Dialogue  October-December, 2010, Volume 12 No. 2


North-East Scan


The fear of big dams

 Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah


All the major issues that stare the people of Assam in the face—like rampant corruption, large-scale illegal immigration from Bangladesh, an electoral roll packed with the names of illegal non-Indian voters, terrorism masquerading as ‘insurgency’, extremely poor health-care services and education et al—have got eclipsed by one major obsession of the present. This is the fear that the Union government will carry on with its plan to construct huge dams across the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh. And thereby hangs a long tale.

Way back in 1981, the Brahmaputra Board was constituted to examine the hydro-electric and other potential of the mighty Brahmaputra which is the largest river in the country besides being a ‘male’ river. The two reports of the Brahmaputra Board established the fact that the Brahmaputra and its tributaries had the potential to generate at least 28,000 MW of power—at that time, about a third of the total power being generated in the country. However, for years after that the Centre seemed to have withdrawn into a shell on the issue of investing on power projects on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra. In any case, there was great opposition to major dams on the Dihang and Subansiri projects at that time because the dam for the Subansiri project would have been 257 metres high and the artificial lake formed thereby would have covered an area of about 500 sq. km. A population of about 10,000 would have been affected by submersion. No public commitments were made on the power projects for many years, but work on them must have gone on quietly considering that the Union Government now has about 132 hydro-electricity projects lined up for the tributaries of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh of which about a dozen are major ones. Work has already begun on some of them. On the Lower Subansiri project, where a mega dam is coming up, as much as Rs 4,000 crore is said to have been spent so far. And many people are naturally worried about the idea of having large dams in an earthquake-prone area. They have reasons to be greatly worried not merely because a crack has already developed in the Lower Subansiri project dam that has been constructed so far, but also because of what the rampant corruption in the State could do to the quality of the work. The grapevine has it that some of the ministers of Arunachal Pradesh have increased their wealth by 500 per cent or more in a matter of a few years. What is certainly surprising is that politicians who had opposed the idea of mega dams in the State in the 1980s and 1990s tooth and nail now refuse to brook any opposition to the mega dams and the projects.

The people of Assam are greatly concerned about the decision to construct huge dams in an earthquake-prone region like the Northeast because the disaster of a large dam breaking would be far greater for Assam than it would be for Arunachal Pradesh with a very sparse density of population. Should there be any damage to the proposed mega dam at Lower Subansiri, for instance, the devastation to Assam would be far greater than what Arunachal Pradesh would have to suffer. Public opinion in Assam has reacted against the construction of large dams after some experts in the United States said that there should be serious rethinking on huge dams because of the dangers they posed to human and animal lives in the event of breaches in the dams. Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, whose ministry had cleared the proposals for all the dams in Arunachal Pradesh, later responded to both public opinion in Assam and the opinion of American experts on mega dams in general and ordered a halt to the work of construction of all the large dams in Arunachal Pradesh including the Lower Subansiri dam on which about Rs 4,000 crore had already been spent. The Power Ministry and the politicians of Arunachal Pradesh were naturally cut up about the cessation of work on the projects and are hell-bent on finding ways of getting around Jairam Ramesh’s embargo.

The mega dam issue has created problems for Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. On the one hand, there is vociferous opposition to the large dams being constructed in Arunachal Pradesh from the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the AASU and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) led by its articulate Secretary Akhil Gogoi. On the other, the Union Government is keen that nothing should come in the way of the progress of the projects taken up for power generation in Arunachal Pradesh. So Tarun Gogoi set up an expert committee mainly of academics and urged the people to go by the opinion of the committee. Regrettably, the committee did not have a single member who had experience of actually building a huge dam in an earthquake-prone area. The Chief Minister somehow failed to appreciate that it was not enough to have geologists and people from allied disciplines who merely taught the subject. He had to have people on the committee with actual field experience. In any case, the expert committee too expressed a unanimous view opposing the construction of mega dams in a geo-tectonic region. Thereafter the ruling party got the winter session of the Assembly extended by a day to allow another fruitless debate on the subject  (one had already taken place) where a minister who was himself no expert on the subject took umbrage on a former professor of English for having an opinion on the issue. All these exercises have merely taken the State government back to Square One without any real solution in sight. The KMSS has threatened a State-wide agitation to oppose the construction of mega dams in Arunachal Pradesh since the effects of any disaster can be far worse for Assam than it is likely to be for Arunachal Pradesh itself. What the fallout of big dams being constructed in Arunachal Pradesh could be for the Assam Assembly elections to be held in a few months from now remains to be seen. But the number of Bangladeshi voters on the electoral roll has reached such a saturation point that Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi does not really have to worry. What is astonishing is that the Election Commission has failed to see this.


