Saturday, April 18, 2020

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

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.
18/04/20 E-Pao
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