they also had a Japanese guest. According to Dr Leishangthem Surjit, president of the Manipur Mountaineering and Trekking Association, who has been spearheading the movement for adventure and eco-tourism in the state in partnership with the Manipur government for its annual Sangai Tourism festival, opening up the state to foreigners can definitely be one of the avenues to solving the employment problem and, to an extent, the insurgency problem, but he cautioned that the people had to be made aware about tourism and that Manipur should develop its power and communication sectors.
Nestled amongst rolling blue mountains and an emerald valley in the centre, Manipur can, indeed, be termed the last Shangri-la. These untouched and undiscovered parts of the state have the potential to be great tourist discoveries. Manipur boasts of the world’s oldest polo ground where one can still witness matches “as played by the gods”. Called Sagol Kangjei, the sport was adapted by the British who first took it to Kolkata and on to England before it spread worldwide as “polo”.
One can also see the mesmerising Manipuri dance in its pristine form and Thang-Ta, which is one of India’s two martial art forms. As a matter of fact, a team of 19 NRIs — British and Kenyan citizens — recently came to Imphal to see Thang-Ta in its land of origin and thanked the government of India for lifting the Pap.
Then there is Loktak Lake, one of the biggest freshwater expanses in the country where, in one corner, lies the Keibul Lamjao National Park where, on the floating bio-mass called phumdis, lies the last refuge of the Sangai, the world’s rarest deer. Besides the majority Meiteis, there are 33 different tribes grouped as Nagas and Chin-Kuki-Mizo groups in Manipur, each with its own unique lifestyle, culture, folklore, dances and exotic handlooms and handicrafts.
Haokip added that tourists could return after tasting Sekmai, which, according to him, is the best drink in the world.
As DS Poonia, present chief secretary, said when he was secretary, tourism: “If not the vale of Kashmir then come to Manipur Valley.” To which a scribe added, “We don’t take hostages.”
The writer is The Statesman’s former Imphal-based special correspondent.