Human Rights and Self-determination as prerequisites for real development

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Professor Naorem Sanajaoba was an active upholder of human rights, as well as an academician – a most significant combination. He drew frequent comparisons between the situation in Manipur and in other regions in the world where people are struggling for democracy and greater autonomy in the face of harsh repression.
Fundamental to the challenges facing people in Manipur, and in so many other places too, is the question: What is real development? In the name of development, we see promotion of vast dam, extractive industry and infrastructure projects that certainly attract huge sums of money as investment, but do not necessarily raise most local people’s standard of living at all. For large numbers of displaced people, quite the reverse, as they often insist. ‘Development-Induced Displacement’ is a therefore misnomer when projects are not bringing development for local people. The process is properly termed ‘Investment-Forced Displacement’.
The question I would like to focus on here, in commemoration of Sanajaoba, is just this – What is real development? This question confronts everyone actually, but especially in regions where new mega-projects threaten to displace people and monopolise their natural resources in the name of development.
‘What is Real Development?’ is the title of the Preface to my most recent book, Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection. The underlying question that fascinates me is – how have ecology and economy got so completely de-linked that environmentalism is often seen as a ‘roadblock to development’, and how can people go on believing in economic growth, when ecosystems are getting destroyed very fast, and the resource base is not there to sustain indefinite economic growth, and what the world clearly needs is people-centric development, combined with economic relationships with each other and with the ecosystems that sustain us as our resource base, that can continue long-term, assuring abundance for our grandchildren, and their grandchildren?
If one looks at the needs of communities, ‘the right to development’ boils down to food security, water security, security at work and security of livelihoods, right to sensitively managed education and health-care, and every aspect of security to life and dignity. Instead, displacement by a dam or negative impacts of a mining project destroy water and food security, as well as highly developed systems of symbiosis between communities and ecosystems. As for security of life – it’s abundantly clear that security forces brought in to force the implementation of large ‘development projects’ that do not have local consent commit human rights violations with impunity, including here in Manipur, in the case of the Mapithel Dam and similar projects.
It seems that security forces are not trained to safeguard ordinary citizens’ security, but rather the security of investors, corporations and the vested interests behind such projects. Manipur has a long history of abuses by security forces, highlighted in the recent case at the Supreme Court, where the Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi opined that ‘killings are part of the sovereign function discharged by the Union of India through the army’, and completely rejected the Justice Santosh Hegde report, inquiring into 1,528extra-judicial killings during 2000-2012, and its finding that numerous people had been killed in false encounters. Out of many well-documented cases of rape, torture, violent harrassment and unacknowledged killings of innocent people by security forces in Manipur (Begum 2010),which sociologist A.R. Desai tackled as a subject of greatest importance (1990), ‘the impunity project’ analysed at least 50 cases in Landscapes of Fear .
Simultaneously with the Supreme Court case on the Manipur killings, Justin Trudeau, as newly elected Prime Minister of Canada, ordered an inquiry into about 1,200 murdered and disappeared indigenous Canadian women – an inquiry that has long been demanded by the country’s indigenous population. This gives hope as well as a model for ‘total renewal’ between Government and an indigenous population.
If atrocities against civilians by men in uniform continue to be committed with impunity in Manipur, is it proper to speak of real development taking place here at all? Isn’t security and respect for human life the foundation on which development should take place? These are fundamental questions to bear in mind as we turn out attention to people’s relationship with the environment and the natural resources which form the basis of life.
The Dam Issue
Dams are often promoted as symbols of development. Certainly the engineering involved in building a big dam, and harnessing the power of a river to produce electricity, is very advanced, even ‘brilliant’. But do big dams ever benefit the local people who live in areas where they are built? Since India’s Independence, at least 30 million people have been displaced by big dams. The vast majority of these people have experienced a drastic drop in their quality of life. Many thousands of people are threatened by displacement if the new mega-dams planned in Northeast India go ahead. The effects of big dams have been shown repeatedly to be disastrous for local ecosystems, destroying many species and damaging the web of life. Big dams are also known to be among the causes of earthquakes. It may well be that the Teesta dams played a major role in causing the disastrous 2012 earthquake in Sikkim. The benefits of big dams are highly questionable from many angles; they often inundate more fertile land than they bring water to; siltation is often much rapider than planned; the cost is usually much higher than initially outlined, and so on.
What is needed is clearly much more open debate about the real costs and benefits of big dams. Having followed debates on big dams for several decades, it seems that opponents of dams win the debate on every front; but that money often speaks louder than words, and that the money coming to governments and politicians from construction and electricity companies has motivated the ‘MoU virus’ of new deals for big dams on the Brahmaputra tributaries.
It is reported that protestors against the Mapithel Dam, for example, and the many villagers who have been forced to move to avoid its inundation of their lands, have faced considerable police repression. Time and again, promises made to villagers about to be displaced by a dam are betrayed (Sahu 2009). It seems that every mega-dam in India shows the same hidden history: instead of recognition of the enormity of these people’s loss, and proper help for them in relocating, people who are displaced face extreme levels of corruption and repression. In effect, the interest of people in villages, whose way of life is often a highly developed example of living sustainably, without taking too much from nature, are being sacrificed. In other words, big dams involve a modern form of human sacrifice.
Mapithel Dam, on river Thoubal River in Ukhrul District, is being constructed with the aim of providing 7.5MW of power and also water for Imphal. Police repression is being used to force villagers off their land, following plans made back in 1980 and a long history of resistance, with final Environment Ministry clearance granted on 31 December 2013. There is said to be no proper rehabilitation for Kuki and Tangkhul Naga people who are losing land and homes; nor relief for Meitei people downstream, who lose their access to the river water. This follows a similarly violent displacement by the Loktak hydel project in 2011-13, when security forces burnt several hundred floating houses to evict fishermen from Loktak Lake. The Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project started with the Ithai barrage, commissioned in 1984, which displaced several thousand people, submerging 83,000 hectares of agricultural land, and badly damaging the lake’s unique ecosystem, exterminating several species.
Tipaimukh Dam, planned on the Barak River where it is joined by the Tuivai, is aimed at generating 1,500MW by flooding about 300 sq km, on the border between Manipur’s southern Churachandpur district and NE Mizoram. It is likely to have a devastating effect on Bangladesh, which has strongly opposed the dam (Zakaria 2012); and also on several thousand members of the Hmar tribe, who have also strongly opposed it. Among other procedural events, Public Hearings were held for this dam between 2004 and 2008. The Forest Advisory Committee refused clearance for the project in July 2013.
Before more dams are built in the Northeast, it should be obvious that impacts of previous big dams need to be properly assessed. Among the worst is the Dumbur Dam in Tripura, which displaced an estimated 20,000 people, especially of the Borok people who are indigenous to Tripura. Also known as the Gumti Hydel Project and completed in 1976, Dumbur officially displaced 2,845 families in South Tripura district, most of whom were tribal. But these figures represent a minority of Oustees who had official land title. The real number displaced was far higher, and almost certainly fuelled insurgency in Tripura, compounding massive displacement of tribal people by settlements of Bengalis in Tripura. Similarly, Doyang Dam in Wokha district of Nagaland is reported to have displaced about 30,000 people without proper compensation.
In an election speech at Pasighat (Arunachal)in February 2014, Narendra Modi acknowledged the strength of feeling against big dams in the Northeast, saying: ‘I know citizens of the region are against large power projects… I respect your sentiments. But hydropower can also be harnessed using smaller projects, while protecting the environment…’. Yet one of the most controversial dams is Upper Dibang, which is planned as producing 3,000MW, while submerging 5,000 hectares. Upper Dibang was refused forest clearance by the Forest Advisory Ccommittee (FAC) several times, most recently on 28 August 2014, on the grounds that it would drown 45 sq kms of forest, including part of the Dibru-Saikhang National Park (Assam), and ‘ecological and social costs of destroying a vast tract of forest land which is a major source of livelihood for the state’s tribal population would far outweigh the benefit likely to accrue for the project’. Less than a week later, the Cabinet Committee on Investment got the Prime Minsiter’s Office to order the Ministry of Environment and Forests to give clearance (3rd September), on condition of a 20 metre height reduction in the dam height; obviously this decision was motivated thanks to the investment involved, estimated at 16 Crores ($2.6 million). Members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samittee (KMSS), a farmers’ organisation at the forefront of anti-dam movement in Assam and the Northeast, sees this as a betrayal of what the PM said at Pasighat. The dam’s foundation stone was laid by Manmohan Singh in 2008; police fired on protestors in 2011; and the dam threatens to destroy the cohesion of the Idu Mishmis people. Raju Mimi, from this community, explains that his people number just about 12,000, and that ‘The whole dam-building process has been going on without taking the people into confidence or their participation. Most of the local people are dependent on agriculture and are not ready for such big dam projects. They will be further marginalised culturally, economically and politically.’ Similarly, the Lower Demwe project, on the Lohit River in India’s easternmost district, was cleared by Jayanthi Natarajan as Environment Minister in February 2012, against opposition from all seven independent members of the National Board for Widlife due to its probably negative impacts on Kamlang sanctuary.
‘The Lower Siang Dam, near Pasighat, has been similarly controversial. When its planned capacity was raised to 2,700 MW in 2006, the CRPF used teargas on protesters, at Pongging on 26th May. This and other dams planned on the Siang (i.e. the Brahmaputra River) pose a momentous threat to the Adi tribe, who number about 150,000. Vijay Taram from this community says that 43 big dams are planned in the Adi area: ‘We are on the verge of being annihilated by all these developmental activities. Our language, forest, rivers, culture, tradition and identity will perish. This land belonged to our forefathers and today we are being asked to vacate our land.’ In their view, the river needs to ‘flow of its free will’. After protests in 2011-12, and postponement of three Public Hearings, with strong critiques of the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment, this dam has apparently been put on hold.
So also the 2,000MW Lower Subansiri Dam, bordering Assam and Arunachal, stalled since 2011, after strong protests. A 2014 study ordered by the Supreme Court on the Uttarakhand floods in June 2013 concluded that dams were indeed a probable causal factor, so perhaps there is a good chance that some of the monster-dams planned for the Northeast can be stopped after all?
Negative impacts of big dams not only involve destruction of fragile ecosystems and sustainable communities, and likely floods, but also likely contribution to earthquakes – mentioned as a distinct danger for Tipaimukh and other dams. The Teesta Dams in Sikkim have already caused severe negative impacts on at least 7,000 Lepchas in the remote northern region of Dzongu, around Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain.
The Dzongu Biosphere and National Park have come under ecological pressure from dam construction, starting with Teesta V, which was cleared in 1999 and created a reservoir 23 kms long. Several dams have now been built, and are thought a likely cause of the devastating 2012 earthquake. Lamas of the Bhutia and Lepcha communities in north Sikkim challenged the construction of the Ranthongchu Dam project in 1993-7, on the grounds that it was defiling a sacred landscape. Lepcha activists have continued this argument regarding Dzuongu, using fasting to get some of the dams cancelled, out of as many as 26 proposed on the Teesta and its tributaries. In the words of Dawa Lepcha, ‘The entire Teesta River is being tunneled. The main river of Sikkim is disappearing. Is this development?’

The Agartala Declaration of 15 Feb 2013 asserted ‘that land, forests, rivers and all natural resources in North East India belong to the indigenous people of the region… Our land and all the natural resources are inherent sources for our Life, Culture, Identity, Survival and future of our present and coming generations…’ The main focus was against big dams, including misuse of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) ‘carbon trading) credits, and extractive industries. Participants at the two-day event… expressed concern with the increasing corporatization of their lands and resources and the aggressive efforts to explore and drill oil in the region by corporate bodies, such as oil exploration efforts by Jubilant Energy in Manipur, Gas exploration in Tripura by ONGC, to mine uranium in Meghalaya by UCIL, etc; combined with a pattern of increasing militarization.
The participants further said they are disturbed with the increasing involvement of international financial institutions, such as World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation etc in financing energy and water related projects and in deregulation of related policies to intensify corporatization of our land and resources.
Finally, the organisers and participants of the Agartala event have expressed concern with the Government of India’s non application of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007 and the recommendations of other UN human Rights bodies… They then recalled the obligations of all states to ensure participatory forms of development and to recognize indigenous peoples rights as reflected in the outcome of the UN Rio+20 Conference, June 2012 .
The Agartala Declaration was reinforced by a similar Dimarpur Declaration in May 2013, following a North East Peoples’ Convention on Water Sources. Both events emphasized the principle of Free Prior Informed Consent, which so far has not been adhered to in decisions about giving clearance for these dams.
Different models of development
So where is this drive for new dams coming from? India’s Planning Commission declared in 1998 that only 30% of the country’s hydropotential was being used, and that this should be raised to 90% by 2025. This statistical perspective is extremely warped, from lack of recognition of the destruction of communities and ecosystems.
But why this needs to boost the country’s electricity? Most of the electricity from the Northeastern dams is not to be used locally. In fact, many villages around big dams in Odisha and other states, and around new mega-power stations and coal mines in Singrauli (MP) have not received electricity, even though their quality of life has been severely damaged by electricity-generating projects. The Northeast’s surplus electricity is intended to fund a new level of India’s industrialisation, which is also based on mining and metal production.
But isn’t this kind of industrialisation central to the development process? This idea is extremely pervasive, and I’ve become increasingly aware of how Charles Darwin’s paradigm of evolution in nature has fed into it. The concept of evolution in nature is multiple, involving thousands of species developing in relation to each other, but each along different paths. When this paradigm was applied to human society and history however, the tendency was to imagine all societies evolving through the same, identical stages. Herbert Spencer was among the first to do this, using the phrase (usually attributed to Darwin) ‘survival of the fittest’. Marx and Engels also gave a very persuasive monolithic scheme, tracing human evolution from ‘primitive communism’, via slave-owning societies and feudalism to capitalism, which they believed would finally break apart from its contradictions, clearing the way for advanced communism. The most hardline and influential version is that produced by the World Bank and IMF, who classify countries, and regions within a country, into ‘developed’, ‘developing’ and ‘under-developed’ – a classification that we often take for granted now, yet badly need to question; both because closer examination shows that different countries and communities have developed in very different ways; and because this paradigm serves to justify the human sacrifice of ‘less developed’ lifestyles to promote development along a particular line, that feeds the self interest of a small elite – ‘the one per cent’. One might call the baseline of this theory ‘survival of the fattest’.
Another facet of industrialisation in Manipur is oil exploration, with the Indian Government promoting the sale of Manipur’s oil deposits over several years, and an agreement signed with Netherlands-based Jubilant oil and gas company (which has a subsidiary based in Noida) in September 2010. Public Hearings in mid-2012 witnessed strong opposition to the plan, and the IB has reported that the Dutch NGO Cordaid has been coordinating support for over 50 villages within five kms of 30 planned oil wells. Some reports say that the deposits may be as much as five trillion barrels of oil. The 30 planned wells are spread through 4,000 sq kms in Jiribam (Imphal East), Tamenglong and Churachandpur districts, and each oil well would be over 2 kms deep. Activists and villagers are well aware of the catastrophic history of oil wells in regions populated by indigenous peoples, especially in Ecuador (also Columbia and Peru), Nigeria and Sudan, where there has been horrendous pollution of water sources and fields, and terrible civil conflicts, which could easily get out of hand in Manipur. A vital question is whether oil legislation passed in India that grants rights over all deposits to the state, or whether the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be respected here in insisting on indigenous people’s rights over their natural resources? Similarly with a new sports university planned at Yaithibi Loukon,  and a new railway line, with impressive bridges and tunnels, connecting Manipur to the rest of India. What are the real costs and benefits of these projects, above all, for local people?
It seems obvious that the heart of real development should be raising everyone’s standard of living, instead of sacrificing people’s food and water security and the enduring symbiosis that village communities have often developed over generations to live without damaging their natural environment.
Projects promoted as ‘development’ seem to be defined by the financial investment they bring. The trouble is, they don’t bring much money to poor people; jobs on offer are mostly in the construction phase and don’t involve any work security; and the people being negatively impacted are among the world’s most advanced societies in terms of living sustainably.
Human rights are often a major casualty of industrialisation-focused development. Looking at Central India, in the tribal regions affected by the Maoist conflict, one witnesses more massed police being use to cow protestors against mines and metal factories than against the Maoists. For example, there have been strong protests against bauxite mines and aluminum and steel factories in Odisha, and these have faced vicious repression, involving several police firings, such as the Maikanch firing (near Kashipur in Rayagada district) that killed three people in December 2000, and the Kalinganagar firing in January 2006 that killed 14 Adivasi villagers opposed to a new Tata Steel factory. Odisha is notable because several movements apear to have succeeded in stopping mega-projects – the Gandhamardan movement prevented bauxite mining on a mountain in western Odisha in the 1980s; the Niyamgiri movement has prevented Vedanta’s similar plans for mountains in the Niyamgiri range; and the anti-Posco Movement has prevented construction of a new steel plant and port that was billed as India’s biggest foreign investment.
In Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, MP and West Bengal – many similar stories of extreme levels of repression against villagers trying to prevent takeovers of their lands for industry; and similar mass police action against protestors against the Kudankulam and Jaipatur nuclear power stations, in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. What this has in common with the Northeast dams issue is this fact of investment for electricity-production being protected by use of security forces. The term ‘security forces’ implies a duty to uphold the security of citizens.
What is even more worrying is that we witness a militarization of the very areas being ‘developed’. In fact, one area of undoubted growth in Central India, as in the Northeast, is in recruitment to security forces, and the militarization of these areas by more and more camps and population of security personnel. In a longer view, one can trace the history of western and modern ‘civilisation’ as a history of arms technology, from stone to bronze to iron ages to the steel and aluminum age, dependent on fossil fuels and nano-technology that we live in now. In a sense, war is the biggest business, and an arms industry exporting weapons is the symbol of a ‘developed country’, including Sweden and its Bofors, which was converted from a steel to an arms company by one of the archetypal ‘merchants of death’ who made his fortune as an arms salesman, and instituted a peace prize to hide his shame – Alfred Nobel. The arms industry not only makes a business out of war, it is a centre of corruption worldwide – emanating from the ‘developed countries’ – and is using up the earth’s last, precious minerals and fossil fuels at an ever-accelerating rate to fuel the escalating wars of the present time. In other words, from dams to steel, aluminum and nuclear energy, the mainstream development scheme promoted by the World Bank and other financial institutions is oriented to making money from war and conflict. US security forces have committed appalling human rights abuses in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, for which very few have been held accountable. Especially after the attack using aircraft on 11th September 2001, the wars have escalated in the name of fighting terror – but fighting terror with an even greater terror, of hi-tech weaponry, and security forces that commit human rights abuses with impunity. When the world’s superpower behaves like this, it sets the model that security forces in other countries copy. In Chhattisgarh, as in Manipur, a large proportion of rapes are committed by men in uniform, and when justice cannot be had through the courts, state terror inevitably fuels insurgency.
Sanajaoba frequently drew attention to what is happening in other countries, to shed light on events in Northeast India. The list includes Afghanistan when the Americans started bombing it in October 2001, Kosovo, Puerto Rico, Burma and East Timor. Among the countries where indigenous people are facing the worst oppression right now are West Papua (Irian Jaya) in Indonesia.
It is becoming increasingly urgent to discover alternative paradigms of development. Scotland’s bid for Independence is watched with interest from Northeast India, and the rising strength of the Scottish National Party. A key issue here is control of oil, as also expressed in the Dimapur and Agartala Declarations (2013).
Right now we witness the forging of a new model of multi-ethnic, ‘democratic federalism’ by Kurds in North Syria. Kurds have been resisting assimilation by hierarchical mainstream societies for about 5,000 years. Jaipal Singh asserted that India’s tribal peoples are some of the most democratic people on earth; and that others should learn democratic ways from them. Indigenous societies and their grounded, slow-paced economies show the way ahead, not just the way of the past. Real development depends on improvements in people’s well-being, which has to be based on food, water and livelihood security, and security of life. Shouldn’t respect for human rights be taken as the starting point for real development?

(Text of the lecture  presented by Felix Padel on Naorem Sanajaoba Memorial Lecture  held on December 30, 2015 at MU)

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