Countering development: New Struggles in Northeast India
North-East Region (NER) at the turn of the 21st Century has been over-dammed along with oil exploration initiatives to be undertaken in three states- Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland. However, all the development process has received an unwelcome stance from the people with stiff resistance in all the states, breaking state boundaries cutting across ethnic lines. With the numerous implications and consequences it will have on the people inhabiting the region, the resistance which is launched can be seen as a movement to “Save the Region”, in other words, North-East Bachao Andolan(NEBA).
Keywords: Northeast, development, resources, resistance, investment, economy
The development of the northeast economy from the British rule was charted more in tune with the resources available and the commercial interest of the British government and this process is largely carried forward by the Indian State. This has become more so after the launching of the Look East Policy (LEP). In its haste to reap short-term financial gains, the Indian State is ceding control over the region natural resources. Various new policies are charted along neo-liberal lines to make the region attractive for private investment. Among them, the most important one are the North Eastern Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy (NEIIPP), 2007 which declared the entire Northeastern region as Special Economic Zones (SEZs) (Chongloi, P, 2012, 81). This move of the State has mortgaged the entire region, i.e. its resources in the private hands and left the region under the hands of the private corporates.
In the present situation, development has become the mantra of all the state leaders. Every state leaders, from politicians to bureaucrats are in the process of carrying out their own structural adjustment policies to prepare a conducive environment for private players to invest in their respective states. The latest State Hydro-Power Policy of Manipur under the stewardship of the State Chief Minister Ibobi who is holding the additional portfolio of Power Department is one such policy. Another move came from the State of Meghalaya with the State Cabinet approving of the Meghalaya Mines and Mineral Policy, 2012 which cleared the way for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the mining sector in Meghalaya. Of central importance in the newly framed policies are the attempts to woo private investment.
Under the LEP and various other policies such as regional groupings, the Southeast countries have eyed upon the region in their attempt to find all possible sources for profit making and investing in sectors which will bring quick fortunes. Recently, frequent visits are made by delegations from countries such as Thailand, South Korea looking for investment opportunities. What is noteworthy in this entire process is the fact that respective state governments are on the race for bringing in foreign investors and making way for private corporates. The mantra is now about modernization, change and growth which all fall under the guise of “development”. The dogmas of liberalization, deregulation and privatization all found its expression through the policies crafted for the region (Guha, 2011). Both the Central and the State are making confident claims that the present development paradigm will elevate the region out of its underdeveloped nature.
Re-inventing Northeast India:
Till the launching of the so-called Look East Policy (LEP) in 1991, the location (geography) of the region was cited to be a major stumbling block for the region’s development. The hilly terrains, poor communication and transport systems, infrastructure bottlenecks, etc. are among the common factors cited, inter alia, insurgency challenges facing the region development. In simple words, the region has been relegated to a peripheral position occupying less important place in the country’s development at large.
However, with the Indian State reverting to capitalism in the year 1991, the outlook of decision makers as well as policy planners towards the region changed entirely. It is now seen as a ‘centre’ or ‘core’ region from a peripheral region. Furthermore, the geographical location which once was cited as the major challenge to the region growth and development has now been seen as the most favorable, advantageous point which will usher in a new era of development for the region. Thereby, it is seen as the gateway to Southeast Asian countries which will help in pushing up India’s economic growth. To construct the legitimacy of the development process, the conception of the region has been shifting followed by new honeyed lexicons such as the ‘new powerhouse’, ‘sleeping giant’ so on and so forth. These new lexicons are a starting point for reformulating the hostile relationship between state and the citizens of the region as well.
A more interesting aspect other than the alteration on the conception about the region is the fact that the underdeveloped nature of the region has proved to be another legitimate ground for the state to take up such initiatives which are supported by the collaborating class and loyal elites of the region. Therefore, development has been professed as the new gospel which will elevate the region out of its underdeveloped nature. Furthermore, the perception of the region and the people as ‘backward’ and in need of ‘modernizing’ enable the highly centralized, paternalistic approach of the Indian Government to drive the development agenda.
Countless Development Projects: Massive Resource Grab:
The decision of the Indian leaders in drawing their attention on the region comes to no surprise with the huge reserved of oil, untapped hydro-power and uranium which is suffice to meet India’s energy crisis along with abundant forest resources, so on and so forth. With the announcement of various incentives for private players, a number of lucrative corporate are rushing in the region to get their share and amassed wealth. This has resulted in the region becoming a hub of investment resulting into a centre for making deals, business and oiling the wheels of the country economy. In sum, the open door policies of the Indian State have been entrenched in this part of the region.
