The northeastern region of India is still a relatively secluded region. Under the pretext of national security and economic development, however, the activities of the Indian state are posing dreadful environmental threats to the region.
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By Hriday Ch. Sarma
The state of India is striving to forge the local environment of the northeastern region of the country in a way that suits national interests. A steadfast process of destruction of the region’s inherently rich biodiversity in order to establish unhindered access for the Indian military along the country’s disputed eastern borders is presently underway. Extensive infrastructure development across the region, which has profound ramifications, is a prerequisite for the military to ensconce in this difficult terrain.
The Northeast region of India, located at the southern foothills of the Himalayas, is still a relatively secluded region. It is a region that is immensely rich in terms of its biodiversity, with certain exotic flora and fauna species, like Assam lemon plants, ghost pepper plants and one-horned rhinoceros. However the entire region is in danger of falling into an inescapable whirlpool of calamities due to its delicate spatial conditions; such as the active seismic zone diametrically beneath; and a number of silt laden, voluminous rivers heavily-inundating the land throughout the year.
From India’s independence in 1947 until the country’s initiation of economic liberalization polices in the early nineties, New Delhi maintained ignorant attitudes towards the region in terms of ensuring sustainable development. During this period, New Delhi’s primary emphasis was to dilute the self-determining aspirations of the local ethno-national communities and neutralize their armed struggles by enforcing strict military subjugation of the region. From an environmental perspective this period was, in fact, a disguised blessing for the region as it managed to escape imposed economic development.
With a striking dip in the level of violence perpetuated by local secessionist (terrorist) groups from the start of the Twenty-First century, the Indian government has been trying to heavily industrialize the region. A small section of the local population in the region, mostly the local entrepreneurial class, is happy with this; but majority sections of the indigenous populace are grieving. Many local environmental activist groups have recently come to the fore as a form of counter-resistance to Indian-government sponsored economic initiatives. Unfortunately all of these environmental activist groups have met with negligent or minimal success successes in their respective endeavors.
One exception is Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) – an Assam-based peasant movement led by anti-dam activist Akhil Gogoi- that has effectively mobilized the local population on different environmental issues. Both the organization and its leader were recently honoured by consortium of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Toxics Link and Peace Institute Charitable Trust with prestigious ‘Bhagirath Prayas Samman’ for advocating the idea of urgently pressurng the Indian Government to negotiate with neighbouring countries in order to declare the Brahmaputra river (also known as Yarlung Tsangpo) an international neutral river.
The government of India has always viewed development in the Northeast region through the prism of national security. There are many reasons for pursuing this strategy. Two of the most important are China’s persistent assertion that Arunachal Pradesh is a part of southern Tibet and the growing influx of Islamist non-state actors from Bangladesh. The hilly terrain and excessive forest cover over the region makes it easier for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to take strategic advantage of China’s higher latitudinal location as and when it desires. Also, the Islamist non-state actors based in Bangladesh, which have strong links with Af-Pak Taliban, can easily spill-over into the region due to the presence of numerous pores along the borders between the two countries.
The same geographic factors that put India’s external adversaries on the front foot in the Northeast region make it difficult for the Indian military and institutions to efficiently monitor and administer the region. Hence India has now taken-up a grand plan of tightly-connecting the border areas and the entire Northeast region with the mainland region through a network of physical inter-connections, like roadways, railways and airways. This ambitious project, which holds national strategic importance for India, threatens environmental sensitivities of the region.
India has officially signed and ratified the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) – which prohibits the military or other hostile use of environmental modification techniques that have widespread, long-lasting or severe effects. However, the present actions of different organs of the state (i.e. government, the population and surveillance forces) in the Northeast region under the pretext of national security and economic development are posing dreadful environmental threats to the region. It is high time the international community speaks-up in support of the environmental concerns of the local people of the Northeast region.
Building inter-dependent economic and socio-cultural linkages between both sides of international borders is definitely the best way to escape any future inter-state conflict. India’s attempt to sanctify the British-gifted international borders along its eastern flank, which in-fact barely exists on-the-ground, is self-defeating and environmentally disastrous for the Northeast region and beyond.
Hriday Ch. Sarma is the founder and president of the India-based NGO, Green-Cosmos. He is also associated with several different international organizations.