Women and livelihood issues in India’s North-East: with special reference to Meghalaya

Patricia Mukhim

Throughout the world women manage subsistence – family or household needs on a daily basis. The same is the case with the North East where farming is still largely a feminine activity; from sowing seeds to transplantation of rice and other crops. Where mechanical harvesting is not possible men and women harvest crops but de-husking of rice etc is also done by women.  Also the task of processing turmeric and packaging them is a task that women do well in this part of the world.   

This huge contribution made by women to the farming process has not been given due recognition. Large sections of women farmers have no access to training or to seeds. Often the seeds are distributed by the Agriculture Department only after the sowing season is over. Despite the fact that women have been the most diligent stewards of and managers of local resources which are sources of food security for future generations, they have not been made stakeholders in critical decision-making about farming methods, seeds and seed banks. Women have been performing the onerous task of nurturing, conserving and maintaining the equilibrium in nature without demanding anything in return. What they want is enough farm land to continue with multi-cropping activities to ensure that there is food for the family.

Very few women have actually graduated to large scale farming to produce crops and vegetables for the market. Women in this part of the country depend a lot on non-timber forest products like mushrooms, edible herbs, medicinal plants etc. It is to their advantage if forests continue to remain lush green and productive. But this is where we have a strong clash of interests between members of the tribe who see forests only in terms of standing trees to be commodified into timber. Such exploitative individuals do not understand the term biodiversity and the interdependence of all life forms.

Even if women collect fuel for domestic use they do so judiciously. We will find them pollarding the branches but never felling a whole tree. Women are also well aware of the fact that forests protect our water sources and are our watersheds. In the coal mining areas of Jaintia Hills, West Khasi Hills and Garo Hills in Meghalaya where forests have been degraded through the rat hole mining, drinking water sources have dwindled. Women now have to travel over two kilometers for a pot or bucket of water. This is a study I conducted in the coal mining areas. This chore takes away much of their productive time. But that is not all. At least two major rivers in Jaintia Hills, the Lukha and the Waikhyrwi are today poisoned on account of sulphuric acid flowing out of the coal mines. These rivers used to support farming activities. Now they are lifeless and those who depended on the river for farming have had to take up new occupations. Food security becomes a major issue here. 

When government authorities fail to provide potable water supply, sanitation and  garbage collection systems women suffer most on account of such lacunae. Women are therefore the direct victims of environmental degradation, pollution etc.

As stated earlier, the year round collection of minor forest produce and herbs have traditionally provided extra income, valuable nutrition and medical support to women and their families. As women operate in a labour intensive and non-monetized economy, they have become victims of profiteers, middlemen and also the men in their families. Ruthless exploitation of forests means loss of both income and nutrition

Whenever farming gets mechanised women get marginalized and this is because science and technology tends to exclude women instead of involving them in planning for more women friendly farming appliances and kitchen implements as well as time and energy saving gadgets. Environment education should be expanded to the rural areas and women have to be mobilised as environment protection forces.

The greatest irony is that tribal lands in the North East which could be carbon sinks serving a large population in the rest of the country are now exploited for coal and limestone mining. Now the Union Government is also looking at mining uranium which we know as laypersons has radioactive consequences on land, pollutes water sources and could be very harmful for human beings and other life forms. This constant warfare between avaricious merchants, the state and native populations is taking a toll on livelihoods because productive land is dwindling. 

The fact that there are so few or no women in decision making bodies in the government and other PSUs such as power generating ones which intend to create thousands of dams in these virgin hills, makes it difficult to push forward a women-friendly agenda. There is absolute lack of a gendered discourse in these institutions? Power industries speak only about power generation without considering the consequences and the destruction of other natural resources.

This is why it is imperative to strengthen and establish mechanisms at all levels to assess the impact of development and environmental policies on women. There is as we know a complex correlation between poverty and environment. High levels of poverty are generally accompanied by high levels of environmental degradation. People living in poverty often have no alternative but to exploit their natural environment in a destructive way, e.g. to obtain fuel wood and farm land.

The irony today is also that this is a region where the fertility rate is very high on account of early marriages or teenage pregnancy. Two years ago an elected representative of Meghalaya rewarded a woman who had 16 children and encouraged more women to follow in her footsteps. This indicates that reproductive right is a word that has not gained currency in Meghalaya. This state also has the highest fertility rate owing to teenage marriages. But the maternal mortality ratio is as high as 53 per 1000 live births and infant mortality rate is nearly 61 out of 1000 live births (NFHS -3). These factors also impinge greatly on women especially since access to health care is dismal. In a study conducted by the Martin Luther University Shillong nearly 70 % of people in villages depend on traditional health care. Incidentally quite a good number of indigenous health care providers and dispensers of traditional medicine are women. 

