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

In A Tiger Reserve in Mizoram, Camera Traps Are Taking Pictures of Gunmen

By M Rajshekhar 

Photo Credit: M Rajshekhar

Along the length of Mizoram’s border with Bangladesh lies the Dampa tiger reserve, sprawled across 1,000 sq km. This tropical forest stretching over hills and valleys has few – if any – tigers and leopards. But there are large numbers of smaller mammals – martens, civets, clouded leopards, binturungs, golden cats, marbled cats, leopard cats, and vulnerable species like the Malayan Sun bear. Despite the rich fauna, the camera traps laid by biologists to photograph the prowling cats often end up taking images of gunmen.

The park is overrun by assorted gunmen, from local hunters to armed insurgents. A senior forest official in Mizoram's forest department estimates that, given Dampa's location, abutting Mizoram's border with Bangladesh and Tripura, the reserve is used by as many as 12 separatist groups variously to enter or leave India.

Key among them are splinter groups of the Shanti Bahini, which is fighting for Chakma autonomy in Bangladesh, and the National Liberation Front of Tripura, which wants to establish the state as an independent Christian nation.

In recent years, the NLFT has carried out a set of kidnappings in and around Dampa. The most recent took place in February, when NLFT insurgents, working with the Bru Democratic Front of Mizoram, kidnapped 22 workers of the Border Roads Organisation near Dampa. While the Mizos were released the same day, two non-Mizos were taken hostage. Unconfirmed reports suggest they were eventually allowed to go, but only after ransom payments were made.

Armed insurgents, however, aren’t the only threat to the park. Dampa exemplifies the complexities of wildlife conservation in the North East, a region where not just animals, even people are caught in the throes of upheaval.

Squeezed by people

The villages near Dampa are home to people of the Bru tribe, an ethnic minority in a state where the Mizo tribe is dominant. Violence against the Bru people in 1997 and again in 2009 drove thousands of them to flee Mizoram for neighbouring Tripura.

Over the last couple of years, they have begun to return. Pu Sanga, a resident of Damparengpui, a village close to Dampa's core area, is one of the Brus who stayed on. In his fifties now, Sanga estimates that over the last two years, the village's population has swelled from 300 families to 500.

The increase in population has a direct impact on the reserve. The Brus are dependent on the traditional livelihood of jhum, or shifting cultivation, where the community farms in a different part of its traditional lands each year, burning a a patch of the local forest to create a clearing. After the end of the farming season, the patch is left fallow to recover, while a new one is cleared elsewhere for the next season.

Ever since the refugees began to return, Priya Singh, a wildlife biologist studying clouded leopards at Dampa, has noticed an increase in the clearing of forests in the park's 500 square kilometres buffer zone.

But shifting cultivation alone cannot support households for an entire year, especially with rising numbers. People have always turned to the forest for hunting and gathering minor forest produce. But as the buffer crumbles, most of them are now heading into the park's core area.

Failed attempts

Mizoram's response to these threats is weak. For years, successive governments have been running programmes to wean people away from shifting cultivation. The latest iteration of this programme, started by the Indian National Congress government shortly after it came to power in December 2008, is the New Land Use Policy. However, ask people in the villages near Dampa about it and they are categorical that most benefits have gone to people close to the Congress.

To tackle the insurgents, India is erecting a 62 km-long fence along the western flank of Dampa. The Supreme Court directed the government last December to expedite work.

As for the threat of poaching, Dampa is ill-equipped to combat it, given the systemic problems with its staffing and funding. The state government has very few permanent staff at the park – just 17. The bulk of the patrolling is done by 170 forest guards, drawn from villages in Dampa's fringe, who are hired as daily wage workers. These workers are not paid by the state forest department but from central funds given by the National Tiger Conservation Authority for Project Tiger.

Usually, forest guards are not posted for duty in the village they belong to, since this results in a conflict of interest as they are reluctant to catch offenders from their own village. In Dampa, this rule is not followed. In Terei village, about 12 km to the east of Damparengpui, 16 people of the village work in the forest department. All of them are stationed in Terei itself. At least one attempt to transfer them was reportedly stymied after the guards approached local politicians for help.

Unpaid salaries

While the job of the forest guard is a valued one, the salaries remain low and stagnant. “All of them make Rs 6,600-Rs 6,700,” said Singh, the wildlife biologist. “Even those who have been working for almost 20 years get paid as much as someone hired a month ago.”

But for the last six months, even these low wages have not reached the forest guards. The Guwahati-based regional director of the National Tiger Conservation Authority, DP Bankwal, told that the money for the salaries had been released by the organisation. “We released one-third of the park's allocation in June, even before the budget had been passed,” he said. The allocation was sent to the state finance department which was supposed to release the money to the forest department, but a senior wildlife official said that the money had not arrived in the department coffers.

