Why have people fallen back to DIY in Northeast?

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When news of a road from Tamemglong (Manipur) to Haflong (Assam) built without support of the government broke, it raised a lot of questions. Armstrong Pame, an IAS officer in Manipur had led local communities to build a 100 Km road, with national and international donations. His supporters followed the progress of the road on internet through online photos and videos. Though the local government had sanctioned the project in the 1980s, nothing was done and the project never took off.

But why is this story about the state government diverting funds aimed at development projects such a success? Has it become normal for people to be grateful for the government’s refusal to get involved, for fear that donations will stop and funds will disappear?

A passive approach adopted by governments to develop the region has adversely impacted large-scale projects and investments in oil and natural gas. Tripura, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam represent one eighth of India’s oil production and the biggest onshore reserve of natural gas. In Nagaland, substantial quantities of oil, natural gas and limestone make up for a real ‘potential’ towards development. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) Changpang oil field proved to be particularly lucrative, and many other blocks remain unexplored. In Manipur, the Government of India and the state of Manipur signed a contract that grants Jubilant Oil and Gas license to explore 3850 Km of land in the Hmar hills, where an estimate five trillion cubic feet of oil can be found.

Companies looking to tap into this huge potential are facing a number of challenges. On a practical level, infrastructure is barely developed. Companies are looking to make substantial investments in a region with a hostile climate. Beyond that, developing good relations with the local population by providing employment and infrastructure – both painfully absent – is an arduous process. Finally, the controversial Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India and widespread underground movements add another dimension to the on-going dialogue with the local population. Yet, the potential for profit is high enough for Indian and foreign companies to have attempted to navigate this minefield, taking the very real risk of the investments helplessly blowing up before their eyes.

Factions of underground insurgents in Nagaland are multiplying as the population grows increasingly divided, thus paving the way for manipulation based on misinformation. Samuel Medaliang, Chief Advisor of the Federated Village Council in Nagaland, deplores how even the Centre change its guidelines every quarter. “It takes a month to reach us. I argued with the Rural Development Ministry  in Delhi. Our main problem is with the State and Central Governments – they are giving money to people who create issues between us,” he says.

Although insurgency is curtailed to a large extent; underground groups, of which there are now over seven factions, practice extortion by asking for 25 percent of the benefits generated by private businesses. By preventing a middle-class from emerging, and government jobs being one of the only sources of employment, the gap is widening between the state government and the people. According to many, the problem lies with those who access lucrative positions of power though jobs in state government offices and turn their backs on people.

With these enterprises grinding to a halt due to sustained protests, a new set of rules is currently being planned out by RS Pandey, former Union Petroleum Secretary, now appointed interlocutor between Central government and the banned National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM). Dialogues have been engaged in the hope of creating a more transparent relationship between the Centre and the Naga people, and by extension facilitate investments in the region. Pandey believes that this latest set of rules will try to resolve the trust problems, but Medaliang has suggested that the government is trying to pass a Bill to empower the state, and this will create more problems. The physical and cultural differences between Nagaland and Delhi remain, and Delhi’s lack of interest in the northeast has created a certain resentment and disillusion.

The NPNG Board, constituted by the government of Nagaland, recently invited Expressions of Interest (EOI) from companies looking to carry out oil explorations. Twenty three companies submitted EOIs by the deadline in January. However of the 23 companies, it was found that only five were genuine, none of which had sufficient experience or expertise to operate on a large scale. It is telling that no Indian Public Sector Undertakings applied for exploration of the new blocks. Has it become too risky to invest in the region?

The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India gives special powers to tribal populations in the northeast. The government has to seek permission from landowners to conduct activities on their land, and village councils are in charge of interacting with the local government. In Nagaland, Article 371A grants Naga people ownership of the resources on their land, a unique situation in India that has created contention with the state government, who wishes to reclaim ownership over these substantial resources. In the rest of the northeast, the Government of India owns the natural resources. However Article 371C of the Constitution entitles the tribal population to a committee (Tribal Area Committee) to defend their interests. Insurgency is the result of these interests being repeatedly ignored, and the village council’s  inability to be heard.

With regards to investment into natural resources, the Sixth Schedule complicated the revenue system. Nagas argue that since the natural resources belong to them, they should be paid royalties directly without being sieved through the state government. Landowners are entitled to 16 percent of the profits made by companies extracting oil in the region. Modalities remain unclear, and several sets of rules have been published, none of which truly recognise rights of the landowners. In other northeast states, local governments own resources meaning that local communities are often left in the dark, unaware of the benefits they will receive or the extent of the activities that will take place on their land. In Manipur, the resources belong to the state government, which is generally entitled to 15 percent royalty for oil extraction. As their only reliable source of revenue, the local population is fighting to ensure they are not left out of negotiations.

