Border of Contention


Following the meeting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde had with representatives of all political parties in Manipur on 4 December over the happenings along the Indo-Myanmarese border, a high-level team comprising officials of the home ministry, the Survey of India and the state government visited border villages in south-east Manipur on 7 December.

As of now, the ongoing work on border fencing along the 35-km Manipur- Myanmar border remains suspended. The team recommended that the border agreement be reviewed and, if need be, taken up with the Myanmar government at the diplomatic level. Meanwhile, Myanmar has claimed that since the land on which the Integrated Check Post in the border town of Moreh (Manipur) is being constructed falls under its jurisdiction, the work should stop forthwith. India is said to have invited the Myanmar several times to discuss border issues but there has been no response.

The latter has also not positively responded for joint efforts in tackling mutual insurgency problems. Because of this, major bilateral development projects under India’s Look East Policy have not been progressing as envisaged. Though there has been no major violence, tensions along the Indo-Myanmarese border have been shimmering, particularly in Manipur’s Chandel district. In July-August this year, Haolenphai villagers saw Myanmar security personnel patrolling the area and they even entered the village to construct barracks. Moreover, the 10-km fencing, work on which started this year, was found to be entrenched within Indian territory and if work continues it would also cover parts of the village.

In October, after government officials visited Mangkang (Haolenphai village) and Thangbung Minou, political party representatives submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister. It said that since Manipur had been incorporated into the Indian Union in October 1949, the Centre was responsible for protecting international borders. The memorandum pointed out that under the boundary delimitation agreed upon (April  1975) there were to be 99 posts along the Indo-Myanmares border in the Manipur sector. Today, several such pillars were missing while similar ones with dual numbers had been fixed on both sides, it said. There were two different lines and scales; the topo-sheet Map of 1973 and topo-sheet Map of 1976 in the record of the Surveyor General of India.

Pillar Nos 64 to 68 and 75 to 80 are in a disputed area. About a dozen more were found to be contentious. Pillar Nos 76 and 78 in Moreh had disappeared and replaced by new ones with the Nos 23 and 21 and their shape and size did not tally with the originals. Also, two border pillars with the same number, 87, were found in Yangoupokpi village on the Indian side and another similar pillar located at Oukrung village on the Myanmar side. Similarly, pillar Nos 87, 88  and 89 were found on both Indian and Myanmar soil. It is alleged that many pillars were uprooted from the original sites and erected deep inside Indian territory.

Territory and related matters in Manipur comprise an emotive subject. The 1826 Yandaboo Treaty and the 1834 agreement on Kabaw valley have always remained contentious issues. Reference to the loss of large chunks of territory and Kabaw valley to Myanmar, or ethnic communities divided across the border, were frequently made by Manipuris in their socio- political discourses.

According to the bilateral agreement signed in Rangoon between India and Burma in March 1967, demarcation of the international boundary line demarcation was to be based on the traditional boundary line. Manipur political parties alleged that at the time of the delimitation in April 1975 no responsible officers from the Indian side were present.

After more than 40 years, the 35-km stretch of common border in the Manipur sector is yet to be demarcated on the ground. And after more than 50 years of Independence, India is yet to ascertain and draw its International boundary lines in the North-eastern sector.

India’s relations with its eastern neighbours have always been viewed through the North-east prism. Though this appears to be positive, it is but a mere strategic buffer zone. In actual diplomatic terms, the relationship is between New Delhi and Naypidaw or New Delhi and Beijing, while this periphery region remains vulnerable, underdeveloped and never a subject of discussion in diplomatic circles.

While Delhi is preoccupied with Islamabad, Dhaka and Colombo, its eastern neighbours have never actually figured in its consciousness. The potential of Myanmar (case of insurgency) cannot be overlooked, nor the Chinese aggression; the case of Arunachal Pradesh is an example. The romancing of “friendly neighbours” or “historical and cultural ties” can no longer be considered the basis of diplomatic relations and this should be a wake-up call for Delhi.

The Statesman North East Page 
December 16, 2013

No Turning Point Yet

Tonghen Kipgen's diary on the demand for the creation of a seperate Sadar Hills District in Manipur exposes Intra-inter communal conflict and systematic structural discrimination , says Ninglun Hanghal 

The agitation for the creation of a separate Sadar Hills district in Manipur started 40 years ago. In his book Sadar Hills Movement (Spectrum Publication, Guwahati), Tonghen Kipgen recounts how the demand eventually became a mass movement. The journey began as an appeal for implementation of the government of Manipur (Department of Planning and Development) notification vide No 18/1/71-SC of 14/2/1972 and Manipur Gazette No 28/1/71 dated 14/02/1972. 

All successive governments, right from the creation of the state in 1972, bypassed the Sadar Hills autonomous district council while five other such councils, created under the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Act, 1971, were upgraded to a district.

 Born in 1973, Kipgen is as old as the struggle that saw him becoming a student leader. He was made general secretary of the Sadar Hills Districthood Demand Committee in 2011. The struggle that began from 1974 onwards is divided into two phases — the first non- violent till 2010; the second, the public movement in 2011, also called the 123 Days of Agitation, caused a massive public uproar that brought Manipur to a standstill with economic blockades imposed along the NH-39 and NH-53 from 31 July till 1 November. Besides deaths and injuries, there was massive destruction of infrastructure and vehicles.

 In a candid diary written in “layman’s” language, Kipgen states that the “Sadar Hills movement” should not be conveniently clubbed into the category of “tribal, agrarian, or a separatist movement”. It is made out to be “complicated” and “complex”, but is not a matter of conflict of interest or disagreement between parties as dissected and observed by critics or analysts, he feels. He reveals that the demand committee members were criticised, demoralised  by  several quarters and were even threatened by state and  non-state actors.

 Kipgen’s diary reveals more than just a list of events, or a series of agitations, meetings, memorandums or official recordings.  It exposes intra-inter communl conflict and systematic structural discrimination. Sadar Hills is inhabited by Nepalis, Pangals (Manipuri Muslims), Meiteis, different Naga tribes, whom the author calls “Kacha Nagas”, and the majority community,  the Thadou-Kukis, who are  in the forefront of the movement. 

Geographically sandwiched  between valley districts inhabited by the Meiteis and hill districts with predominantly Nagas, the two majority communities in Manipur who are at loggerheads, the volatile and vulnerable Sadar Hills ADC area became a “laboratory” of ethnic and communal politics, blame games and, most of all, a classic case of the state’s apathy and indifference.

