Even though the violent ethnic clashes are yet to stop in Manipur, another major crisis is looming large over the state. A fractured economy is often the most immediate consequence of any conflict and now Manipuris, especially the youth, are beginning to feel the brunt of it.

In the days following May 3, when ethnic violence had first erupted in Manipur during the Tribal Solidarity March (a protest against the alleged state attempts to hand the dominant and mostly-Hindu Meitei community the status of a Scheduled Tribe) called by Kuki organisations was disrupted by miscreants, authorities had imposed an internet shutdown that continues to this day.

The Internet Society, a global non-profit organisation that works to make the internet more accessible, said in a report, that the Indian economy lost around USD 1.9 billion due to the internet shutdowns in Manipur and Punjab.

Over 21,000 jobs and nearly USD 118 million in Foreign Direct Investment were lost in India as a direct result of the internet restrictions that were imposed in the two states. In Manipur, besides the internet blackout, several thousands of businesses and enterprises have either been destroyed or forced shut during the communal and ethnic violence that gripped the state, residents The Citizen reached out to said.

Thangminlen Kipgen, Spokesperson for Kuki Inpi Manipur (Kuki Inpi is the apex body of all the Kuki people), talked to The Citizen about how the violence has dealt a serious blow to the economy of Manipur. He explained the toll that this violence took on Internally Displaced Persons from Manipur.

Talking about the members of the Kuki community, who were rescued from Imphal valley and taken to cities like Delhi and Mumbai in early May, Kipgen said, “These friends of mine were holding various senior positions in Manipur. I was fortunate to meet them in Delhi but I saw that they are nowhere close to their earlier positions.

“For example, those who were in positions of senior sales executive have had to start at the basic level outside the state. So, for them it is not just about their salaries going down. It is about them having to start from scratch”.

So far, around 160 people have lost their lives and more than 60,000 have had to leave their homes in Manipur. Several thousands of people are either living in relief camps in Manipur and its adjoining states or in metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai.

Textiles, agriculture and tourism make up some of the key sectors that constitute a major part of Manipur’s economy. Exports of handwoven textiles, medicines and food items have fallen by nearly 80 per cent, M. Chandrakeshore Singh Pallel, Vice President of Northeast Federation of International Trade, was quoted saying by ‘The Economic Times’.

The adverse effects of Manipur violence are now trickling down to even those areas that were not severely affected by the ethnic clashes.

“For example, I am in a town called Kangpokpi where relatively there was less violence and even here my sister who runs a local restaurant is unable to get frozen foods now. Earlier, we had to procure frozen food materials and seafood from Imphal but those supplies have been cut down now. Her restaurant’s menu has gone down by 50 per cent. She is unable to provide many of the things because of lack of ingredients,” Kipgen said.

The supply chain disruptions are affecting people from both communities. “I have an uncle who used to transport essential items in his small vehicle from Moreh to Imphal and from Imphal to Moreh. However, he has lost that business now because Moreh is out of touch. Moreh is disconnected from the rest of the valley and there are several others like him who are facing such issues,” Shougrakpam Taibanganba Meitei, an English teacher in a Higher Secondary school in Manipur, said.

“Moreh is a border town. It shares a border with Myanmar. It is a major trade town but due to the ongoing conflict, it was blocked and many people had to stop their businesses and they stopped going to this area. It is totally disconnected from the rest of the districts,” Taibang said.

Earlier this week, hundreds of women from the Kuki-Zo community reportedly staged a sit-in protest to demand the removal of the state's police force, on which the tribal community claims to have lost all faith, from this crucial border town. The women allowed troops of the Indian Army to cross their blockade and reach Moreh.

Taibang also said that people in Manipur depend considerably on supplies coming from Myanmar and due to these disruptions, he witnessed several businesses, shops and enterprises shutting down. Many are unable to restart operations even now, he said.

With free movement and communication curtailed in the state, residents have found themselves depending on charitable organisations and good samaritans for support. Although currently the focus of the civil society remains on saving as many lives as possible, some groups have stepped up to help people secure their livelihoods.

