Majabung Gangmei was agitated. “Let them try and do it,” he said. “You ask the minister how he plans to.”
Gangmei, an environmental activist from Tamenglong, one of the tribal hill districts in Manipur, was referring to a news report in the local daily People’s Chronicle last month. It quoted the state’s commerce and industries minister, Thongam Biswajit Singh, as saying that he had approved exploration for oil and gas deposits in the state.
Oil and the ownership of natural resources, especially in tribal areas, has been a lightning rod for protests in Manipur. In 2012, Gangmei led a protest against Jubilant Energy that was carrying out a seismic survey in the district, usually a prelude to oil and gas exploration.
The protests had forced the company to retreat. “The Indian state thinks it can do what it wants to, but we showed them their place,” he said.
Thongam Biswajit Singh’s comments created a furore almost immediately. Most of his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Manipur government distanced themselves from them.
“I don’t think he should have said that,” said a senior BJP leader in Manipur. “I think he’s overstepped his mandate. Has he even consulted the Cabinet on it?”
Singh, however, said that he was “misquoted”, that he had only “reinitiated” a process started by the Centre and approved by the previous Congress-led government.
In India, the Union government enjoys exclusive rights to legislate in all matters pertaining to oil and natural gas, including the development of oil fields and mineral oil resources. The minister played down the contention that the Centre was forcing Manipur into prospecting for oil, insisting that the state government also wanted “exploration to begin”.
Singh claimed that oil could be a useful revenue source for state, which has always been dependent on Central largesse. “We definitely want exploration to begin,” he said. “We have reinitiated contact with Jubilant and are trying to strengthen our roads and bridges after the rains stop so that heavy machinery can come in as soon as possible.”
He said without exploration “our resources would be wasted”. He cited the example of Arab countries, saying nothing has gone wrong there despite exploration. He pointed to Tripura too. “Because of this exploration, they have enough income now,” he said.
The minister claimed that allegations by civil society groups that the government had sold out to corporate firms were unfair. Both they and the government want the state to be developed, he said. “We can sit down and clear the misunderstandings,” he added.
Who owns Manipur’s oil?
The ownership of natural resources is a contentious subject in the tribal areas of the North East. In neighbouring Nagaland, tribal residents have fought to establish autonomy over mineral resources, citing the state’s special status under Article 371 A of the Constitution. This provision says that national laws concerning land and its resources would not apply to the state unless the Nagaland Assembly ratified it.
However, the Nagaland government has repeatedly tussled with the Centre over oil, with the Union government claiming that the state’s endeavours to develop the oil fields in the state were unconstitutional. Autonomy over natural resources, championed by tribal bodies, traditional decision-making institutions and students groups, also became part of the Naga nationalist movement.
In Manipur, the Centre and the state have been on the same page, and the same political party has usually held power in both governments. The chief resistance to prospecting for resources has come from groups and institutions that are believed to represent local indigenous communities, which cite constitutional protections and community rights.
Neither Article 371 A nor the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution – which provides for autonomous decentralised self-governance in certain tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura – apply to Manipur. But its hill districts enjoy a degree of autonomy under Article 371 C. This provides for a separate hill areas committee, which is to vet any law that affects tribal lands. But the provision does not explicitly mention natural resources.
As Ram Wangkheirakpam, director of Indigenous Perspectives, an Imphal-based non-profit that works on environmental issues, said: “The issue here is not oil, it is: ‘Who owns Manipur’s natural resources?’ Unless that question is addressed, this will go nowhere.”
Given the hostility of Manipur’s residents to the idea, attempts to explore oil in the state have been futile so far.
In 2010, the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas granted Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Limited, a subsidiary of Jubilant Energy, a licence for exploration and drilling works in two oil blocks spread across Jiribam, Tamenglong and Churachandpur districts in Manipur.
Soon after, the state and the company signed a production sharing agreement. Additionally, the state government, then under the Congress, issued a petroleum exploration licence, paving the way for the company to start work. According to people in these three districts, all of this happened without their knowledge.
As the company started work, it ran into stiff resistance. Public hearings organised by the Manipur Pollution Control Board saw strong protests by local communities in all three districts.
According to Gangmei, at a public hearing, the organisers snatched the microphone away from him when he alleged that the oil companies believed they could afford to undermine local sentiments because they had made a deal with Naga militant groups operating in the region. “I was asked to talk only about the environment,” he recalled. “But this is not just about the environment.
‘Rights of the indigenous people’
Jiten Yumnam, another activist from Manipur, agreed. “No one wants to talk about the social impact that oil-drilling would bring to Manipur,” he said. “There seems to be just no space for the local community’s aspirations.” He insisted that Manipur’s natural resources belonged to its indigenous people. “They have absolute rights over it,” he said. “The Union government cannot just take it away like that.”
In 2012, Jubilant stopped work in the face of protests. Oil subsequently faded from public memory in Manipur until it resurfaced this year. Acting on a Union government proposal, Oil India Limited, a public sector enterprise, employed a company called Asian Oilfield to acquire more seismic data in unexplored areas of the state.
In May, Asian Oilfield officials were also forced to withdraw. According to Yumnam, this time people were enraged by the high-handedness of the company, which reportedly said that Manipur’s oil belonged to the Union government and it could decide what to do with it.
Yumnam pointed out that “the UN [United Nations] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007, clearly states the rights of indigenous people over their land and resources and to manage such resources”.
India had voted in favour of the adoption of the declaration.
Yumnam added that it was incumbent upon the state to negotiate with the Centre and protect the “rights of the indigenous people of Manipur”.
Cautious chief minister
Chief Minister N Biren Singh took a more circumspect line, saying that his government would hold discussions with the Union government, taking into account what the “people of the state and the state government want”.
“We are trying to find a solution,” he said. “We will discuss with the Union government that there should be a refinery in Manipur itself, then why should we give oil to other states? That way the state will benefit more, and I am sure people will also agree.”
But Yumnan and Gangmei maintained that this was not about reaching a middle ground so that oil exploration can begin. “At this point, we are not prepared for oil exploration at all,” said Yumnan. “Not in any form.”