A commendable and remarkable gesture found in Kipgen’s record is the letter to the United Naga Council and the Naga People’s Organisation by the demand committee before commencing the 2011 protest. The letter, in the form of an appeal, reads, “Time has come for our unity and unflagging journey towards attaining justice… and stand with us.” While Kipgen does not mention receiving any response/reply, the diary notes the reaction of the UNC and the All Naga Students Association, Manipur, over the creation of Sadar Hills district, which says that “districts cannot be created by means of carving out/cutting parts of Nagas’ land in the state… Government should not pursue policies and plans to bring differences among the tribals in Manipur”.  

 Moreover, the infamous bloody Naga-Kuki feud in the early 1990s was  “conveniently” used as the main argument point of debate or rather a contention on the creation of Sadar Hills district by both the government and intellectuals, the valley-based civil society to be specific. Kipgen recalls that at several seminars held in Imphal on the issue, nobody was in favour of Sadar Hill district. He further mentions that a stern statement came from a valley underground group that said Sadar Hills district could only be created after a proper demarcation of boundaries.

Three-time state chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh told the demand committee that Sadar Hills district could not be created in haste due to the sensitivity of the issue, meaning opposition by the Nagas. At one of the meetings chaired by the chief minister himself during the height of the 2011 agitation, he proposed to the team to form a “committee on reorganisation of administrative and police boundary” for the whole state.   

Besides attempts to divert the issue, the book records an odd blame game played by politicians. Manipur’s  first chief minister Allimuddin, in 1972, defended himself saying that the inauguration of Sadar Hills district could not take place because the area’s legislator did not sound the traditional gong as a sign of allegiance. In the 1997,  when  W Nipamacha Singh was chief minister, he accused  “Kuki ministers” of not coming up with a location for district headquarters. The same year, it may be noted, a smooth transition took place; Imphal West and East District were bifurcated. The two districts border the Sadar Hills.

Kipgen believes that the Sadar Hills can be transformed into a model district of vibrant diversity, which will further help consolidate the state’s integrity. He raises many questions that  may remain unanswered. Nevertheless, the mass response and the spirit witnessed in the 2011 agitation does not seem to die down, “not so soon”.  

In the concluding chapter, Kipgen writes “... the worst phase of trouble would erupt if  opposition to the Sadar Hills persists.” Quoting Jinnah and the two-nation theory, and drawing inspiration from the 1916 armed insurrection in Dublin, a poorly supported, weak movement that gained strength due to the violent reaction by the British government and led to the creation of an Irish state in 1922, Kipgen states that “a system may respond vigorously to challenges which may set in motion a chain of events that the government was seeking to avoid”.
 In fact,  Kipgen’s own tone and use of language subsequently moved on from a non-political to a political one towards the end,  a reassertion of his introductory statement, “creation of Sadar hills is not politics... But the political methods and motives ultimately caused Sadar Hills to become a political issue”.

 Tonghen Kipgen lives at Kangpokpi (Sadar Hills). He was president of the Kuki Students’ Organisation (Gen Hq) and spokesperson of the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur. He was general secretary of the Sadar Hill District Demand Committee during the peak of the movement in 2011.

The reviewer is A DELHI-BASED freelance contributor
The Statesman NE page , November 25,2013

Mini hydro projects to Arunachal Pradesh’s rescue

With mega dams stuck in red tape and the threat of enormous environmental damage if they are approved, mini projects may be the best option for mountainous Arunachal Pradesh

Picturesque Arunachal Pradesh in India’s north-eastern corner, blessed with perennial rivers and a generous forest cover, is sometimes referred to as the country’s potential powerhouse. But it is struggling to cope with its own electricity demands as its people live w
ith hours of outages. And there is little likelihood that the electricity situation will improve anytime soon.

The state government, led by Chief Minister Nabam Tuki, has been seeking support from the central government and forums such as the European Union as well as agencies like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for hydropower projects. But there has been little movement.

The state is currently deficit in power. It buys from the national grid and uses diesel generators. India’s Central Electricity Authority (CEA) says Arunachal Pradesh has the potential to generate 49,126 MW per year from the 89 hydroelectric projects (HEPs) proposed in the state. Though this is installed capacity and actual generation would be far lower – especially in the lean months before spring snow melt and the monsoon – so many hydroelectricity projects would make Arunachal Pradesh a big power provider to the national grid. With major rivers Kameng, Subansiri, Dihang/Dibang, Siang and Lohit all joining to form the Brahmaputra, engineers consider Arunachal Pradesh perfect for hydropower generation.
Developers from the public and private sectors rushed to the state in the wake of the CEA study, and many projects were started without all mandatory permissions, mainly those that were supposed to deal with damages to the environment. Now permissions have been held up, and most projects have stalled.
Mini hydroelectricity projects have sprung to the rescue. The state’s departments of hydropower and power have so far developed 33.21 MW from 53 mini hydro projects.  Besides, other mini HEPs under the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) are also underway – Ranganadi (405 MW), Kameng (600 MW) and 37 other mini projects with a target of 58.99 MW.
While mega projects will take years to take off, given the layers of approval required and the financial crunch, the state, it appears, will have to manage with its existing mini projects.
If mega power projects were to be approved, experts point out, a huge amount of forest cover, agriculture and dwelling lands will have to be compromised, and along with it flora and fauna. Besides the ecological disturbances, there are also the long-term implications on the socio-cultural fabric of the state.
In this scenario, mini projects can contribute towards the protection of the environment and also resolve some of the socio and political tensions arising out of proposed mega projects– intra and inter community ties, interstate relations, centre-state and international relations.
Still, working on multiple tracks to solve its power woes, the government is lobbying hard to ensure that the mega projects get off the ground. In October this year, Chief Minister Nabam Tuki again approached New Delhi and pressed for an early solution to the many stalled projects.
Earlier in the year, as India’s economy hit a low and the rupee plumbed new depths against the US dollar (crossing Rs. 68 to the dollar in August), Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had said in the lower house of parliament that stalled mega development projects should  be given a go-ahead. This, he believes, is one way to revive the economy.
A meeting of all chief ministers of the states in the northeast – Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura and Sikkim besides Arunachal Pradesh – will be held in January 2014 to review infrastructure in the region.
This is good news for Tuki, who has been trying hard for funds to continue with the ongoing proposals for several infrastructure projects, including HEPs.
The many hurdles
In November last year, Tuki had requested Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene to facilitate the scope of externally aided funding of development projects in the state through organisations like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank.
He met the prime minister and also wrote to him, pointing out that Arunachal Pradesh had submitted infrastructure development projects for funding to ADB but due to certain hurdles these had not yet seen light of day. He requested the prime minister personally intervene to clear these hurdles so the state can also benefit from international funding agencies like other states.
China had reportedly objected to the flood management project in Arunachal Pradesh in 2009 under ADB’s Country Partnership Strategy for 2009-12. Though there is no clear reason coming from China, the main objection was on the ground that the project falls under a disputed area.
Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China, is a bone of contention between the two countries with Beijing laying territorial claims on it and New Delhi contesting that claim.
In July 2009, then external affairs minister S.M. Krishna had said in the upper house of parliament that the Chinese objection to the project in Arunachal Pradesh was a violation of ADB’s charter that bars it from evaluating a project on non-economic criteria. According to Krishna, “China’s objection on political grounds is a clear violation of the ADB’s charter which prohibits the Bank from evaluating any proposal on grounds other than economic.” But ADB still backed out. China is the third largest shareholder in the ADB, after the US and Japan. It has a share of 6.54% in the organisation.
In October this year, when Manmohan Singh visited China, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on strengthening cooperation on transboundary rivers. However, there was no mention of grants or funds for hydro projects.
Current status of mega projects
Of the major hydroelectricity projects planned, the Dihang/Dibang basin will have 29 projects with an installed capacity of 22,489 MW, Subansiri 22 with a capacity of 15,191 MW, Kameng 29 with a capacity of 4,637 MW, Lohit seven with a capacity of 6,669 MW and Siang two projects with a capacity of 140 MW.
Promoters of most of these projects have now reapplied for revalidation of the Terms of Reference, since these have expired. These include the Talong Londa in the Kameng basin and Lower Siang projects. These big projects have a long way to go even if they are cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi over strong objections by environmentalists and local residents. The ministry has asked the state government for a review and re-assessment of environment impact assessments and environment management plans.
As just one example of how these projects were started and how they have stalled, the 3,000 MW Dibang multipurpose hydroelectric project got site clearance in 2004 but the mandatory public hearing before the promoters were even supposed to apply for environmental clearance was conducted only in 2013. The environment ministry has now asked for a reassessment and re-evaluation of the flora and fauna and other socio-ecological impacts. It observed that a huge area of forest land would be submerged and noted its reservation on forest clearances. The reassessment has not been submitted to the ministry yet.
Many of the project developers have chosen to lobby the state government, the central power ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office against the decision of the environment ministry, instead of submitting reassessments.
The debate on mega projects is not new, neither is the struggle for power in the state and the rest of the country. While the wrangles continue, mini projects in Arunachal Pradesh have stepped in to bridge the gap between demand and supply – and give people of the state some respite from their power woes.
November 15,2013

