Showing posts with label Articles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Articles. Show all posts
02 March 2015

Curse Of The Black Gold: How Meghalaya Depends On Coal

By Furquan Ameen Siddiqui, Kupli

The scale of water pollution is evident from the corrosion scene on the bed, banks and the surroundings of the river Kupli which flows into ...

Ibina Sohbar took over the coal business in 2006 after her husband's death. She owns a patch of land used as a coal depot in the market place of the Shallang area of Meghalaya's West Khasi Hills. She rents the patch out to other mine owners who use it as a dump for their extracted coal. Ibina also owns a few mine quarries. The money she has made from this micro coal empire has helped her support her family of 20. No wonder then that she is apprehensive of the consequences of the ban on coal mining in the state.

While Ibina talks to us, at times comically, it is apparent she doesn't trust us. She repeatedly asks us if we are 'NGT', officials from the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

On April 17, 2014, the NGT passed an interim order stopping mining and transportation of coal in the state. Almost a month later, on May 9, the mining ban was formally implemented by the state government. Nearly everyone in the coal belt curses the NGT. "If the ban isn't lifted we won't have anything to eat. Everything here comes from coal," Ibina says. 

Promise of black gold"It was as if a bomb blast had occurred and they shut the entire thing," remembers S Suchiang, village headman of Shangpung village in the West Jaintia Hills district. "They should have given us some time to look for an alternative means of livelihood. Even the transportation of the coal wasn't executed properly when they allowed us to transport the extracted coal."

Shangpung is a small village in the heavily-mined coal belt of the West Jaintia Hills. Almost everyone here owns a concrete house, beautifully constructed and painted in bright colours. It is difficult to miss the biggest building in the village that houses a church and a school. Maruti cars are ubiquitous and seem to be the preferred choice of personal transport. The money that the coal brought infused a new level of prosperity into the lives of locals. "We agree that the mountains have suffered a lot because of mining, but the situation is not as bad as they claim. It has been going on for around a century now. The pollution is more from the Assam side, from the Dimasa area. The dam on the river Kupli is getting affected by their mining. They mine coal right next to the river and dump the waste water directly into the river," says Suchiang.

The NGT's order came after a petition was filed by the All Dimasa Students' Union (ADSU) from the Dima Hasao district in the neighbouring state of Assam. The ADSU petition contested that the mining in the coal belts and the coal stockpiles in the Jaintia Hills area were polluting streams and the rivers flowing into the Dima Hasao district. The student body's claim was based on a study conducted by OP Singh of the North Eastern Hills University (NEHU) in Shillong. The study tested the quality of water in the rivers in the Jaintia hills district to find that the high sulphur content of the coal in the region gets washed into the rivers, making the water acidic. The polluted streams and rivulets merge with the river Kupli which flows from Meghalaya to Assam's Dima Hasao district carrying the acidic water with it. The polluted water not only kills aquatic life, but also renders it unfit for drinking or agricultural use.

Digging it DangerouslyIn its order, the NGT had questioned the manner in which the mining is conducted in the state and termed it unscientific and illegal. Meghalaya's mines, concentrated primarily in the Jaintia Hills, are commonly known as 'rat hole mines'. Large cranes are used to dig pits ranging from 100 to 300 feet into the hill until they hit the layer of coal. Labourers then crawl into the holes to dig out the coal. The pits have make-shift bamboo stairs for the labourers to use. Cranes then  pull up barrows filled with coal from the tunnels. In the more 'traditional' mines, labourers carry the coal out on their backs in conical bamboo baskets. While the open cast mining done in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh or Odisha destroys the hills entirely, rat hole mines leave the top cover of the hill intact. But conditions here are much more dire. Safety gear is not used and conditions inside the mines are dangerous. "Manmade pillars or payas are built to prevent the mines from caving in but quite often they collapse," says Elisa Manikken, project manager with Impulse, an NGO. The incident which set off the domino effect which led to the ban was the case of 15 coal miners being fatally trapped inside a mine in July 2012 in the South Garo Hills.

Impulse NGO Network is one of the parties that had filed a PIL against illegal coal mining in the state. For the past eight years, they have been demanding an immediate shut down of mining activities which, according to their estimates, employed approximately 70,000 child labourers four years back. The coal seams below the ground vary from 8 inches to 3 ft in height, for which children are used to manually dig out the coal. The burrows are pitch-dark and the ground is slippery with constant water seepage. Stale toxic air makes it difficult to breathe inside.

And then there is the environmental devastation. Toxic mine run-off, which has to be constantly pumped out, flows into the streams and rivers. This becomes a major concern during the monsoons. In December 2014, newspapers reported that two rivers flowing to Bangladesh from Meghalaya had turned blue, an annual occurrence apparently due to the high acid content in the water. The colour of the Lukha river in East Jaintia Hills district and Myntdu river in West Jaintia Hills district had changed to a bright sky blue. In its 2012 report, the Meghalaya State Pollution Control board blamed mine run-off and acidic effluents from the mines for this.

HH Mohrmen, an environmental activist in Jowai, Meghalaya, has been voicing concerns about the deteriorating environment in the state. According to him, the first incidences of fish dying in the mountain streams were reported in late 1980s by locals living downstream of the river Myntdu. This was when commercial mining picked up in the Jaintia Hills district and spread across Meghalaya. Over the years mining increased in leaps and bounds and so did the acid content in water.

The dam on the river Kupli at Umrangso, which gives electricity to Meghalaya and Assam, suffers as well. The water has changed the colour of its surroundings to bright rust, visible with the reduced water level in this season. At the 275MW hydro electric project run by the North East Electric Power Corporation Limited (NEEPCO), officials find it tough to counter the acidity in the reservoir. The government of Meghalaya has been informed of the acidic corrosion of metallic parts and the resultant frequent failures of underwater parts - first noticed in 2006 - but no action has been taken.

"If the government is serious about it, all the materials to curb water pollution are available in the state. Limestone is widely used to neutralise the acidic effluent or Acid Mine Discharge from coal mines. Meghalaya is rich in limestone reserves, in a quantity much more than coal," says Mohrmen.

Mining PowerThe lack of political will in implementing the state mining policy to check unregulated mining and environmental degradation can be linked to vested interests. In its order, the NGT says that 'by such illegal mining of coal neither the government nor the people of the country are benefited'. 

The truth is every aspect of life in Meghalaya, including politics, is linked to the coal trade. While declaring his assets ahead of the elections, Mukul Sangma, Meghalaya's chief minister, had mentioned owning several non-agricultural lands including coal mine quarries in West Khasi Hills district, estimatedly worth upwards of Rs 2 crore. His wife and daughter too own several mines.

Mining in the region started with the advent of the British but took off commercially in the late 1980s. According to a mine owner it is easy for anyone to get into the coal business. "Businessman from outside the state, mostly Marwaris, finance you to start mining in return for a certain amount of coal. It's like a loan. So, any Tom, Dick and Harry can start if he can find a mine. All you need is a small investment and a lot of luck," he says.

The money made from coal mining made it possible for coal barons in the state to kick start their political career. The Directorate of Mineral Resources (DMR) earned royalty at the rate of Rs 675 per metric tonne of coal. As per the 2010 DMR reports, 57 lakh metric tonnes of coal were sent out of the state. Of this, 37 lakh metric tonnes were from the Jaintia Hills alone.

In a July 2014 parliamentary session, Vincent Pala, an MP from Meghalaya, mentioned that since the NGT ban on mining, many parents have had to sell their children to survive and that truck drivers and industrialist had stopped work. Pala owns 30 mines in the Sutnga area in the Jaintia Hills. The state faces a severe financial crunch because all along Meghalaya has been dependent on the royalty earned from coal mining. In February, Sangma had said that because the ban on mining, expected revenue generation in the state will go down by Rs 600 crore.

A report in the local daily, The Shillong Times, in December last year, mentioned varied ramifications of the ban. The crime graph had spiked in the coal belt areas. It also reported closure of several privately-run schools, local cement factories were affected and a major paper mill in the Assam, Cachar Paper Mill located in Barak valley faces a threat of closure.

Money from the coal trade not only gave power to the 'mafia', but also emboldened militants. Once a year before Christmas, mine owners have to pay protection money. For every truck of coal that went from the mine, militants would ask for Rs 15,000. They charged  Rs 5000 for every entry door inside the mines. "Now, they have increased it to Rs 25,000 per truck and a flat Rs 50,000 for every mine dug. They charge  Rs 3 lakh if machines are used. But you can negotiate with them," says the mine owner. He fears that if the ban continues more people might take up arms or get involved in smuggling coal. Considering the plea of the miners to allow the sale of already extracted coal, the NGT had ruled that all royalties from mining would go to the government which, in turn, would use this money for the rehabilitation of people and restoration of the environment. 

As indicated in the report, nearly 6.3 million tonnes of extracted coal valued at Rs 3078 crores is lying out in the open in Meghalaya. The royalty payable to the state in reference to the extracted coal would be approximately Rs 400 crores. Locals contest the survey done by the officials to reach the figures mentioned by the NGT. "A lot of money was expected but it hasn't reached the government because they [mine owners] keep asking for more time. So we gave them the option that in case they are not able to sell the extracted coal which is lying out in the open should be put back into the mines," says Makinen.