Thangminlen Kipgen was personally involved in providing immediate relief when the violence broke out in the state. He was part of the evacuation team that had gone with the Assam Rifles to disturbed areas where they saw members of the Kuki community who were seeking shelter in first Manipur Rifle battalion camps, second Manipur Rifle battalion camps and Army’s Assam Rifle camps.

“I could see so many of my own friends were on the ground. We just had only six buses and the population there was in thousands. We had to first evacuate only the women, children and the elderly. It was very disturbing and very painful to see my friends who were hopeful when they saw my face and they thought I will be able to take them but I was not in the position to do that,” Thangminlen said.

“These (the people who were evacuated from the valley and at least found some job outside Manipur) are the fortunate ones. There are still many more who are staying in Delhi and are yet to get employment,” he added. Thangminlen said that through various community outfits, like the Kuki Students Organisation, they are trying to help the displaced individuals rebuild their lives.

“Recently, Don Bosco Institute in Mumbai has come up with an initiative to provide free transportation, free lodging, free training and employment opportunities to those who receive training,” he said.

“When this violence started, many non-governmental organisations, and just groups of like-minded people came together to provide from time-to-time essential items to people like food packets, medical aid but I don’t see things improving. I mean, the relief we are providing will not be available all the time because it comes from a limited stock and from a very limited section of the people,” Taibang, who was also involved in relief work in the Imphal region, said.

Dr. Yumlembam Bidiyananda Singh, an Assistant Professor at the Manipur International University who also joined community efforts to provide relief to displaced persons, said that they were involved in helping some students access education in the last three months and now they are planning to assist some students monetarily so that they can pursue higher education.

“The thing is that we cannot help all the people who are impacted by the violence. We feel bad about this. We can help only a few of them. There are lots more there,” he said.

Rajkumar Amarendra Singh, an interior designer based in Manipur, is having to work two jobs now. Business in his main profession, interior designing, is down as most people whose homes were destroyed are somehow just trying to rebuild them and those who have homes are cutting down on discretionary spending.

“I have been having a hard time for the last three months because it is difficult to get clients now. I am now also working as a computer science teacher,” Amarendra said.

“If it continues for three-four months more… I don’t know, man. It is going to be difficult for me. I am paying EMIs,” he said, adding that when the violence was at its peak, he had to get financial assistance from his parents.

“They were there for me but see, I am a grown-up man so it is hard to take money from them, right?” he said.

Officially, the government, neither at the Centre nor the state, has released any data that shows the scale of economic loss (in monetary terms) that was a direct result of the Manipur violence. The Opposition parties, as many as 26 of whom joined hands to form the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (I.N.D.I.A), are trying to corner the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre over the issue.

They have persistently demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi (who only broke his silence on the Manipur crisis after 78 days when the video of a horrific crime against two Kuki women emerged and led to massive outrage on social media) make a statement in the Parliament.

The Opposition parties have also moved two no-confidence motions – one by constituents of I.N.D.I.A, and another by K. Chandrashekhar Rao-led Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), against the Modi-led BJP government in Parliament. The motion is most likely to fail given BJP’s brute majority in Lok Sabha, but it is understood to be an attempt by the opposition to bring PM Modi to the Parliament and force a discussion on Manipur.

Opposition parties had also sent a joint delegation to Manipur which, after visiting the state, briefed its top leadership on their observations. “Economic activities have come to a halt with children unable to attend school, farmers ceasing their farming, with people grappling with both financial losses and psychological hardships. The divide between communities is deeply concerning,” Mallikarjun Kharge, National President of Congress, posted a tweet, after getting briefed on the matter.

As many as 14,673 school children have been displaced since the start of the violence in Manipur on May 3, according to a written response from the Minister of State for Education, Annapurna Devi, given in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, August 2, on a question from Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament Dola Sen.