In terms of scale, the problem of delayed payments is larger than just Dampa, said Rajesh Gopal, the former head of the the National Tiger Conservation Authority. The problem plagues most states in the North East. “There was a similar delay in releasing funds at Kaziranga [in Assam]. In Nameri National Park [in Assam's Sonitpur district], with great arm-twisting, we were able to get 2013-'14 salaries paid out a few months ago.”

Underfunded and unprotected

Mizoram, said the state wildlife official, allocates very little money to the forest department – one reason Dampa uses centrally allocated Project Tiger funds for paying forest guards. The underfunding has ensured that the state forest department has – at best – antiquated guns like .303 rifles. This is the reason that the guards cite for not patrolling the western flank of the park, which borders Bangladesh, and sees the movement of insurgent groups. A local forest officer told Scroll, on the condition of anonymity, that “patrolling is underway only in the east and the south”.

The outcome: parts of the park are entirely unprotected. Singh, while installing her camera traps, could only cover the north-eastern part of the park. The rest of the area, the forest department told her, was not safe.

But the National Tiger Conservation Authority is getting impatient with the poor results. “All this talk of insurgency is an excuse,” said Bankwal, the organisation's regional director. “What is stopping them [the forest guards] from going on patrols with police?” There might be some merit in this view. The forest guards are drawn from the same community as the insurgents, which makes it less likely for them to get targeted. But another reason for their reluctance to patrol could be their low and irregular salaries.

Incidentally, in Mizoram, it is not only the forest guards who are getting delayed salaries. A health department staffer told, on the condition of anonymity, that even National Rural Health Mission salaries were late. Community health volunteers under the ASHA programme were yet to get their dues amounting to an average of about Rs 6,000 each. The day Scroll travelled to Dampa, students in Aizawl and other towns were protesting against the delay in the arrival of their scholarship funds.

The next story in this series will look at why the state is failing to make these payments on time. In the meantime, the future of Dampa, which Gopal describes as "an important forest linkage between Bangladesh and India," looks uncertain. 

18 March 2015

Reimagining Dimapur

Dimapur Lynching,   Dimapur rapist lynching, Dimapur mob lynching, Syed Sharif Khan, illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant, Dimapur Bangladeshi Lynching, Sanjib Baruah column, indian express column, ie column

By Sanjib Baruah

By all indications, the lynching of Syed Sharif Khan was the result of an episode of moral panic about the so-called IBI — “illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant” — in Dimapur. Sociologists use the term “moral panic” to describe heightened public anxiety, triggered by media frenzy, about an individual, a minority group or a subculture seen as an imminent threat to social order.

The media has always been an active contributor to moral panics. But it seems that in a new media environment that includes mobile phones, the internet and social networks, there can be situations when crime and punishment move from the courts and prisons to the street. And the street can turn into a theatre of the absurd, or reality television of a frightening variety. The lynching of Syed Sharif Khan was the mediated spectacle of capital punishment of a person who — it is now believed — may not have been guilty of any crime. It is not accidental that these horrendous events unfolded in Dimapur.

While many in India seem to think of Dimapur as a remote place, historians of World War II know it as an important strategic location. It was the main supply depot for the British 14th Army in its war with the Japanese. That is why capturing Dimapur was an important strategic goal for the Japanese. What made Dimapur so strategic was its railhead.

Thanks to a metro-centric bias, we don’t think of places like Dimapur as urban spaces. However, those who study urbanisation in India deeply disagree with the way urban spaces are officially defined. Concepts like subaltern urbanisation or vernacular urbanism, debated among academics, give a sense of the issues involved. In the words of Naga journalist Y. Merina Chishi, Dimapur is “a city of villages”.

Even important government buildings like the deputy commissioner’s office are located in “villages”, as are some of the city’s posh areas.

In that regard, Dimapur may have a lot in common with the urban villages of Delhi, where many Northeasterners live. But Dimapur is also a city in the important sense that, like many other cities in the world, it is where people have to live with difference and deal with heterogeneity, both cultural and economic. Escaping to the comfort zones of imagined homogeneity is not an option.

Dimapur is Nagaland’s only plains district. Its topography explains why Dimapur has the railhead, which was the reason why the Dimapur mauza of what was then the Nowgong district of Assam was transferred to the Naga Hills district in the early part of the last century — giving an opening to a district closed off by the Inner Line. The same railhead made Dimapur strategically important in the last World War. Even today, the railhead gives Dimapur its special economic niche. And since it is in the plains, Dimapur has always been outside the Inner Line regime. It is hardly surprising, then, that it is the state’s economic hub and attracts migrants from other parts of the country (and possibly some from Bangladesh), as well as from the rest of Nagaland.

