Northeast India Makes it Amply Clear That Ecology Is Political

Governments tend to ignore the people who live in the 'resource frontier' and how they relate to the environment. Localised resistance is ensuring that doesn't happen.

“How are you bastards doing this evening?” the young boy holding the mike shouted out to the vast audience in front of him.

It was a cold January evening in the sleepy town of Lekhapani, Upper Assam. The occasion was one of the early editions of the ‘Dehing Patkai Festival’ initiated by the Assam government in order ‘to bring the tourist potentialities of the catchment areas of the river Dehing and the Patkai foothills into the limelight’.

That evening, the pandal was jam packed, the chairs mostly taken by families with small babies and elderly women. The ‘organisers’ welcomed on stage ‘an important patron of culture’ (a successful contractor of coal or oil, perhaps a former militant – a powerful local figure), the ‘patron’ in a heavily slurred tongue introduces his young son: ‘a rising star, based in Delhi, winning many awards in Western music’.

As the ‘rising star’ delivers one heavy metal rock number after another, laced with abuses and expletives, I look around the crowd. The aunties and grandmothers look numb, thankfully oblivious to the ‘alien’ abuses and cuss words. The young crowd, standing at the back, seeming relatively responsive but not really enthralled either. The prevailing mood was one of tolerance – not of anger and irritation, as one would usually expect.

The seemingly mundane episode gave me glimpse into the ways everyday life unfolds in the ‘resource frontiers’ of Northeast India. It was an insight into the heartland of a ‘militarised carbon landscape’, into lives built around tea, oil, coal and coated with vernacular ideas of power, status, obligation.

In recent times, news about a few government decisions to expand resource extraction in parts of Northeast India has led to significant opposition across a wide spectrum, alleging potential irreparable ecological damage to sensitive biodiversity zones. These include the reported clearance given for open-cast coal mining by the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) inside the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (part of Dehing Patkai elephant reserve), the Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) giving clearance for the extension of drilling and testing of hydrocarbons at seven locations by OIL under the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park area (that includes the Maguri-Motapong wetland area considered crucial for migratory birds) and the go-ahead given (and subsequently put on hold) for the Etalin mega hydroelectric project at Dibang valley, Arunachal Pradesh.

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While the reactions and the oppositional machinations triggered by these series of announcements have received significant attention, it is also a good time to understand the complex equation between nature, nation state and the nationalities that makes up these spaces. An equation that is at the heart of unlocking the perpetual ‘environmental crisis’ that the region seems to be going through.

For this, one needs to engage with the ways the region has been historically conceptualised and continues to be reproduced as a resource frontier, as ’empty’ or under-populated wilderness, which hold the promise for high rates of return on investment. An inevitable product of ‘capitalist globalisation’, when “capital actively seeks out and establishes new resource peripheries, thereby reproducing uneven development and marginalisation.” For this we need to understand the (yet unfolding) history of these frontier spaces invested in resource appropriation.

A region on the cusp of empires

“Take these to your queen and tell her these are the weapons we fight with. You cannot enter Thibet, it is against the order of the Chinese Government. Go back, or we will kill you,” a Mishimi chief told Thomas Thornvill Cooper after presenting him a Dao (native sword) and spear.

Cooper was the first Englishman to extensively tour the Mishmi Hills and who was exploring a trade route from India to China via the Mishimi region (present Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh). Although the ‘tragic rebellion’ didn’t hold in the long run, this episode, in essence, reflects a lot on the dynamics that were to unfold in the region in the years to come.

The 19th-century ‘discovery’ of oil, tea and coal in the eastern Himalayan foothills had a profound impact on the life in the region that endures the passages of time. With these ‘discoveries’, the region turned into one of the most important eastern frontier outposts of the British India empire.

Due to its locational importance and resource capacity, the region also became a critical zone in the events of the Second World War. One needs to remember that the oil ‘discovered’ in Digboi, leading to pioneering ventures in commercial oil in the subcontinent, was marketed under the brand ‘Burmah Oil Company’ (BOC). The technical geological category ‘Assam Arakan basin’ still persists in the dictions of oil exploration in the region.

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Thus, in the imagination of the ‘empires’ (past and present), the cartographical region transforms into an extended resource frontier. In this way, the region one calls as Northeast India today is not unfamiliar to global trade, historically speaking.

Interestingly (but not surprisingly), the coal town of Ledo, at the heart of the recent protests, is also the starting point of the historic Stilwell road (locally known as Ledo road) from the Indian side, a road that connects Assam of India with Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province of China, passing through Northern Myanmar. While the Second World War heritage of the road is well known, what is not equally known is that the route has also been a major preferred route of migratory waves from across the Southeast Asian continent. The road and the surrounding borderland areas remains a major artery of nostalgia, historical bonds and goodwill for people living across both sides of the borders.

