Hydrocarbon exploration in Manipur: resource conflict and community response

As is the case with all colonial regimes, the British rule in India was also engaged in an unbridled extraction of natural resources from the “resource enclaves” in India. The output from all these resource enclaves was carried away as raw material for the industrial development of Britain. Infrastructure in the form of railway was developed in the core, while railways were built in the core only for resource extraction. The British government laid down draconian laws to facilitate the extraction through legal instruments that favoured the Crown leaving no space for rebellion. The feeder enclaves became centres of exploitation not only in terms of resource extraction, but the local populace also had to bear the brunt of colonial subjugation which completely destroyed their subsistence economy. Along with the extraction of resources that transformed the local economy and the natural environment, the local communities, however, barely benefitted from this process. Instead, the latter subjected them to further marginalisation and exclusion.

A similar path of development was taken up by the newly independent postcolonial Indian state. It continued with the same process of development based on resource extraction supplemented by the harsh colonial laws that justified their aggressive ways of development for the nation’s sake. Successive governments have based their development agenda on materializing nature’s rich mineral resources and selling them off for high export prices. Thus, post-independence India’s development has been focused on harnessing natural resources and building the economy upon these resource industries. However, the magnitude of exploitation has risen manifold with a lot of external agencies like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank involved today. With ever increasing demand for natural resources in the global market, even the frontiers of resource enclaves in underdeveloped countries have come to be under surveillance and massive exploration. The remotest enclaves that hold pristine reserves of resources are being excavated and hunted by the multinational companies. Thus, areas may be remote in the sense of not being connected by any transport system, but they have been identified in the radar to hold valuable mineral resources which needs to be unearthed to bring greater growth.

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In the same way, India has found its new energy reserves in its Northeastern region. The first oil reserves in India were discovered in the region in the late nineteenth century, and it was in Digboi in Assam that the first oil refinery was established in 1901. Successive attempts have been made to discover and extract oil reserves to keep up with the constantly rising demand for crude oil and petroleum in the transport industry and varied other industries. After Assam was expansively explored and exploited, the neighbouring states of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura have now been identified with prospective oil reserves. All these states share the same geological base and geological richness which have attracted the attention of surveyors.

Back in 1981, an approximately 3,000-square-kilometre area was discovered to have petroleum and natural gas in the Changpang-Tsorri area of Nagaland bordering Assam, but the Memorandum of Understanding was contested by the villagers of the area (Hausing 2014: 99-100). However, after persistence by a Canadian company, Canoro Resources Limited engaged by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), an agreement was reached in 2008, but it experienced environmental damage with oil spillage post drilling.1 Hence drilling of oil was stopped due to agitation by the local community and the filing of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Gauhati High Court (Hausing 2014: 100-101). Thus, we can see that since the last decade, oil exploration and drilling for commercial purposes in these places have started with a new rigour. Similarly, Manipur is now experiencing a bumpy journey regarding oil exploration.

The chapter brings to light how the Indian State, in collaboration with the Government of Manipur (GoM), is trying to initiate the process of oil exploration in the state. It recounts the events that have been unfolding in Manipur since 2010 when the first survey drilling was conducted. To date, companies still keep coming to try to persuade villagers to allow them to conduct exploratory surveys. The chapter narrates the ground-level situation along with the reasons for anxiety and apprehension that the local communities have over the possible start of oil exploration in Manipur. The chapter also brings to the fore the issues of political contention between the communities and the State. It is an attempt to understand and reflect on the politics of “development” which is being played out through possible oil exploration that the State wants to conduct in Manipur by apparently disregarding the multifarious impact that this project might bring to the local communities.

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