But perhaps it is equally unsurprising that in a state with all other districts closed to settlement by those not from the region, Dimapur should become the focus of fears about so-called IBIs, or about outsiders corrupting Naga society. The growing demographic imbalance between Dimapur, with its growing non-Naga population, and the rest of Nagaland is also a source of significant political consternation.

Dimapur has the only general unreserved seat in the Nagaland assembly. The constituency has an electorate that is many times that of other Nagaland constituencies. In 2002, the Delimitation Commission awarded four additional seats to Dimapur based on population shifts. The commission, however, did not get into the potentially explosive issue of whether those seats should be general or reserved.

Fortunately, an ordinance in 2008 deferred the delimitation of constituencies in Nagaland till 2031, kicking the proverbial can down the road.

Interestingly enough, what worries so many Naga activists and politicians about Dimapur are exactly the things that serious thinkers about northeast India’s economic future find promising. The region’s future prosperity, they believe, lies in the ability to create more Dimapur-like open economic spaces in the hill states of the region. The late B.G. Verghese was a great friend of the Northeast. Something of a futurist when it came to the region — and an eternal optimist — he extolled an implicit Dimapur model in some of his writings. In November 2014, during his trip to the Northeast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off the first passenger train from Mendipathar in Meghalaya’s North Garo Hills district to Guwahati. In a book published in 1996, Verghese had speculated on what this railway link could do to Meghalaya’s economy. Certain areas, he wrote, including perhaps Mendipathar itself, could be de-reserved or made free zones, “like Dimapur in Nagaland, where ‘outsiders’ may freely invest and settle”. Such a step, he thought, would build confidence and attract capital to the hill state. Elsewhere, he wrote of economic spaces designed for servicing the hills, again modelled on Dimapur.

Many of the colonial era institutions that persisted in the Northeast, like the Inner Line, acquired important new functions after the end of the Raj. They have morphed into instruments of protective discrimination. Many benefits have come from these continuities. But the trouble with path dependency is that societies can be locked into dysfunctional institutional arrangements even when better alternatives are available.

The difficulty with the Inner Line is rooted its very history. As historian Bodhisattva Kar succinctly puts it, the Inner Line was “not only a territorial exterior of the theatre of capital — it was also a temporal outside of the historical pace of development and progress”. The choice is not between keeping those institutions and abolishing them. Verghese seems to have thought that the Dimapur model, in some ways, provides a way out of the impasse.

The hard lesson that Nagaland and the rest of northeast India must draw from the events in Dimapur is that the region must find a way of bringing in a politics that is based not just on the memories of shared ethnic pasts, but on the vision of a common future for those who live in the region today.

The writer is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York
12 March 2015

Myanmar Needs Help of Both China and India

By Ding Gang

India has been actively mediating peace talks to end clashes in northern Myanmar recently. According to an Indian Express report on Monday, New Delhi has agreed to arrange Myanmar ethnic rebel leader's visit to India and sent representatives to negotiate with the Myanmar government and ethnic armed rebels.

India enjoys favorable geographical conditions and a shared ethnic heritage in helping northern Myanmar's reconciliation. Northern Myanmar lies between India and China, connected by the Stilwell Road, which was built during World War II.

The road is still a significant transportation channel until today. A large number of Chinese products are transported to the port markets of India-Myanmar border through this road.

Ethnic minorities in this area span all the three countries. For example, Kachin, the main ethnic minorities in Myanmar's Kachin state, could also be found in India's Assam state as well as China's Yunnan Province.

Of course, self-interest is one of the main reasons why New Delhi is willing to push peace talks in northern Myanmar, because stability in this area is directly related to stability in northeast India.

In recent years, India has often suffered from Myanmar's ethnic conflicts in the country's northeast. In 2012, an estimated number of 100,000 Chins seeking refuge flocked to the Mizoram state of India.

Besides, India itself also faces severe challenges from the separatist activities of minority extremists in the northeast. If northern Myanmar could be secure and stable, it could help strengthen security cooperation between the two countries.

Moreover, if India could play an important role in maintaining stability in Myanmar, it can encourage China to make more efforts in this field, and enhance mutual trust between China and India.

The negotiations over Sino-Indian border dispute are struggling forward, and the main factor that affects the process is the low-level of mutual trust.

In this context, if the two countries could coordinate to make some progress in the northern Myanmar peace talks, mutual understanding between Beijing and New Delhi will be increased, which could benefit the negotiations over border disputes between the two.

China and India are not only close neighbors, but also fellow member states of BRICS. Now that the two have already established some cooperation mechanisms, and further enhancing collaboration under the framework of BRICS is also under way.

However, both China and India still need to play a bigger role in regional affairs, which requires the two sides to enhance their coordination. In such circumstances, promoting the peace talks in northern Myanmar is an exploration for building up cooperative mechanisms.

India's ability at mediation is probably weaker than that of China. But as long as India is willing to make efforts, China should respond positively by creating conditions and increasing information exchanges with India.

China is carrying forward the "One Belt, One Road" initiative, which includes the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor. The initiative is not only an economic task, but also a diplomatic mission.

To achieve the goal of implementing this project, there is lots of concrete and detailed diplomatic work to do, including enhancing communication and coordination in the region, in order to solve problems and build a stable and peaceful mechanism based on consultative democracy.

India chooses to mediate the clashes in northern Myanmar at this point, not only for its "Look East" policy, but also that India has realized Myanmar's intent to strengthen ties with India.

An enhanced relationship between India and Myanmar should not be regarded as a constraint on China-Myanmar relations, even if the Myanmar government is considering balancing China's influence.

We should have the self-confidence that small and medium-sized countries in Asia, such as Myanmar, need China in their development. China should learn to adapt to Asia, which is constantly looking for a new balance with the rise of China. For example, gradually eliminating India's mistrust about cooperating with China is a wise move.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily. He is now stationed in Brazil. Follow him on Twitter at @dinggangchina

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-11 23:58:01 
10 March 2015

Identity and Crisis: Nagaland Lynching Reflects Northeast's Fissures

By Abhishek Saha

Activists of All Assam Minorities Students Union shout slogans during a torch protest against the lynching of a man accused of rape. (AP Photo)

A few days before the lynching of rape accused Syed Farid Khan in Dimapur, my mother, who lives in Guwahati, called up to share something that had disturbed her.

That day, my mother said, the vegetable vendor at the bazar had a tiff with some customers. The men, she said, slapped the vendor and warned him, "You miyas (a pejorative used for both Bangladeshis and Bengali-speaking Muslims) better learn to behave in our land."

When my mother accosted the men and asked if they knew for sure the vendor was a Bangladeshi, they dismissed her query and claimed it was obvious - their reason being he was a Muslim and spoke Bengali.

Initial reactions to Khan's lynching were no different: several political groups, the media and even a top police officer of Dimapur claimed the lynched man was a Bangladeshi without verifying facts. By Saturday afternoon, however, the air was cleared and it was confirmed Khan belonged to a family of soldiers, leave alone being a foreigner. He was a Bengali-speaking Muslim whose family had lived in Assam for generations.

This kneejerk reaction reflects the vulnerability of identities in the Northeast, where communities have been involved in ethnic and communal clashes born out of perceived socio-cultural threats.
"The initial reaction shows how simplistic and narrow the understanding of identity is here. A person's religion and his language is enough to make assumptions about his nationality, without caring to analyse any further," says Thangkhanlal Ngaihte, a former Manipuri journalist.

"There is fear regarding the people perceived to be 'Bangladeshis', the fear of losing out on resources and opportunities. And a lot of it is politically motivated."

The history of the migration of Bengali-speaking people, both Hindus and Muslims, into the Northeast is an old one, ranging from the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. Socio-political debates continue on the issue, even as analysts argue it is more a "political bogey" than a serious large-scale threat to India.

Growing up in Assam in the 1990s, I was often called a 'Bangal', a derogatory reference to Bengali speakers and a remnant of the anti-Bengali sentiment stoked during the Assam Movement. I have also witnessed chauvinistic crowds rough up working class men from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh on the streets of Guwahati.

Parallel to that, I saw the identity movements of the Bodo, Karbi and Rabha tribes grow and often turn violent. The Bodoland movement, over the years, has claimed thousands of Assamese and Bengali lives, both Muslims and Hindus, while separatist movements have raged in Manipur and Nagaland.

The Northeast, in addition to its original, highly heterogeneous ethnic composition, has experienced a series of migrations - Ahoms from South Asia who came in 1228 and ended up ruling for six centuries, Bengali Hindus and Muslims from erstwhile undivided Bengal, Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh in several phases, Nepalis and Marwaris.

Because of these migrations, indigenous communities always voiced their fears of losing their identity along with their land to "outsiders". And this fear of the "other", laid bare to the manipulation of sectarian and identity politics, has led to the worst of consequences.

"Though many identity movements in the Northeast started historically as resistance against different dominant hegemonies, over time, most of these have degenerated into exclusivist notions of identity, where all sense of solidarity between different oppressed groups have given away to a sense of mutual suspicion," says Kaustubh Deka, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Delhi.

"The overall overarching backdrop is the crumbling resources that all are fighting for. Phobia for the outsider is born out of that insecurity. A community always evolves through contestations and uncertainties, forcefully trying to change this course leads to violent outcomes," Deka adds.

Khan's lynching isn't merely a case study of how awful vigilante justice can be, or for that matter of reverse racism by the tribes of the Northeast. It is, to say the least, an indication of the highly complex demographic processes that are underway in the region.
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