Southeastern Himalayan Slopes: The Frontline of Revolutionary Political Ecology


Analytical Monthly Review, published in Kharagpur, West Bengal, India, is a sister edition of Monthly Review.  Its August 2008 issue features the following editorial. — Ed.

For those who recognise that there is an ecological crisis, a revolutionary Marxist perspective best sets out a practical view of our endangered surroundings.  This entire issue of AnalyticalMonthly Review [substantially identical to the 2008 summer issue of Monthly Review, Volume 60, Number 3, ed.] is an engagement in support of that proposition.  The southeastern slopes of the Himalaya are a front line in a global struggle, where the resulting practice is tested and lessons are learned.

Northeast India is known for a biological and cultural diversity not yet totally leveled and homogenised by our ruthless commodity capitalism and its “free market.”  It is also a geodynamic place where the flows of geological time enter into present events.  The twisted course of the great Brahmaputra river has twice been affected by major earthquakes in the last century.  And the glaciers that feed the Brahmaputra are melting at rates that if extended shall see the end of major glaciers in the times of persons living today.  Nowhere does the monsoon have a shorter distance to travel from open water to the high mountains; more rain falls in a shorter time than anywhere else on earth.  Amid these flows and bursts of water the forests and jungles of the region are a world biodiversity “hotspot.”

And of the 635 tribal groups listed by Anthropological Survey of India, 213 live in Northeast India.  Yet in a region where the mountains and rivers move in historical time, rapid population movements should hardly surprise.  Many hill peoples moved from areas more heavily settled in west and east, Nepalese and Burmese.  Displaced people of the ruthless political economy of colonial India, the immediate ancestor of our own, followed.  In Assam tribals from Jharkhand migrated to tea plantations, and uprooted peasants of East Bengal came in search of land and livelihood.  The ancient imperial tactics of divide and rule play with communal antagonism, while tribal societies continue to this day to be shaken by the assault of the culture of commodity capitalism.

The neoliberal regime has speeded a profit driven assault on the ecology of the unstable and critical region.  Last year a Supreme Court bench halted French multinational Lafarge from mining limestone in Meghalaya.  “An investigation by CNN-IBN has shown how Lafarge was extracting limestone from prime forests with documents categorising some of India’s best forests as wasteland.  It obtained permission to mine in the forests based on Delhi-based company Environment Resource Management Ltd’s environment impact assessment (EIA) report.  But CNN-IBN had found that the EIA report is misleading.  Lafarge’s conveyor passes through dense forest, which the report describes as agriculture land and the 100-acre plant site land as rocky and barren” (“SC Refuses Permit for Limestone Mining in Meghalaya”).  Not only this, a report emerged of illegal land transfer of tribal Khasi land to Lafarge who further mortgaged it to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Finance (IFC).  Despite strong peoples’ protest, both Lafarge and ADB/IFC have not returned the lands.  And mining resumed under the cover of hypocritical language about “compulsory reforestation.”  The moral of the story is that no protection is to be found in a neoliberal regulatory regime that relies upon purchased “environment impact assessment” statements, and a judiciary no less true in their hearts to the profit system than Lafarge’s investment bankers.

Successful peoples resistance, and therefore hope of a rational response to the gathering ecological crisis, depends on impoved community education and organising.  Nowhere is this more evident than in facing the threat of the interests behind plans for  gigantic dams, a fierce force of high-level bureaucrats and profit seeking contractors and machinery suppliers.  See, for a valuable overview, “Framing India’s Hydraulic Crisis: The Politics of the Modern Large Dam” by Rohan D’Souza in this issue.

According to North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Ltd (A Government of India Enterprise) — “The NE Region is blessed with a huge hydro potential in the country which is estimated at about 58971MW, out of which only less than 2% (two percent) (1095MW) has so far been harnessed.”  The Northeast has been called India’s “future powerhouse” with no less than 168 big dams planned, and to the imagined hydel benefits those of “flood control” are added. Yet no rational “cost-benefit” analysis can justify this course.  An honest analysis would take into account what is always left out — the true costs of the mass displacements for those displaced, the obvious risks of such projects in a highly seismic zone, the track record of failed attempts at “flood control,” the loss of submerged land and the resulting pressure on the surrounding enviornment, the introduction of vast numbers of migratory laborers into areas where migration is an explosive issue, and the fact that both irrigation and hydel generation by big dams has a very poor record in areas of great and unpredictable climatic variation.

The Pagladia Dam Project is proposed for Nalbari District of Lower Assam, near the border of Bhutan, on a short periodically fast-flowing river that reaches the Brahmaputra below Gauhati.  The project is supposed to irrigate 54,125 hectares of land, protect 40,000 hectares of land from flood and erosion, and generate only 3 MW of electricity.  Plans were approved by the Union Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) in 2000, and the State issued notifications in January 2003 for acquisition of land.  Nonetheless, this deranged project has so far been stopped in its tracks by popular resistance.

Both tribal and non-tribal communities inhabit the area; 90 percent is tribal (Bodo).  As researcher Gita Bharali notes: “The Pagladia river literally means ‘mad river’ because it changes its course widely, drastically and suddenly.  Hence many opposed the project because no dam could possibly address the root-cause of the floods or the river’s ‘migration’ (shifting of its bed) by kilometres at a time.  A three km long dam would be useless, for instance on a river that changes course by 30 km in 4 years” (“Pagladia Dam Project in Assam: A Case Study”).  The district affected includes over 150 villages, of which it is admitted that 38 are to be submerged.  The Bodo community who manage to irrigate their fields using extraordinary techniques in the face of the crazy river, have been the subject of a noted documentary, Crazy on the Rocks, a 14-minute 22-second film by award-winning filmmaker Altaf Mazid, depicting the unique relationship between the river and villagers and shown at several film festivals — including Planet in Focus 2007, Toronto, and The 11th Thai Short Film and Video Festival, 2007.

In fact the project will displace some 105,000 people and 34,000 acres of fertile and highly productive land will be destroyed.  The proposed “rehabilitation package” has been rejected as blatantly insufficient.  As always many of those affected do not posses proper ownership documents and would not get any compensation.  And the promises made are never kept.  Hence, the people have started their movement under the banner called “Pagladia Bandh Prakalpar Ksatigrastha Alekar Sangram Samiti” against the implementation of the project.  The committee, at first under the leadership of the Bodo student organisation, has united both tribals and non-tribals, and has been joined by many political and civil society organisations.  The Central government as well as the Brahmaputra Board, the implementing agency of the project, are making all efforts to construct the dam.  But till now the resistance of the people have been quite successful and the authority has failed to do even the ground survey because of the massive resistance of the people.

The Pagladia struggle is worthy of both study and assistance.  The south face of the Himalaya and its resourceful and intelligent people are the front of a fight for all of humanity.  The ecological crisis is a crisis of political economy, and revolutionary Marxists have a critical role to play.

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