Translated Monday 25 May 2009
India’s North Eastern state of Manipur is paying a high price for its proximity to the notorious Golden Triangle. A population of 2.4 million grapples with HIV/AIDS that stems out of a heroin addiction problem directly related to local poppy cultivation – Manipur has one of the highest per capita HIV+ patients in India.
Cheap heroin, locally available has invariably contributed to the soaring number of HIV+ cases in the state. With a total land area of approximately 22, 327 sq km, Manipur state, which shares its border with Myanmar, has one of the highest per capita HIV positive patients in India.
Brigadier Balbir Singh, Commander, 26 Sector of the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary unit of the Indian Army stationed in the region says: “Most problems stem form poverty and insurgency, so easy money is always welcome. The weather is conducive to poppy cultivators. (Besides) people here have to survive in the jungles and are unable to fight the army. The Underground Groups (UG), seeking independence from India, resort to poppy cultivation and extortion to fund terror activities. Youngsters have more desires and their resistance to the lure of money is also weak, so they get sucked into these problems. Poor economic structure is the best breeding ground for resistance movements.”
Youth of the state have been hardest hit, with unemployment and lack of opportunities. The high level of corruption has made matters worse for the youth, pushing them towards militancy or drugs, says B S Agnes (48) of Lamphoupasa village, 1.5 km from Chandel town. “Despite the fact that our children are qualified, they are asked to give a bribe of Rs 7 to10 lakh (approx US$13,500 to $19,350) to get a civil job.”
The Manipuris grapple with HIV/AIDS and a closely-related, spiraling heroin problem. A major cause for the high incidence of HIV cases has been the widespread use and sharing of easily available heroin, a result of local poppy cultivation. “Intravenous Drug Users constitute 70 per cent of the HIV+ population here,” says T Issac Zou, Secretary of the Network of Chandel Positive People (NCP+), a non-governmental organisation in Chandel district, South Manipur, one of the remotest and poorest districts. “Authorities are turning a blind eye to this problem. Villages like Joupi, Khaimi and Chuchanpur are notorious for poppy cultivation. Agencies operating in the area take cuts from the drug cultivators, so who will bell the cat?”
The National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) reveals that 1.67% of the state’s population is infected by HIV, a ratio much higher than the national average of 0.36%. Here, persons aged between 21 and 30 are at the highest risk, forming 43.10% of the total persons living with HIV in the state.
Despite the alarming statistics, NACO, until now, had stopped funds to Manipur since June 2008 because of embezzlement issues. The accounts office was burnt, and three accountants were booked under National Securities Act (NSA) in June 2008. Speaking from Delhi, Director General of NACO Sujatha Rao confirms, “Yes, it’s true. Their accounts are not in shape, so we didn’t provide funds.” Rao adds, “Their audit was not in place and three accountants were arrested too.” In March, after the author questioned the government body, funds were finally released to the people of Manipur.
“If the rate of spread of the virus is not stopped, says Zou, then all those between 30 to 40 years of age will not survive in Manipur. “15-20% of pregnant women in Chandel district are HIV+. Out of the 3,300 people targeted for ART, only 200 visit the district’s only hospital,” says Nungchandai, a 28-year-old counselor at the ART Centre. The reason behind this is, according to President of NCP+ President Donny Ngoni, that people expect something from NGOs – without that they fail to return, “We need a supportive component to aid our programmes. When the people go back empty-handed, they don’t listen to us. We need more help. All we want to do is reduce the mortality rate. We don’t even have a proper office; we won’t be able to sustain our project beyond 2010.”
“When a person goes to the hospital, an X Ray machine is needed for investigation. But that doesn’t work. The CD4 machine also is not working, a source reveals. Then people have to go to Imphal, which is 65 km away, for treatment. It takes them a day to get there and it costs money to travel, says another social worker. In addition, none of the hospital staff wants to be posted in this remote district – they reach the hospital by 11 am and leave by 1 pm as they have to make it back to Imphal before dark, he adds.
Manipuris follow the matriarchal system, yet it is the womenfolk who suffer the most. Many have lost their husbands to drugs, militancy and AIDS. To make matters worse, a majority of the population is Roman Catholic, and condoms are not encouraged by local churches.
In Aigajana, a village 25 km from the Myanmar border, people have to depend on the security forces for medical care, even water. Headman Onkhothang Haokip (70) who has lived there for 60 years says: “We have to carry ill people on foot as there is no mode of transport.” And those infected with HIV have no choice but to trudge mountains before making it to the hospital. Social worker Zou who frequents these remote districts to counsel HIV+ patients confirms our suspicions, “It takes two days for people to reach the district hospital.”
The situation has served as fertile grounds for some parties, enabling them to take advantage of marginalised groups. The UGs have reigned minors in to cross-border arms and narco-trade, “They kidnap villagers and force them to ferry arms or drugs across the border,” says a member of the security forces.
UKLF General Secretary T L Jacob Thadou, a political science graduate, denies the involvement of his cadres (approximately 300) but agrees that the heroin problem is destroying his people. He claims, “We banned poppy cultivation in 2006. It is cultivated in the more backward districts, where access is difficult.” And the cross-border drug trade thrives.
Indian security agencies continue to seize drugs and weapons being smuggled to Myanmar on a regular basis. On February 16, 2009, troops of 20 Assam Rifles seized actephide tablets worth Rs 4 lakh (approx $7,740) in the Indian market and four times more in the international market at a vehicle check post at Byongyang. On January 2, 2009, the same paramilitary unit had seized 98 kg of opium from four individuals traveling on a bus plying between Imphal and Moreh. Each kilogram of opium is worth Rs 1 lakh (approx US$1,939).
Villagers allege that the UKLF runs poppy plantations in the district along the border. Incidentally, the group is also holding tripartite talks with the state and the central governments – there has been a suspension of arms struggle since 2005. So, the security forces have been advised not to use harsh methods on them as per the ceasefire mandate. But Thadou retorts, “Developmental schemes don’t reach the villagers, as the money is siphoned off. The government is using politics to divide our tribes, which is why we want our own Kuki nation.”
Colonel Neeraj Shukla of 20 Assam Rifles says, “This is a complex problem to tackle. It is difficult for us to keep track of every part of the jungle – the areas are remote and the terrain treacherous. The insurgent groups use the money from poppy cultivation to buy arms from Myanmar and Bangladesh. The border can be infiltrated despite the presence of security forces; it’s impossible to monitor it 24/7. No border in the world is impregnable. Last year, we apprehended insurgents with RDX and Thai-made weapons. They had as much RDX as the 26/11 (Mumbai) attackers did. This could prove disastrous if left unchecked.”
This seemingly unbreakable cycle of drugs, poverty, terror and HIV/AIDS will continue to wreak havoc with the lives of the Manipuris until the state and the central governments decide to address these issues effectively through policies that benefit the people.