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Manipur: A heady cocktail of alcohol, AIDS & drugs

Rasheeda Bhagat

At an HIV AIDS workshop in Horebi village in Manipur.

IN more ways than one, the Secretariat building of the Manipur Government in Imphal represents the state of affairs in this tiny north-eastern State with a population of 2.3 million. But small is hardly beautiful, at least not in Manipur.

"Filthy and stinking", you tell yourself, as you hold your nose to run up the two flight of stairs to the Health Minister's room, wondering all the while why is it that we find it an impossible task to keep our public toilets clean.

Another question that begs an answer is why in Government secretariats, be it in Patna, Srinagar or Imphal, toilets are always located near staircases, and invariably, their doors are never shut.

A side entrance to the building presents a sorry picture, with stagnant overflowing water, and a few bricks thrown in for visitors to access the building.

The miserable building reflects the bankrupt Government, which has failed to pay its employees salaries for the last five months.

Employees were assured that the funds would be available in July and they would be paid their salaries; July has come and gone and there is no sign of the overdraft the bankrupt Government is expecting from the RBI.

Denying the charge by a bitter Government employee that surely the IAS and IPS officers would have collected their salaries, an IPS officer in-charge of one of the units of Manipur Rifles says: "We too haven't got our salaries for the last four months. We can somehow manage, but the problem is with our subordinate staff. Because we are police officers, in the last three months we have managed to approach the provision stores and arrange for the supply of required foodgrains for our messes, with the promise that the bills will be settled as soon as the department gets money. If we can't put food on the table of the jawans in the mess, all hell will break loose."

Already, there is restlessness in the police department. "Discipline and punctuality have taken a big hit and when we pull up our subordinate staff for not turning up for work without any leave or permission, they turn around and say we were running around from pillar to post to organise food for our families," he adds.

This tiny State contributes hardly 0.2 per cent of India's population, but incongruous with its small size are the mega problems it faces.

A discerning housewife describes it as a "small place with big problems." One can have an endless debate on whether insurgency is a greater problem than abject poverty, or drug smuggling and drug addiction, making the State hugely vulnerable to trauma and death from HIV/AIDS.

The AIDS virus is spreading rapidly here thanks to the widely prevalent habit of sharing injecting equipment among injecting drug users (IDU).

Sharing a huge chunk of its border with Myanmar has made Manipur and its people susceptible to heroin addiction as Marijuana makes it way from the Golden Triangle -Thailand, Laos and Myanmar - to the Western world through Moreh, a little town on the Myanmar border.

Mr Rajen Thokchom, a lecturer in a Manipur college and a resource person for the HIV/AIDS workshop at Horebi village, says that it is the first time that a Muslim village has shown interest in participating in an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign.

"Though they deny it, we know there are some HIV- positive people in this village. Mostly, the infection is passed on from men to women."

Explaining the history of drug trafficking in the State, Dr Khomdon Singh Lisam, Project Director of the Manipur State AIDS Control Society (MACS), says that this is such a thriving business that Moreh is also known as Millions of Rupees Enter Here.

But thanks to support from the MACS (through the National AIDS Control Society) and UNAIDS, a joint UN initiative for prevention and control of HIV/AIDS, a wide network of NGOs work out of Manipur, with the bulk of them working in the area of HIV/AIDS.

But most NGOs feel that HIV/AIDS and the drug addiction problems could be combated more effectively with better co-ordination between departments such as health, the police, the narcotics control bureau and the NGOs.

Mr Ryan Fernandes, administrator at Sahara, which works in the area of de-addiction, points out that the Government and the MACS are concentrating its efforts on the IDUs for HIV/AIDS prevention and control, but HIV/AIDS had already spread beyond the IDU population to the larger community.

Also the official figures - 300 HIV positive in Churachandur - were widely off the mark. "We know from our personal experience that there are about 1500 HIV positive people here."

The health care facilities required to provide treatment to such large numbers of people. Manipur's 2.3 million contribute to 0.2 per cent of its population but its officially declared HIV/AIDS population makes up 8 per cent of the country's HIV/AIDS numbers. NGOs like Sahara or MNP+, Shalom, and the rest do their best in organising some medical help for the HIV positive.

But questions like full-blown AIDS or anti-retroviral drugs elicit a wry smile from Mr Fernandes who says, "HIV-positive people die here of a common cold; to them, full-blown AIDS is a story and anti-retroviral drugs a luxury".

That is why organisations such as Sahara are fighting with funding agencies to allow them more flexibility in their de-addiction programmes.

"In our de-addiction programme, we concentrate not only on drug or alcohol addiction. I know that if I put excessive pressure on a man not to take drugs or alcohol, I will only be pushing him to go back drugs or alcohol, the moment he leaves this place. But instead of looking at a four month or six month course, if we look at factors such as how to deal with anger, pain or loneliness, or family relationships, we will be helping him to develop a positive outlook, go back to society with confidence and make a success of his life."

Talking about alcohol, interestingly, Manipur is a dry state but the paradox is that you can get the best brand names in the world.

"Alcohol here is cheaper than in other States; in fact, it is big business here. You can get Indian-made liquor easily because of the presence of the security forces. They get IMFL at a fraction of the cost and a lot of it comes into the local market. Then in Moreh, on the Burma border, you can get the best of Scotch at half the price... Red Label, Black Label, Teachers, White Horse or whatever. There are a lot of people who buy it in Manipur and take it to other parts of India, thinking they are buying genuine stuff cheap. But most of it is spurious," says an NGO representative in Imphal.


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