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Page last updated at 14:14 GMT, Thursday, 20 May 2010 15:14 UK

Road blockade chokes Indian state's lifeline

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Imphal

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Fuel shortages have seen black market prices rise by 300%

Two Indian air force Antonov transport aircraft arrive at Imphal airport.

They are among several emergency missions carrying desperately needed supplies of food and medicines.

For the past five weeks, two key highways linking this remote state in north-east India to the rest of the country have been blocked by supporters of an influential separatist leader from neighbouring Nagaland.

Thuingaleng Muivah, who heads the NSCN (IM), a Naga group that carried out India's longest-running insurgency until a ceasefire in 1997, has been barred from his village located inside Manipur because the government there fears he will stir up ethnic passions.

Naga civilians block a road in Manipur protest against the state government's decision to ban the entry of Mr Muivah on 7 May 2010
Mr Muivah's supporters are angry at the Manipur ban

The result is that Manipur is close to collapse.

In Imphal's main market people crowd around the stalls, trying to stock up.

Only locally grown produce is available. Everything else is in short supply.

"I'm trying to buy some rice," says Sobita Devi Maibam.

"But they're telling us stocks are low because of the blockade. And prices are sky-high now."

But it is in the state's hospitals that you get a sense of the crisis.

In the city's top private hospital, a child is being treated in the intensive care unit.

With life-saving drugs and oxygen in short supply, the hospital is being forced to turn away patients, some critically ill.

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Hospitals are running short of oxygen and other supplies

"At the moment, we have exactly a week's supply of oxygen," says Dr KH Palin, managing director at the Shija Hospital.

"After that we'll have no choice but to shut down."

Lifeline

A short drive from Imphal brings you to National Highway 39 - Manipur's lifeline.

It is deserted except for the occasional car whizzing by. Schoolchildren walk on the centre of the road. Others sit around smoking and chatting.

Life appears to have ground to a complete halt here.

Up ahead the road winds up as it heads up to the hills, where the Nagas are dominant.

The fear in Manipur is that those areas may join a larger Naga state as part of a peace settlement with the Indian government.

"We don't trust Mr Muivah," says one man, who declines to give his name.

"His group has been the cause of so much bloodshed. They will definitely create more trouble."

This is a region which is home to more than 20 tribal insurgent groups. With its history of violence, there is a heavy security presence.

On the highway, soldiers from the Indian Army's Assam Rifles have set up check points.

No-one wants to take any chances.

'Quite incredible'

There is a sense of tension in the air. Manipuri activists have been holding protest rallies, asking the Indian government to intervene.

"It's quite incredible that India, which considers itself a growing superpower, is unable to lift the blockade on the two highways which are part of Manipur's supply route," says Rajkumar Ronendrajit, a retired air force officer-turned-activist.

A market in Manipur
Only locally grown produce is available in Manipur at the moment

But India has to balance the sentiments of the Manipuris with the expectations of the Nagas.

It is not an easy job in a region which is not only racked with separatist violence but is also a frontier to south-east Asia, where India is competing for influence with China.

"India was quite complacent in its outlook towards the north-east," says Lokendra Arambam, a Manipuri writer and commentator.

"But with the growing influence of China in Burma and other parts of Asia, India has reason to worry. This is after all critical to its strategic defence.

"If the north-east becomes a separate region, the Indian heartland is completely exposed."

The north-east has often felt politically and culturally cut-off from India, untouched by the country's economic boom.

And the massive military presence here has only furthered the sense of alienation.

Now this latest crisis has made that sense of distance more acute.



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