Task for Delhi Police

Recently, the Young Paite Association, Delhi, organised a workshop on security, safety and the problems faced by people of the North-east in the capital. Problems like harassment by landlords/ houseowners, non-payment of salary by employers and insecurity while travelling in public transport/ metros were raised and discussed.
 In Delhi, when someone from the North-east rents a room or a flat, he/she is not given any formal written agreement. Those securing jobs have no formal appointment letters. Auto-drivers are unwilling to go by the meter but after the 16 December gangrape case they appear to have mellowed somewhat.  While travelling in buses, commuters from the North-east often become the objects of derision. They are mentally prepared to face the capital’s hard life.
Over the years there have been numerous cases of assault on North-easterners. Some serious ones being the Daula Kuan case of 2005 (a Mizo student was gangraped), the Munirka case of 2009 (a Manipuri teenager was allegedly raped and murdered), the Moti Bagh case of 2010 ( a North-east woman BPO employee was gangraped). In May this year, a Manipuri girl was allegedly raped and murdered in Chirag Dilli. Last year, a 21-year-old Khasi girl student of Amity University, Gurgaon, committed suicide after she was “caught” with a mobile phone while sitting for an examination.
After the Chirag Dilli incident,  an exclusive Delhi police team for the North-east was set up under Joint Commissioner (Training) Robin Hibu. Meetings between the Delhi Police cell and North-east representatives are being held regularly. At a recent police-public interface, the Joint Commissioner spoke about “zero tolerance” of crimes against women. He said help was available 24x7 through emergency lines and asked the North-east residents to make use of it whenever they were in need.
The Delhi Police for the North-east are also making efforts to coordinate with different NGOs and community leaders to help those working girls whenever they are in trouble. They are being trained in self-defence. Admitting that people from the North-east were often treated with an “attitude” in mainland India, the Joint Commissioner said a “cosmopolitan police” with the recruitment of several North-east youths into the police department, was a step in the right direction and it would go a long way in changing the “mindset”‘ of the Delhi Police.
When cases of sexual harassment or physical attack are reported, these are attended to, but problems with landlords and employers and security for women working till late hours, are beyond their ambit.
For most North-east youths coming to the city, particularly with an average academic education and  beginners (with no work experience), there is no alternative but to grab whatever comes their way. They are mostly in the hospitality, service and BPO sectors. There is no “appointment or an agreement” per se. Many such private companies and hospitality service centres are not even legally registered.
In the case of renting rooms or a house, almost all affordable accommodation in local colonies in Delhi are “illegal buildings”, with no “dealers” or  property broker system and no security or advance deposit. Any plan for eviction from such illegal buildings in Delhi can never take off. Somehow, perhaps, this suits the North-east youths as well, given their economic and living conditions. Therefore, a North-easterner possesses no resident, ration  or voter’s card.
Though the problems are varied and interconnected, debates, discussions on security and safety over-shadow these unreported concerns. And in any matter the police are considered a means to an end in providing security as well as solving problems. There is no denying that the security forces and the police as state institutions are the first and the last to oversee such security and safety. A  working women hostel for North-east women was set up at Jasola in east Delhi but it received no applications. Even after it was made a North-east students’ hostel, there have been no takers!
It can be said that most problems that North-east communities face, reported or unreported, have, in the true sense, a lot to do with local environment. And in any given society, as much as it breeds the bad and the ugly, there are good people as well.  Here the role of the “local aunties” cannot be underestimated. Sensitising them and involving them will make the work of the police and civil society much easier.
The Delhi Police mentions holding meetings with the Resident Welfare Associations, but how seriously their decisions are acted upon remains to be seen. An interface, a dialogue and interactions involving the North-east people, local residents and the police will go a long way in solving many, if not all the problems.