The cost of prosperityHenry Lamin, in his book Pnar Economy and Society in Meghalaya (1995), observed that unlike tribals in other parts of India, the tribals of Meghalaya - the Jaintias in particular - didn't suffer from land alienation and exploitation from outsiders. While that may be true, trends reveal that poor people here too have lost their lands to rich local coal merchants or, as the NGT call them, the coal mafia. Any resource beneath the ground is considered public property but locals people believe that, because of the sixth schedule status of the state, they have exclusive access to these. The schedule also gives the community a right to distribute land to landless tribals. But the lure of coal has led to incidents of land grabbing in many parts of the state.

Coal mining and the easy disposable income it brings has also hiked prices of essential commodities. "Children are sent to Delhi or Bangalore to study. Some even go to China and Russia to become doctors. Gambling, alcoholism and prostitution had increased in coal-trade towns like Lad Rymbai," says Dr JN Shullai who runs an organisation called Mih Myntdu Community Social Welfare Association in Jowai. The organisation runs a programs of targeted intervention among sex workers and community monitoring. "There has been a rise in domestic violence in the state. The number of single mothers is going up in the Jaintia communities. For every 1000 sex workers we work with, around 600 turn out to be single mothers," she says. Meghalaya follows a matrilineal system where family property is inherited from the mother by the youngest daughter. However, most of the coal businesses are owned and run by male members. Coal barons spend heavily on consumer goods, automobiles and also on property. All of this is at stake.

At Phramer, on the road to Lad Rymbai from Jowai in Jaintia Hills district, people have stockpiles of coal in the depots, lying open on the roadside. The depot had workers, mostly women and children, who separated slate from coal, grinding it and mixing it with coal before the trucks take them away for sale. The labourers are all gone now. The local market which once was swarmed by people holds a deserted look. Shankar Sanuwar who has been working in the coal mines in Jaintia Hills since early 80s as a child labour laments the loss of livelihood. "We don't even have enough money to afford the fare back to our place. It's been around eight months since we received any payment," he says.

The loss of livelihood is a major concern for the migrant population in the state which entirely depended on the mines. Now with the mines shut most have gone back but some still remain working in the illegally operated mines. Mine owners protest that similar unscientific mining goes on the Assam's side but the NGT didn't take an action against them. While others fear that once the scientific mining policy is imposed it'll weed out thousands of small players, only the rich politicians and businessmen will be able to tap the reserves left. "There is no doubt that people have lost their livelihoods but we might have also saved many lives," says Rosanna Lyngdoh, board director, Impulse. "People should see this ban as a wakeup call. There are alternatives to livelihood but not life. There is no alternative to the environmental damage. And what happens when the coal reserves finish?"

Coal files: Estimates suggest that around 70,000 child labourers were employed in the 'rat hole' mines in the Jaintia Hills.

Government of Meghalaya estimates that coal reserves in the state are around 576 million tonnes.

Over 57 million tonnes of coal were dispatched from the state in 2009-2010, according to the last updated figure by the Directorate of Mineral Resources in Meghalaya.

Last month, CM Mukul Sangma had said that the expected revenue realisation of the state has gone down substantially by Rs 600 crores.
26 February 2015

Manipur and India’s ‘Act East’ Policy

Manipur and India’s ‘Act East’ Policy
Image Credit: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Manipur and India’s ‘Act East’ Policy

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May, he has sought to project to foreign-policy watchers a renewed commitment to India’s Look East Policy (LEP) – or, as Modi’s administration has renamed it, the “Act East Policy.” The LEP was put forward in 1991 to reorient Indian foreign policy towards East Asia and Southeast Asia. But half-hearted commitment to the policy has severely restricted India’s footprint in these regions, even as Chinese influence destabilizes Indian hegemony in South Asia. Major deals with Bangladesh and Japan, in addition to a flurry of meetings between top Indian officials and their regional counterparts, have been taken as early signs that Act East represents a genuine shift in Indian foreign policy.

With Myanmar, deliverables under Modi thus far have been fairly modest: an agreement to crack down on regional insurgencies, a route-mapping exercise for the long-awaited Imphal-Mandalay bus service, and continued progress on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Project. The LEP framed Myanmar as India’s overland bridge to the dynamic ASEAN belt, and Modi’s rhetoric on Myanmar has stressed his dedication to realizing this vision. But the two countries have no rail links; the only road link (Asian Highway 1, or AH-1) is insecure and poorly maintained; and there are no flights to Mandalay, northern Myanmar’s most important city. India-Myanmar bilateral trade has grown steadily over the past several decades, from Rs9.8 billion ($163 million) in 1997–98 to Rs131 billion in 2013–14. But those gains have been made entirely through sea trade. Whereas Myanmar’s overall border trade volume jumped from 8 percent in the late 1990s to almost 14 percent 10 years onwards, border trade with India actually regressed during the same period: from $72 million (cumulative, 1995/96–1999/2000) to $38 million (cumulative, 2005–06/2009–10).

The deficits in India-Myanmar overland connectivity reflect a complex array of factors: Yangon’s limited control in northern Myanmar, Delhi’s fixation on transnational and internal security threats in the Northeast, and uneven bilateral relations over the tenure of Myanmar’s erstwhile military junta. But within India and Myanmar, Delhi and Yangon are not the only players influencing the progress of bilateral connectivity. If Modi wishes to live up to his rhetoric on boosting Indian ties with its eastern neighbors, he will need to work closely with local actors in the four states on the India-Myanmar border: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Of these, Manipur is the most important. Manipur’s border post at Moreh, on Asian Highway 1, handles 99 percent of formal overland trade between India and Myanmar, and also the bulk of the far vaster category that is India-Myanmar informal and/or illegal trade.

On a mid-January visit to Manipur, I had formal and informal conversations with an array of academics, journalists, activists, entrepreneurs, and current and former politicians and bureaucrats about Manipur and the future of India-Myanmar connectivity. I heard plenty of optimism there about the sincerity of Modi’s ambitions for boosting cross-border connectivity, but also major questions about the practical scope for change. Policy implementation in Manipur involves engaging with a variety of actors – the state government, insurgents from Manipur’s 30-odd insurgent (“underground”) outfits, the Indian Army units stationed to fight them, central infrastructure bodies – whose agendas do not always align with the needs of cross-border trade. These issues are of particular concern because India is not necessarily operating from a position of strength in border trade here. Present-day patterns favor Burmese businessmen, and Chinese and Southeast Asian manufacturers, more than they do their Indian counterparts. What’s more, even if India’s border trade position improves, it is an open question to what extent Manipur’s economy will benefit. The state’s economic struggles drive many of the dynamics that interfere with connectivity initiatives today; these dynamics will continue to cause trouble so long as those struggles persist.

Overland connectivity with ASEAN has long been presented as priority for the LEP and for developing the Northeast. But those expecting that Modi’s emergence will spark a rapid transformation in the connectivity scenario – for the benefit of Manipur, and of the rest of India – would do well to temper their hopes. Reshaping Indo-Myanmar connectivity requires rewiring basic features of the development environment in Manipur, through persistence, attention to local perspectives, and skillful bureaucratic management. Success in this matter will prove a stern test of the substance of the Act East pledge.

Connectivity and the State in Manipur
Both Delhi and Imphal have sought over the past few years to demonstrate a serious commitment to strengthening Indo-Myanmar connectivity via Manipur. For Delhi, at least, this is a somewhat new development, and certainly not an uncontested one. For most of the past seven decades, what attention the Northeast has received from Delhi has mostly come in the sphere of security: The region’s active insurgencies, and their links with Bangladesh, Myanmar, and China, provoked a policy framework that prioritized border security and anti-insurgent crackdowns. Since the early 2000s, Union (Central) Government agendas have placed greater emphasis on development and international connectivity in the region. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 2012 visit to Myanmar focused on trade promotion, with deals signed to boost air and road links between Manipur and Myanmar. Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh took a delegation to Myanmar in May 2013 to liaise with Burmese officials on ways to boost cross-border trade. Modi’s administration has even put forward the improbably bold idea of developing Moreh as one of its 100 new “smart cities” around India.

But if government-to-government initiatives suggest enhanced support from Delhi and Imphal for stronger connectivity, the actual workings of Manipur’s state apparatus – not just local authorities, but also the Union bodies engaged in the state – are far less helpful. Failures of governance have produced major levels of corruption and insurgency that generate an ugly gap between policy formulation and implementation.

Corruption and Infrastructure
As noted above, cross-border transit infrastructure deficits are a major drag on India-Myanmar trade. Redressing this issue on the Indian side will require substantial investment, especially in railways and roads, the most natural channels for large-volume trading in this region. In the railway sector, such efforts are ongoing, but progress is slow. A November 2014 presentation by India-ASEAN connectivity expert Prabir De suggests that efforts to connect Imphal to India’s railway map, initiated in 2003, are slated to be completed by March 2018. An extension from Imphal to Moreh, likewise set in motion during the mid-2000s, finished its engineering survey only this year, according to the Bangkok Post; and links from Moreh into Myanmar are further off.