The Centre also informed that as many as 93.5 per cent of displaced school children have been enrolled in the “nearest feasible school, free of cost”. Churachandpur district, which is a Kuki-majority district, has witnessed the highest number of children being displaced at 4,099.

It is followed by Kangpokpi, another Kuki-dominated district, at 2,822. In Bishnupur and Imphal East districts where Meiteis make up the majority, the number of school students displaced is 2,063 and 2,053, respectively.

During the shutdown imposed due to ethnic clashes, “students couldn’t go to schools and they had to stay at home and I saw many of them were full of anxiety,” Taibang, the high school teacher said.

“They were there at home but it was a very stressful life with shootings all the time. Starting from morning and continuing throughout the day,” he added. Taibang believes that cases of anxiety disorder and other mental health problems are going to increase in the state in the coming days.

There is another very serious concern that people in the hills, where most members of the Kuki community live, face. The government had last month announced that all the displaced students will be enrolled in government and government-aided schools.

“Of course, the government has helped us in getting for our children the migration certificates that are needed during the transfer process from one school to another. These things are being done online now but even then, one major problem we face right now is that 99 per cent of the schools in the hills are affiliated to the Board of Secondary Education of Manipur (BSEM) or the Council of Higher Secondary Education Manipur.

“Many schools here are now fearing that if this crisis goes on, they may face problems getting their affiliations renewed next year or years after that,” Thangminlen, spokesperson for Kuki Inpi Manipur, said.

“As schools have been shut for almost three months now, few of those who can afford the exorbitant private tuition fees, have been able to send their wards to various reputed schools around the country. But for the bulk of us, for the 90 per cent-or-so of us, anxiety is there at every level,” he added.

“A lot of students have lost their valuable time. Yes, they have lost everything. There’s no internet and without the internet these days, things cannot work properly. They have lost time. Forget about money and all, they have lost time,” Taibang said, ruefully.

The extent to which this conflict, which many have described as akin to a civil war, has impacted young minds can be understood by the games that they now play. Taibang said he felt so bad watching his young students playing games in which they, as Meiteis, played the police and the thieves were replaced by children “acting as Kukis”.

Similarly in the Kuki community, Thangminlen said, “Young children are happy that they don’t have to do homework but this supposedly free time is diverting their attention to many other things.

“The children now know what a bunker is, they know what an AK-47 is and to them Meitei means enemy. I keep telling my children that Meiteis are not the enemies, the ideology of few people is. This is very unfortunate”.

All the people, including high school and college students, The Citizen spoke to said that they have lost their friendships due to this conflict. Many said they don’t speak to their friends now and some that do, cannot publicly associate with them anymore. They fear the reproach from their own community.

Chongkham Vivekananda Meitei is a young aspiring theatre technician from Manipur who is also worried about his career since he, like most college students, could not attend classes for months. Since his course is very vocational, without physical classes he feels he is lagging behind. However, there is another concern that has been bugging him.

“Most of my friends are from the Kuki community. My closest friend is a Kuki. She used to sit beside me in college. We are so close that we used to sit, eat and do most things together but now we cannot do these things publicly. They are creating a gap between us. Like, oh she is a Kuki and I am Meitei,” Vivek said. “I just want to hug my friends but I cannot,” he added.

Vivek now sells his art to support himself and his family. He told The Citizen that around this time, he and his friends would act in local plays but that the whole spring and summer seasons got washed away in violence.

With no shows and fests, artists of Manipur are also struggling. “My fellow artists who used to enjoy and participate in performances together are now facing a lot because they do not get any program. We don’t get any events and the ones who do not have any private or government job, they are facing a lot because going to cultural events and organising them was the one thing they earned from,” Dr. Bidiyananda, who is a professor of classical dance, said.

The extent of the economic fallout will become clearer in the days to come. However, all the people (from Meitei and Kuki communities), The Citizen spoke to firmly believe that the damage and hate caused by these ethnic clashes have seeped deep into the minds of people and these are now here to stay.

“Where once our children used to play police-thief games, we now play Meitei-Kuki games,” Dr. Bidiyananda said.