The Statesman ( NE page)  September 23, 2013

Polls may stall India’s Tipaimukh dam again

The controversial Tipaimukh hydro project on a transboundary river that flows from India to Bangladesh may be stalled again due to polls looming in both countries;

The Tipaimukh hydroelectricity project in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur – being planned by India for about four decades and being opposed by Bangladesh for almost as many – may be stalled once more by political compulsions in both countries. Environmentalists are rejoicing.
General elections are due in both Bangladesh and India in a few months. Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina is already battling charges that she is too pro-Indian, even when India is not responding positively to her overtures. In this situation, she is unlikely to push for or even agree to a project that has been opposed by environmentalists and farmers in Bangladesh for many years.
India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh tried to overcome this opposition by offering Bangladesh a stake in the Tipaimukh project this July. Unfortunately for him, the offer came just a few days after the Forest Advisory Committee, in his own government’s Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoE&F), rejected the proposal to declassify reserved forest land for the project.
Since then, political opposition in India has forced the government to shelve a land border agreement and Teesta river water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. Bureaucrats in New Delhi say this also means any chance of an agreement on the Tipaimukh project in the near future has become very slim indeed.
The Tipaimukh project is about building a 163-metre-high dam on the Barak river about 225 kilometres upstream of the point where it flows into Bangladesh from India. The project – in Churachandpur district in the southern part of the state of Manipur – is meant to control floods in Assam’s Barak valley and to generate 1,500 megawatts.
The project was conceptualised in June 1972, at the very first meeting of the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission in New Delhi, just a few months after Bangladesh became independent. The Tipaimukh site – about 500 metres downstream of the point where the Tuivai river from Mizoram flows into the Barak – was identified in 1974.

The project has been mired in controversy from the very beginning. Environmentalists in India opposed it because the reservoir that would form behind the dam would submerge 25,822 hectares of forests. Their counterparts in Bangladesh opposed it because they feared a reduction in the water flow in the Barak. Farmers in Bangladesh opposed it because they use the banks of the rivers downstream to grow a variety of rice – Boro – that depends on seasonal flooding every monsoon. They were afraid that if the dam was built, the floodplains where they grow this rice would dry out.
Environmentalist in India and farmers in Bangladesh unite in opposition

Apart from these worries, there was the question of cost. In 1984, India’s Central Water Commission estimated that the project would cost Rs 1,078 crore (US$169 million). In 2008, Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN) – one of the public sector undertakings supposed to carry out the project – estimated the cost would be Rs 9,211 crore (US$1.44 billion), well over eight times the original estimate. The Manipur state government’s estimate is Rs 5,885 crore (US$921 million).
The state government’s count of the number of trees that will be felled or drowned by the reservoir comes to over 8.2 million. It has estimated that the compensatory planting of trees that is mandatory in such situations will require 51,644 hectares, and that will cost an estimated Rs 131 crore (US$20.5 million). None of the original three project estimates includes this cost.
The state government says 2,027 residents of 12 villages will be displaced by the project, but it also has the potential to employ 826 of them. The rehabilitation costs have been included in their project estimates, according to state government officials in the Manipur capital Imphal. However, the funding for the project has not been finalized yet, they add.
SJVN was originally supposed to partner North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) to carry out the project. But in 2009, NEEPCO was replaced by National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), for reasons that have not yet been made public. On October 22, 2011, NHPC and SJVN signed an agreement with the Manipur state government to build and run the project.
Work on the project, however, started long ago, well before all permissions were in place. In November 2006, the state government wrote to MoE&F, seeking declassification of reserved forest land. The letter said all state government departments that had to approve the project had done so. It also said that though the land earmarked for submergence was classified as reserved forest, in practice it was used for shifting cultivation, that it did not have any significant wildlife, and that it was anyway being overrun by an invasive bamboo species, Melocanna baccifera, locally known as Muli bamboo. Nor did the area have any special socio-cultural or religious significance, the state government wrote.
When MoE&F’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) first discussed the project in 2007, its members said the state government had merely forwarded reports of various departments without any recommendation of its own. These reports could not be accepted as a sign of approval, the members felt.
Dubious environmental impact assessment shuts out public participation
They looked at the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report and found no mention of the date and place of a public hearing on the project, which is mandatory. The members doubted reports that biodiversity in these forests were economically insignificant. They were also surprised by reports that local residents had voluntarily left the proposed site to pave way for the project.
The committee members found that the water quality study done by the state pollution control board had been based on 1990 data and had not followed directions given by the committee. The EIA report, they found, neither classified nor listed the flora that were now in the area proposed to be submerged.
Though the entire Himalayas are an earthquake-prone region, there was no study of the seismicity of the site. In this high-rainfall area, the members were surprised by the rainfall records of the past ten years – they thought the figures were far too low.
There was one mention that 172 fish species would be affected, of which 23 were indigenous, but no mention of whether there would be any attempt to safeguard them.
Given this situation, the FAC sent the application back to the Manipur government, asked it to make the corrections necessary, and apply again. The matter has been going back and forth since that 2007 meeting, with the latest being the FAC’s refusal this July to declassify land reserved for forests.
The many apprehensions about the project from Bangladesh were summed up by prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor Gowher Rizvi in a December 2011 article in Dhaka’s Daily Star. He wrote that the Tipaimukh project would adversely impact the environment, economy and security of Bangladesh and that in the debate, experts had been pushed aside by those who were not so well-informed but had strong views.
India assures downstream neighbour, but blocks joint initiatives
Pointing out that the Barak was a transboundary river, Rizvi wrote that by current international practices, interests of the lower riparian country Bangladesh had to be taken into account. In the article, Rizvi was confident that ultimately India would not take any action over the Tipaimukh project that would hurt the interests of Bangladesh. The Indian government has given the same assurance to Khaleda Zia, the main opposition leader in Bangladesh.
Rizvi recommended that environmental groups and experts in India and Bangladesh should study the Tipaimukh project jointly. This suggestion has been made a number of times, but access of Bangladeshi experts to the project site has been repeatedly blocked by Indian authorities on security grounds.
The Tipaimukh project is now on hold, though the FAC decision is a halt on declassification of forest land, not on the entire project as such. The committee members have in fact asked for a revised plan where the forest area to be used for the project could be minimized, and so could the socio-environmental impact.
Clearly, the last word on the Tipaimukh project has not been written.
17  SEPTEMBER 2013 

Mizo Women's Big Push for Legal Reforms

In a historic victory for the women’s movement in Mizoram, the State Law Commission is now in the final process of reviewing The Mizo Marriage Bill, 2013, The Mizo Inheritance Bill, 2013, and The Mizo Divorce Bill, 2013, which will be introduced in the State Assembly after public consultations across the Mizoram. This is the result of a unique struggle that has gone on for over a decade, waged by the Mizo Hmeichhe Insuihkhawm Pawl (MHIP), an apex body representing several local women’s groups. 

After years of advocacy and repeated attempts at sending innumerable memorandums and draft bills to the Assembly and other executive bodies, the MHIP finally managed to push the state system into considering judicial and legislative changes in the marriage, divorce, and inheritance and succession laws in order to safeguard the interests of ordinary women.

The dynamic Pi Sangkhumi, 60, former president of MHIP, is a happy woman today. It’s been her long-cherished dream to ensure reforms related to marriage and inheritance as she has seen generations of Mizo women suffer because of the legal biases in the system. Explaining the need for these reforms, she says, “A Mizo woman has never had any rights over property whether moveable, immoveable or even gifts, known as ‘bungrua’ in the local language, that are given to her at the time of marriage. Her husband can divorce her at any time and throw her out of the house without providing any financial support.”

Traditionally, Mizo women have played a productive role not just within their homes – as wives and mothers – but have also made a mark as entrepreneurs, teachers and officers in the state administration. However, just as the state’s history has been strife-torn, so has the life of its women, who have borne the worst consequences of the instability and violence that had marked the region.

The years when the Mizo National Front (MNF), an underground movement, was actively agitating against the government were particularly difficult. Earlier known as the Mizo National Famine Front, formed to help ease the immense suffering of the local people during the severe Mautam Famine of 1959, the organisation renamed itself the MNF in 1961. The state’s inaction during famine led to a wave of secessionist uprisings and armed insurrections during the entire decade of the sixties.

Pi Sangkhumi can “never forget those difficult days”. Her father, one of the key leaders of the MNF, was killed during the peak of the movement. His death spelled tough times for her family but they coped as best as they could. A year later, in 1965, she went for higher studies to Shillong, the capital of the neighbouring state of Meghalaya. Being a brilliant student enabled her to study and live free-of-cost there, as her expenses were covered by scholarships. “There was no way financial support could come from home,” she recalls.

All the while that Pi Sangkhumi was coping with her personal struggles she was acutely aware of the difficulties being faced by women at large during those two-decade-long bloody conflict – from mid-1960s - mid 80s. Today , Pi Sangkhumi and the Mizos at large area attempting hard to leave behind those dark memories, so much was the pain that narrating and recollecting was something that Pi Sangkhumi would better avoid and dismissed. To cite the situation of torture Mizo women face , mention maybe made of an incident such as the brutal gang rape of two young women by army jawans on a cold November night in 1966 , when the MNF attacked a convoy of Army personnel advancing towards Champhai village in east Mizoram. In retaliation, the Army herded the villagers together and set fire to their homes. The two women, the daughters of prominent community leaders , were held separately in a small shack hut where soldiers allegedly took turns in raping them.

 After 47 years, a compensation of Rs 5 lakh each has recently been announced by the central government for the two rape survivors, who were in a pitiable condition today. Reportedly one of them just sits quietly all day with a blank expression on her face. She needs assistance to even move around. The other survivor suffers from extreme paranoia and nightmares. She refuses to sleep alone and is suspicious of everyone around her. This story is common to many victims who have endured such traumas during the years of the revolt. 

It was these crimes being committed against women that prompted various women’s groups from across the state and even outside to come together and form a powerful organisation that worked to fight for the collective rights of the women of the state. The MHIP was created in 1974 when Mizoram was still a Union Territory – it got full statehood in 1986 – and it literally means binding women together. Its logo ‘hmui’, a charkha, symbolises Mizo women’s creativity and sense of self reliance. It is also the device they use to weave the beautiful ‘puanchei’, their traditional dress. Tlawmngaihna, or philanthropy – a key characteristic of the Mizo society – was the other reason behind the setting up of MHIP. Besides implementing several initiatives for the empowerment of women, particularly related to education and entrepreneurship development in the recent decades, MHIP has been focusing on campaigning against domestic violence, rape and other forms of gender violence. One of their main challenges has been to convince people to change traditional systems and customs that suppress women, both with the family and in society.

Pi Sangkhumi is of the opinion that while “Mizo women are definitely a part of the work force now, but they are still not the decision-makers and that needs to change”. Which is why MHIP pursing the legislative route.

The practice of quoting a “bride price” irks Pi Sangkhumi no end. “It’s cash or kind paid to the bride’s father during marriage but, I ask, is one supposed to ‘purchase’ one’s bride? What status will such a woman have in her marital home?” remarks the veteran activist, who is also a teacher and a retired member of the State Public Service Commission.

According to her, the “bride price” custom started around half a century ago and was meant to be “a phuahchop”, or a practice introduced temporarily. But over the years, it has become a ‘tradition’ that is faithfully being followed. “A regressive practice should be prohibited by the legal system. We cannot overturn a custom but we can definitely make it better or modify it,” she argues. 

Drawing from examples like child marriage, the purdah system and sati – practices which are illegal in India now – Pi Sangkhumi asks, “Why can’t we legally ban the Mizo bride price practice, too?” She further adds, “When laws such as the Hindu Marriage Act can be passed and implemented in other parts of India, why can’t we pass a Mizo Inheritance or Divorce Law?”

Another demand that she and her group are making is for a 33 per cent reservation in the political system. As a first step towards realising their dream, MHIP is advocating for an increased induction of women candidates into local political parties.

Surely if anyone can make change happen for Mizo women it’s the MHIP, which has a presence in 16 blocks in the state with 12 joint headquarters and 740 local branches. Pi Sangkhumi, who has penned the history of the Mizo women’s movement, titled ‘MHIP Chanchin 1974-2009’, says with a broad smile, “During our general assembly meetings when more than 2,000 women gather, even the Vanapa hall – the biggest public hall in Mizoram – is small for us. That’s the kind of woman power we have.”

Having worked hard on the legislation on marriage, divorce and inheritance, Pi Sangkhumi is on to another task these days: getting important laws related to domestic violence, rape and human rights translated into the Mizo language. She is doing this because she strongly feels “it is important that every hardworking Mizo woman understands her rights”.

Women's Feature Service, September 2013

Will Tipaimukh Hydro Power project really kick off ? Will there be light ?

 In another round of the Forest Advisory Committee in the Ministry of Environment and Forest meeting on August 13 and 14, over diversion of 1551.60 hectares of forest land in Mizoram for the construction of Tipaimukh Multipurpose Dam, the committee once again reiterated that diversion of forest land should not be sanctioned. It recalled its earlier meeting in July, where the FAC had disapproved the diversion of 25,822 hectares of Forest land in Manipur.
The committee had stated that the forest area that has 7816931 trees and 0.27 lakh bamboos, is largely disproportionate to the expected power generation, and that the overall cost far outweigh the benefits likely to be acquired. The said requirement is 1/5th of the total land requirements for an odd 497 such hydro project in the whole country.
Besides the delay, clouded in controversy and secrecy, the proposed project has also caused a stir in the political establishments and civil society in neighboring Bangladesh , given that water flows down from the confluence in Tipaimukh to Surma and Khushiara rivers and construction of the reservoir at this junction will affect the seasonal flow in the downstream.
The apprehension, concerns and reactions from Bangladesh can be summed up from an opinion written by Bangladesh Prime Minister’s Foreign Advisor Gowher Rizvi in December 2011, ( Daily Star, Dhaka ). Maintaining that the project will adversely impact the environment, economy and security of Bangladesh, Rizvi stated that Bangladesh cannot afford to take it lightly and must gear up to ensure that their National interests are not compromised.
The project which is proposed to be funded through World Bank have so far not been arranged nor even discussed with the Bank, the Bangladesh PM Foreign adviser wrote. Rizvi underlined that Barak is an international river and therefore the interests of Bangladesh has to be taken into account according to current international practices.
Asserting that India had assured Bangladesh it would not take any action over Tipaimukh HEP that would hurt the interests of Bangladesh Rizvi stated that civil society and scientists in Bangladesh should conduct an in-depth study to come up to an independent conclusion.
Estimated at Rs 5,885.00 crore the 162.80 metre reservoir proposed to be built 500 metres downstream at the confluence of the river Tuivai from Mizoram and river Barak from Assam was conceptualized to control flood in Assam valley and generate 1500 MW for power starved Manipur and North Eastern States of India at large. The concept began to materialize after the first meeting between India and Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission held in New Delhi in 1972. Subsequently, the project site was identified in 1974. An agreement was signed between the Government of Manipur, National Hydro Power Corporation ( NHPC) Ltd. and Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd (SJVN) in October 2011. NHPC replaced NEEPCO- North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Ltd in 2009 for reasons unknown.
Manipur Government in November 2006 wrote to the MoEF for necessary action for Forest clearance, forwarding an Ariel survey report of the proposed project site by Regional Forest Department, State Forest Department and comments from User agency NEEPCO.
All these departments had given their no objection statement for the Construction of the hydro project, including the State Pollution Control Board.
The joint survey observed that large part of the catchment area is subjected to shifting cultivation (a practice by inhabitants of the hills in Manipur) and that the project area does not harbor significant wildlife, nor is a national park or wildlife sanctuary, neither a bio-sphere or a tiger reserve and not an elephant corridor. The survey report also maintained that the surveyed site does not come under a protected area and that there is no official document to support its socio-cultural, religious value associated with this forest land.
The project went into a roadblock at the Ministry’s Environment Clearance meeting several times. In its meeting in 2007 and 2008 the expert appraisal committee had commented that the State Government merely forwarded reports and comments of Departmental surveys / reports, which the committee stated cannot be accepted as an approval.
Further, examining the EIA ( environment assessment report) the expert committee found that there is no mention of the location of the sampling survey neither a schedule of public hearing. It also noted its surprise that inhabitants have left the proposed site to pave the way for the project. The committee stated that the water quality study done by the state pollution control board, which is based on 1990 data did not follow the direction of the committee.
Moreover the EIA report did not mention the flora and fauna; its type and number etc inhabiting the proposed site, but reported that no ‘economically’ viable fauna were found in the project site, that has raised doubts of the committee. The experts also seeks clarification on the question of ‘indigenous’ upon the mention of 172 species of fish and out of this 23 fish species were categorically stated as indigenous, it asked whether the remaining species are exogenous. It also seeks for a Seismic study of the area.
The committee noted that the amount of rainfall during the period of 10 years in the study is unbelievably meager for construction of such a large hydro project.
As it stands today, it is merely a halt on diversion of required Forest land and not a stop to the implementation of the Tipaimukh hydro project. The FAC had suggested for revision of the project where forest land requirement can be minimized and therefore lesser socio – environment impact. Now the anxiety is whether FAC’s comments, observations will be considered or respected.
The vague survey and environment assessment of the project remains a concern for obvious reasons. Going by the reports it is clear that no research study and data were available on the flora and fauna of the Hills of Manipur. And that the odd 2000 or so “tribal” forest inhabitants who will be displaced were merely considered an insignificant occupants of the forest and that their livelihood such as agricultural practice - Jhum Cultivation were considered an unimportant activity and destructive. Moreover, the unclassified forest with no record of “important, notable wildlife, sanctuaries etc” further supports the theory of ‘insignificance’ of this forest land.
Voices of concerns over big dams and the search for alternative solutions with lesser impact were raised from several quarters. While no major success and output of hydro projects and large dams are witnessed in the northeastern region, particularly in Manipur, will the Tipaimukh Hydro Power bring light in the dark corner of India’s border is something that is not so convincing.
The Sangai Express
September 9,2013

Feisty Naga Editor Roots For Women Through Her Writing

She has been called an “inconvenient woman” and even described as “the only man in Nagaland”. This is because her writings have almost always provoked strong reactions – whether it from the top brass of the army, local politicians or ordinary readers. Of course, she “never loses sleep over such comments” as she firmly believes that they are simply “ways deployed by patriarchal societies to put down women who do not tread the path laid out for them”.

Meet Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija, 52, a no-nonsense journalist and editor-publisher of ‘Nagaland Page’, a daily newspaper printed from Dimapur, the largest city of Nagaland . In 1999, when Monalisa began publishing it, the state was going through rough times. Clashes between the underground Naga nationalist movement and the military were common and it was the local populace that was paying a heavy price. As for the media, they had merely become mouthpieces of one side or the other.

What about reflecting on the ground realities through the lens of development, human rights and women’s empowerment, that was the question Monalisa asked herself. Her ‘Nagaland Page’ set out to do precisely this, and created a stir in the process. Her critics, of course, wondered how long she would last but after being in the news arena for more than a decade now, the paper has become the voice of reason and independent thought in a region that continues to be strife-torn.

I am essentially a small town girl and I love working from my home state even through I have had a stint in the national media. My paper - a black-and-white tabloid - manages to encourage public discussions , which is like a neighborhood paan shops and tea shops where people gather to exchange views on politics and society. It feels good when young people, particularly scribes, tell me that my columns have helped shape their thoughts or inspired them to become journalists,” she shares.

Independent and fearless, Monalisa is very proud of her identity, “I love being a woman and I love equally the fact that I am a journalist. My philosophy has always been that ‘it’s a man’s world, so you have to learn the rules well and beat men at their own game.’”

This meant, of course, that she was always a strong supporter of gender rights. According to Monalisa, the patriarchal system that exists in the Northeast, combined with local customary laws, exert an influence over women’s lives that is even stronger than the Constitution of India.

She has often argued for 33 per cent reservations for women in local bodies in Nagaland as well as their greater involvement in peace talks in the region. Says the lively editor, “These are not easy times for Naga women. Local government bodies are not traditional bodies, so why should the ancient rules apply to them? But men never realise this.”

The other issue that has always disturbed her is the fact that when it comes to the peace-keeping process, women are always kept out. “Haven’t Naga women proved themselves within families? As mothers, sisters and wives, they are they ones who keep households going and maintain the balance within them. So why can’t they contribute in a larger social setting? And let me not even comment on those student bodies and select women’s groups that like to dictate what a Naga woman should wear. Such directives only undermine a woman’s existence,” Monalisa emphasises.

She believes that her early experiences in life have helped her develop strong opinions. Reflecting on times when she lived in a home with a thatched roof, walked for miles on unpaved roads to school, studied under the light of a kerosene lamp and carried heavy loads of water in vessels shaped out of bamboo trunks, she remarks, “We were children in the days of Nagaland’s struggle for statehood. We grew up ready to take on the world and never blamed anyone for our personal or collective shortcomings.”

Today, she is conscious that there are no definite records of those years in the 1970s, when she was a girl, and situation was “hotting up”. Perhaps it was this that drew her to journalism in the first place, although she sees her journalism not just confined to politics but larger questions of development.

As a reporter she covered conflict and remembers how security forces in the 1980s and early 90s, would routinely “terrorise” people – especially in the Mon and Tuensang districts of eastern Nagaland. “Here in some of the country’s most underdeveloped pockets, numerous human rights violations were taking place, and innumerable atrocities were being committed on women,” Monalisa recalls. Even though she was married by then and was a new mother to boot, she would grasp every chance of visiting these regions, despite the challenges involved.

In 1987, she went to cover then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Mon district, which was “practically under military rule, with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) enforced strictly”. With her 11-month-old daughter, she undertook a 10-hour journey from Dimapur to Mon. She was frisked and interrogated several times along the way – the army even checked her baby’s nappies and feeding bottle to see if there were any hidden ammunition. Her daughter would often cry when they were stopped and Monalisa was “caught between trying to comfort her and answer the innumerable questions of the army personnel”. 

Those were the days when the local media was not taken too seriously. “A woman with a baby coming to cover the prime minister’s visit was something that did not figure in the consciousness of the state,” she says. When Monalisa planned to travel further to the interior village of Longwa, the security forces began to question her intentions and took steps to prevent her from travelling further – even destroying a connecting bridge. Undeterred, Monalisa did finally make it to Longwa, covering the distance on foot with her baby. 

During her visits to the hinterland, villagers would approach her for help on how to deal with security personnel and she would make the time to assist them.  “The army would pick up any person over the most outlandish charges. They would hold them without producing them before the magistrate within 24 hours, as they are supposed to do, so for ordinary people this was an ordeal,” Monalisa reveals. Since there were no civil society organisations or human rights groups then, she would often step forward and follow up on cases of wrongful detention until justice was rendered. There was even a time when she found herself branded as a supporter of the underground movement.

Both Nagaland and Monalisa have come a long way since then. The state is far more peaceful now, and Monalisa has gone on to establish her mettle as a journalist of note. Says she, “As journalist, I like to give a proper context and perspective to the events being reported. In conflict areas, one has to walk a tight rope. But it is imperative that one puts one’s foot down when required, otherwise democratic institutions such as media will never thrive and grow.”

Today, her newspaper demands Monalisa’s undivided energies and she is banking on her readers to keep it going. As she concludes, “Sometimes I find it difficult to imagine that I am actually editing and publishing a newspaper! I couldn’t really ask for anything more!”

Women's Feature Service , AUGUST 2013

Women From The Northeast Conquer The Everest

This May, three women climbers – Anshu Jamsenpa, Bidyapati Ningthoujam and Wansuk Myrthong – scaled Mount Everest, which pierces the skies at 8,848 metres.

Jamsenpa, 34, was the second women from Arunachal Pradesh to have achieved this feat – a day after Tine Mena, also from her state, ascended it in 2011 . For her, this was the third experience of standing atop the world’s highest peak. Meanwhile, Ningthoujam and Myrthong, representing Manipur and Meghalaya, respectively, were the first women from their states to have achieved this distinction.

After spending three months at an end in the Everest region, they made their way back to their respective home states, all smiles. We met them at that point. “My colleagues from Meghalaya Police are waiting for me. They will pick me up from the airport,” giggled Myrthong, who hails from Lower Lumparing in Meghalaya. She revealed that she would now be given a promotion although she was unclear about the new rank.

As they stood at that famous point, looking at the world below and waving the national flag, a surge of emotions passed through them. Myrthong and Ningthoujam were so awed by that experience that they were unable to explain their feelings even weeks after that moment. Jamsenpa, a mother of two daughters, revealed that she felt like jumping like a child. She said, “I missed my daughters. I thought of all the struggles of my life, how nobody believed me when I said I wanted to take up an adventure sport.”

Summiting the peak wasn’t easy. At the summit camp, temperatures were around minus 40 degrees Celsius. When the team went for its final push on the night of May 16, winds up to 88 kilometres an hour were blowing. Recalled Ningthoujam, enacting how she took position even as she kept alert to the direction of the wind, “It was a do or die. One mistake and you are finished.” 

The bad weather seemed to have had a disturbing effect on Myrthong’s Sherpa guide. He was in no mood to allow the women, who bore signs of frostbite on her face, to carry on. Said Myrthong, “We looked at each other, as if to say, ‘I know what is going on in your mind’. But instead of discouraging me , as I had feared, he just asked, ‘Are you okay?’ When I replied I was he was willing to carry on.” She remembered the guide fondly. “I shared one of my summit gloves and woollen caps with him. This would not have been possible without him. I was ready to retreat, even give up, if he had advised me to do so,” she added.

According to Jamsenpa, only a strong willpower can help summiteers survive at those heights, She asserted “physical strength is not enough, mental strength is very important.” 

The first expedition of its kind from the Northeast was flagged off on February 25, 2013, from the historic Kangla Fort in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, by Governor Gurbachan Jagat. Later, on March 20, President Pranab Mukherjee flagged off the expedition in New Delhi. The team left for Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 22 and reached base camp on April 5. The final ascent was made on May 15.

Ningthoujam, 28, the Joint Secretary of Manipur Mountaineering & Trekking Association (MMTA) works as an instructor of rock climbing. Initially, when she wanted to join the National Cadet Corps (NCC) as a student, her parents – particularly her mother – disliked the idea. Finally, with the intervention of a cousin brother, she made it into the NCC. Call it destiny or luck, but at a point when Ningthoujam felt that she was in a limbo in terms of her career, an MMTA team halted at her village in Koirengei while they were rafting downstream in the Sekmai-Imphal river. “Their raft had broken down so I got a chance to meet up with them. That was how I met an old classmate who told me about adventure sports and I became interested,” revealed Ningthoujam, who joined MMTA in 2003.

Myrthong’s trajectory was slightly different. In 2006, she had joined the state police service. “I liked the police service since my father is a policeman,” she stated proudly. The 31-year-old, who is a constable with the 1st Meghalaya Police Battalion, had never taken adventure sports seriously but signed up for two reasons – to represent her department and get away from the monotony of everyday duties. The step served her well. She discovered a love for sports – football is her all-time favourite – and the mischievous policewomen would often sneak out to play the game in between her duty hours. She recalled how her colleagues would ridicule, even insult her, her for her sporting interests.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the matter reached her seniors and that was when she decided to take up adventure sports seriously. “I wanted to show them my worth,” she said.

However, there was a battle waiting for her at home. “Even though my father encouraged me, my mom was very scared. She only wanted me to get married,” reminisced the young woman. It was only after she notched several successes, including scaling Mount Kohlalai and Mount Papsura, that her mother began to understand better her daughter’s passion. 

Ningthoujam's parents, who are agriculturists, realized that she would not stop until she had conquered the Everest. “Knowing this, they did not pressurize me in any way. But it was another matter when it came to the local community. Today, those same people are full of adulation,” said the mountaineer. According to her, the two most common questions put to her are: ‘How much do you earn?’ and ‘When do you plan to settle down?’ When not instructing young rock climbers at the MMTA, Ningthoujam tailors clothes at home.

Jamshenpa, on the other hand, took up mountaineering professionally only after her marriage. Her husband shared her passion for mountain sports and he constantly encouraged her to take up new challenges. The couple runs the Arunachal Mountaineering & Adventure Sports Association (AMASA) in Bomdilla, organising trekking, rock climbing, mountaineering and other allied events. “I am from a remote place, Dirang, and want to give something back to my community,” said Jamshenpa. Her Association sets out to create a platform for youth. “I focus particularly on rural youth and want them to explore our natural resources. I take this as my responsibility. There are, after all, a thousand kilometres of virgin Himalayas that are yet to be explored in Arunachal Pradesh,” she added.

Very few girls participate in the events that AMASA organises, and one of Anshu’s objectives is to encourage more women to enter the field. Clearly, here is a woman who wants to lead by example.
   Women's Feature Service
      July 2013

: For Tripura's Tribal Women Leaders People Come First

It's not often that one gets to hear about resounding success stories of women's grassroots leadership from Tripura, a small landlocked hill state in the northeast. While exceptional panchayat women from other parts of the country have been routinely making headlines - just recently three panchayat leaders from Odisha, Haryana and Tamil Nadu were feted in the capital on the occasion of the 20th Women's Political Empowerment Day - not many are aware that there are several tribal women leaders in Tripura who have been quietly doing dedicated work within their communities for many years now.

Notable among them are the female members of the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), an independent council administering the tribal areas of the state. Sandhya Rani Chakma, 36, is one of them. Elected to the TTAADC from Karamcherra constituency in Tripura North district for a second term in 2010, she is the only woman on its nine-member Executive Council and holds the portfolio of social education and health. Then there's Sabitri Debbarma, 55, member from Demdum-Kachucharra constituency in North Tripura. Over a busy career spanning 15 years, she has been elected to this Council thrice - first in 1995 and then in 2000. She is now doing her third stint since 2010. Additionally, she has spent one term in the state assembly in 2008 as well. Completing the terrific trio of capable female leaders on the 30-member TTAADC is Madhumati Debbarma, 43, from Kulai-Champahour constituency in Tripura West district, whose commitment towards the welfare and rights of her people got her elected into the local governing body for the first time in 2010.

After Tripura attained full statehood in 1972, the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council Bill, 1979, was passed by the state legislative assembly in March 1979 under the provisions of the 6th Schedule of the Constitution. The idea, as per official documentation, was to "fulfill the long cherished demand of the people of Tripura for self-government in tribal majority areas... and strengthen the bonds of unity between the tribal and non-tribal masses as well as emancipate not only tribals but all the deprived people from all types of injustice and exploitation". The council started functioning in 1982 and in the last 20-odd years of its existence women have regularly been elected as members and have made their presence felt as efficient administrators.

The Council administers four zones and 17 blocks spread across eight districts with its functioning headquarter at Khumulwng, 26 kilometres from the state capital, Agartala. There are 527 village councils under it, which function as primary institutions of the local self-government.

Sandhya presents a very positive picture while talking about women's participation in local self-government in her state, "It is very good and encouraging. I find that women are pro-active when it comes to working for their community." This experienced leader first forayed into politics during her college days as an active member of the Student Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), besides being a part of the Tripura Tribal Student Union. In addition, whenever she had the time she would keenly involve herself in CPI (M)'s party work. This approach won her the confidence of her party colleagues and her name was proposed for the list of candidates for the Council. "I was elected to the Council even before I got married," she smiles.

Uniquely, unlike in other northeastern states, Tripura's women have always been active members of political parties. Like Sandhya, her two other female colleagues also started out as "dedicated CPI (M) party workers" in the local units at the grassroots. Interestingly the three were also active members of the All India Mahila Sangathan .

Naturally, women's welfare has been central to their agenda from the very beginning. Though education has changed many rules for their lot, as is prevalent in most other parts of the country, a majority of the women are still disempowered and deprived of their basic rights. Those living in the rural areas are even more vulnerable. This is why Sandhya, Madhumati and Sabitri have taken up women's empowerment, particularly economic sustenance, with a vengeance.

Discuss work with the trio and they all speak the language of development. Healthcare is an issue that is close to Sandhya's heart and she feels that access to proper and affordable medical care in rural areas is the urgent need of the hour. In the last couple of years, she has managed to set up two working hospitals in her constituency and considers them among her biggest achievements.

Providing means for income generation has been another priority area and for this they help local tribal women to organise themselves into collectives that make handloom as well as handicraft products from cane and bamboo. Besides this, incentive is given for rubber plantations and animal husbandry, too.

Every fortnight Madhumati makes it a point to tour the villages in her area and spend time with various women's groups during her visits. "I stay in the villages for 15 to 20 days as I feel good living and working along side the local women. These trips motivate me and strengthen my resolve to continue working for them," she remarks. Like her Sabitri too travels to her constituency quite often, as she loves being among "her people".

Of course, they have done work within their communities by smartly managing the funds that come their way through the TTAADC, which in turn is financed by the state government. But even as they call the Council's budget a "development budget" they do admit that "a majority of the money goes into paying the salaries". They also rue the fact that many a time they end up undertaking projects that have already been commissioned by the state and that leads to unnecessary expenditure.

Sold out on woman power, the trio puts in a strong case for reservations and bigger role in party politics to boost women's entry into the political arena. Sandhya informs that while gram sabhas - operational in districts that do not fall in the TTAADC area - implement women's reservation, it is not extended to the district council. She believes, "If institutionally women are given more support then many more will come forward to contest elections." She adds that political parties, too, will need to nominate more women as candidates, "As women leaders this has been a constant demand from our end. We are always trying to ensure more nominations for women."

With women actively participating in the development process at the local level, particularly in the rural areas of the state, the vibrant and inclusive autonomous district council is a testimony to the fact that Tripura's women are more than capable to lead as elected leaders. Sandhya, Madhumati and Sabitri are just a glimpse of female power. 

Women's Feature Service
June 2013