In Na­ga­land, coal fu­els dreams of pros­per­ity

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - DOLLY KIKON news­room@mm­ Dolly Kikon is a po­lit­i­cal an­thro­pol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne.

NA­GA­LAND is a hill state in north­east In­dia. It at­tracts a mul­ti­tude of tourists and vis­i­tors to the an­nual Horn­bill Fes­ti­val, the most im­por­tant state fes­ti­val, and the moun­tains come alive with its vi­brant colours, tex­tiles, dances and cuisines. So cru­cial is the dis­play of Naga cul­ture that the state Depart­ment of Tourism has of­fi­cially de­clared Na­ga­land the “Land of Fes­ti­vals”.

How­ever, this cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tion hides an­other vi­brant re­al­ity in the state – an econ­omy based on coal min­ing and hy­dro­car­bon spec­u­la­tion that dom­i­nates Naga pol­i­tics and high­lights the on­go­ing eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion oc­cur­ring on the fron­tiers of north­east In­dia.

While the state spon­sors and or­gan­ises eth­nic fes­ti­vals like the Horn­bill Fes­ti­val, it is the network of rich landown­ers, armed groups and tribal en­trepreneurs that runs the profit-driven ex­trac­tive econ­omy and con­trols the coal trade.

This ex­trac­tive eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity in Na­ga­land is founded on a pro­vi­sion of In­dia’s con­sti­tu­tion, Ar­ti­cle 371(A), which guar­an­tees spe­cial rights and pro­tec­tion for Naga peo­ple liv­ing in Na­ga­land in re­la­tion to the own­er­ship of land and its re­sources.

From 2006 un­til 2011, while do­ing field­work in the coal-pro­duc­ing vil­lages of Na­ga­land’s foothills, I no­ticed how the be­gin­ning of the an­nual coal min­ing sea­son – from Novem­ber on­ward, when vil­lagers are al­lowed to mine coal from their own lands un­der Na­ga­land’s own coal pol­icy – ush­ers in a spirit of ex­cite­ment and fes­tiv­ity sim­i­lar to the cel­e­bra­tion of Naga cul­ture in the eth­nic fes­ti­vals across the state. Both lo­ca­tions – the dance and cul­ture am­phithe­atre at the Horn­bill Fes­ti­val, the big­gest stage for Naga cul­ture, and the coal mines in the Naga vil­lages – un­der­line the pow­er­ful ways in which au­thor­ity, power and every­day life in the fron­tiers of north­east In­dia un­folds.

These cul­tural and eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties take place against the back­drop of one of the longest in­sur­gency move­ments in South Asia. Since the sign­ing of a cease­fire agree­ment be­tween some of the armed Naga groups and the In­dian gov­ern­ment in 1997, there has been a sig­nif­i­cant rise in ex­trac­tive ac­tiv­i­ties in Na­ga­land – and in con­tes­ta­tion over who rep­re­sents the Naga peo­ple.

Three Naga groups fea­ture sig­nif­i­cantly in this pol­i­tics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion – the armed groups who claim Na­ga­land for a sov­er­eign home­land, the state gov­ern­ment, and the landown­ers who con­trol the coal mines and land.

At the heart of the de­bate over rep­re­sen­ta­tion lies a unique story of the as­pi­ra­tions of tribal and indige­nous peo­ples and their fan­tasies about hy­dro­car­bon, and the scram­ble for land.

The strug­gle be­tween Naga groups – some armed (var­i­ous fac­tions of the Naga in­sur­gents), oth­ers elected (rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Naga tribal coun­cils, stu­dent bod­ies, cul­tural as­so­ci­a­tions and the state leg­isla­tive assem­bly) – for the right to rep­re­sent the Naga past and their fu­ture is most in­tensely ar­tic­u­lated in the scram­ble to con­trol re­sources in the coal min­ing vil­lages, where plans to ex­plore for oil and nat­u­ral gas are be­ing mapped out.

The scale of coal min­ing has rapidly swal­lowed cul­tivable lands, choked nat­u­ral springs and killed aquatic life around the coal min­ing vil­lages.

The story of coal cul­tures and re­source as­pi­ra­tions is im­por­tant, be­cause it in­forms us about the cre­ation of a tribal elite group that di­rectly prof­its from the coal trade, has the cap­i­tal to amass large tracts of prospec­tive sites for oil ex­plo­ration, and dis­re­gards en­vi­ron­men­tal and com­mu­nity rights. The strug­gle over re­source ex­trac­tion in fron­tier re­gions like north­east In­dia and else­where high­lights the com­plex­i­ties and fis­sures within tribal com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing the power nexus be­tween var­i­ous state and non-state ac­tors. It also raises ques­tions about col­lec­tive jus­tice and equity.

Among all the nat­u­ral re­sources in the foothills, oil and coal are per­ceived by the Naga vil­lages as the sym­bols of power that could rad­i­cally trans­form their lives. These car­bon as­pi­ra­tions and fan­tasies are starkly vis­i­ble in ar­eas ex­plored for oil by the state-run Oil and Nat­u­ral Gas Cor­po­ra­tion (ONGC) be­tween 1973 and 1993. It was ap­par­ent from my field­work that the con­ver­sa­tions among Naga vil­lages about a car­bon fu­ture – par­tic­u­larly in oil and coal – orig­i­nated from the hy­dro­car­bon ac­tiv­i­ties in the foothills bor­der­ing As­sam and Na­ga­land.

The de­sire of the vil­lages to par­tic­i­pate in this car­bon fu­ture con­tin­ues, fu­elled by the on­go­ing cease­fire ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween armed Naga groups and the In­dian gov­ern­ment, and the preser­va­tion of con­sti­tu­tional safe­guards for Naga land and re­sources. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of these au­ton­o­mous rights, Naga tribal elites con­tinue to buy vast plots of land across coal min­ing sites and in vil­lages with oil wells aban­doned by ONGC af­ter Naga cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tions banned ex­plo­ration in 1993.

Al­though it re­mains un­clear how the Na­ga­land gov­ern­ment and the vil­lages will even­tu­ally re­solve the con­tentious is­sue of who right­fully owns the land, the fan­tasies and de­sire for oil and coal in­di­cate an im­por­tant devel­op­ment: The scale of coal min­ing has rapidly swal­lowed cul­tivable lands, choked nat­u­ral springs and killed aquatic life around the coal min­ing vil­lages.

The pas­sion, night­mares and fan­tasies about Na­ga­land’s coal mines raise ques­tions about the every­day ex­pe­ri­ences and dreams of peo­ple liv­ing in vi­o­lent places – and about the ex­trac­tion of and ac­cess to re­sources, and profit.

What is ev­i­dent is that coal min­ing and prospects for a car­bon fu­ture in Na­ga­land are rapidly trans­form­ing so­cial re­la­tions among neigh­bours, kin and the state. – Asian Cur­rents

Among all the nat­u­ral re­sources in the foothills, oil and coal are per­ceived by the Naga vil­lages as the sym­bols of power that could rad­i­cally trans­form their lives.

Photo: EPA

Naga men per­form a war dance dur­ing the 12th Horn­bill Fes­ti­val cel­e­bra­tion at Kisama vil­lage, in Na­ga­land, north­east In­dia, on De­cem­ber 1, 2011. The fes­ti­val is an an­nual tourism pro­mo­tional event.

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