What we see now in the region are a total of at least 900 small hydropower schemes and 62 large schemes distributed over the Northeast region with high concentration in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, massive oil exploration in three states viz. Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland and the already coal and uranium mining in Meghalaya. The push for large hydropower projects in the Northeast was primarily a process driven by the Central Government till the gradual liberalization of hydropower policies which allowed states to invite private players (Vagholikar and Das 2010). Therefore, the Indian State is currently charting a course of ‘development’ in the region promoting multiple large hydel-projects for power export which now remain as the main thrust of development approach in the region.
The recent discovery of oil and gas deposits in the states like Manipur and Mizoram have been seen as yet another fortune. However, both of the exploration processes are bound to cover a wide geographical area of the state. The oil exploration of Manipur is bound to cover one-sixth of the entire geographical area while in Mizoram; it will cover close to fifty eight per cent of the geographical area of the state. Geologist’s state that Mizoram is virtually floating on oil and gas deposits and it is now tagged as the new Kuwait of Northeast India. Major companies both form domestic and foreign such as from Cyprus, France and Russia have been selected to undertake the exploration at different places in the state to extract the estimated 170 million metric-tonnes of untapped crude reserves.
What is left unsaid is that the situation is far worse when the rules of the market are set by the state on behalf of the large corporations (Bhaduri, A. 2007, 552). With this, the region is now witnessing capitalist profiteering projects which aim to amass and grab wealth from all possible sources. It can thus be claimed that the engines and dreams of modernization are in their full course, attempting to exploit all the available resources of the region in the name of ‘development’.
Resistance viz-a-viz Resource Wars:
Almost all the development initiatives are met with stiff opposition from the local people inhabiting the region breaking state boundaries cutting across ethnic lines. This is more so because the region is inhabited by communities whose life support system, belief as well as cultural systems are intertwined to the environment surrounding them with a substantial portion of them dependent on natural resource-based livelihoods. Taking the case of the river Barak where the Tipaimukh Dam is to be erected, the river passes through Manipur and has been an important lifeline for the people inhabiting the river basins. It provides drinking water and satisfies their domestic needs, provides irrigation for cultivation of rice and horticulture, and it keeps the forest green (Arora, V. & Kipgen, N., 2012, 113). The same is true for the river Teesta in Sikkim where there is the plan of erecting 24 hydel-projects. The river Teesta is not merely a source of water, but the very lifeline of Sikkim (Arora, V., 2007, 3451).
More recent times have seen major conflicts emerge in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh over the individual and cumulative impacts of over 100 dams planned in upstream Arunachal. (Vagholikar, N., & Das, P.J., 2010). Thence, from the downstream of Assam to the upstream of Arunachal; from the far north of Teesta in Sikkim to the southern hills of Manipur; protests’ are being organized and a staunch resistance are being launched countering the development initiatives. An interesting aspect of the struggle is the coming together of various ethnic communities, academicians, activists, spiritual leaders in one platform sharing a common objective. Apart from this, various local, national and international bodies have joined hands and are constantly putting pressure on the State which perhaps is the first of its kind in the region.
Numerous local bodies are formed to put up a strong voice against the gargantuan network of dams constructed, the oil exploration along with the coal and uranium mining processes across the region. Some of them include the Committee Against Tipaimukh Dam (CATD), Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), Committee on the Protection of Natural Resources in Manipur (CPNRM). Various bodies such as the Action Committee against Tipaimukh Project (ACTIP) which is the umbrella group of about twenty-five organizations in Manipur are formed to strengthen the struggle. Also, student bodies such as the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Khasi Students Union (KSU), Hmar Students Associaition (HSA) are vocal in the opposition movements. Thus, the development initiatives of the State have led to numerous unrest and discontents across the region.