So far, business has presented itself in the form of pyramid selling, a highly unsustainable business model. While most inhabitants do not have electricity, global giants like KFC and Mary Kay cosmetics have made their way to Nagaland. Environmentally detrimental jhum cultivation runs rampant because isolated populations have to walk for days to access a market. Should transparent and fair modalities be agreed on, extraction of local resources is seen as one viable pathway to development that could provide royalties, infrastructure and employment to people of the northeast.

In Nagaland, the ONGC started exploring oil in 1973 and lost their licence in 1994, after production of 1.2 million metric tonnes of oil and protests from the local population. But they claim they were willing to give the population their due share. RS Sharma, former chairman of the ONGC asserts, “The state government has to take its responsibilities. We would like to work in a very transparent manner. I am against giving money to individuals.” Yet when the ONGC moved out and were forced to make their only royalty payment after 21 years of activity in the region; of the Rs 33 crores paid to the state government, only 27 lakhs went to landowners. The Dice Foundation issued a statement, “Giving individual benefits is a cost-effective strategy and this has been the methodology of ONGC. ONGC has targeted the individuals and alienated the collective.” Fears are that if funds are rooted through the government (top-down), they would get filtered as they reach the actual beneficiaries. However paying individuals directly is not a sustainable model in an increasingly divided society. But, whose role is it to ensure proper regulation and law enforcement?

The state government’s failure to facilitate investments and act as an intermediary is a recurrent problem in neighbouring states. In Manipur, like in Nagaland, investments are being stalled because of these shortcomings. Jubilant Oil and Gas, a Dutch company, has been conducting oil explorations for the past two years in Manipur, a region that is split between the Naga and Hmar tribes. The government of India owns the resources, but support of the local population remains crucial. In a petition against Jubilant–led oil explorations, the Committee on the Protection of Natural Resources in Manipur (CPNRM) says that innocent villagers of Tamenglong District are duped to sign no objections letters for seismic surveys by Alpha Geo Company without informing them of the purpose and objectives and also impacts of the surveys and oil exploration and drillings. Quoting Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), they continue to contest Jubilant’s activities in Manipur because they have been kept at bay of all the proceedings.

Colonel Lokendra Singh (Rtd), now a CSR consultant for Jubilant, believes that the infrastructure will be built to facilitate oil extraction. Should commercially viable oil be found, it would mean great opportunities for secluded communities. “The land is theirs. If oil is found, it is the government’s responsibility to distribute profits equally. The issue is how much will they get?” Once again, unclear revenue rules and the failure of the state government and Jubilant to operate transparently are coming in the way of what Lokendra calls “the bus to development.”

Another force towards development lies in the social capita. The strong community spirit that prevails in the tribal areas is starting to be used for development of the region. Pandey, who won the UN Public Service Award for his work in Nagaland says, “Communitisation has the best of both the private and public sectors. It doesn’t open out to entrepreneurs across the world. Social capita will come into play because it serves the community’s interests. So they will do their best.”

Armstrong Pame’s project exemplifies this. Not only did he lead his project transparently, but he succeeded in proving to people their development potential. Pame’s volunteers are now interested in developing infrastructure, healthcare and education independently. He is now working with a hospital in Delhi to bring health professionals to Manipur to staff the healthcare centres he wishes to build. Empowering local communities with development projects would render them accountable for the funds passing through and effectively tackle corruption.

However, the reason Pame’s project was a success, was because the government never contributed to anything. Pame says, “As long as they don’t trouble us, it is okay. If they were to get involved, people who were helping us would not want to work with us.” Relying on a community spirit seems like a viable solution, yet the northeast’s growing enemy is its own people. Not only do external companies and governments spark conflicts amongst communities, but opportunities are so few and far apart that those who access lucrative positions of power ensure the line between them and the people remain untouched. A great divide exists between people in the plains and those in the hills. There is obstruction of communication and transport of goods in the hills. Moreover, as Pandey himself admits, “In many cases communitisation works, but if you are to build a mega power plant, the community cannot do it.” It is in India’s interest that facilitation of investments be made in the region. However, by taking shortcuts, India is putting at risk substantial investments and the very real possibility of development that has been too long forgotten.

Views mentioned in the article are the writer’s own

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