For roads, at least, the basic infrastructure of trade already exists. Manipur connects to mainland India via two major highways. National Highway 102 (NH-102) is the extension of AH-1; it goes northwards into central Assam. National Highway 37 (NH-37) runs westwards into southern Assam. These two highways are essential not just for overland trade to Myanmar, but also for providing Manipur with the rice, petrol, cement, and other basic commodities which the state imports from other parts of India. However, both highways are plagued by shoddy construction, especially NH-37: Even in the dry season, traveling the 220 km from Imphal to Jiribam on Manipur’s western border can take 13–14 hours.

The border trading environment itself is characterized by a combination of weak basic infrastructure and byzantine bureaucratic procedures. A June 2014 report by Manipur-based Hueiyen News Service notes that the town struggles to guarantee five hours’ power daily – a major obstacle to state government plans for establishing a cold storage center, a must-have for high-volume trade in a host of food products. In 2006, central government authorities approved the development of an Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Moreh – a single complex for border management authorities, intended to improve inter-agency coordination. Construction is currently halted on account of Myanmar’s claims, announced in December 2013, that the ICP site lies on its territory. In the meantime, a 2011 report on border infrastructure at Moreh suggested that maintenance of current customs facilities had dropped off since ICP development began. Such deficits work against the sort of professionalized trading operations that Delhi policymakers seek to encourage, and in fact, the vast majority of Moreh’s trade goes through informal and illegal channels. Official statistics for these channels do not exist; but estimates I have heard – both publicly available (as in these reports) and in my own conversations with experts in Manipur – indicate that the annual volumes moving through each of these channels today stands somewhere in the billions to tens of billions of rupees, far above the hundreds of millions of rupees in annual formal trade.

Indeed, the volume of informal trade can be understood to indicate the mismatch between the infrastructure of formal trade and the demand for trade at Moreh. Informal trade here consists primarily of “headload trade” – goods carried across the border on one’s head, which are largely exempted from standard customs procedures. But much of this trade is actually coordinated by high-volume traders, who hire large armies of coolies to carry goods across the border. Ch. Priyoranjan Singh, an economist at Manipur University, says that, of the forty traders who obtained licenses to operate at Moreh’s formal customs station upon its establishment in 1995, just three still use them.

The issues of slow execution and unsatisfactory results in connectivity infrastructure projects in Manipur follows from the authorities who implement the projects: a nexus of central and state bodies with a nasty track record of corruption and poor performance. I heard estimates of standard graft levels on road projects in Manipur reaching 66 percent of project fund allocation, with skims demanded variously by Delhi mandarins, local politicians and bureaucrats, and underground groups, among others. The most functional road in the region is actually the 160 km Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road in Myanmar, built from 1999–2001 by India’s Border Roads Organisation as the easternmost link in a longer intended road between the Myanmar border town of Tamu and Mandalay. But the Border Roads Organisation is now facing a central inquiry into major non-performance of maintenance and construction tasks on NH-37.

Some observers offer examples of interest groups positioning themselves on connectivity issues according to their prospects of financial gain. The Indian army, for instance, has long expressed concerns that steps to boost India-Myanmar connectivity, by loosening the border, could undermine efforts against Manipur’s insurgent groups, a number of whom have permanent camps in northern Myanmar. But Priyoranjan of Manipur University questions the army’s motivations. He notes that local army figures are also important sponsors of nighttime smuggling operations whose traffic is worth billions rupees annually.

Managed Insecurity: Insurgent-State Relations
The politics of insurgent-state relations in Manipur have also generated serious obstacles to connectivity. Ethnically speaking, Manipur’s three major ethnic groups – Meiteis, Nagas, and Kukis – are closer to the peoples of northern Myanmar than they are to those of mainland India, and the accession of the state into India in 1949 occurred under heavy pressure from the Indian government. These issues were aggravated by economic alienation, as Partition severed Manipur from most natural trading links to the outside world, on the coast of modern-day Bangladesh. Violent Meitei insurgencies had emerged in Imphal and the surrounding valley areas by the late 1970s. Delhi responded with aggressive paramilitary campaigns backed by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which sanctioned the use of deadly force by central security forces against citizens “acting in contravention of any law or order.” The law has weakened the foundations of criminal justice in counterinsurgency operations in Manipur while also generating what many observers have called a “culture of impunity” extending into state security personnel as well.

This governing strategy has worked as ideological justifications for underground groups, as organizations fighting back against maltreatment by the Indian state. Like many other Northeastern insurgencies, the Manipur underground’s penchant for criminality has seriously weakened their legitimacy in recent years amongst large segments of Manipur’s population. But the insurgencies’ persistence and strength owes much to the fact that, for decades, they have found popular support on these grounds. The underground forces have declined in manpower over the past several decades, but the security establishment has fought aggressively against revisions to AFSPA. In late 2014, Home Minister Rajnath Singh ruled out revisions to AFSPA in the near future. Given the BJP’s assiduous courting of key security players, a change seems unlikely.

In the meantime, the insurgents, and their appointed state handlers, create major hassles for cross-border traders. Insurgents’ influence today follows partly from their use of violence. Fatalities in the state have declined substantially over the past several years, but the threat of violence still forces traders to invest time and money (and take personal risks) forging and reforging links with different players in the ever-shifting insurgent landscape. Strikes and blockades targeting NH-37 and NH-102 are another source of trouble. The most frequent instigators are the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), a Nagaland-based insurgency with a strong presence in the Naga-dominated hill districts of northern Manipur. The NSCN-IM uses these tactics to press for the integration these districts into “Greater Nagaland,” a vision fiercely opposed by the Imphal Valley-based Meiteis who form the majority of Manipur’s population. Calculations based on data from a 2014 Observer Research Foundation report by Subir Bhaumik indicate that, between 2004–2005 and 2011–2012, strikes and blockades shut down one of NH-102 or NH-37 for a cumulative average of 129 days annually. (Students associations and other civil society groups also carry out strikes and blockades, but such organizations are often themselves close collaborators with the insurgencies.)

Even when the roads are open, passengers and truckers along these roads contend with an extensive series of extortion checkpoints set up by the underground or army and police officials. Fieldwork presented in a recent thesis by Sanabam Gunjait Mangang of the University of Calcutta claims the existence of 20 such checkpoints along each of NH-37 and the Imphal-Moreh stretch of AH-1, as well as another 15 along NH-102 from Imphal to the city of Dimapur in Nagaland. Security officials use bribes and political connections to jockey for position along these routes, with Imphal-Moreh the most desirable, followed by Imphal-Dimapur. Insurgent extortion often occurs with the blessing, tacit or otherwise, of local officials.

As regards the impacts of corruption and insurgency on connectivity, the stakes for improvement are high. At Moreh today, the most powerful traders are businessmen from not India but Myanmar, selling Chinese and Southeast Asian goods. Dulali Nag’s 2010 report for the Calcutta Research Group describes how the Burmese military’s establishment of Namphalong market in the 1990s, right by the gate for headload trade on the border, undid the patterns of trade that had ruled Moreh since the early 1960s. Historically, imports into India were coordinated by Moreh-based Indian businessmen with diasporic connections in both Myanmar and India. But wholesale and retail customers now skip the middlemen at Moreh to purchase directly from Namphalong market, whose shops stock mostly Chinese and Southeast Asian goods – cheaper, and often of better quality, than their Indian counterparts across the border. More recent writings on Moreh confirm the persistence of these basic dynamics.

A major part of the blame for Indian goods’ price disadvantage lies with poor infrastructure and endemic extortion along the transit corridors running up through Moreh. The existing imbalance means that Indian goods will not gain competitive edges by steps that nibble around the edges of the connectivity deficit; such edges will follow only from major progress.

Manipur’s 2017 Elections: Hopes for Change?
Could a change in local government improve conditions for boosting cross-border trade? Congress’s Okram Ibobi Singh is enjoying his third term as Manipur’s chief minister, and his second at the head of a simple-majority Congress administration. His reputation for graft earned him the nickname “10 Percent Ibobi,” for the cuts he demanded from sundry projects; a number of people in Manipur joked with me that the nickname was outdated, his takes had increased. Singh’s long tenure owes also to good ties with the insurgencies and the local security establishment.

The next two strongest parties in the current legislature, the Trinamool Congress (seven seats) and the Naga People’s Front (four seats), pose no threat to Congress’s rule; neither have the capacity to be more than side players. Instead, the most likely challenger is Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, whose share in the legislature has never exceeded 10 percent. Its capacity suffered in the early 2000s under a ban in the Valley imposed by the Meitei underground, in retaliation for gestures by the BJP-led central government in 2001 that signaled (very) tentative acknowledgment of the NSCN-IM’s demand for Greater Nagaland. The BJP did not win seats in either 2007 or 2012, even as enforcement of the ban was already waning.

