Oped

Renegotiating mountain commons

  • India’s Act East Policy has to afford due importance to the North East Region as a crucial bridgehead
- MAHENDRA P LAMA

Oct 11, 2017-The North East Region (NER) of India is in focus once again, this time as a crucial bridgehead in India’s Act East Policy. In the last 25 years since the enactment of the Look East Policy, a range of initiatives have been put into action. These include free trade and trade in services agreements between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean); the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway; and a $1 billion Line of Credit (2015) extended by India for undertaking physical and digital connectivity projects with Asean and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation. A range of connectivity related interventions have been made in the NER, which suffers from a highly protracted infrastructure deficit. The people in the NER have just one question. Why has the government of India made no official declaration regarding the role of the NER in relation to the Act (Look) East Policy? In the absence of this NER-centric policy, the constituent eight states are at a loss to deliberate, strategize and plan any major actions. 

As the first generation economic reforms gradually make inroads into the NER, several issues have started to make themselves apparent. Land issues have become increasingly sensitive both in terms of legal acquisitions and socio-political resistance. There have been protests and violence. Connectivity and other infrastructure related interventions, newer genres of industrial and investment promotions, and energy projects are in the centre of the land question. With rich biodiversity, these economies are heavily based on traditional agrarian practices and have societies with a tribal culture and ethos. These interventions require a major shift in the indigenous societal orientation itself.

The inter- and intra-community diversity of practices in major economic activities and in the custodianship and distributive pattern of commons makes it very complex for any “uniform policy intervention” to be effective. It has been precisely because of this that the NER continues to remain a relative development laggard. 

Land tenure has been a complex system. The absence of any legal instrument defining the ownership or rights in land, and predominance of customary laws as principal norms related to land rights remain a hurdle in development interventions. Rights have been afforded for practices such as shifting cultivation on the village land, making land acquisition very cumbersome. In order to subvert these customary hindrances, these days non-tribals resort to a system of Paikas, where they hire land from the tribals against cash and kind. 

In some regions with dominant tribal habitation, there have been distinct patterns of inequitable land ownership leading to unproductive and uneconomic use of land. The increasing expropriation of customary land rights and concentration of land among the village chieftains is quite visible. This has led to privatisation of village commons and strikingly harsh inequality too through the prosperity of a select few. All these could lead to situations of extreme scarcity if there are no land reforms. 

Ban on tree felling 

Over 40 percent of the total geographical area of the NER has forest cover. There are sharp interstate variations in forest cover and ownership pattern. There has been rampant deforestation both during the British regime and after independence. Commercial logging, forest clearance, development projects, and encroachment onto forest lands have played havoc. The protest movements against timber barons and the huge network of traders in non-forest products ultimately led to a ban on tree felling in the NER. 

Deforestation has had huge implications on both the rich medicinal plants and traditional faith healing. Manipur University made a detailed inventory of 333 medicinal plants along with the botanical enumeration of plant species, local names, and parts used for 103 pharmaceutical purposes and medicinal uses. 

Bio-technological companies have shown scant respect for traditional practices in the NER. The persistent faith placed on herbal charms among the indigenous communities have not been transformed into a flow of knowledge from these remote areas to pharmaceutical laboratories in the cities. This phenomenon is silently eating away at bio-diversity and sustainability. 

Conducting large scale phyto-chemical, pharmacological and pharmacognostic studies on the commercially exploitable species just do not figure into foreign policy initiatives such as the Act East Policy. Indigenous knowledge-based high value products could have been a game changer in the free trade basket with the Asean, East Asian, North American and EU countries. 

Slow food test

The variety of indigenous food has always been a rich ingredient in North Eastern culture. These deep rooted consumptive habits are based on socio-economic milieu, religious sanctity, cultural practices, and cross border migration. They carry in them nutritional value, ethnic flavour, easy palatability, fabulous texture, and more critically, indigenous knowhow on the preparation and conservation of such food. 

In the absence of systematic institutional intervention to study, document and conserve these traditional food habits and practices, there is a simmering fear among the communities that there could be surreptitious infringement of  intellectual property rights by international food conglomerates. No serious intervention has been made to patent this “no-single ownership” based technology owned by the community.

Royalty on minerals 

NER have huge deposits of mineral resources including oil, gas, coal and limestone. Its Natural Gas reserves of 151.68 billion cu ft could generate 7500 MW for 10 years and coal reserves of 864.78 million tonnes could generate 240 MW/day for a period of 100 years. The recently released Hydro Carbon Vision 2030 for NER mentions that an overwhelming portion of these hydro-carbon reserves are yet to be explored and harnessed. Most of these minerals have so far been used by the public sector units like ONGC, GAIL and Coal India Limited. 

Here again the people in the North East have been raising the question of common benefits. Communities, political parties, pressure groups and sometimes even the governments have asked for an adequate compensation for the extraction of these minerals in the State. In fact, the violent political movements in the 1980s and 1990s included the demand for royalty to these minerals. The royalty which is now paid for the extraction and export of these minerals has been insignificant. 

On the other hand, the major industrial activities that have come up in states like Assam are essentially resource based. The backward linkages of these industries are rather limited, while their forward linkages are with industries located in the big metropolises elsewhere. The result has been the emergence of an enclave type economy, with a few modern industries in the midst of traditional industries and very little or no interactions between the two. 

India’s Act East Policy must have clear cut strategies in effectively dealing with all these sensitive aspects in the NER.

Lama is High End Expert in the Institute of South Asian Studies in Sichuan University in China and was the co-author of the North East Region Vision 2020 for the Government of India

Published: 11-10-2017 08:14

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