With the strong opposition emerging, the State have move beyond the legal space to push forward its development agenda. The first being the use of military might and the second being the violation of the rights of the indigenous people. The case of the oil exploration and construction of Tipaimukh Dam in Manipur provides the most glaring example of this. In the case of oil exploration, First Information Report (FIR) was filed against those protesting the Petroleum Exploration in Manipur during the environmental public hearing organized by the Manipur Pollution Control Board (MPCB) on 17 August 2012 at Nungba. This was primarily done as the mandatory environmental public hearings for oil exploration were met by massive community protests objecting to the oil exploration. Secondly, in the case of Tipaimukh Dam, study report of Sinlung Indigenous People Human Rights Organizaiton (SIPHRO) showcase how the rights of the indigenous people were violated. The major findings of the report states that free prior consent was not taken from the indigenous people, the public hearings were restrictive and targeted and people were not allowed to speak/express anything in the so-called public hearing; no recognition of the survival and cultural uniqueness of the indigenous peoples who along with their land and resources are to be affected. On top of this, the State Government of Manipur has demanded a provision of altogether eight battalions of Central security forces for deployment in project areas of Tipaimukh Hydro Electricity Project and Jirimbam-Imphal Rail Line which was actually higher than the required estimation made by the Central Government which is four battalions.
As of now, the existence and rights of the people of the region as a whole is out of question. Rapid militarization efforts are gaining upper-hand all in the name of development. The people of the region, particularly the poor are defenseless against the military might and power of the State. Therefore, the resistances are not just a battle between the State and the people of Northeast per se, but a larger battle between the “promise” and disguise of “development” and the impact it would have on the community inhabiting the region. Thus, the resistances meted out against the present development paradigm are more of an attempt to “Save the Region”, in other words, North East Bachao Andolan.
It is true that the resources of the North East has remained untapped and is not being harnessed for the best of the people and the country at large. However, the approaches of the State in trying to exploit all the resources at one go and giving it away to private investors and corporates remains problematic. The region as a whole has a pristine and fragile ecosphere, where much of the communities are dependent on the natural resources. This accumulation of the resources which are the life blood of the people is bound to destroy the people and the region.
Moreover, there is a fundamental short-sightedness in the way developments are to be undertaken in the region. Much of the policy planners and the decision-makers dismissed the heterogeneous landscape of the region as baloney. The policy planners of different ministries have not scratched their heads enough on how best the region can be developed and push forward. The present paradigm of development will put at risk the very survival of the inhabitants of the region. What is required is to disavow the dogmas of neo-liberalism with which the policies are crafted and put emphasis or adopt policies which “put people first”.
Arora, Vibha (2007): “Unheard Voices of Protest in Sikkim”, Economic and Political Weekly, 42:3451-3454
Arora, Vibha and Kipgen, Ngamjahao (2012): “We can live without power, but we can’t live without our land: Indigenous Hmar Oppose the Tipaimukh Dam in Manipur”, Sociological Bulletin.61: 109-128.
Banerjee-Guha, Swapna (2011): Contradictions of Development in Contemporary India. Viewed on 29 September 2012 http://www.opendemocracy.net/openindia/swapna-banerjee-guha/contradictions-of-%E2%80%98development%E2%80%99-in-contemporary-india
Baruah, Sanjib (2012): “Whose River is It Anyway? Political Economy of Hydropower in the Eastern Himalayas”, Economic & Political Weekly. 57, 41-51.
Bhaduri, Amit (2007): “ Development or Developmental Terrorism?”, Economic and Political Weekly, 52, 552-553.
Cases Registered Against Public Hearing Oppossers. Viewed on 1 October 2012 from http://hmar.in/?p=543
Chongloi, Paotinlen (2011): “Business Opportunities with Special Reference to Northeast India and Realigning Strategies towards the Look East Policy”, Journal of North East India Studies, 1, 81-99.
Karlsson, Bengt G. (2001): Unruly Hills: Nature and Nation in India’s Northeast (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.)
Press Release of SIPHRO (Sinlung Indigenous People Human Rights Organization) on Tipaimukh Dam on July 15, 2011. Viewed on September 1, 2012 from http://www.siphro.org/2011/07/15/siphro-press-release-on-tipaimukh-dam/ .
State Demands 8 Btns Security Force to Protect Projects. Viewed on 1 October 2102 from
Vagholikar, Neeraj and Partha J Das (2010): “Damming Northeast India: Juggernaut of Hydropower Projects Threatens Social and Environment Security of Region.”, Briefing Paper, Kalpvriksh (Pune), Aaranyak (Guwahati) and Action-Aid India (Delhi).