However, in the present circumstances, one is not sure whether the ‘Act East Policy’ echoes similar sentiments of ‘connectivity’. Several measures have been undertaken under the aegis of the Act East policy to ‘connect’ Northeast India with Southeast Asia. The era of ‘the New Great Game’ played out between China and India has been a key influence on most of the geopolitical development in South and Southeast Asia, and this dynamic seems to be having potential environmental impacts for the northeastern region, with competing endeavours between India and China to strengthen respective user rights of the shared rivers by making dams, etc.

As recent examples from Southeast Asia (forest zones of Indonesia, Laos) show, frontier spaces can be actively ‘peripheralised’ even while being integrated into a globalised economy. Thus, the important question to ask is what role does the coal from the rainforests, electricity from the mountain rivers, and oil from the forest wells, play in these ‘grand’ schematics of the nations? After all, the state of nature reveals a lot on the nature of the state.

Politics as inevitably ecological, ecology as inherently political

The protest around the proposed measures have gained momentum mostly through social media and other internet-based forums, thus marking a coming of age of ‘digital protest’ in the frontiers. The young people of the region are once again the prominent faces of the protest.

Students from different universities and colleges of the region (and also students from the region based in various institutions outside their home states) have taken the initiative to raise awareness and create wider public opinion against the proposed government decisions. The proactive role played by the students and young people of the region takes one back to a terrain of continuous struggles, that needs to be understood and made sense of. After all, slogans like ‘We will give our blood, but not our oil’ have been a hallmark of tumultuous social movements in the region for the past many decades.

Fast forwarding to few decades in 2003, one comes across another case when the Netherlands-based Premier Oil Company enters an agreement with Hindustan Oil Exploration Company (HOEC) to explore for oil around Joypur Dehing Patkai forest ranges and withdraws later from the venture after intense local protests. The recent episodes also must be read in the context of the various social movements going on in these regions for the past many decades for land rights, against big dams, many localised resistance against mining of coal, oil, natural gas.

As positions taken by student-youth organisations like the All Assam Students Union, Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad as well as by proscribed militant organisations like ULFA (Independent) show, natural resources and, as an extension, ecological identities are considered by them as an appendage to the ‘ethno-nationalist’ aspirations, they ‘belong’ to a people. What is ‘natural’ is taken to be an extension of the ‘national’ at different levels.

Also read: Govts and People Must Come Together to Preserve the Environmental Gains of the Lockdown

However, despite the decades of protest and activism, HOEC remains active in the area and besides it, Assam Petrochemicals Limited as well as North Eastern Coalfields (NEC) have sought permission in recent times to either expand their operations or initiate new operations around these ecologically sensitive zones. The stories about long lines of coal-laden trucks without number plate moving out every night from the coal towns, the parade of trucks ‘mysteriously’ not stopped at any check posts, local scribes reporting on them ‘disappearing’, syndicates based on ‘donations’ thriving, stories such as these coming out incessantly over the years from these places remind one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional town of Macondo, a space existing in the perilous ruins of capitalism. It must compel one to take a closer look on how a complex web of resource extraction, militarisation, aspirations and class formation makes up spaces like these.

Amidst this seemingly ‘confusing’ scenario, what has become increasingly evident is that nature is no more a passive backdrop to political events. Furthermore, there need to be efforts to relate environmental change to aspects of political economy, cultural politics and social transformation. This also needs to be extended to understand the continuous (at times contradictory) engagement of conservationist NGOs in this region with various official schemes and policies on the environmental questions, to see how the resource frontier is also a ‘salvage frontier’.

The Amazon forests are a prime example of this, where “plans were set in motion to save the environment in the process of destroying it. Where making, saving, and destroying resources are utterly mixed up, where zones of conservation, production, and resource sacrifice overlap almost fully, and canonical time frames of nature’s study, use, and preservation are reversed, conflated, and confused.”

In their haplessness the two Amazons meet, the ‘Amazon of the East’ with the South American Amazons! The recent episodes in Upper Assam and Arunachal Pradesh calls for a need to engage with ecological politics, ‘an attempt to unravel the political forces at work in environmental access, management, and transformation’, going beyond calls of ‘environment conservation’.

The rivers of imagination, forests of hope

The rainforests of Dehing Patkai, aquatic biosphere of Dibru Saikhowa and the mountain scapes of Dibang Valley are a prime example as to how “the borderlands in Asia tend to be peripheral to the centres of state power, while they are at the same time a prime locus for the enactment and realisation of state authority” (Asian Borderlands Research Network, 2016). In cases like India resources in these ‘frontiers spaces’ are regulated both in the name of ‘national interest’ as well as ‘national security’, often collapsed into one.

I want to end with a traditional Mishing folksong (Oi: Nitom) which depicts a vision of a life lived well:

O’ dear, let’s build a house
Even if big or small
Near the bank of Bornoi (Brahmaputra)
By our paddy fields
That will protect us
from the ray
of the Sun and the Moon.

Such assuring and heartwarming imaginations will move closer to realisation only when one begins to understand the ways questions of ‘environment’ are inseparable from people’s everyday lived realities and their attachments with the land, and how these are placed in the schemas of the geo-political state.

Kaustubh Deka is assistant professor of political science at Dibrugarh University, Assam.