Dialogue  July-September, 2006, Volume 8  No. 1

North-East Scan

Fighting for Peace

Patricia Mukhim

Yet another national day passes off with militants banning hapless citizens from participating in the celebrations of freedom. Militant violence escalates with the approach of such D-days. And usually, civilians are at the receiving end of the bombs and bullets. The dominant ideologies of groups like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) are now forgotten chapters of history. ULFA cadres themselves have long forsaken their creed. What remains today is just a shallow theme of wanting to come out with their best foot forward. This means that the cadres want a rousing welcome with a straight entry into the political dispensation, without them having to face retribution for their heinous crimes.
        Indeed it is paradoxical that an insurgent outfit wants to talk peace yet does not let up on violence. While the world watches the escalation of hostility in the Middle East
with grave dismay, India’s North East stews in its daily dose of violence and bloodshed. This region has been a theatre of violence for so long and the state response to it so inadequate that people have learnt to expect the worse and live with a flicker of hope that the worst will not happen. That they will return home at the end of the day all in one piece.
    While we can appreciate the Middle East crisis and relate to what is happening there because it is backed by contending ideologies from both sides, it is rather difficult for us in the North East to comprehend what actually is the ULFA’s present burden. So far the only vocal demand has been to release its imprisoned cadre. The two-decade long insurgency has in due course bred its own cause-celebre in Mamoni Goswami. In her  own ingenious methods she has managed to bring the ULFA cause to the public domain and at the level of a serious dialogue with the Government of India.
    But there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding the whole ULFA ideology today. Insurgency began at a time when the state was still adopting a welfaristic approach to development. Since 1991, government policies have rapidly changed to make way for private entrepreneurship. Public sector undertakings are being privatized. Talks of employment in the government sector are now diffused even as more and more educated professionals are heading west to make a better life for themselves and for other Asomiyas.
    There is a definite shift in mindsets among the younger generation. They have little time for nursing revolutionary ideas. In any case such ideas are spawned in colleges and universities which peddle a generalist kind of education. That kind of education gives you a degree but no life skills. Those in professional colleges go through a different regimentation. They have no time for Leftist inclinations. You would never find a doctor or engineer or a management graduate in a revolutionary organisation. And the reason is simple. They all have something productive to do and the skills to earn a meaningful livelihood.
    Keeping in mind the huge paradigm shift in attitudes and expectations of the people, the least that ULFA could do as a self-proclaimed saviour of the Asomiya people is to revisit their primary objectives. Do those objectives still hold good in view of the changing demands and Assam’s strategic position vis-a-vis the Look East Policy, when it does materialize. Assam is the gateway to all seven states. Each state has its unique selling point (USP). Meghalaya has rich reserves of coal and the best quality limestone. Nagaland and Tripura have their oil reserves. Manipur is linked to Moreh the trading point with Myanmar. Arunachal Pradesh is well-endowed with swift flowing rivers with possibilities of hydro-electricity generation. Mizoram is trying to develop its floriculture to cater to a world clientele. There is a common advantage in bringing about a climate of peace where socio-economic issues can be meaningfully addressed.
    Assam is fast turning into a Mecca for information technology (IT). This is a non-polluting industry and one that can absorb the large workforce of unemployed youth. The recent visit of Infosys chief Narayanamurthy is a visible demonstration of the possibilities for a wide range of IT enabled services (ITES) such as the business process outsourcing (BPO) industry which is taking Bangalore and other metros by storm. The number of jobs created by Infosys on a daily basis is mind-boggling. It is important for the North East to ride this bandwagon while it lasts. However, there is a rider here. IT enabled services have no boundaries. They cater to a global clientele whose expectations from the service provider is phenomenal. A BPO staff is relatively well-paid, has long working hours and the work permits no interruption. A global business does not understand bandhs, hartals, violence, conflict and similar interruptions and will not make concessions for those. Do we have that kind of facilitating climate in Assam today? 
    If the ULFA become the stumbling block for employment avenues would it still represent the popular view which today has gone far beyond that of blaming the Centre for everything that is wrong with Assam? Today the concept of ‘rights’ has changed. People believe their ‘right to employment’ is supreme. They do not mind hard work as long as they are handsomely paid. Anything that interrupts their work is enemy. The young generation have no time for incoherent ideologies. They are shrewd and fully aware that there is a wide gap between the ideology and actions of ULFA. If a large section of youth are today alienated from the ULFA viewpoint is it not time for the outfit to give up the ‘fight’ and join the rest of the Asomiyas in the pursuit of real work instead of depending on extortion. What is extortion? Simply put it is stealing money from those who work hard to earn it.
Outfits like ULFA must learn to make their stand clear. Are they like the Maoists of Nepal whose struggle is for better and more representative governance? Because the Maoists have a clear ideology it is not difficult or them to give up their struggle once  the opportunities for political participation are created. What does the ULFA want today? No one has asked them to restate their objectives. Perhaps even the Peoples’ Consultative Group (PCG) are unclear about what the outfit wants. Does ULFA want peace because all its objectives have been met? Other than the release of its cadre what other commitments does ULFA want from the Central Government? Have they prepared a blueprint of those demands? Have those demands been widely circulated so they include the aspirations of all the Asomiyas? Since Assam is not a single- community state, would ULFA be open to being pluralistic and incorporate the views of non-Asomiyas?
    Insurgency is not a mindless pursuit. If it has gone on for over two decades it is possible that the struggle has itself meandered into nothingness. Looking at the ULFA today it seems to have degenerated into a killing machine which targets heavily populated areas and claims innocent victims. This is not the purpose of revolutions. And if the killings are mainly for publicity then I believe the ULFA has chosen a wrong method. The state will not sit back and watch this killing spree. The state will retaliate with more violence. How long can the cycle continue? How many more lives will ULFA claim before it decides to call it quits? Surely the civil society of
Assam have a responsibility to call for an unambiguous and unconditional ceasefire from the militant outfit. Only then can the state retreat and put the swords back into their scabbards.