Women therefore play a very significant role in maintaining the equilibrium of nature because that is what serves them in the long run. A large number of women are health providers and masseurs. They can identify medicinal plants and herbs. But these traditional knowledge systems are not documented nor are women given the space and resources to share this knowledge and get it documented for future use. Here is a rich source of knowledge and it is intellectual property that needs to be conserved for posterity. 

Climate uncertainties have troubled the farming communities here as much as those elsewhere. But women have not complained. They have merely moved on from one crop to the next. For instance, in recent times the unseasonal rains have reduced productivity of some vegetables and improved that of others, including fruits. Women have adapted by growing high yielding varieties of vegetables and crops. They have also diversified to fruits such as strawberries and kiwi which have a ready market outside the state. Others have also gone in for floriculture.

Another important aspect is that women are also the repository of indigenous species of rice and other seeds which are more resilient than the high-yielding variety. In this uncertain climatic scenario the indigenous species of seeds will become very important  for our food security because they are more hardy; can tolerate climate vagaries and temperature fluctuations. But this is an area that has not been adequately focused by policy planners. There is no effort to institutionalize the conservation of indigenous seeds as yet and to create sustainable seed banks as yet. This shows us how slow the process is for women to get recognition for the services they render to sustain life on this earth. However, seed conservation also means that seeds have to be planted and harvested year after year. If the indigenous variety of rice is not viable to grow the Government might like to push in special subsidies to women farmers who grow these indigenous rice species. 

Many NGOs are reaching out to facilitate such processes by networking with women’s organisations in a national and global scale. Gene Campaign is exploring possibilities of tying up with a local university in Meghalaya to set up such a seed bank. This networking is important for women’s voices to be heard in the right quarters and for a reversal of the destructive processes that have begun to set in with enormous speed and force.


Passions of Manipur

Pradip Phanjoubam

 Will there be songs in dark times? Yes, of dark times.

These lines from one of the greatest playwright and theatre personality of the 20th Century, Bertolt Brecht, echo loud in Manipur today, and perhaps has always done so during all the trials and tribulations this beleaguered land went through in its long history. The optimism in these lines are truly remarkable, and quite arguably, Manipur’s resilience comes from this song deep within its very being. Even in its darkest moments its eternal soul music has never been abandoned.

What otherwise would explain the manner in which Manipur continues to captivate the world with its creative energy despite all the chaos and mayhem, drugs and diseases, official corruption and nose-diving economy, that the state has come to be known for. The recent showing by athletes and performing artistes from the state at the New Delhi Commonwealth Games, CWG, is just the latest demonstration that Manipur’s creative energy remains undiminished even in its darkest days.

And indeed, these are very dark times for Manipur. Insurgency question remains unresolved; friction between communities is at a peak; the hill-valley divide as well as development gaps arguably has widened further or at least has not narrowed down with the two geographical regions continuing to be governed by compulsions of circumstance under virtually two different laws after so many years under the modern system... and the list can go on.

It is in spite of all this that Manipur surprises with sterling performances in so many fields. Manipur’s population of 2.4 million is just 0.2 percent of the nation’s 1.2 billion, but its athletes won 7 medals out of the country’s total of 101, which roughly accounts for 7 percent. It gold medal tally is 3 and could have easily been 4 had Sonia Chanu performed as per her potential on the final day. But even 3 gold medals against the country’s total of 38 makes for 8 percent. The medal winners were, Mayengbam Suranjoy (gold in boxing), Laishram Bombayla Devi (gold in archery), Y. Renubala Chanu (gold in weightlifting), Ng. Sonia Chanu (silver in weightlifting), A Sandyarani Devi (silver in weightlifting) Ch Monika Chanu (bronze in weightlifting), and Bheigyabati Devi (bronze in weightlifting).

If sporting performance can justifiably be directly considered proportional to population, in winning 7 medals out of 101, Manipur can be said to have punched far above its weight and returned with laurels. By this logic, its medal tally is also as much as 35 times of the laurels it should have won by population ratio.         

