Against a common threat: Even as chartered flights are ferrying betel leaves instead of medicines, Manipur seems united in the fight against COVID - 19

Yambem Laba *

 COVID-19 :: Huge consignment of betel leaves seized at  Bir Tikendrajit International Airport, Imphal :: April 04 2020
COVID-19 :: Huge consignment of betel leaves seized at Imphal International Airport on April 04 2020 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

Jitendra Singh, Union minister (independent charge) for development of the North- eastern region said that the Centre was ready to arrange cargo flights to the North - east at short notice. On 4 April, when two commercial airliners namely, Spicejet and Air Asia landed at Imphal’s Tulihal Airport, people heaved a sigh of relief.

But when the cargo started rolling down the ramps of the two A-320 Air buses, the few people present there were surprised. Instead of boxes containing hydroxylchloroquine tablets, personal protection equipment or ventilators, only gunny bales started filling up the space.

And there were around 280 bales in all, weighing approximately 10 matric tonnes. Once opened, it was discovered that the bales contained only betel leaves for making paan and a consignment of tobacco zarda. The Spice Jet aircraft landed at about 9:30 in the morning and the Air Asia flight followed at around 12:30 pm.

Soon, Airport Police Station personnel, under officer-in-charge inspector Bobby Singh, seized the consignment and handed it over to Singjamei Police Station. The news of the arrival of betel leaves instead of medicines to combat the Covid-19 pandemic spread like wildfire through social media and next day, all the local dailies carried news about this consignment of pleasure.

The Manipuri Students Federation met chief minister N. Biren Sigh and questioned him about the necessity to import betel leaves. They demanded that the seized consignment be destroyed immediately. Soon the CM faced more flak from other student organisations and civil society groups.

Cornered with the unprecedented turn of events, Biren Singh soon issued a statement saying that while betel leaves are not a contraband item according to a state government order, the import of all non-essential items have been stopped.

Only those items having prior permission from the district magistrates concerned can be permitted to be brought in. He also added that his government shares the same anguish and assured that appropriate action would be taken against those involved.

Speaking to this writer, inspector Potshangbam Sanjoy, officer - in - Charge of Singjamei Police Station, stated that five persons involved with the grey trade in betel leaves had been arrested - they included Laishram Anil (27), Chingakham Surchandra (24), Irengbam Surjit (40) and Laishram Sanatomba (26).

It was also learnt that the consignment was booked in the name of one Thingujam Kamo (48) from Calcutta and that Anil had come to collect it. He managed to ship out about 10 bales before cops got wind of it.

According to the inspector they have been charged under Section 188/269/270/34 of the Indian Penal Code. The Singjamei Police Station has 56 bales of betel leaves in its custody while 213 are still lying in the cargo apron of the airport.

The economics behind the betel trade is mind - boggling. In normal times, it is believed to be under the control of a major insurgent group of Manipur and movements are closely monitored by them. One bundle of betel leaves, locally called a phai, costs about Rs. 1500 in the market in West Bengal and used to sell for about Rs. 2000. But now it is being sold for Rs. 7000 and each basket holds about nine such bundles.

The current market value of the seized items comes to more than Rs 1.7 crore against normal value of Rs. 5 lakh. After having paid Rs. 20 lakh for chartering a flight, they are still left with more than Rs. One crore in profit.

Such is the demand for paan in Manipur that one lady told me she had stood in the queue to get betel leaves from 3 am and sold about Rs. 10,000 worth of paan within a few hours after daybreak.

The trade in betel leaves apart, there is some good news on the flight against the novel coronavirus in Manipur. The first case of the young girl who had tested positive upon return from the United Kingdom and was admitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences has now tested negative twice and is upon the point of being discharged from the isolation ward.

The other person who tested positive upon return from Nizamuddin congregation is now undergoing treatment the Regional Institute of Medical Science. Yet another girl who recently returned from China had come into Manipur via Moreh on the land route with Myanmar, and she was tested but found to be negative.

On the flipside, there has been an outrage not only in Manipur but also across the North-eastern region as a Manipuri girl student studying in Delhi University was spat upon with paan in Mukherjee Nagar in New Delhi. She lodged a complaint with the police.

Speaking to this writer, she said that the culprit had been arrested but released on bail thereafter. He soon sent word that he was willing to touch her feet and seek forgiveness to have the FIR against him withdrawn. But she said that it was unacceptable and would see him in courts if required.

In yet another case, a Manipuri girl was spat upon by an unknown person with paan in Mumbai who called her “coronavirus”. Although a hue and cry was raised by the community and other NGOs, the Mumbai Police is still unable to nab the culprit.

Back home, the Covid-19 scare has brought out the best people across the state. A village in Ukhrul district returned two bags of rice to the district authorities stating that they already have enough in stock.

And in yet another incident of love towards their brethren, villagers of Konsakhul village in Kangpokpi district went about distributing vegetables for free to their neighbouring villages.

The covid-19 pandemic response has elicited praise from the proscribed Revolutionary Peoples Front, whose arm wing, the People’s Liberation Army, has been at “war” with Manipur Police with each side having claimed many lives over the years.

In a press statement issued by the publicity secretary of the RPF Roben Khuman, it lauded health workers, state authorities for sealing the borders promptly and the police for effectively enforcing the lockdown.

The other prominent insurgent group of Manipur, the United National Liberation Front had called all money lenders, private banks and landlords to waive off interests and rents in view of the pandemic. It ws said in a press statement issued by M. Shakhen, publicity director of UNLF.

Even though pharmacists have sounded a warning that live - saving drugs are running out of stock and chartered flights are ferrying betel leaves instead of medicines, Manipur seems to be united in the fight against Covid-19

* Yambem Laba wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on April 18, 2020 .

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