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Army act surprise up Singh sleeve

Imphal/New Delhi, Dec. 1: A strike-marred reception like the one President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam got one-and-a-half months ago awaits Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Manipur capital tomorrow, never mind the possibility of him carrying an unexpected piece of good news for the troubled state.

A highly-placed source in Delhi revealed that Singh was planning to announce certain amendments to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a thorn in the collective psyche of the Manipur population, during his daylong sojourn. The Prime Minister might even offer to drop the act from the statute book “if peace returns” to the Northeast, he added.

The army act grants extraordinary powers to forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations and has long been held responsible for rights abuse in Manipur, Nagaland and parts of other northeastern states.

If Singh does make any announcement about doing away with the “draconian” provisions, it will be a pleasant surprise not only for the people of Manipur but also a face-saver for chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh.

The chief minister failed to convince the Prime Minister to lay the foundation for the controversial Tipaimukh multipurpose dam during his visit despite he and power minister Phungzathung calling on Singh in New Delhi yesterday to tell him that the project was crucial to Manipur’s economic welfare. It was the third visit to the capital by the chief minister in the past few weeks.

The Prime Minister’s last-minute decision not to lay the foundation for the Tipaimukh project, however, failed to calm the anti-dam lobby.

A 24-hour general strike called by the Action Committee Against Tipaimukh Project, which is spearheading the anti-dam movement, began at 6 pm today. The militant Revolutionary People’s Front added to the Okram Ibobi Singh government’s embarrassment by announcing a 12-hour general strike from 6 am tomorrow and asking the people to boycott Singh’s visit.

According to the itinerary confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Office, Singh will lay the foundation stones for the Manipur Institute of Technology, a sports academy and a convention-cum-cultural centre in Imphal. However, he will not visit the actual sites. “The Prime Minister will only symbolically lay the foundation stones at Kangla Fort,” an official source said.

The Manipur Institute of Technology is to be built on the Manipur University campus, while the sports academy will be within the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex.

The special aircraft carrying Singh and his entourage is scheduled to arrive at Imphal airport at 1.15 pm. He will go straight from the airport to Kangla Fort, where a public reception has been arranged. He will return to the capital after the foundation stone ceremonies.

A police official admitted that the general strike called by the anti-dam lobby and the Revolutionary People’s Front necessitated the changes in the Prime Minister’s itinerary.

“There are security concerns that we cannot overlook,” he said.

A 50-member team from the Special Protection Group is supervising the security arrangements. Singh was originally scheduled to be in Manipur for two days and lay the foundation stone for the Tipaimukh project.

Apart from amendments to the army act, the state government is hoping for an announcement on upgrading the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences to the level of the New Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences and a special economic package.

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