While it could be argued that for many young men and women in Manipur, in the face of the stagnant economy, dismal employment scenario, shrinking income avenues, sport becomes a desperate hope for them to break free of these shackles. They therefore put in a lot more focus in their efforts to achieve sporting excellence. There is a great deal of truth in this. In the consistent absence of political and bureaucratic commitment to lift the economy, a greater section of Manipur’s 2.4 million indeed suffer from a claustrophobic sense of a siege from within. Sports thus become a trapdoor for the youth to escape this depressing siege, win respectable jobs and not the least wallow in goodwill.                                                                                                     But it is not just in sports that the state is capturing eyeballs. At the opening ceremony of the CWG itself this was evident in the strong presence and variety of talents the state is capable of showcasing. As for instance M.C. Mary Kom, five times world woman boxing champion in the 48kg class was the first to bring Manipur to national centre stage, as she was given the honoured place to be one of the Game’s final torch bearers to complete the length of the fabulous Games opening ceremony venue.

Then there were the pung drummers, which opened the opening ceremony stage shows, followed in turn by Ras Lila dancers, and the bamboo dance, which is also Manipur’s as much as it is of Mizoram. One of the most prominent motifs of the decor at the entrance to the Games Village were also larger versions the colourful Manipuri dolls which replicate Ras Lila dancers. Foreign athletes posing for photographs before these dolls have adorned the front pages of numerous newspapers all over the country, as well as featured on satellite news channels.

Manipur’s presence is also coming to be felt much more, and visibly too, these days in so many other fields. On Sony Entertainment satellite channel for instance, acrobats from the state have acquired quite a reputation for themselves, prompting star TV anchors to compare them and their stunts to the best in the world. Similarly Manipur’s theatre has an awesome reputation, and given the right public and government patronage, Manipuri cinema can be predicted to come of age soon to carve out a niche for itself just as its theatre has. The profusion of talents in this creative medium, still relatively very new to the state, which came to light during the recent 7th Manipur Film Festival bears testimony.

This is a land of extremes. If there is anything which cannot be with justice said of the place, it is to describe it is lack lustre. The whole place is simply brimming with kinetic energy. This energy can and has erupted in unspeakable violence, but when harnessed and channelized in constructive directions, it has also resulted in immense creativity. Quite relevantly, although nobody has done a formal study, it is often said, and not without reason, that the number of playfields which have disappeared in the process of rapid urbanisation of the hinterlands of the capital Imphal and other townships in the state have actually seen a reciprocal rise in youth violence.

If this is what it is on one hand, the other side of Manipur is not pleasant or encouraging. While a corrupt system of politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus has ensured the emergence of many overnight millionaires, unemployment and poverty is on an alarming rise. If not for traditional social support systems and institutions, even in the capital Imphal, poverty and its ravages would have become extremely visible. Even the poorest still have a home to go back to; a joint family tradition softens the impact of poverty and ensures that even the unemployed are not starving or are out on the streets etc.

But the times are changing. The divide between the rich and poor is coming to increasingly disproportionate and beyond justification. Even as poverty grows amongst the larger section of the population, an unholy cabal continues to amass wealth, destroying the natural ascendency of the meritorious on the social scale so as to ensure their and their progenies’ monopoly over power is perpetuated. But with every act of corruption that destroys the sense of justice; with every child left helpless because of systemic deprivation; with every young man left frustrated because his prospects of a dignified life have been stolen by somebody else who bribed his way. Pablo Neruda’s prophesy in “I’m Explaining a Few Things”, is being played out: “.... and from every dead child a rifle with eyes, / and from every crime bullets are born / which will one day find / the bull’s eye of your hearts.”

Manipur is almost a live demonstration of the Freudian conception of violence and creativity being the two sides of the same coin. From this viewpoint, both are the different manifestations (or avatars if you like), of the same energy within. In literature nobody has said this more convincingly than by 1983 Literature Nobel Prize winner, William Golding in his best known novel “Lord of the Flies” in which school boys marooned in a deserted island after a plane crash and thus left to fend for themselves in the wild, demonstrate what social formation, violence, creativity, leadership are all about. Golding also most articulately dramatizes the dark violence inherent in everybody, and how it is civilised norms which harnesses and sublimates this violence within, and gives it acceptable and constructive forms. When this veneer of civilisation was stripped, the school boys were slowly but surely reabsorbed back into the primitive, dark, violent, atavistic past.

It is evident Manipur has an abundance of this energy. This is both a matter of hope as much as it is of danger. It can manifest as self consuming violence of the variety Pebam Chittaranjan so horrifically became an example by self-immolating in public, protesting the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, in 2004; or the physically non-violent, decade long, hunger strike odyssey of Irom Sharmila, protesting against the continuance of the same Act; or the naked protest by women outside the Kangla in 2004; or the raging violent insurrections which have left thousands of lives lost in the past half a century etc. In all of which are also evident the same energy. Let it however not be forgotten that this energy can also transform Manipur and take it to a different plane. A bit of what this energy is capable of was there for everybody to see at the New Delhi CWG. 


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati