By yambem laba
NUNGBA is a nondescript town 125 km from a dust-laden, pot-holed dirt track that passes off as National Highway No.53. It lies in an otherwise forgotten district of Manipur called Tamenglong but Nungba’s importance stems from the fact that it is halfway between Imphal and Jiribam on NH-53 which is also called Manipur’s second lifeline. But the Border Roads Task Force that prides itself in connecting India’s remotest corners with the mainland can take pride that it is also responsible for maintaining what could be the worst-managed National Highway in the country and definitely one of the worst in Asia.
On 14 March, Nungba came alive when various civil society leaders and organisations from Imphal and elsewhere in Manipur decided to converge on the sleepy town to observe International Rivers Day and demand that the Centre let the “Barak run free” — meaning a halt to all plans to construct a high dam over the river at Tipaimukh in Manipur’s Churachandpur district that borders Mizoram. For the record, the Tipaimukh Dam controversy has been raised at various Indo-Bangladeshi meetings.
But the gathering at Nungba was different in the sense that it took place far from the glare of the media but within arms’ length from the people whose villages – prodded day and night by oil prospectors — would be submerged once the Tipaimukh Dam comes up.
The organisations that decided to converge on Nungba included the Zeliangrong Indigenous People’s Forum, the Joint Action Committee on the Protection of Hydro Carbon and Resources, the All Zeliangrong Students’ Union, Citizens’ Concern for Dams and Development, Action Committee Against Tipaimukh Project, Singlung People’s Human Rights Organisation, Committee on Land and Natural Resources, North East Dialogue Forum and the Indian National Trust on Cultural Heritage, besides the All Loktak Lake Fishermen Union.
Participants in a mass rally carried placards which read, “Land, water, forest is our life”, “Stop petroleum exploration in Manipur”, “Go back Jubilant Oil and Gas Company”, and “Stop Militarisation in our area”. The message was clear.
The biggest discovery came a day after this convention: that the government of India had, in cloak-and-dagger fashion, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Limited, a firm registered in the Netherlands and listed on the London Stock Exchange but which operates out of Noida near Delhi. This signing took place in July 2011 at New Delhi’s Shastri Bhawan, paving way for the group to begin exploration in Tamenglong, Churachandpur and Jiribam. The Manipur government was even reportedly kept out of the picture.
The Jubilant Oil and Gas Company apparently lost no time for soon after the MoU was signed with the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas it engaged another firm from Hyderabad, namely Alpha Geo Private Limited, to begin conducting operations. According to villagers of the area, the explorations began in July 2011 itself.
In a throwback to the 18th century when white explorers would visit African villages offering trinkets in return for occupying the land for mining purposes, the officials of Alpha Geo Private Limited would first venture into the villages promising development activities like building roads and constructing buildings to house their “Village Authority” offices and obtained no-objection certificates to survey and explore the areas. The case of Mukti village is also a pointer to how powerful the oil lobby can be. When the villagers soon enough realised that the Alpha people were doing no development work but were instead digging up their land and blasting away to collect samples, they halted the process. But Alpha Geo went straight to the United Naga Council of Manipur — the apex body that controls the destiny of almost every ordinary Naga in the state — and returned to dig again, saying their operations had been okayed by the council. The chairman of the Mukti Village Authority is now a confused man for he is big enough to halt the digging process in his village but too small to stand against the will of the all-powerful UNC.
Speakers at the convention pointed out that the oil companies were rich enough to buy any government and insurgent group if need be. It seems the UNC’s “no objection” falls in this category.
The convention adopted several resolutions, chief amongst these being the immediate revocation of the memorandum between the Centre and Jubilant Oil and Gas Pvt. Ltd and the immediate cancellation of Petroleum Exploration Licences to both AA-ONN-2009/1 and AA-ONN-2009/2 respectively and a halt to all work being undertaken by Alpha Geo in the name of development work in Manipur.
On the Tipaimukh Dam front, the convention called for the immediate revocation of the memorandum between the Manipur government, the National Hydro Electric Projects Corporation and Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd, signed on 28 April 2010. It also called for the revocation of the environmental clearance granted by the Union ministry of environment and forests on 24 October 2008 without a public hearing.
Talking to The Statesman, Yumnam Jiten, the main organiser of the meet, said the government of India had been using development activities as a ploy to increase militarisation, thereby increasing the misuse of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. “How can you bring development at bayonet point?” he asked. He pointed to the fact that the United Nations had declared in no uncertain terms that the rights of indigenous people had to be guaranteed before pursuing mega projects like the Tipaimukh Dam or oil exploration. (Courtesy: The Statesman)