Nonetheless, most observers I spoke to in Manipur suggested that the BJP stands a real chance of forming a coalition government in the 2017 elections. State BJP figures have based their appeals on an anti-corruption message and on their association with Narendra Modi, whose message of development-based governance seems to have been met with cautious interest in the state. Such is their public message. But there is good reason to question whether a BJP-led administration would do much to change the politico-economic environment that constricts cross-border trade through Manipur. As regards the anti-graft platform, the state BJP leadership’s reputations are not necessarily much better than the targets of their criticism: reporting by Imphal-based journalist Yambem Laba, for instance, has raised questions about corruption by state BJP president Thounaojam Chaoba Singh. The leadership is also riven with infighting, a issue which helped derail the BJP’s efforts in the most recent legislative election in Manipur, a state legislature by-election in October 2014. A number of people I spoke to in Manipur suggested that the BJP may end up relying on efforts to convince sitting Congress legislators to switch parties in the months before the poll. Such a strategy, of course, involves inheriting many of the networks that make meaningful changes in the state’s role with the political economy of Manipur even more unlikely.

For these reasons, the significance of a BJP administration for Manipur may ultimately depend upon the sort of relationship it builds with the national BJP – that is, whether Modi and his party are content with just having another state in its pocket, or whether they see BJP control in Manipur as a tool for reshaping local governance. Still, even if Congress holds its majority, New Delhi has a powerful tool for shaping its behavior: money. The state government is helpless without central government transfers, which constituted 89 percent of state revenues from 2010-13. Central government monitoring of state government projects (and those of the Border Roads Organisation, a central government body) has long suffered on account of a combination of influences in Delhi: graft, indifference towards the Northeast, political deal-cutting. Focused leadership could weaken the hold of these influences and make space for heightened accountability.

Connectivity for Whom?
Modi’s signals on Act East have spurred cautious optimism among many of Manipur’s elites that the new prime minister is genuinely committed to boosting regional connectivity. But my interviews in Manipur pointed to a complementary pessimism over the significance of pro-connectivity initiatives for Manipuris. Many observers fear that the benefits of greater connectivity will accrue far more to mainland Indians than to Manipuris.

Manipur’s weak economic base is the main cause for concern. Manipur’s proximity to Myanmar gives its one edge in supplying goods for, or in attracting businesses with an interest in, cross-border markets. But even as that proximity becomes more valuable, the state’s weak economic performance points to a host of other factors that will discourage capital from locating here. Gross state domestic product in Manipur averaged 5.19 percent annual growth rates between 2004–05 and 2012–13, well below the all-India average of 7.96 percent. Average output growth in Manipur’s industrial sector (from 2005–06 to 2013–14) was especially weak: 1.69 percent, versus the national average of 6.87 percent. Union government statistics on state industrial sectors in 2007–08, taken against 2011 population figures, allow for rough calculations on per capita factory density in each state; Manipur is securely in the bottom quintile. The sector is heavily constrained by poor infrastructure, most dramatically in terms of power supply. Manipur’s electricity transmission and distribution loss in 2007–08 and 2008–09 hovered around 50 percent – only Jammu and Kashmir are worse. Meanwhile, agriculture, per 2008–09 state statistics, employs more than half of the state’s labor force. But a preponderance of small-holding subsistence farmers means that the state relies upon imports for a variety of essential foodstuffs. Commercially-minded growers in more vibrant sectors like horticulture are held back by basic infrastructure bottlenecks – for instance, a statewide absence of cold storage facilities. In terms of human capital, literacy rates in the state are strong: 79 percent as of 2011, as opposed to the all-India average of 73 percent. But the lack of economic opportunities restricts the development of what one might call commercial human capital—business acumen and experience.

Even in the border trade sector itself, Manipuris have traditionally been marginal players. Moreh has long facilitated small-scale exchange between locals, but the town has served an important node in larger trading networks ever since the early 1960s, when traders from mainland India’s oppressed diaspora in Myanmar settled here. Most significant were the Tamils, who had grown from just 200 in the early 1960s to 13,000 in 1980, though Marwari and Punjabi families also played an important role. The mainlanders’ reliance upon kinship ties made these networks inherently difficult for Manipuris to penetrate. Manipuris also suffered from a lack of commercial human capital; the state had no tradition of capitalist commerce or of large-scale trading, and its economic isolation in post-Partition India had exacerbated these deficits.

In the past two decades, mainland Indian populations have declined significantly, and Nag says that Namphalong’s emergence has boosted the position of aspirant Meitei traders, who can leverage their diasporic links in Myanmar. But my interviewees suggested that any inroads by the Meiteis should not be exaggerated, and that, in regards to formal and informal trade coordinated from the Indian side, mainland India communities are still far more powerful. Instead, the Manipuris most effectively integrated into the local political economy of trade are largely those in the insurgencies and in army or state government positions, via highway extortion, graft, and illegal trade.

Left unresolved, the state’s weak economic base will restrict avenues for Manipuris to take advantage of the opportunities that stronger connectivity brings. My interviews suggested that some sectors are in relatively better positions – niche ones like medical tourism from northern Myanmar, and also potentially broader ones like horticulture, mentioned above, and standard-issue tourism. (Elevated investment in tourism has run into trouble with the sudden cancellation of the 2007 North East Industrial and Investment Policy and its investment incentives; but New Delhi assures that the cancellation is only temporary.) The best-case scenario would see such sectors survive the state’s formidable deficits in infrastructure and law and order to lay a foundation for a more competitive economy. Judicious central government engagement here will be essential: targeted infrastructure funding, steady incentives for investment, and somehow, some way, improved mechanisms of accountability.

Connectivity may not deliver much for Manipur without concurrent improvements in the state’s economic base. But local development will also be a boon for connectivity, by weakening the nexus of corruption and insurgency outlined above. With the underground’s ideological underpinnings corroding, their strength rests more and more upon their ability to offer Manipur’s youth access to income amidst a bleak local economy. Meanwhile, local underdevelopment boosts corruption’s hold on the local economy: Almost all large-scale investment in the state, and hence almost all opportunities for accumulating wealth, comes through public expenditure.

Connectivity: Why Manipur Matters
The place of Manipur within Indo-Myanmar connectivity represents a serious test for Modi’s government – of its ability to impose its agenda, and of its sensitivity to local concerns. Stronger connectivity requires major infrastructure initiatives: In one of India’s most corrupt states, can rails and roads be done right? Stronger connectivity also requires recognition of the development needs of Manipuris: To what extent will such issues feature on Modi’s connectivity agenda?

The Indian government, in policy design and implementation, does not have a sterling record on these questions. And its leverage is greater over some bodies than others. But only the central government has the combination of resources and responsibilities to coordinate between, and try to shape the behavior of, the various players of Manipur’s political economy – interest groups in the central government itself, state authorities, the security establishment, and local underground and civil society players. Success in these efforts would demand special persistence and focus from Modi and his team, and from those who follow them. But the benefits could be enormous: a more stable and prosperous Manipur, emerging overland trade corridors to ASEAN, and new diplomatic leverage in East and Southeast Asia for other priorities. That is truly Acting East.

Edmund Downie is a Yale University Gordon Grand Fellow at the Calcutta-based Centre for Studies in International Relations and Development, studying Indian regional integration with East and Southeast Asia.
25 February 2015

How does Bangladesh figure in India's Look East Policy?

By Wahiduddin Mahmud
India is looking for new economic frontiers in the East. In the face of continuing stalemate of WTO negotiations, countries are looking for alternative or parallel arrangements. The past decade has seen the flourishing of many such initiatives. As an emerging global economic powerhouse, India would obviously not like to be left behind.

There is the American-led 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in which neither India nor China plays any part; but both the countries as well as Japan are involved in the ASEAN-led 16-country parallel initiative called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECEP). The outcome of these initiatives will depend on factors that go much beyond the nuts and bolts of trade into the realm of geopolitics.  It thus makes sense that India is looking for alternative routes to link with the ASEAN, which is currently the focus of India's so-called Look East policy.

But while pursuing the big ideas of economic partnerships, it would be a folly for India to lose sight of what can be achieved nearer at home. To start with, one could argue that India's Look East policy needs to look first within its own borders, so that its east and north-eastern parts can both be a vehicle and a beneficiary of the policy. Connectivity and economic integration with Bangladesh becomes important in that context. Consider this fact: most of the 30 border districts of Bangladesh – out of a total of 64 districts -- are among the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country. The Indian districts bordering Bangladesh are similarly lagging behind. Clearly, the cross-border economic synergies due to geographical proximity are not being fully exploited.

The potential of turning geography to economic advantage is obvious. This sub-region provides the land corridors for connecting India to East Asia, such as through the proposed trans-Asian road and train links. But beyond that, the connectivity is also important for providing access to seaports. The hinterland of Kolkata and Chittagong ports can extend beyond Nepal, Bhutan and the seven sister states of northeast India to large parts of inland China. As China's manufactures move inward, it is exploring backdoor routes, such as reviving the old Silk Route and looking for new ones. That is why Bangladesh in particular would like to see the success of the initiative called BCIM-EC, the acronym for Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar economic corridor.

There has been much talk about transit facilities for Indian goods through Bangladesh. The issue has been narrowly focused in terms of transit of goods only and not as part of sub-regional economic integration through which a number of things can happen. For example, supply chains can be developed to use the resources of the Indian north-eastern states by setting up labour-intensive processing industries in Bangladesh – say, by Indian investors – and exporting the products worldwide through Chittagong port or to the rest of India. These may not be as big ideas as India's current Look East policy in terms of priority of the Indian policymakers at the centre; but the potential economic dividends can be high for Bangladesh and the North-eastern states of Bangladesh.