Corruption: Anathema to Social Justice

It is rather ironical that the thousands of crores of rupees pumped into the North Eastern region of India in the form of development packages has not changed the status of the common man one bit. What the money has done is to create a class of noveau-riche or what is referred to as the ‘parvenu’ who have reached a position from where they can continue to cream off the fat of the land. Since the special incentives have not changed the lives of people here the Central government thought of a novel idea of creating a Department for the development of North East India (DoNER) whose mandate would be to address the developmental backlogs of the region. DoNER was subsequently upgraded to a ministry.

Ironically the person who is heading the Ministry, DoNER is also from the region. One would have expected him to be more sensitive to the special needs of the eight states and  to initiate projects that could become centres of excellence within the region. Obviously our hopes are belied. On two separate occasions, India Today did a report card on the performance of all ministers in the UPA government. The Minister for DoNER was second from the bottom of the list. The only saving grace was that another minister and a tribal – Sibu Soren- did a shade worse.

At a recent meeting in Shillong organised by North East Network for engendering the 11th five year plan, a participant from Mizoram asked a question that many from the North East would only just whisper. He innocently wondered if the DoNER Ministry was ‘raising some funds for a particular purpose by collecting money from every project that it passed for sanction’. The gentleman said the amount collected was five per cent of the project cost. But he had spoken too soon. Other participants joined the chorus and endorsed what he said but they added that the amount collected by the Ministry was not five but thirty per cent of the project cost.

Corruption in the DoNER Ministry has never been so blasé. Everyone knows and sniggers about it. It appears that members of parliament from the region had made a representation to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh about the blatant corrupt practices in the ministry but the gracious doctor decided to sweep the allegations aside and to continue to patronize the same person for whatever reason. The Prime Minister either does not have control over his ministerial colleagues or he just could not care less what happens to this troubled periphery. After all, the MPs from this region can hardly make a difference to national politics.

This culture of corruption has bred all kinds of influence peddlers, some of them claiming to be Congress party workers. These people, mostly Delhi-based have started NGOs whose flashy brochures claim to carry out a plethora of initiatives in the region. What is tragic is that they access funds meant for the development of the North East. To get funds from DoNER one must be part of the Delhi/NEC/DoNER loop and know exactly whose palms are to be greased. A straight-forward approach by any NGO is unlikely to yield any results. The game is simple. Pay a percentage of bribes and get your share of funds after the money is duly deducted at source.

What confounds the ordinary man in the North East is where the influence of the DoNER Ministry ends and where that of the North Eastern Council (NEC) begins. The only common link one can see is that the DoNER minister is also the Chairman NEC. Now that most schemes and recipients of funds are posted on the internet one gets to see at close quarters who gets what from the above two money dispensing machines. One very shocking revelation is that of the funds allocated by NEC ostensibly for an environmental project in the states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. The four-crore project has been awarded to an NGO run by a person who calls himself the principal of a newly set up college in Shillong. This NGO proposes to raise an army of people who will protect the flora and fauna of three states from being denuded.

