By Maya Palit
In red print under the ‘Latest Headlines’ section of E-Pao, Manipur’s first online news service, a line reads, ‘Due to Demonetisation in Manipur, there is no news update from November 18 2016’. Manipur has not had access to its dozen or more dailies newspapers for three days running now. Newspaper publishers, facing a cash crunch following denomination of the big notes, have decided to suspend publication indefinitely. This shutdown comes in the midst of an economic blockade that was imposed by the United Naga Council on November 1 and is still in force.
On November 17, the All Manipur Newspaper Sales and Distributors Association (an organisation representing distributors of newspapers), All Manipur Newspaper Publishers Association, and the Editors’ Guild, Manipur jointly made the decision because a week into the ban on Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, distributors were left without adequate change to buy newspapers. Unlike national papers, which usually send their publications in bulk to local shops, hawkers buy the Manipuri dailies in cash straight from the distribution section of newspaper offices, sometimes on a daily basis, and then deliver them to readers.
“It is a double whammy for the press, the latest in a series of backbreaking [outcomes] of the economic blockade and demonetisation,” said Pradip Phanjoubam, Editor of Imphal Free Press. Even in the days prior to the demonetisation, he pointed out, reporters had been facing a tough time because of petrol – vital for their transport – was either unavailable or highly adulterated.
In a land locked down by the blockade, people rely on newspapers for crucial information. Equally important is useful information such as a list of authorised gas distributors for the public, Phanjoubam pointed out. Incidentally, there is a roaring black market in fuel in Manipur due to the blockade.
The Editors’ Guild Manipur and the two newspaper associations have written to the Chief Secretary, O. Nabakishore, as well as the Reserve Bank of India on behalf of the hawkers’ union, seeking that newspapers be included in the list of exemptions until November 24. Current exemptions allow payment at fuel stations and for healthcare at government hospitals in the demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.
On November 18, journalists and distributors joined the newspaper associations at a protest at the Keishampat Lairembi Community Hall in Imphal, demanding immediate measures to address the cash shortage.
Without the dailies, those with access to internet could get some information online, pointed out Chitra Ahentham, a freelance journalist. However, most Manipur citizens are now heavily relying on two local television channels, Impact News and ISTV, which cover most of the valley’s districts.
Yumnam Rupachandra, Editor-in-Chief, Impact News, and Secretary General of the Editors Guild Manipur said that publishers are well within their right to shut shop because they can deal only in legal tender. If they accept the demonetised notes from distributors, they could later be hauled up by the Reserve Bank of India. Explaining the situation, he said apart from the unavailability of small notes, hawkers who had been operating on a credit basis, suddenly began to pay advances in the demonetised notes, leading to a sudden spike in illegal currency in the publications’ accounts. “It’s a bad time to shut down but it should be a reminder to the government to ensure better planning. It would help if the government makes provisions for a counter for the hawkers, who don’t have time to stand in queues, to obtain small change,” he said. He did moot the idea of cutting circulation and only selling to those bringing legal tender, but some of the papers, which are registered with auditors, cannot suddenly fluctuate their supply. S. Niladhaja Singh, President, All Manipur Newspaper Publishers Association, was quoted in a Telegraph article saying the shutdown was a preventive move to make sure that income tax authorities do not later harass publishers.
Sunzu Bachaspatimayum, veteran freelance journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker, agreed that publishers aren’t to blame for the sudden press shutdown but felt they could have chosen a different strategy. “Personally, I feel this has come at a time when people need news because of the [ongoing] crisis. Publishers are denying people information when they need it most: there should be some alternative arrangements made when you’re providing such a crucial service. For example, journalists are stuck without petrol for travel, but the All Manipur Working Journalists Union has made short-term arrangements to organise petrol for them.”
One of the curators at Global Shapers Imphal Hub, a network of young people collaborating with local communities on development projects, lamented that the situation in some senses has left Manipur both virtually and physically isolated from the world. The common man is affected when the print media shuts down, particularly under circumstances like the blockade.
Why the newspaper industry in Manipur alone has been affected is debatable. Perhaps the answer lies in this article in The Wire, suggesting, among other things, that the lack of functional ATMs across Manipur has made things particularly difficult for newspaper distributors there. Meanwhile, another, in Scroll, implies that the situation has been exacerbated by the lack of a well-organised newspaper distribution sector in Manipur.
It is possible that the government will recognise the needs of the media organisations in the State and put in place temporary arrangements for newspaper distributors to access small denomination notes. But until then, Manipur will have to make do without the daily updates from its ‘crusaders of truth’, a term that just last week was bestowed on the press there.