The sub-regional integration can also benefit Kolkata –a city that has not clearly lived up to its full economic potential, mainly because of its remoteness from the major Indian economic hubs.
For the same reasons, the South Asia Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) comprising Bangladesh, eastern India, Bhutan, and Nepal deserves more attention and should be part of India's Look East policy. The region, compared to SAARC, enjoys geographical proximity, economic complementarities, and socio-cultural similarities favouring greater economic integration. Previous studies have concluded that power trading within the SAGQ sub-region would confer major benefits on all four countries.

Realising that potential of economic integration will need huge investments in infrastructure. Scarcity of land in Bangladesh and the governance problem of implementing large projects are additional hurdles.  The newly created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) initiated by China has immense developmental promise for infrastructure development in Asia, particularly by bringing together the two Asian giants, China and India, and by providing China an institutional mechanism to deploy its large pool of accumulated reserves.

The main economic logic of India's Look East policy lies in the fact that South Asia generally has been left behind in the race to integrate into global supply chains, which is a particularly dynamic segment of world trade. India has seen an upsurge of its trade with some of the south-east Asian countries after it implemented the free-trade agreement with the ASEAN in 2010. The question remains whether there will be similar enthusiasm in India for fostering comprehensive regional economic integration with its immediate north-eastern neighbours.

The writer is Chairman, South Asia Network of Economic Research Institutes.
(Extracts from the speech delivered at the “Kolkata Dialogue” of the Look East Economic Summit organised by Indian Chamber of Commerce in Kolkata, January 9, 2015.)
11 February 2015

Mizoram: Unsettled Peace

By M. A. Athul

The 20-year long insurgency in Mizoram (1966-86), led by the Mizo National Front (MNF) was resolved as far back as in 1986, and the State has, since, been at peace in terms of that stream of insurgency.

Nevertheless, the ethnic polarization and tensions provoked by the MNF insurgency continue to trigger occasional violence linked to a range of other armed groups, some of them located in and operating from neighbouring States.

On February 2, 2015, suspected armed militants of National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT) and Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram (BDFM) abducted 22 people from an area close to the Indo-Bangladesh border in Mamit District of Mizoram. Sources disclosed that around 10 militants armed with sophisticated weapons later released 20 of them, while holding back two hostages - Hokum Singh and Mohammad Buizul Islam. The hostages are employees of the Border Roads Task Force (BRTF).

On February 1, 2015, the Mizoram Police and Assam Rifles, in a joint operation, arrested two arms dealers from Vanzau village in Champhai District near the Indo-Myanmar border. One M2 carbine along with two magazines and a 9mm pistol along with a magazine were seized.

These incidents reflect the continuance existence of forces, though miniscule, inimical to enduring peace achieved in the State. Mizoram boasts of being the most peaceful state in the entire North-eastern region, barring Sikkim which has never witnessed any insurgency in its history.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, Mizoram has recorded at least 46 insurgency-related fatalities since 1997, including 15 civilians, 22 Security Force (SF) personnel and nine militants. The trend of low to zero fatalities recorded after 2007 continues, with no fatalities in 2013, and two in 2014. On October 15, bodies of two non-tribals, suspected to be those of a truck driver and his helper, both believed to be from the Kamrup District in Assam, were recovered from Tuikhurhlu in Aizawl District. No further detail is available in this regard.

The State had last registered an insurgency-related fatality in 2011, that too of a civilian, when a member of the Bru community was shot dead by suspected United Democratic Liberation Army (UDLA) militants at Thinglian village of Kolasib District on July 17, 2011.

Other parameters of violence like explosions, arsons, abductions-for-extortion, also registered a marginal increase through 2014, as against the preceding year.

Three explosions were recorded in 2014, as against none in 2013. In one such incident, on January 30, 2014, an explosion took place near the State Assembly Secretariat in Aizawl, the State Capital. On February 20, 2014, an explosion took place at Borabazar area in Aizawl city. Again, on August 1, 2014, an explosion took place near the residence of Mizoram Parliamentary Secretary for Home in Mission Veng locality in Aizawl. No casualties were reported in any of the three explosions, though damage to property did occur.

Meanwhile, two instances of abduction were reported through 2014. On June 14, 2014, three traders and their driver were abducted by NLFT militants from Phaileng village in Mamit District. Subsequently, on October 10, 2014, suspected NLFT militants abducted 15 persons from Amchurmukh, near Rajivnagar, in Mamit District. Four of them were released on the same day. The remaining 11 persons were released on November 7, 2014. Initially a ransom amount of INR 3 million was demanded by abductors, which was later reduced to INR 1.1 million. It is not clear if the ransom was paid or not.

In 2013, two incidents of abduction had been reported.

Apart from the Tripura-based NLFT, the Hmar People's Convention-Democracy (HPC-D), a group demanding self-government in the north and northeast of Mizoram, remains active in the State. Significantly, on February 21, 2014, Mizoram Police confirmed the arrest of five suspected HPC-D militants from Parvachawm area in Churachandpur District of Manipur for their involvement in the explosion near the State Assembly Secretariat on January 30, 2014. On November 10, 2014, the Border Security Force (BSF) stated, "At least 55 camps of northeast India militants are still functional in different parts of Bangladesh and opposite to Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Assam's borders with Bangladesh." Mizoram faces a residual threat from such groups.

The unresolved challenges of the State were compounded by the continuing activity of arms smugglers who use Mizoram as a transit point. According to SATP data, at least four incidents of recovery of arms and seven arrests of persons engaged in such traffic, occurred through 2014, as against two such incidents and four arrests in 2013. In one such incident on November 6, 2014, Mizoram Police recovered 19,300 detonators from two suspects, from the border village of Zokhawthar in Champai District. On further investigation another suspect was arrested from an unspecified location on November 6, 2014.

Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) racketeers have also been using the State as a transit point. In 2014, at least two incidents of recovery of FICN were reported as against none in 2013. In one such incident on October 4, 2014, BSF and Police recovered FICN worth INR 184,000 in the denomination of INR 1,000 at Tlabung Market in the Demagiri area of Lunglei District and arrested two suspects, Chandalay Chakma and Taranga Mohan Chakma. Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of BSF [Mizoram and Cachar Frontier], Satish Budakoti, stated that FICN was brought from Bangladesh to Demagiri in order to take them to the interior areas. On December 1, 2014, Dinesh Kumar Upadhyaya, Inspector General, BSF, stated that BSF's Mizoram and Cachar Frontier units recovered FICN worth of INR 513,000 in 2014.

Ethnic strife between Bru tribals and Mizos continues to simmer, occasionally manifesting in violence. In one such instance, on January 14, 2014, at least 2,423 Bru tribals from at least three villages in Mamit District fled to Tripura, after the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP, Mizo Students' Association), a powerful student body, started a mass 'voluntary search operation'. After the exodus, the Mizoram administration agreed to provide security to Bru families in the western part of Mizoram to prevent more Brus from leaving.

Further, the repatriation of Bru refugees, who had been sheltered in Tripura since 1997, resumed in 2014. On January 30, 2015, Mizoram Home Minister R. Lalzirliana stated that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had agreed to organise a final six-month repatriation process for internally-displaced Bru tribals, after which all those who do not return home from Tripura would be removed from Mizoram's electoral rolls and further relief to them would also be stopped. Official records show that almost 4,000 Bru families, who have voting rights in Mizoram, continue to live in the relief camps in Tripura. It has also been decided that, in the interim, Tripura, where many of displaced Brus live in six relief camps, would improve living conditions there and double the current financial aid allotted to each displaced Bru tribal.

Meanwhile, the law and order situation in the State gives serious cause for concern. Significantly, the rate of crimes registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in 2013 stood at 165.6 per 100,000 population, much higher, for instance, than in the insurgency-afflicted states of Manipur (126.3), Meghalaya (121.1) and Nagaland (52.6), according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) Data. NCRB data also showed that Mizoram, with a tiny population of 1.016 million, recorded 27 murder cases, 19 cases of attempt to murder and 89 cases of rape during 2013. Though NCRB data for 2014 is yet to be published, the Crime Branch of the State Criminal Investigation Department disclosed that Police Stations and outposts across Mizoram registered 45 murder cases, 23 cases of attempt to murder and 125 cases of rape through 2014.

A crisis of drug use also afflicts the State. Mizoram has one of the highest reported incidence of Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in India, with at least 4,169 Human Immuno Deficiency Virus/ (HIV)/AIDS infected people. Recent studies have shown that almost one third (31.8 per cent) of HIV infections in Mizoram are among injecting drug users. According to Mizoram's Excise & Narcotics Department (END), as against 36 drug related deaths in 2013, year 2014 recorded 38 deaths. In fact, an August 20, 2013, report noted that, in a span of two decades, from 1984 till August 7, 2013, Mizoram recorded 1,241 drug-related deaths. The drug which caused the maximum damage was Proxyvon/Parvon Spas. In 2014, END officials seized 10,289 capsules of Proxyvon and 18,874 capsules of Parvon Spas, adding to the seizure of 2,440 Proxyvon capsules and 2,87,923 capsules of Parvon Spas in 2013. It is useful to note that insurgents in the Northeast have long used drug money to arm and fund their operations.

