Fringe realities

Indo-Myanmar border

Fringe realities

“You will find anything you want here,” remarks a middle-aged gentleman as I stand extending my gaze till the main road of Moreh. This remark intrigues me and (as I realise later) sets the tone for the next couple of days. Located in the hinterlands of Manipur, Moreh is a border town, 110 km away from Imphal (the capital of Manipur). Part of the Chandel district, Moreh shares a long border with our eastern neighbour Myanmar. Tamu is its sister town on the other side of the border. But for its ‘international border’ status, Moreh would pass off as any other town in the hinterlands.

Mud-coloured small houses structured with short walls, wooden doors and windows, and tin roofs are all stacked one next to the other. A few ‘affluent’ houses with concrete roofs and the poor man’s thatch break the monotony here and there. Whatever the exterior may be, the scurry of people walking here and there is hard to miss.

Shops line either side of the road. Small chai shops that serve local cuisine are where one finds gatherings. Besides one main road, which is barely tarred, all the other roads in the town are narrow mud tracks with just enough space for one vehicle to pass by.

Moreh is fascinating not because of this exterior. It does not stand out for being just a pretty town habiting the flood plains of River Chindwin against the rolling green hills with a lush jungle. Its character is defined by the fact that Moreh is a racial and ethnic melting pot. It has people from all parts of India. I am told that other than Karnataka and J&K, every other state is represented here.

Trade centre

You might wonder why there are many people in this nondescript town. Moreh is an important financial hub. Unconfirmed estimates quote that nearly 7 per cent of India’s trade takes place through this Indo-Burmese border town.

There are three border gates, out of which one gate (Gate 2) represents exoticism. This allows passage for people, not vehicles. This means, you can buy yourself a ticket for Rs 10, walk across to Myanmar, shop (Chinese and Thailand goods), eat (at the array of restaurants serving traditional food) and then walk back.

Namphalong, a bazaar located across the gate, is a revered shopping destination for groceries, clothes, shoes, cosmetics, textiles, furnishings and jewellery.

When I first walk up to the gate, the sheer exotic attribute overtakes all else. Steady stream of people entering and exiting, a thick presence of security personnel — it seems like business as usual at first glance.

Even I walk across, buy a ticket and roam the bylanes to taste some local fruits, to chat with a few shopkeepers (who mostly speak Burmese, but a few speak a smattering of Hindi) and to admire all the exotic mats, hats, fish, fruits, grains and cereals.

A friend suggests that local food is not to be missed. Lapathaou (fried beans in green tea leaves and coated with seasoning), khow suey (flat noodles with meat, vegetables and number of sauces), mohinga (noodles with gram flour, honey-flavoured soya sauce, chicken or prawn stock and flavoured oil) are the local favourites.

On the way back from Namphalong is when I have an interesting encounter. Tonso, a 20-year-old young man, walks by my side and initiates a polite conversation, asking where I am from and what I am doing there. He notices the lit cigarette in my hand and in between the conversation, drops a few hints — “If you would like, I can give you a lot of stuff, maybe better than the one in your hand,” and “Do you like tablets or liquid?”

My antennae go up and I immediately scurry to change the topic. Is he talking about drugs? Is this one of Moreh’s dark secrets? I think. Of course it is, and there are many more.

Moreh being a trade centre, also called the ‘Asian Gateway to India’, has earned a very dubious distinction, that of being a hotbed for illegal trades. Supari, grocery items and grains are considered legal. Whereas the illegal list includes guns, ammunition, grenades, drugs, medicinal plants (ginseng), animal parts, gold etc.

Power connections

Goods from India or Bangladesh transit through Moreh to enter Myanmar, and further reach China. So, who facilitates this transit? I ask. “Anybody with some power” says Sebastian, a local Kuki leader, and adds, “If the ones who have to ensure there is order become party to this, then who is there to stop them?” He adds, “A local from Moreh does not have the links to carry out such trades. It happens only when there is back-end support. Other communities who have settled here have outside connections. Locals sometimes end up being used as labour.” “Is there an end to this?” I wonder, for the second time.

Hoakip, another local resident, says, “What we actually need is a strong security force that will put an end to this. Also, people have got used to getting this kind of extra money. And young people only want drugs; they don’t want to work. An enforcement is the only way out.” Is it all about enforcement or can there be an element of hope to motivate young people?

At a chai shop by the main road, I meet Tina. She is a mother of three and her husband died four years back. I ask her how and she points to her arm to indicate that it was due to an injection. He was a drug addict. He died due to a drug overdose. As I meet more and more people, I realise that Tina is not alone. In Moreh, nearly in every single household, you will find a person or two who have died due to drug overdose in the recent past.

Tina, now left to fend for herself with three children aged 15, 9 and 5 years, has chosen to open this chai shop. She sells local tea, a thick porridge brew (breakfast dish) and some pork. Customers are often hard to come by, and she says she makes as less as Rs 4,000 a month. She looks at me point blank and asks, “Is this enough to bring up children?” I give her a cold stare and choose not to answer it. She then says, “I need to find other ways of earning money, right? I do some trade here and there.”

Filled to the brim with these life stories, I choose to sit on a hillock and reflect a bit. My anger about the state of affairs has been replaced by helplessness. A strange stream of noise from loud speakers breaks the silence around me. It’s quite amusing — loudspeakers from the mosque, church, temple and gurdwara — all are blaring music at the same time.

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