People’s voices in the north-east

People’s voices in the north-east

Away from activism hot spots in what is euphemistically, though correctly, known as “Mainland India" in the far east of the country, a slow but steady coalescing of public interest against major projects appears to be taking shape.

On 10 September a group of at least 50 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all eight states in what is called “North-East" sent a memorandum to Wen Jiabao and Manmohan Singh. Among other things it asked the Chinese premier to not build a series of dams on the upper reaches of the Tsangpo, or Siang, or Brahmaputra. These will divert water away from this lifeline of a river of India and Bangladesh and threaten inundation in these areas by natural disaster or conflict. India’s Prime Minister was requested to stop a plan of building a hundred hydro-electric dams across the region, which would displace tens of thousands of people, and inundate farmlands and forests that serve as catchments. The memorandum described the building of dams as “seeking conflict".

Also Read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns

China has a very poor record of listening to its own people, and is hardly likely to pay attention to the voices led by a group of NGOs from India’s eastern-most region. India too has an appalling record of callousness in this region; and planners in New Delhi have for long imposed solutions here to both political and economic problems.

But the NGO gesture is significant. I haven’t recently seen anything that has brought together such an ethnically diverse group with several well-known names.

The letter is not a one-off example of this growing regional networking. Several NGOs banded together to protest and shut down the controversial limestone and shale mining project of a Lafarge SA subsidiary in Meghalaya, designed to feed a Lafarge-led cement plant across the border in Bangladesh. Earlier this year, NGOs triggered a judicial review of misleading land use documentation to stall the project.

Groups in Manipur, Assam, Mizoram and Tripura have come together to highlight issues of project-displaced people and their consequent economic dislocation on account of the 1,500MW Tipaimukh hydro project in the south-western corner of Manipur’s Churachandpur district, by its border with Mizoram.

NGOs fear the project just downstream of the confluence of the Barak and Tuvai rivers will inundate the lands, disrupting lives and rural economies of southern Assam.

They are urging Manipur’s chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh to cancel a memorandum of understanding for the project his government signed with National Hydroelectric Power Corp. and Sutlej Vidyut Nigam Ltd in New Delhi on 28 April this year, alleging the lack of what is known as free, prior and informed consent of the project-affected.

In neighbouring Nagaland, NGOs are seeking legal opinion in the region and the “mainland" to query the implications of a recent resolution by the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland. On 26 July, the assembly adopted a resolution specifically related to “ownership and transfer of land and its resources in respect of minerals including petroleum and natural gas" under the provisions of Article 371 of the Indian Constitution that provides for Nagaland a few special benefits.

The resolution asserts that “the State of Nagaland representing the people shall have the jurisdiction in regulation and development over minerals including petroleum and natural gas in terms of usage and shall have control on the matter of exploration and development in the State, which will include acquisition of mineral bearing areas, fixation of land compensation rates, landowner’s share in the benefits or royalty arising out of extraction of the minerals."

Moreover, the resolution mentions that “fresh modalities will be framed by the state of Nagaland on petroleum and natural gas exploration and development".

On the face of it, it will prevent an entity like Oil and Natural Gas Corp.—which had in the 1990s drilled for oil in Wokha district of Nagaland but was forced out by a major rebel group—to again scope Wokha, and three other districts with petro-potential, Mon, Mokokchung and Dimapur, without paying attention to tribal rights and local views.

But then, activists fear, were the state government to use such powers without consulting locals, it could lead to tension and conflict of the kind so evident in the “mainland".

These activism attitudes may be of concern to some CEOs and their bean counters and fixers, political leaders, and bubble-world planners. To me it speaks of a rootedness; of concern and interest in a region by people who have an unquestionable stake in their future.

Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues related to conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country. He writes a column alternate Thursdays on conflicts that directly affect business.

Respond to this column at