Mizoram with its literacy rate of 91.91 per cent, well above the national average of 74.04 per cent, has the potential to be the powerhouse of development in the region. It has a vast potential for energy production, including a hydroelectric power potential of 4,500 MW, of which just 0.7 per cent has yet been harnessed. Governance and administration remains abysmal, and a virtual 'dole economy', overwhelmingly financed by the Centre, continues to exist. More than 28 years after the end of a virulent insurgency in the State, there is still little evidence of the promised 'peace dividend' in terms of any dramatic development in the State.

The writer is a Research Assistant at Institute for Conflict Management
25 September 2014

Beyond The Oath


A visit to the director’s office at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences in Imphal is akin to visiting an ultra high security zone. You go past unarmed guards provided by an agency and then you enter a fortified area complete with sandbagged posts manned by the CRPF wielding automatic weapons. Past that you are greeted with signs that read “Visitors not allowed beyond this point” and then you get to the ante room and find Manipur Rifles personnel armed with AK-47s — the personal security detail of the director. The aura of the institute being an advanced centre for medical sciences seems to have been lost somehow.

It is now a premier centre for medical sciences and draws students from across the North-east region save Assam. It celebrated its 43rd foundation day on 14 September and has so far produced 2,904 doctors and 1,053 specialist doctors. Today it has 418 undergraduate students, 414 postgraduate students, 161 BSc nursing students and 95 pursuing a degree in dentistry on its rolls. It also has 24 different departments dealing in subjects as diverse as anatomy and otorhinolaryngology and provides service and care to patients who flock to fill the 1,071 beds available. Last year, it catered to 43,317 in-house patients while another 299,178 were treated as outdoor patients.

Initially, it began as the Regional Medical College funded by the North Eastern Council but was converted into a Centrally managed institute under the Union ministry of health and family welfare in 2007 with a board of governors headed by the Union health minister as chairman and the Manipur chief minister as vice-chairman. Its executive council is headed by the Union health secretary as chairman and its director as member secretary. With such a vast infrastructure and an even more impressive management set-up, one would be coerced into thinking that all is and has to be well with its affairs. On 14 September 2010, Professor S Sekharjit Singh was appointed its director of by the UPA-II set-up in Delhi.

Then on 25 August the bombshell arrived from Delhi in the form of an order signed by a deputy secretary in the Union health and family welfare ministry which stripped Sekharjit Singh of his post and Professor Chongtham Arun Singh of the Department of Orthopaedics was asked to take charge as director until further orders. The drama began unfolding bit by bit, revealing murky business at the Rims where Singh and his caucus functioned much beyond the Hippocratic oath. First, he refused to recognise the Centre’s order stating that a director cannot be removed just like that and he bolted his door and bolted. The Centre then advised Dr Arun Singh to take police help, break open the door and assume charge, which he did the next day. Sekharjit Singh then attempted to take the help of the judiciary and moved Manipur High Court, but Justice N Koteshwor turned down his appeal for a stay on the dismissal order. Then he, accompanied by his son and daughter, both medical doctors, left the state and has not been heard of since.

In the meantime, the CBI had earlier registered a case against Sekharjit Singh on charges of corruption relating to irregularities in the purchase of dental chairs and other misappropriations. On 23 May this year, the CBI furnished the FIR copy to the District and Sessions Judge, Manipur East, and earlier it had also earlier registered a case against Dr L Fimate,  Sekharjit Singh’s predecessor.

Then the CBI, which hitherto in Manipur had only been dealing in murder cases, decided to go a step further and raided the official quarters of Sekharjit Singh and nine other places, including his wife’s and daughter’s houses. The seized items included documents, laptops and computers that were said to have revealed a wealth of information but the most damning of all seems to be a letter alleged to have been written by Sekharjit Singh’s  wife to the president of Manipur’s BJP unit asking him to return the Rs 1 crore paid earlier to forestall the impeachment move and the CBI raids. This amount seems to be a pittance for a man said to be owning three houses in Manipur and others in Guwahati, Kolkata, New Delhi and Bangalore and is said to have paid Rs 4 crore to the personal assistant of then Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad for his appointment as Rims director.

But what Sekharjit Singh did goes much beyond the records on the CBI files. For instance, he recruited 121 nurses against 71 sanctioned and advertised posts. The bribe fee was said to have hovered around Rs 15 lakh each for the first 71 and Rs 25 lakh apiece for the remaining 40. And although he tried to get post facto sanction for the 40 seats from the executive council, he failed but they continue to be on the rolls and received salaries till date. He also managed to turn the Rims into a hotbed of corrupt contractors, most of them said to be relatives of his wife.

He went on a spree of digging drains and constructing walls all around and even stripped the wooden planks of the Gymkhana, paved it with cement and again installed teak flooring — all on contract. He also decreased the retirement age of the heads of departments from 65 to 62 years to enable his wife to head the department of anatomy.

When the Nursing College was established, he appointed her principal and when protests arose he made her the advisor of the college, overriding the principal. What was shocking was the manner in which he treated 47 men and women hired as daily wage workers who were being paid a paltry Rs 3,000 a month. The women were utilised by his wife as domestic help and have not been paid for the last five months while their salaries had been withdrawn. And often it was his wife, referred to as “Madam”, who would dole out their salaries at her residence — not in cash but in the form of Amway products for which she is today a platinum card holder agent.

According to Chongtham Bijoy Singh, who resides in the village adjoining Rims and had spent the last three years chronicling Sekharjit Singh’s misdeeds, the man was trying to behave as a despot and his wife, Damayanti, acted as if she was a reincarnate of Imelda Marcos.

Professor Chongtham Arun Singh acknowledged to The Statesman the public perception of Rims being in the centrestage of corruption and added that while he did not know how long he would be holding the office, he pledged to bring about transparency in all spheres of life at Rims, which, he hoped, would mitigate the apprehension of the public in days to come. For now, his morning walks have been rendered impossible because of the bevy of security guards detailed for his protection.

The writer is based in Imphal

India’s Gateway To The East


Given the shared heritage, there’s tremendous potential for New Delhi to push its economic interests with Yangon

In the minds of New Delhi’s elite, India’s South Asian neighbourhood is made up solely of the seven members of Saarc, even though we share no land borders with three of them. We tend to forget that four of our north-eastern States — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram — share a 1640 km land border with Myanmar. Not only is Myanmar a member of Bimstec, the Bay of Bengal grouping linking Saarc and Asean, it is also our gateway to the fast growing economies of East and Southeast Asia.

While successive leaders of Myanmar, who are devout Buddhists, have looked upon India predominantly in spiritual terms, as the home of Lord Buddha, they recognise that an economically vibrant India provides a balance to an increasingly assertive China. Sadly, we have not been able to take full advantage of either our shared Buddhist heritage by facilitating increased pilgrimages, or used our economic potential effectively to promote our interests.
Changing situation

Ties between India and Myanmar have quietly blossomed over the past two decades. The respective militaries and security agencies of the two countries have facilitated cooperation across the border. This has led to effective action against cross-border insurgencies and narcotics smuggling. Myanmar’s information minister recently reiterated his government’s readiness to crack down on Indian insurgent groups such as the ULFA (Assam), PLA (Manipur) and NSCN-K (Nagaland). India, in turn, has acted firmly against Myanmar insurgents entering its territory.

Myanmar has moved steadily in easing the rigours of military rule since the elections that swept President Thein Sein to power in 2011. The military still has a crucial role in national life, as negotiations are on to achieve a comprehensive ceasefire with 16 well-armed insurgent groups drawn from ethnic non-Burmese minorities. This is no easy task, but is a prelude to negotiations on the highly sensitive issue of federalism and provincial autonomy for ethnic minority areas.

After years of bonhomie during military rule, Myanmar’s relationship with its largest neighbour China is under strain. China’s Yunnan province borders the sensitive and insurgency-ridden Kachin and Shan states in Myanmar.
The China factor

China has helped significantly in building Myanmar’s infrastructure and equipping its military. India’s fears of Chinese bases in Myanmar were not borne out. But differences between China and Myanmar have grown recently, especially on large projects like the Myistone dam, which had to be junked, and a proposed railway line to connect Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal. There is growing opposition to Chinese projects in copper and nickel mining. The sentiment is that China has taken Myanmar for a ride regarding an oil pipeline linking Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukphu.

There are concerns over Chinese involvement with insurgent groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa Army. Despite this, border trade across the Yunnan-Myanmar border is booming, reaching $4.17 billion in 2013, against a mere $35 million border trade across the India-Myanmar border, though the “unofficial trade” (smuggling) across this border is estimated at around $300 million annually.

India’s former Ambassador to Myanmar VS Seshadri has authored a report spelling out how India has been tardy in building connectivity through Myanmar to Thailand and Vietnam and securing access for our landlocked north-eastern States to the Bay of Bengal. Our border trade regulations are formulated by mandarins in North Block and Udyog Bhavan who have no idea of the ground situation. They could learn a thing or two from China’s pragmatism — the manner in which it treats the markets with its neighbours not as foreign, but as extensions of its own markets. Opening up such trade will also enable our north-eastern States to meet their growing requirements of rice at very competitive rates.

