The Internet ban since May 3 in strife-torn Manipur has hobbled relief operations including medicine supplies, with a Church elder arguing that barring online services in today’s age is “nothing short of a human rights violation”.
Relief workers The Telegraph spoke to in the hill districts of Kangpokpi and Churachandpur, about 110km apart, described the difficulties of placing orders for the medicines and medical equipment required to treat ailing relief camp inmates, and of paying for them. They called for a lifting of the Internet ban.
J. Haokip, who runs a charity in Churachandpur and is helping supply medicines and rice to the relief camps, said there was a shortage of medicines at the district hospital.
“I managed to order medicines from Calcutta for relief camp inmates on Friday, after a month of trying through phone calls and text messages. It was a very cumbersome process,” he said.
Placing orders online merely requires a few clicks on readymade lists of medicines provided by suppliers, but ordering them over the phone or by text message involves the challenge of writing down the names of scores of medicines — or spelling them verbally.
“Because of the Internet suspension, I was unable to place the orders for a month, nor have I been able to make my last payment. I could not reach out to people who could have supported the relief efforts, either,” Haokip said.
The government has justified the Internet ban by citing the need to check the spread of rumours and misinformation that could worsen the violence.
A week ago, a team of visiting Left MPs demanded that the administration immediately restore Internet services to help people resume normal activities while checking the spread of misinformation by providing official information.
However, the state’s BJP government on Saturday extended the suspension of Internet till July 20. The state government has appealed in the Supreme Court against a recent Manipur High Court order that asked it to partially lift the ban on Internet services.
Ahead of Monday’s scheduled hearing in the apex court, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor hoped in a tweet that the Supreme Court “will stand up for the rights of citizens rather than for the blinkered babus who are completely indifferent to the impact of their decisions on citizens who use the Internet for banking, credit card transactions, enrolments, examinations, & to obtain all kinds of vital information. The Court must end this awful practice now!”
Haokip said: “We cannot send or accept money because there is no Internet. Banks are open three days a week and are always overcrowded, making it difficult to get one’s work completed in a day. I’m unable to send money to those in need at the relief camps in other districts.”
Before the unrest, patients would travel to Imphal for treatment or to get medicines, but such travel has been unsafe since violence erupted between Kukis and Meiteis on May 3. The clashes have left at least 150 people dead and 60,000 displaced.
Government and Red Cross sources told this newspaper they were “managing” in the valley districts in the matter of medicines but it was difficult reaching the affected hill districts from Imphal, especially Churachandpur, because of “security reasons”. Sporadic violence such as arson and firing are taking place even now.
The Kukis, who are mostly Christians, live mainly in the hills while the largely Hindu Meiteis are concentrated in the Imphal valley.
Kim Kipgen, who is involved in relief activities in Kangpokpi district, spoke of nearly a month’s delay in procuring an ECG machine.
“There was no ECG at the Kangpokpi Mission Hospital. The district hospital is not self-sufficient, either. A medical team said there were relief camp inmates with heart conditions and an ECG machine would help,” Kipgen said.
“The Queen Mary HS School in Dimapur (Nagaland) donated (money for) the ECG machine but it was tough placing the order with (a supplier in) Guwahati and making the payment. Banks function for only two hours a day in our district and most of the time their server is down.”
Kipgen said she had “ordered more than 100 medicines early this month” via text messages and phone calls. “It’s difficult to write or dictate the names of all the medicines and their composition. It’s very tough on the sender and the receiver.”
It would normally have taken two days for the ECG machine to reach Kangpokpi from Guwahati, but it took Kipgen and her team 24 days to install the ECG at the Mission Hospital.
There are at least 35 relief camp inmates with heart problems in Kangpokpi district and they need constant monitoring, she said.
Kipgen said the Internet suspension also prevented a team of visiting doctors from Kerala and Tamil Nadu from carrying out online consultations with dermatologists after they came across several camp inmates with skin infections.
Further, the Internet shutdown has made it difficult for students to secure admission to educational institutions, she added. “A college in Dimapur has offered to admit violence-affected graduate and postgraduate students free of cost, but they are unable to apply online.”
A Church elder said the government supplies to the relief camps have not been sufficient and the Internet shutdown has hamstrung those trying to help with relief. Sources said that government doctors were seeking help from community organisations.
Father Varghese Velickakam, convener of a relief committee formed by the Imphal diocese for both the hill and valley districts, said the Imphal valley was better placed in the matter of medicines and transport compared with hill districts such as Kangpokpi and Churachandpur.
“I don’t know how this (Internet ban) is helping, because the unrest is in its third month. Barring online services in today’s age is nothing short of a human rights violation. Everybody has the right to health,” Varghese said. “Facilities are lacking at the relief camps in the hills. The Internet shutdown is affecting relief operations. The government has to do something.”
Churachandpur has 112 relief camps with 15,000-plus inmates including 15 heart and cancer patients each. There are 20 patients on dialysis “and lots of” pregnant women, Kipgen said.
The relief camps in Kangpokpi are sheltering 24,015 displaced people, 45 of whom are diabetic and four to five are on dialysis, Kipgen said. More than 50 are physically challenged. Some inmates have Alzheimer’s.
Kipgen said that instead of shutting down Internet services to check the spread of rumours, the government should set up centres to monitor Internet use, particularly social media posts.