WHAT AILS THE NORTH EAST?

Rupa Chi­nai’s lat­est book high­lights the great need to pre­serve the re­gion’s frag­ile ecol­ogy

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In 1980, Rupa Chi­nai, along with a se­nior col­league, went to Guwa­hati for the first time to re­port on the in­cip­i­ent As­sam move­ment against “il­le­gal im­mi­grants”. They stayed in the re­gion for a month tour­ing As­sam, Na­ga­land, Ma­nipur, Mi­zo­ram and Megha­laya. The visit yielded a spe­cial sup­ple­ment in Him­mat weekly mag­a­zine en­ti­tled “North­east in Tur­moil.” The visit also led to Chi­nai’s life-long bond­ing with the trou­bled, if beau­ti­ful, north­east re­gion and its peo­ple. Her aqin­sights gleaned from more than three decades of be­ing as­so­ci­ated with the re­gion form the body of her book, Un­der­stand­ing In­dia’s North­east: A Re­porter’s Jour­nal (2018).

Un­like books which set out to an­a­lyse a pre-given ques­tion, this work looks for is­sues and en­gages with them ex­tem­po­ra­ne­ously. The is­sues dis­cussed dif­fer widely from state to state and each state, ex­cept for Megha­laya and Arunachal Pradesh, has a chap­ter devoted to it. The long pe­riod cov­ered means that some facts and ob­ser­va­tions may no longer be rel­e­vant and it is oc­ca­sion­ally dif­fi­cult to link the in­ci­dents nar­rated with the time and lo­ca­tion. More care­ful ref­er­enc­ing of the works cited or used, in­clud­ing the au­thor’s own, would have made the book eas­ier to nav­i­gate.

De­spite these quib­bles, I have to add that the book is an eye-opener and I loved it.

The peo­ple of the north­east peo­ple of­ten gripe about re­porters who para­chute in, meet with pre­dictable sources, and pass ill­con­sid­ered judg­ments. Rupa Chi­nai is not one of those re­porters. She does not fo­cus on break­ing news or mak­ing head­lines. In­stead, she digs deep and finds com­mon ground. Her modus operandi is to em­bed within tribal com­mu­ni­ties for weeks, ex­am­ine the rea­sons for con­flict and alien­ation, and at­tempt to give point­ers to a sus­tain­able fu­ture for them. For once, in­sur­gen­cies and po­lit­i­cal con­flict do not dom­i­nate the nar­ra­tive.

There are many warm, if sad, hu­man sto­ries. The reader meets Ab­dul Karim, a char is­lan­der in the Brahma­pu­tra who braves the flood wa­ters each year to eke out a pre­car­i­ous liv­ing for him­self, his three wives and 12 chil­dren. It is im­pos­si­ble not to note the num­ber of Karim’s wives and chil­dren, which fits a cer­tain stereo­type per­fectly. But Karim does not come across as a dan­ger­ous “il­le­gal Mus­lim im­mi­grant”. He is, like many around him, just try­ing to stay afloat. His day be­gins at 3am when he goes fish­ing -- some­thing which will earn him Rs150 in the mar­ket. The money barely cov­ers his fam­ily’s food ex­pense for the day. The flood has de­stroyed 70 per­cent of his crops, and his chil­dren romp around the river bank, un­aware of the bleak fu­ture that awaits them. One of them, Sa­her Ali, a class two stu­dent at a school com­pris­ing a thatched hut with three wooden benches, de­clares that “the prime minister of In­dia is Ma­hatma Gandhi.” “When I grow up,” he adds, “I will go to Guwa­hati and Tezpur. Af­ter a lot of days, af­ter I have grown up, I will go to Bom­bay and visit you.”

Chi­nai walks us through the daily strug­gles of the tea labour­ers who are con­fined to their iso­lated en­claves, obliv­i­ous of the out­side world. Here, the lit­er­ary rate is 25 per­cent against As­sam’s av­er­age rate of 73, and chil­dren start pluck­ing tea leaves at 11 and marry by 15. She un­cov­ers the ghastly re­al­ity be­hind the ex­cla­ma­tion, “I would rather die than be a tribal born in Tripura!” She takes us to the deep in­te­ri­ors of Mon and Tuen­sang dis­tricts of Na­ga­land, where peo­ple still trek for miles for ba­sic dis­pen­sary fa­cil­i­ties. The au­thor also elab­o­rates on the dam­ages wrought by the Bodo tra­di­tional loan sys­tem called ku­ruk which charges in­ter­est rates of up to 10 per­cent per month. Those who can­not re­pay have to for­feit their live­stock, prop­erty and land, and are forced to leave the vil­lage.

And then there is grow­ing en­croach­ment from state projects and hap­haz­ard re­source ex­trac­tions. Pre­serv­ing the re­gion’s frag­ile ecol­ogy is now a press­ing chal­lenge. Chi­nai’s sur­vey in­di­cates that states like Na­ga­land, where land is gen­er­ally owned by the com­mu­nity, have a bet­ter chance of col­lec­tively re­sist­ing the on­slaught. Places like Lad Rym­bai in Megha­laya, where land is pri­vately owned, sim­ply could not re­sist the lure of easy money from coal ex­trac­tion. This new money from land ac­qui­si­tions and min­eral ex­trac­tion makes a few peo­ple mil­lion­aires, but fur­ther im­pov­er­ishes the ma­jor­ity and rav­ages the land. It ex­ac­er­bates in­come in­equal­ity, di­lutes deeply held val­ues and threat­ens to tear apart the so­cial fab­ric. There is warn­ing here for other tribal re­gions too, in­clud­ing the Zomi ar­eas of the Ma­nipur hills, where land is held in the name of the vil­lage chiefs.

An ex­pose of what ails the north­east from the in­side, this book also pro­vides words of cau­tion on what is com­ing from the out­side. Ur­gent ques­tions need to be an­swered: What mech­a­nisms can en­sure com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pa­tion in de­vel­op­ment plans? What are the down­sides of tourism pro­mo­tion? What are the eco­log­i­cal costs of the nec­es­sary tran­si­tion from jhum cul­ti­va­tion to plan­ta­tions or cash crops? Are call cen­tres and ho­tel man­age­ment the only av­enues for un­em­ployed youth? The con­ver­sa­tion must start now.

AFP

Min­ers keep warm by a fire in­side a coal mine shaft near Rym­bai vil­lage in Megha­laya.

TOMI ETE

Rupa Chi­nai

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