The question is (a) does this person have the machinery to carry out the work? (b) how can a Shillong-based NGO claim to protect the flora and fauna of three states when the state and central forest departments with all their machinery have failed to achieve anything creditable? (c) what testimony and past experiences does the person have of actually working on the ground and changing things (d) why is this person treated like a VIP strutting in and out of the NEC secretariat (e) how much money has this person availed from the Meghalaya Forest Department and what has he done with that money? (f) Is he not enjoying this privileged status because he drops names of big guys like Kamal Nath and also because he claims to know Sonia Gandhi?

It is not only disgusting but also highly improper that a person who cannot even run the affairs of his college in a manner that is transparent and above board is now seeking to handle a huge chunk of NEC’s money. What ground inspection has the NEC carried out to assess the credibility of the Meghalaya Environmental Awareness Society? Can money just be disbursed on the say-so of any big shot from Delhi? If Rs 4 crores means peanuts to the NEC it could translate into a major livelihood programme for some of the poorest of the poor in the region who do not have the clout or the suave demeanour that so-called NGO directors have.

With the right to information (RTI) in place it is now time to unmask all those who have excelled in the art of smooth-talking and accessing all the funds with little to show in terms of results. It is time to put a stop to the shady businesses of those who think they can get away with anything merely because they know some VIPs and confer with them in the posh environs of Delhi. North East India has its own intelligentsia and its own human resource to carry out development initiatives according to their native genius. It has no need for jet-setting smooth talkers who makes tall claims about their achievement with nothing concrete to show. What is sad is that both NEC and DoNER only entertain such dubious characters, perhaps, because it is easy to manage the collection machinery. Those with sincerity of purpose are looked at with disdain because they probably are not in the habit of offering bribes for projects.

A participant at the meeting held at Shillong between the Planning Commission members and NGOs made this very pointed remark that if you want funding from the NEC you have to know someone and offer something or else it just will not work. In fact the NEC drew so much flak at the consultation that a lady member of the Council became highly agitated about the comments from across the table. But instead of fretting and feeling piqued, what the lady member should be doing is to convey all those remarks which tantamount to an indictment of the NEC and DoNER to the Chairman/Minister. That  might just rattle him up a wee bit although that is expecting too much from a person who has learnt to remain stoic in the midst of repeated allegations of  corruption in his ministry.

Dr Manmohan Singh could not have done the North East a greater disfavour than asking someone with a stinking track record to head one of the most important ministries for the region. Just for the record, when Mr Arun Shourie was Minister of the then Department of DoNER he took full responsibility to physically monitor all projects. He even commissioned a couple of independent studies on schemes that tended to slacken and remained incomplete long after their scheduled dates of completion. Had someone like Shourie been asked to head DoNER things might have changed for the better. Now all we can do is wring our hands in despair and helplessly watch thousands of crores of rupees flow into the pockets of an elite (both tribal and non-tribal) whose sole objective is to loot the North East before they migrate to foreign soil.

It is time for the states of North East to use the RTI in right earnest and to monitor all schemes and monies given by NEC and the Ministry DoNER in the last five years.                   

Environment versus Employment

At long last mother nature in Meghalaya can hopefully get a breather. The Supreme Court has on July 24 last, admitted a Public Interest Litigation/ (PIL) filed by the Meghalaya Adventurers Association (MAA), an NGO which has consistently engaged in mapping and conserving some of the most exotic cave systems of Meghalaya. The PIL seeks a ban on mining and cement factories that are perceived to be a threat to the largest network of cave systems in the sub-continent, some of them dating back millions of years. The bench headed by Justice YP Sabharwal asked the Centre, the State Government and the State Pollution Control Board to submit replies within four weeks. The MAA had to resort to a PIL because the State Government was unwilling to back off despite repeated appeals. On the contrary, Government appeared to encourage the industrialists by announcing a seven-year tax holiday, power and transport subsidies etc to cement and other red-category industries, in clear violation of environmental norms.

The caves in Jaintia Hills have attracted curious speleologists and cavers from across the world. It is a matter of chance that these caves lie adjacent to areas having huge reserves of coal and limestone. While indiscriminate coal mining has been carried on for over two decades, mining of limestone started fairly recently with the setting up of several cement factories within a very short span of time. The maximum number of companies came up during the chief ministership of Mr DD Lapang. His government gave rapid clearance to as many as six cement companies all of which are being set up within a short distance of each other.

