The national media have largely overlooked an important event that took place in the insurgency-hit North-East recently.
In a development that has the potential to catalyse industrial activity in Nagaland, the local community formally gave the go-ahead for the reactivation of oil wells abandoned by the Oil and Natural Gas Corp. (ONGC) over a decade ago.
The social licence to operate was acquired by the ONGC-Canoro consortium after several rounds of interaction with the community. The greatest challenge was to convince the Lotha tribe, which is in a majority in Changpang in Wokha district of Nagaland, of the benefits that would accrue to the local community specifically, and to the state in general.
Equally daunting was the task of getting the support of the main insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaak-Muivah) for the project. In 1994, ONGC had fled Changpang, leaving all its equipment behind, fearing physical harm to its employees there.
Between 1994 and now, oil companies have made several attempts to revive exploration activity in Nagaland, but insurgent groups and the various tribes that make up the population of the state stiffly opposed it.
While threats from insurgent groups was one deterrent, the other was the customary rights to land ownership enjoyed by the people of the state under the Constitution. Land in the state, as also in other parts of the NorthEast, cannot be acquired for any purpose without the consent of the village council.
In the Changpang case, it appears that ONGC and its Canadian partner Canoro have been able to overcome these twin challenges, at least for now. The support from the community or the insurgent groups, however, is not expected to be unconditional. If the oil companies are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as exploiting the community, support can transform into violent opposition overnight.
If everything goes off well, this project has the potential to become a successful case in industry-community partnership and show the way for other similar ventures in the North-East.
The north-eastern states are rich in natural resources, but activity in the extractive sector is limited mainly to Assam. With a very high concentration of active insurgencies, these states have fallen behind the rest of India on most critical development parameters.
Adding to the depressing scenario that has defined the NorthEast for several years now is poor governance, the government and the community’s reliance on federal grants, and physical distance from mainland India.
Relative peace has held in Nagaland with the ceasefire between the government forces and insurgent groups in force for more than a decade, even if internecine clashes among insurgent groups still lead to periodic bursts of violence. Assam still has regions (North Cachar Hills, for example) where companies would think several times before making any plans to enter. Manipur is perhaps the worst of all of the states.
There have been a few positives in the recent past, though. Tripura, once known as the abduction capital of India, has turned a new leaf and is generating interest among domestic and international companies, especially in the extractive industries sector. Insurgent violence has come down drastically and public infrastructure is improving.
While one big success story can help change the image of the North-East, what is critical is to sustain the gains achieved by recognizing the stakes of the local community and creating opportunities for joint industry-community benefit.
B.S. Nagaraj is a risk management consultant and a former journalist. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org