Unless we learn to look at our neighbours the way China does, bearing in mind the inherent strengths of our economy, we can never match the economic influence of China on our borders in the North-East. The new minister for north-eastern affairs VK Singh has served at length in the North-East. It is hoped he will liberalise procedures and permit trade across borders with Myanmar in currencies traders mutually agree upon. Vehicles should move freely across the borders on roads through Myanmar, to Thailand and Vietnam.

Moreover, the “Kaladan multimodal corridor” linking our north-eastern States through the port of Sittwe in Myanmar will be useful only if Sittwe becomes the key port for India-Myanmar trade. India has done remarkably well in human resource development projects in Myanmar. It has played the lead role in the establishment of the Myanmar Institute of Information Technology, an advanced centre for agricultural research and education, an agricultural university and welcomed many Myanmar professionals for training in its medical and engineering institutions.
Tardy record

But we would be less than honest if we did not admit that in project and investment cooperation, our record has been tardy. After having secured exploration rights for gas in the Bay of Bengal, we conducted our project planning and diplomacy so clumsily that we did not have a strategy ready for taking the gas to India through a pipeline across Myanmar and our North-East, or for transporting it as LNG. China deftly stepped in and took away all this gas by expeditiously building a pipeline to Yunnan province.

In the mid 1990s, Myanmar offered us hydro-electric projects with a potential of over 1,000 MW across rivers near our borders. We took years to scrutinise these projects, which companies in South Korea earlier offered to construct. After nearly two decades we backed off. Our private companies too not been able to avail offers of land for plantations across Myanmar.

India was offered hundreds of acres of land for agriculture and for bamboo plantations for making paper pulp, close to its borders. Two private sector companies signed MoUs with Myanmar counterparts. But Myanmar officials found our private sector to be more bureaucratic than our government. India lost access to huge bamboo resources which went to a Thai company that clinched a deal in weeks — something our companies could not achieve for nearly two decades.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan
04 September 2014

Running Like The Wind

By Sudipta Bhattacharjee

There is a jinx on Mizoram. Or rather, its picturesque Raj Bhavan. Why else would four people in a row opt out of its gubernatorial joys in a matter of weeks?

Situated in the heart of the state capital, Aizawl, the Raj Bhavan, more compact than its sprawling counterparts elsewhere in the region, was built in 1899. Since then, it has undergone structural changes, but continues to hold pride of place, surrounded by the secretariat and the legislative assembly on the northern side, Republic Veng (a civilian residential area) on the east and a small children’s park, maintained by the forest department, to the west. It is certainly not this panoramic campus that is making governor-designates resign in a hurry.

Shortly after the National Democratic Alliance came to power, there began a scramble for resignations by governors appointed during the United Progressive Alliance regime. B.L. Joshi (Uttar Pradesh), Shekhar Dutt (Chhattisgarh), M.K. Narayanan (West Bengal), B.V. Wanchoo (Goa), Ashwani Kumar (Nagaland), V. Purushothaman (Mizoram) and K. Sankaranarayanan (Maharashtra) set the trend, followed by Sheila Dikshit, who was appointed the governor of Kerala in March, just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls and months after losing power in Delhi.

When Purushothaman left Aizawl, Kamla Beniwal, who had a running battle with Narendra Modi when he was the Gujarat chief minister, was shifted from the western state to Mizoram. After the NDA government came to power, she was sacked her for ‘misuse of office’ and Sankaranarayanan was chosen. He publicly criticized the decision. “[The president] has all the powers to transfer a governor, but then I thought it is not convenient... I decided not to go to Mizoram,” he announced.

Big mystery

The next name to do the rounds was that of Sheila Dikshit. First she met the Union home minister, Rajnath Singh, and the president, Pranab Mukherjee, in Delhi on hearing the plans to transfer her to Mizoram, and said she would resign if the government took such a decision. Last week, Dikshit resigned, claiming: “I did what my heart said I should do.”

While Mizoram awaits a new entrant to grace its Raj Bhavan, the Union minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju, has hit out at the governors who refused to be transferred to that state. Hailing from Arunachal Pradesh, he has taken the matter to heart. In a recent interview, he said: “It is a very emotive issue for me. When a person is posted to the Northeast and he refuses to go there, that person loses the moral authority to speak on equality in the country. If people like governors and IAS and IPS officers will only choose serving in metropolitan and comfortable cities, then they don’t deserve to be in their position.” He added that such people should “apologize to the nation and to the people of the Northeast.”

Postings in the region are often considered a ‘punishment’ because of problems of militancy, lack of infrastructure and facilities as well as the difficult terrain. But Mizoram has been an “oasis of peace” since 1986. It has an airport nestled amid blue hills, a fairly decent road network and a friendly people. Its Congress government is headed by a veteran leader, Lal Thanhawla, not known for crossing swords with the occupant of the Raj Bhavan. The state is culturally resplendent and unlike others in the region, dissidence, horse-trading and the juggling of chief ministers (situations when the governor galvanizes into action) is almost non-existent.

With no visible reason thus far to not accept the gubernatorial post, one wonders if the two historic wooden cannons, installed in 1979 at the gate of the Raj Bhavan, hold any clue to the mystery of the reluctant governor.
03 September 2014

What Course Must India’s Rice Import Take?

By Tejinder Narang

Importing rice for Tripura and Mizoram doesn’t seem easy, but it is also a $450 million opportunity for trade.

For the first time, FCI is compelled to import rice for the north-eastern states of Tripura and Mizoram, owing to temporary interruption in railway lines rather than lack of availability of rice. Monthly consumption of these two states is 40,000-50,000 tonnes, or about half a million tonne per annum.

Indian Railways is commencing gauge conversion of a 220-km track from Assam to Agartala (Tripura) from October 1, 2014, while the highways in the region are in a shoddy state. Imports for the next two years—about 1 million tonnes—through alternative routes are a necessity rather than an option. Also, due to absence of trucking-worthy cross-border routes, imports may have to be diverted through the Chittagong port in Bangladesh.

The current cost of procuring Indian rice is R2,755 per quintal and despatch expenses are R3,200 per quintal to Tripura from north or south of India. It totals R59,550 per tonne, or about $975, as against the $375-385 per tonne landed value of 25% broken Myanmar rice if supplied through Yangon port to Chittagong. After accounting for unloading at Chittagong, transit storage, shortage, demurrage, road transport of about 200 km to Agartala, financing charges, etc, it should not cost more than $450-460 per tonne delivered at the FCI depot in Agartala. A 0.5 million tonne import will be approximated at about $225 million (R1,370 crore) per year versus the R2,977 crore incurred under local arrangements. The apparent cost saving is 55%. But it is going to be logistical and procedural nightmare to handle this import.

FCI is attempting to engage three PSUs (PEC, MMTC and STC) for this import while they are not well-versed with the scope of the work involved. Normally, these PSUs finalise bids, contracting and shipments to Indian shores, hand over grains to FCI and transfer payments to foreign suppliers. But, in this case, Indian PSUs may not be able to deal effectively with customs/phyto-authorities of Chittagong, handling agents and transporters of Bangladesh. Port authorities in Chittagong can delay berthing/discharging vessels for India-bound cargo due to their own local priorities. Trucks can be in short supply as a 25,000-tonne parcel requires 2,500 trucks (10 tonne per truck). Agreements by rice handling agents or transporters may be breached. Pilferages may be attempted both during storage and transit. Even Bangladesh’s own wheat imports have 2-3% short-landing as a routine occurrence, for which they deduct payments of shippers.

There is no government company in Myanmar that can transact 0.5-1 million tonnes of rice; private players of Myanmar lack export financing and are happy doing container business. Myanmar’s annual rice export is around 8,50,000 tonnes. China is currently a major importer of its rice. If India chips in with its annual demand of 5,00,000 tonnes, rice prices can witness steep rise. FCI may, therefore, include other origins like Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia for evaluation of bidding and provide an option to supply these origins if commercial feasibility from Myanmar is eroded.

Global rice traders who can participate in this import are based in Singapore, Dubai or Bangkok. But will they be ready to undertake comprehensive operation for shipping rice from Myanmar or elsewhere, clearance at Chittagong, and then arranging despatches to Tripura at “fixed cost” to FCI/PSUs? That alternative must be explored.

There are three options for the government. First, import through PSUs if they are prepared to perform totality of operation themselves by disbursing actual expenses incurred by them. Second, let PSUs configure the bidding process where the foreign suppliers takes the full obligation at a “fixed price” for origin at Myanmar or elsewhere, for delivery at Agartala and builds in the risk premium for Bangladesh while the PSUs disburse the amount to them in two stages. Third, FCI issues a global tender in which PSUs and other foreign sellers bid and compete for delivery at Tripura from any origin and any route at a fixed price. The assurance of Bangladesh giving transit facilities to the Indian government must form an integral part of the tender document. The second alternative may be more practical.

The combined business of about two years is about $450 million and its extension to third year cannot be ruled out. The quantum and pace of import tendering depends upon urgency at Tripura and commercial considerations. Will overseas rice traders see this as an opportunity?

The author is a grains trade expert.
01 September 2014

Give Manipur its Life Back, And Irom Sharmila Her Freedom

Freedom fighter: Irom Sharmila is the most Gandhian figure of this generationBy Shiv Visvanathan

Often a phase, a body, a story of a person hangs like a question mark over a nation; stating things in a way which is unique.