The cement companies went on an aggressive selling campaign. They won over the local traditional institutions and other pressure and interest groups through means normally employed by all corporate giants. But the most attractive selling point was to promise employment to local youth. Last October, the Shillong Press Club had teamed up with another local hotelier to bring in the world famous rock band Micheal Learns to Rock. One of the cement companies became the major donor to the event and this was widely publicized by this company. A local English daily that had carried a series of stories to create public awareness on the dangers posed to the cave systems by indiscriminate limestone mining around the caves, was served with all kinds of legal notices. The cement lobby is indeed powerful and the nexus between them and the politicians and administrators of Meghalaya is deeply embedded.

Meghalaya’s peculiar land tenure system, where ownership vests with the ‘people’ (read clans, communities etc) has already had devastating effects on society and environment. Community and clan ownership was meant to safeguard the society from becoming landless and to exert social control over the use of resources. Early Khasi society understood the tenets of egalitarianism where no one had too much land or too little. Each family had enough to live and cultivate on. Those were the days of subsistence farming when people were satisfied with little and greed had not eroded the enduring values of the Khasis. 

Today things are completely different. The Khasis are witnessing a scenario where they cannot actually enforce the traditional land holding patterns, all of which are based on oral tradition. The problem with oral tradition or unwritten custom is that the interpretation lends itself to personal vagaries. It invariably benefits the wealthy and goes against the poor and powerless. It is for this reason that today we see a large number of landless farmers in West Khasi Hills. The phenomenon is fast spreading to other districts. Community ownership of land is rapidly changing into a system of private ownership because the unwritten codes were not visionary enough to afford protection to the less privileged.

Private ownership of land entails ownership of all resources above and below the surface. In other words it means that a person can own the forests, shrubs, water sources, water catchment, and, above all, the mineral resources under the earth. Meghalaya is the only state so far where mining of coal is done privately by mine owners who resort to the cheapest and most risky method known as the ‘rat-hole mining’. Miners burrow about 100 yards into the ground, not vertically but horizontally. They then cart the coal overground. There is a lot of wastage as the coal often occurs up to several hundred yards below the surface, if it were to have been extracted scientifically. Unscientific mining therefore results in a lot of wastage.

Mining activities across the country are regulated by the Indian Bureau of Mines. In Meghalaya there is no regulatory authority. As a result large areas of abandoned mines  have now turned into wastelands. The abandoned mines are empty inside so they are potential environmental hazards as they could cave in and cause a holocaust. Meghalaya falls in the high seismic zone and if an earthquake of some intensity were to strike around the mining areas the devastation could be mind-boggling. Yet this senseless mining has carried on unabated for two decades and there does not seem to be any respite from it.

Water sources around the coal mining areas are heavily polluted with sulphur residue from coal. Most water sources that have been tested show high levels of iron content. There is a stark picture of little oasis of opulence bordered by deserts of poverty. It is a common sight to behold a monstrous concrete structure with all the modern amenities standing adjacent to little hutments. The concrete monsters are testimony to the death of an egalitarian society. The wealthy obviously are coal mine owners. They get their water supplies by boring for underground water so they are well looked after.

On the other hand, the surrounding neighbours have to traverse several kilometers to get their quota of drinking water. The per capita requirement of water according to norms prescribed by World Health Organisation (WHO) is 240 litres per person per day. These impoverished villagers are not able to carry more than 40 litres of water per day for an average family size of five members. Much of this water is used for cooking and drinking. For washing, people are not too particular about the kind of water they use.  Usually the women fetch water so they take two rounds carrying 20 litres each time. During winter the scarcity is acute. Women have to get up at midnight and queue for water. They return only at dawn. Most of these villages around coal mining areas are not yet covered by government water supply schemes.

The PIL is therefore timely as it will halt the treacherous environmental degradation fuelled by the greed of a few. It is also the answer to the cries of many who suffer the effects of pollution but are too poor and ignorant to do anything. The promise of employment has blinded some people to the long term effects of unsystematic mining. What is the use of employment if all it brings are serious health hazards and terminal diseases.Unfortunately we have now reached a point where the intervention of the judiciary alone can bring in some salutary effect. Elected representatives have proved beyond a doubt that they are not interested in any long term goals for environmental conservation. They are ready to sell off this earth and all its resources for a pocketful of lucre.

Climatic changes in Meghalaya over the past few years is evidence enough that we are losing out. Deforestation carries on unchecked despite the overt presence of the State Forest Department. Catchment areas are depleted and water sources are being privatized and commercialized. Is this the great value of a system where land belongs to the so-called ‘people’. The very definition of ‘people’ and ‘community’ here has come to mean a small clique of rich landowners. It excludes the large majority of landless, powerless Khasis.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati