Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Manipuri Activist Interviewed

With the planned Tipaimukh Dam putting 70 million people "at risk" in northeast India and Bangladesh, people of the region must co-ordinate efforts to safeguard sustainable development in the face of such projects, says veteran Indian campaigner Anastasia Cristalina Pinto. Pinto, executive director of the Centre for Organisation Research and Education (CORE) in Manipur, told, during a recent visit to Dhaka, the contentious dam also threatens to heighten existing tensions between the Indian government and ethnic groups in Manipur. The CORE focuses on policy research and advocacy on the rights of the indigenous and tribal communities.

Environmental pressure groups in both Bangladesh and Manipur state have been voicing strong concern over the potential impact of the planned Indian dam in downstream areas. The people of Manipur, and other northeastern states, are "justifiably unhappy" with the Indian government's development approach in the region, says Pinto, who has been working for the past two decades throughout India, including the northeast, on the vital role of local communities in sustainable development. India says the dam would not withhold water from Bangladesh as it is part of a power generation project and not intended for irrigation purposes. Pinto said, there were more than 70 million people "at risk" from the project. "Not only in the northeast, but if you take the adjacent regions into consideration." "Where is the international community? Where are the human rights groups, environmentalists and development activists, where are the donors? What are they doing?" She called on the international community to help in "preventative action", not to wait until it was "too late".

 Cumulative impact "Because we are not talking about only one dam; we are talking about the cumulative impact of several such interventions," said Pinto. She mentioned "future dams" along with "proposed uranium mines, the Trans-Asia highways and railways ... to be built in one of the most ecologically and seismically sensitive zones in the world." "There is very little assessment of cumulative future impacts. That is my concern," said the Manipur-based activist. She said the Indian government has estimated just 1300 families will be displaced for the Tipaimukh dam. "But then you calculate the displacement cost of the pan-Asian highway, railway, proposed mines and all the support and ancillary infrastructure that has to come up in order to support these." "Now let's talk about how many people are being displaced." "Let us look at the larger picture, what are the implications of such large scale displacement and reconstruction of environment and physical geography of such a sensitive zone on the outline areas. Nobody has calculated that," says Pinto.

"This is a disaster prone region already, now we are going to multiply that many times. For the last 30 years, this region, from the Bay of Bengal to the Himalayas, has also been experiencing growing impact of climate change. Now we are going to throw all this in to that basket." 'Bangladesh should join us' "I think Bangladesh should try and cooperate with some of us to actually find the way of assessing what is the cumulative impact of this entire development programme taken together. Because nothing less than that is needed." She suggested a co-operative non-government, scientific, bilateral board from northeast India and Bangladesh to assess the cumulative impact of "an entire range of projects" in the region over the next ten to fifteen years.

 "Local people do not want this dam. They have been forced to deal with it. At some point the feat of the government of India becomes like an act of God, which we cannot protest. It is beyond our capacity to do anything more. Because we are a small population already suffering from ... consequences of conflict. I am not saying anything very revolutionary; we have made complaints in this regard to various UN agencies and the human rights mechanism." But, said Pinto, in the last few years international support for the northeast has decreased. "We are not asking the people to make a decision or assessment, we are asking for people to make a truly scientific investigation into the impact of these projects cumulatively taken together on a zone such as the northeast and its outlying areas," said Pintu. 'Heightened tensions' Pinto's concern is also for Manipur's long-standing issues, including armed insurgency by separatist groups and inter-ethnic conflict that have recently come to the fore with protests against the Tipaimukh Dam project. The dam will heighten existing tensions between the central government and ethnic groups in the northeast state, she says. "Of course it will accelerate conflicts. It's not something unique in the northeast where resources become appropriated by corporations or by large projects. Conflicts are escalating and proliferating. In the northeast we already have 106 or 108 armed groups," she told Long-simmering tensions exist between the Indian government and people of the remote northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, and Nagaland, known collectively as the 'seven sisters'. Much of the region, connected to the rest of India by a narrow strip of land known as the Siliguri Corridor, is ethnically and culturally different from the rest of India. The states have long accused New Delhi of ignoring the issues that concern them, plundering resources and doing little to improve their lives. "Conflict is going to increase unless the government of India completely reverses its approach," said the development activist. "Conflict between armed groups in India, conflict between armed groups with each other, all these are going to intensify and multiply due to the kind of development pathways ... being adopted by the Indian government and in collaboration with others governments in the region who are not prepared to say no," she said.