When a young woman called Irom Sharmila decided to fast over a decade ago, the Indian state misread her acts.

They thought they would outlast her, out-think her, slander her, but every shed has a genius which can outwit a coercive state. Over 10 years, Irom Sharmila became a symbolic foil to Army rule, to a state which could not think beyond the Army for any act of policy.

Recently, the District and Sessions court Judge A. Guneswor Sharma ruled that Irom Sharmila could not be arrested because hers was not an act of suicide. Sharmila was fasting but she did not refuse forced feeding. The same judge released her only so that the state could arrest her again.


Reasons of state are more compulsive than reasons of humanity or judgment of law. A fragile woman threatened a nation state and the latter, like a Puglian dog does the predictable, re-arrests her before the people can sense her sense of freedom. Irom Sharmila is the most Gandhian figure of this generation. Like each Gandhian she is uniquely different. She does not weave, she does not spin, the only threats on her are the plastic tubes stuck into her. Her regimen is as rigorous as an ashram dweller, but her home is a hospitable bed guarded by security forces.

Yet there is a joy and laughter no security force can suppress. She openly claims that she is no martyr, no fundamentalist, dying to sacrifice her life, for her life is too precious for that. She wants AFSPA to end so she can marry the man she loves, engage in ordinary things which can make life so meaningful.

She claims she just wants to return to the normalcy of living and refuses to be a monument or a statue to some cause. All she is saying, simply like Simone Weil in Manipur, is: "I have no right to enjoy life when that normalcy, that dream of walking and living without constraint or fear is not available to my people."

She is right. AFSPA is a draconian band against normalcy, a way of freezing life, at 4pm. So that the Army and insurgence can take over Manipur by 6. At 4 you can sense the tension, shops start shutting down, watch woman packing the bundles because the streets have to be deserted at six. This is the obscenity Irom is protesting.

Once you unleash an Army against your own people , the Army gets brutalised and citizens become more vulnerable, democracy dies a ritual death every day, and Delhi does not even give it a footnote as it is obsessed with security. What we have here is an apolitical impasse between an Army that will not risk its soldiers without AFSPA, which gives the demonic powers, and a woman who claims that a people deserve the normalcy of life, livelihood and living.

Over 10 years since her fast began, the struggle of Irom Sharmila reflects a deep need for change in Manipur
Over 10 years since her fast began, the struggle of Irom Sharmila reflects a deep need for change in Manipur

One has to go beyond the frozen script. Politics needs the humility to admit it has emasculated the lives of people, not only torturing innocence but destroying the innocence of Manipur. To re-arrest her is the knee-jerk act of a knee-jerk society. India as a society and the BJP as a new regime has to realise first that AFSPA is not the only solution and secondly, it distances other solutions.

Tyranny as order is not an act of problem-solving and sensitive judges and intelligent officers have realised this. I am not quoting seditious documents but reading from the Justice Jeevan Reddy report which needs a second look and time-bound application.

We need peace, and we need to realise that the last thing India needs to do is to behave like Israel and Gaza strip. As a nation, we have to realise law and order is a loaded term. It can be insensitive for the security forces and yet it can also be a beginning of grumbling, but welcoming normalcy.

Today, AFSPA has almost become a frozen contract between the Army and insurgence to freeze politics. Irom's rearrest merely confirms this.

Let us realise that Narendra Modi cannot relate to SAARC till he renews the border areas in the North-east. The two cannot be isolated. To even think so is silly. This is a domain which will open further as a new railway line will be built across Manipur, all the way to Burma and Thailand.


The government has to realise that it is not the middle class in Delhi that wants change. The people in Manipur also do. It needs the humanity which realises that the brutalisation of Manipuri students in South Delhi and devastation of the state may both come from the suppression of Manipur.

Many experts and Army officers will tell you over tea that, "these people are different. They don't understand democracy". Irom's fast is an answer to such illiteracy.

It is the simple wisdom of a woman telling the Army, telling the insurgence that there is a world of life and living beyond them. If that is sedition, let me call it the highest form of patriotism, a patriotism which is a toast to life and which is intensely life giving.

One realises that politics is the art of the possible. Army officers often confess that they can't send the bodies in without AFSPA. I realise that the Army is only the wing of the state. All Irom's fast is asking for is return to politics and to citizenship.

A continued state of emergency desecrates the society and democracy. And this we cannot allow. This is the content of her appeal. It's a prayer to return the normal everyday to Manipuri life.

The writer is a social science nomad

Cowards Against The Brave

By Garga Chatterjee

It is not accidental that there are four lions staring down at anyone who might take the Satyamev at face value.


Certain truths are always hidden from public attention. Hence, beyond the affected victims, they do not form a part of public memory. In the year 1966, when the Indian Air Force was bombing large parts of Mizoram, including the present capital city of Aizawl, many Mizos were desperately trying to seek refuge to save their life. The sanitised term “collateral damage” was not in vogue back then.
Those were not the days of precision bombing. That there is no such thing called precision bombing even now is evident from Gaza to Baghdad, where those who claim precision in targeting undesirables provide a rich harvest of dead non-combatants.

When the Mizos were getting bombed with the kind of discrimination and precision using incendiary bombs that only an Air Force raised on Gandhian ideology can provide, many of the bombed people must have had a lot of thoughts rushing through their heads. It is my suspicion that some of thoughts were not exactly ones of affection towards the Union of India.

Legally, sedition involves incitement of disaffection towards the state. It is not entirely impossible that some Mizo fathers and mothers incited their daughters and sons to be disaffected towards the powers that were bombing them. And in doing so, they became serious criminals under the law of the Indian Union’s land.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had famously proclaimed that affection for the state (the Union of India in the Mizo case) could not be manufactured or regulated by law. However it is quite possible to create a situation where the grandchildren of bombed people are made to turn out in smart saffron, white, and green uniforms for August 15 festivities in Aizawl.

School children under the watch of armed personnel seem to be a favourite setting for affection manufacturing activities. Smiling children. Happy nation. Waving flags. Zero sedition. No one is a bigger criminal than a state that uses its armed might against civilians it considers to be its own citizens. Incidentally, Mizoram shares a border with the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Some things don’t change – the name of the aggressor and the victim may change.

Like most black laws that an anxious nation-state uses to curb anything that tries to puncture its mythology and glorious creation story, the axe is typically used to shut up those who try to adhere to the official Hindustani slogan “Satyamev Jayate” (truth alone prevails). It is not accidental that there are four lions staring down at anyone who might want to take the Satyamev pronouncement at face value.

Very often, the lions go out to hunt in packs. Too many undesirable people, whose remains will never be found, know this well. That is how much of the instant justice for sedition is meted out. It is only when a relatively powerful person breaks the silence that the lions seem unsure what to do. They roar, but don’t bite.

Recently, there has been uproar against a member of the Indian Union parliament, and said member’s comments are said to have been “seditious.” Kalvakuntla Kavitha, a Telengana Rashtria Samithi member of parliament, allegedly said: “Jammu and Kashmir, and Telangana were both forcefully, and at the same time, annexed to the Indian Union. When I say I feel strongly, it’s because we were both separate countries, but were merged with the Indian Union after Independence. In 1947, we were not a part of India.”

Her father is the elected chief minister of Telengana, a newly established state whose contours resemble in a large way the Nizam of Hyderabad’s erstwhile dominion. Her father’s stature, her MP status, and the reading down of the sedition law in 1962 will ensure that no harm comes to her as far as the sedition case is concerned.

The hunted have always outnumbered the hunters, and anything that puts the focus back on the hunted expands liberty. There is no space for naiveté at the level of a parliamentarian, but even with its cynical calculation and political intent, whatever opening is provided, ought to be cherished and celebrated. Only rarely do the contradictions between the powerful come to the fore – when it comes to the origin myths of a nation-state like the Indian Union.

What is left unsaid in the slogan “truth alone prevails” is “when.” Does truth prevail by its own merit as if my magic, is it allowed to prevail strategically to earn points for openness so that more damaging truths can be suppressed?

Section 124(A) of the Indian penal code deals with sedition. Sedition is a law for the powerful against the powerless, of the anxious against the confident, of fiction against fact, of the rulebook against dreams, of the coward against the brave.

An anxious nation-state fears plebiscites. A humane state embraces the people’s will. People who expose origin myths as well as the crimes of the government under whose jurisdiction they live are typically targeted as seditious. They disrupt the long lullaby of the non-violent creation of India and Indians. To consider a nation-state and its political mythology holy is a slur to the sacred – the kind that predates all man-written books, laws, and constitutions.

We must all be fearful of lions because a beast that has tasted blood does not rest even when it is not in the jungle. The shrillness with which K Kavitha has been demonised only shows the weak and tense foundations of the India-making project. And she hasn’t even gone halfway down the path of the parliamentarian, the departed GG Swell, who showed bomb-covers in the Lok Sabha when patriotic tricoloured lions refused to own up to their aerial hunt in Mizoram. Lions love Section 124(A). As long as the hunter holds sway about the story of the hunt, sedition laws will remain. The browns are an unfortunate people.