Dialogue July-September 2007, Volume 9 No. 1
Celebrated author and former BBC correspondent, Mark Tully was in Shillong for a day’s visit. He and wife Gilly were aghast to see trucks loaded much beyond their capacities cutting right through the heart of Shillong city. To a visitor that sight might be revolting but not to the natives who are used to breathing smoke and fumes emitted by these trucks as they grunt and groan to negotiate hairpin bends and climb the steep slopes.
‘How could people allow such blatant invasion of their rights? This is the first and only place in India where I have seen such a thing happening’, exclaimed the troubled Indophile. Tully had probably decided to make a quick visit to this once renowned Scotland of the East, to escape the heat and dust of Delhi. He was hardly prepared to see a hill station that had lost its claim and whose denizens no longer bothered to keep their beloved city in ship-shape.
Mark Tully also visited Cherrapunjee and stopped in the vicinity of the Mawmluh Cherra Cement Plant. What he saw agitated him even more. The entire area surrounding the cement plant is almost barren. Every existing leaf or blade of grass is coated with cement dust. Pollution control mechanisms are archaic and possibly not functioning People working at the plant are ingesting cement dust and many might be suffering from silicosis. But in the absence of any health research in this specific area we continue to live in perfect bliss.
For Meghalaya cement production has become an end in itself. In the last four years as many as a dozen firms have applied for permission to set up plants and have started operations in Jaintia Hills. Almost all of these firms have their corporate offices outside the region. The one and only reason they come to set up businesses in the North Eastern region is to avail of the benefits accruing from the North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy (NEIIPP) 2007 and its earlier avatar the NEIP 1997. This policy is based on a simplistic rationale that industrial growth in the region must necessarily be laced with incentives galore or it will not take off. The policy is completely silent on the environmental impacts of industrialization in a region that is known for its bio-diversity and ecological fragility.
When this aspect was pointed out to Union Minister for DoNER, Mani Shankar Aiyar, he made a counterpoint that Dehra Dun too was a mining zone for several years but that it now has an enviable green cover. What Aiyar did not say was that in Dehra Dun there were neither coal nor limestone mines. People were only quarrying and digging out stones and sand. Also, Dehra Dun has a ‘green army’ comprising soldiers whose one point agenda is to green the valley. Meghalaya has no such environmental missionaries. It only has mining mercenaries who go about their ‘exploitation’ mission with a zeal that is rarely seen.
The use of the word ‘exploitation’ in defining the activity of digging out coal, limestone and other minerals is fraught with ambiguities. Do you exploit or do you judiciously mine a resource and responsibly restore the environment to its former position. The mineral rich areas of Meghalaya are already over-exploited. So have the coal mining areas in Assam. Sadly, there are as yet no action plans to reclaim empty mines and to restore the green cover. This is not an impossible task. There are countries which have done this exceedingly well, Sweden being one of them. But there has to be a blueprint for such measures. All discussions revolving around ‘development of the North East’, are silent on the environment, except as a footnote to make it a selling point for tourism. The silence is almost conspiratorial, as if the very mention of the word ‘environment’ would put a spoke on the hundreds of industrial projects in the pipeline.
While one is no proponent of an alarmist attitude which scrutinizes every development project through the prism of suspicion, there are genuine fears that need to be brought upfront. The North East has not defined its paradigm for development. Elected representatives have not cared to look at the big picture. They do not have the time, the commitment nor the consciousness to chart out that course of development based on our native strengths. We have not even set the agenda for prospective investors. They have come on their terms by bribing their way through. Today in Meghlaya it is the cement lobby which virtually runs and controls the government. So what democracy are we talking about? Our futures are collectively mortgaged to these business houses. We have lost the right to demand a clean environment and green lung space.
In India there is a dichotomy between democracy and development. While in western democracies people are intelligently engaged in defining their own development, it is absurd to expect anything like that in India. Here people are so disempowered they cannot be expected to play the role of arbiters. So the definition is left to those in politics and the bureaucracy. Both these actors are least bothered about the long term impacts of their action plans. Bureaucrats particularly have short term interests because those in the higher echelons do not live here and are not affected by the environmental devastation. However, despite the involvement of people in defining their own development, in countries like the USA, there are quite a few projects that are quietly smuggled through without much debate.
In India, today, and the North east in particular, many more projects are passed without public debate. Any suggestion that projects be publicly scrutinized are seen as unnecessary interference and those who offer such suggestions are considered busybodies with an inflated sense of importance. Here the dictum is – politicians know best what is good for the people, and, bureaucrats should jolly well implement what their bosses order them to do. Bureaucrats forget they are not paid by politicians but by public money collected from the taxes of ordinary citizens. Also they forget they are ‘civil servants’ or servants of the people.
As a parting shot, Mark Tully said, "The more I see India from close quarters the more I feel it is pursuing the wrong path of development. There is an urgent need to redefine development which carries peoples’ views on board and does minimal damage to the living environment.
Coming back to Meghalaya, what is rather intriguing is that while cement projects are cleared with relative ease, other more important schemes such as the Shillong bypass, the Umroi and Baljek airports which aim at providing better connectivity are left unattended and have been orphaned for over twenty years. The absence of a by-pass is what allows trucks to cut right through the city. Trucks have claimed several lives as they hurtle speedily through the narrow and crowded roads. Yet not a single citizen has protested this gross indecency of allowing these dangerous machines to traverse the city and jeopardize human lives.
In a democracy if people do not assert their rights they stand to lose those rights by degrees. This is a lesson that India’s North East has to learn and learn fast.
The Insurgency in north Cachar Hills - Dima Halem Daoga
The insurgency in the North Cachar Hills district is a classic example of an insurgency caused by corruption where the ordinary people of the district have been done in by the elected leaders of the District Council administration, diverting a major share of development funds sent to the district ever since the inception of the District Council in the 1950’s. I was posted for a short period in Haflong in 1984 in a Central Government institution and had the opportunity to travel extensively in the interiors of the district in the course of my work both by vehicle on the few roads in the district and on foot in the interiors. Seeing the desperately poor people of the district in the interior villages, the lack of roads in the interiors of the district, the lack of any kind of development of horticulture, piggery, poultry, and other related activities that would make the villagers self sufficient, and also coming to know that all development funds were being appropriated by a few families of the District Council leaders, I had wondered why the people had not yet taken to the gun. I had then predicted to my colleagues in Haflong and Gauhati that the poor Dimasa Cacharis would one day, sooner than later, take to the gun to redress their grievances. That was way back in 1984. My prophecy came true in the last decade of the century when the Dima Halem Daoga was formed with the instigation of the NSCN IM.
There is a background to the rising of this Dimasa Cachari insurgent group. After the Mizo accord was signed by the Mizo National Front (MNF), they were elected to power in Mizoram after the Congress Government stepped down. The MNF represented all the sub tribes of the Mizos in the Mizo Hills district. These included the Hmars, the Poi-Lakhers, some Chin migrants from Burma, and a scattering of a few tribes like the Buams from the Chittagong Hill Tracts. After a few years of governing, the Hmars who live in the eastern part of the Mizo Hills and in Churachandpur district of Manipur felt that the Mizos were concentrating all development activities in the western portion of the Mizo Hills inhabited by the main Mizo tribes. They represented to the MNF leaders that the Hmar people should be given a district Council and development funds sanctioned to them directly. The MNF government did not agree to this. The Hmars thereupon raised a group called the Hmar Peoples Convention (HPC) and arming themselves with the weapons that they had obtained from East Pakistan and Bangladesh, when in the MNF and had not surrendered after signing the peace accord, started operating against the MNF government. Finding the MNF government forces too strong for them, the Hmars approached their ancient enemies the Nagas in the NSCN IM to help them. The NSCN IM cadres regularly used the Hmar areas in Churachandpur district when exfiltrating into Bangladesh for collecting arms from Cox’s Bazaar being arranged for them by the Pakistan ISI and the Bangladesh DGFI. The Hmars also had several villages in the Cachar district and in the North Cachar Hills. The NSCN IM seized this opportunity and helped the HPC by giving them arms and training their cadres in the jungles of the North Cachar Hills adjoining Paren district of Nagaland. This gave them a foothold in the North Cachar Hills which helped in their claiming this district as part of their extended Nagaland. Also and of more immediate significance, they muscled in on the extortion of the HPC both in Cachar and in the NC Hills. The NSCN IM was careful not to operate in Mizoram with the HPC. The NSCN IM and HPC combined cadres began kidnapping tea garden managers in Cachar for ransom and extorting money from all traders in the NC hills. In Mizoram, the MNF government managed to start a negotiation with the HPC. After some ups and downs a peace agreement was signed. The HPC also split into two groups because of leadership squabbles. Seeing the vacuum in the NC Hills the NSCN IM began working on the Dimasas and persuaded them to start an insurgent group. They supplied the arms and trained the cadres of the Dimasa insurgent group formed called the Dima Halem Daoga. But for the instigation and patronage of the NSCN IM the Dimasas probably could never have formed an insurgent group, though conditions of extreme underdevelopment in the district existed with virtually 90% of development funds being diverted by the infamous trio, in this case, the leaders and bureaucrats of the District Council and the businessmen who operated in the district.
The terrain of the NC Hills is ideally suited for low intensity warfare. Starting from the Lumding plains, the North Cachar hills rise southwards in a series of ranges culminating in the Barail range and then descends in a series of steep ridges to the Barak valley. The hills are clothed in tropical jungles in its entirety, except for the heights to the east bordering the Naga Hills, where because of the height the trees peter out. Two rivers originate at the highest point on the ridge dividing the Naga Hills district from the NC hills district. These are the Dhansiri which flows from the watershed north to ultimately join the Brahmaputra and the Jiri which flows south and joins the Barak at Jirighat. Across the Dhansiri is Paren district of Nagaland and across the Jiri is the beautiful Tamenglong disitrict of Manipur. To the west the NC hills merge into the Jaintia hills. In the south the NC hills gradually descends into the Barak valley. At the point where the NC hills merge into the Jaintia hills in the southern side there is a thick forest which extends right upto the Bangladesh border. During the days of the Naga Underground, the Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN) Army cadres used to cross over from Paren into the NC hills traverse the Barail range and slip across into the Jaintia hills and then into Bangladesh. There were occasions when the FGN cadres even crossed from East Pakistan into Cachar district across the shallow Surma River and traveling through the paddy fields entered the forests of the Barail range.
Across the dense forests of the NC Hills there exists only a few arterial roads. One highway starts from Lumding and climbs gradually traversing Langting, Mahur, and Jatinga to Haflong the district capital. From Jatinga the road branches south and descends steeply to Harangajao and then to the Cachar plains. From Haflong there is another highway which traverses dense forests and finally descends a little to the north of Lumding at Lanka. On this road a short distance from Haflong a branch curves to the west and traverses the forest to reach Umranghsu in the Jaintia Hills. Besides these main roads, the district has very few dirt roads that lead to the villages in the interior. A few dirt roads lead to some central points where weekly haats are held. I have attended many of these haats and talked to the villagers who trudge distances of upto 20 to 25 kilometres up and down the hill tracks to reach the haat. After selling their meager produce, they buy dried fish, mustard oil, kerosene oil and other small necessities and trudge back the 20 odd kilometres to their respective villages.
The insurgents of the DHD never operated on their own. They always operated along with the NSCN IM cadres. The Dimasas who joined the DHD were taken across to Bangladesh by the NSCN IM and given a camp in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) like the other small groups of the Khasi Hills and Garo Hills were given by the NSCN IM. There they were trained in weapons making of IED’s and laying ambushes on the hill roads for security forces. Meanwhile the group started extortion from the District Council politicians, and their compliant bureaucrats and the contractors. Several ambushes of security forces took place. After some years of sparring in the jungle, the Government managed to get across to the leaders of the group and they came for talks. A peace agreement was signed in January 2003 and four camps were constituted for the cadres, where they could stay with their weapons. Here, the government made three mistakes. One of the camps was located in the neighbouring Karbi Anglong district. Secondly the cadres should not have been allowed to move from their camps with their weapons. Thirdly with the signing of the cease fire, the government should have started implementing a plan to remove the causes of the insurgency. The government should have made a plan to divide the district into blocks, and taken up a crash construction of village roads so that within a year all the villages could have a jeepable road to the nearest bazaars. Also every village should have been given a water supply. Then several schemes of horticulture, poultry, piggery, cultivation of ginger, orchids etc should have been taken up, instead of reverting to the same system of the District council carrying out the development schemes on paper. Since there was an agreement for a ceasefire with an insurgent group that had taken to the gun because development funds were being siphoned off, the Government should have effected a striking change and ensured that the development funds were being utilised and all diversions stopped completely. This would have convinced the cadres in the camp that the government had turned a new leaf. Further as a result of the development schemes, the villages turned self sufficient; there would be no reason for the village boys to take to the gun. Unfortunately the government slept for three years while the cadres in the camps twiddled their thumbs. Actually as the development work started the cadres in the camps should have been gainfully employed in the work and used as monitors along with concurrent audit parties to see that the funds were being correctly grounded. Unfortunately it was found that cadres often left their camps and extorted money from their former targets.
Unfortunately in March 2003 itself, the leader of the DHD Jewel Garlosa left the DHD and formed a splinter group called the Black Widow group. Obviously this was done 0n the instigation of the NSCN IM. This group with a cadre strength of about 300 with a hundred AK rifles and some RPG-7 Rocket Launchers played havoc with the security forces in the district.
The phenomenal negligence of the government both at the state and the centre finally led to a dastardly incident on 4 June 2007 in the district which clearly proved the cause of the insurgency and the complicity of the District Council politicians. On 4 June 2007, Purnendu Lanthasa and his colleague Nindu Langthasa both Congress politicians in the District Council of NC Hills went to the remote village of Langlai Hasnu 65 kilometre from Haflong the district capital Their mission was to meet the Black Widow group to scale down the extortion demand served on the party. The demand was for Rs. 150 million. Purnendu and Nindu had carried with them Rs.10 million. There was an altercation and Purnendu, the Chief Executive member of the autonomous District Council and Nindu, a former executive Committee member were taken behind the house and shot dead. In a related incident Ajit Boro Vice Chairman of the ADC was abducted and shot dead near Kalajan in the district. Phraiprang Dimasa, publicity secretary of the BW group denied the involvement of the BW group in the killing of Ajit Boro and added that the group had asked for reservation of three of the five newly created constituencies for the BW group and this was not given.1
The government has rushed troops to the NC hills after the killing of two of their corrupt councilors. This is the typical reaction of the government. The troops sent there are of no use to any one. It is a fruitless exercise. Actually this incident has clarified the situation and the problem in the NC Hills. It is as if the two councilors were caught with their hands in the sugar pot. They had gone with Rs. Ten million to buy peace from the BW group of the DHD. From where did they get this money? Obviously they wanted to bribe the BW group and buy their silence to continue the loot of the development funds of this poorest of districts. What poverty of intellect and what astonishing disregard for the people of this poor district!
What are the answers for solving the insurgency of this district? The solution is there with remarkable clarity. But does any one want to see this in this country? Certainly not in the establishment of the government in Delhi. The professionals know it and can sort out the problem. But there is no likelihood that the professionals will be allowed to ever enter the fray.
1 North Cachar Hills. Sisyphean struggle. Bibhu Prasad Routray. South Asia Intelligence Review Vol-5 No. 50 25 June 2007.
|Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)|