World trade is not growing anymore and is facing a subdued and uncertain future. So who do they look to for saving them? According to the head of the United Nations Economic & Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP)-SSWA, Dr Nagesh Kumar, they are looking at the borderland regions of the world where “high poverty” ‘reigns’ to give them a fresh lease on the high rails. One of these regions is identified as Eastern South Asia (ESA) and it includes the north east region of India. “ESA where poverty is high is attractive for its latent potential for development”, he said at the ‘Economic Cooperation Dialogue in Eastern South Asia’ held in Shillong, Meghalaya last month (April 2016).
This puts the people of the region smack in the eye of a global economic scramble for natural resources. International organizations and corporates have already cased out the area and have entered in a big way, aided by the well known banksters, including the old hands, the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
The meet jointly held by the UNESCAP, North Eastern Council (a wing of the Union Ministry for the Development of North East Region-DONER) and the Government of Meghalaya is the third in a series. This is just one of the meetings of dozens of other ‘business/development’ summits held in recent years aimed at ‘transforming’ the north east region by opening up the area to the neighboring countries, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar for trade. The dialogue thrashed out the trade pacts, agreements, and the numerous inter-country connectivity projects of rail, road and waterways, development of border economic zones etc which have been discussed over the years and decades and are being implemented now. Since the audience consisted only of Government servants and government consultants, the discussions sailed ahead in easy bonhomie.
What holds the attention however at this stage, (might as well call it the post-capitalist environmental crisis stage), is that such plans for the NE region beg many questions when juxtaposed with many dire warnings on the failing eco-systems of the earth. Many of these warnings come, not from the fringe conspiracy theorists, but are studies churned out by none other than the UN sponsored bodies and its wings. Grandiose plans may have been acceptable even as late as the early nineties, but such nature gobbling projects at a time when the growing data and knowledge points to the depleting earth exhibits the compartmentalized mental state of leaders, economic ‘experts’ and elite ‘planners’. Surely, the signs obviously call for a scale down, spreading the available wealth, nurturing the Earth for sustainability and not continue to scale up mega operations.
At the opposite end of the UN activities in the northeast region are the numerous northeast based activists who have been sponsored over the decades for various international conferences and trainings in the various United Nations forums on the rights of the Indigenous peoples’. Their collective voice for the promotion of the indigenous way of life (if it exists in the north east region) is yet to make any mark in the politics of the region or at such business/development summits where it is most needed to publicly break the walls of complacency in these elitist gatherings..
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Mukul Sangma swooned over the fact that Meghalaya had bagged a place of pride as one of the top tourist destinations of the world in a high profile survey thanks to the presence of living root bridges, which the local people use to cross the mountain streams in the state. These, he said are ‘products’[/pullquote] The first question is, is NE India a ‘high poverty’ region? What standards should be taken to measure poverty here where large tracts of the seven states that make up the region are not covered under the governmental administration? A large section of people are more or less living on their own and fending for themselves, despite the low money income in governmental language of GDP terms.
On what are they living and subsisting? Their region is one of the ‘mega-biodiversity regions’ of the Earth. In fact the whole ESA region is. This in itself demands the highest priority of protection as it is one of the last vestiges of gene pools still existing in a construction razed world. It holds one of nature’s last vestiges of pristine forests and fresh water sources. Added to this is that the region houses a record number of tribes, communities and ethnicities with their unique cultures and traditional knowledges of living with nature. Respected scientific studies warn of mass extinctions and this area is included as more and more of the landmass is exploited. Many of the projects, the UNESCAP meeting discussed are causing misery on the ground in the north east region whether it is Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Arunachal, Nagaland, Meghalaya or Sikkim.
The UNESCAP meet glibly talked about duplicating the “success” of the ADB sponsored Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) here. But they failed to mention that the GMS has displaced the people and neighborhoods, and destroyed landscapes in its project areas without blinking an eye. Just recently, a study released by an Indonesian NGO, in the run up to the 50th anniversary of the ADB, shows the devastating impacts of ADB and World Bank Group support for secretive and opaque “financial intermediaries” to promote mega-infrastructure projects and the shocking lack of public consultation and disclosure, the risk of mass impoverishment, irreversible environmental damage…”
Indigenous people are supposed to have a nature friendly philosophy of living, but that is a fable in the NE India. At the UNESCAP meeting Dr Mukul Sangma, chief minister of Meghalaya, one of the so called Tribal States of India, used horrible imagery to explain the north east region and why the rulers want to change it to their own image. He said that the world’s economy has slowed down as global growth is saturated having used up their natural resources. In this scenario it is this region which offers “virgin” land with untapped natural resources, Sangma said, comparing the region’s state of economy to an “infant which needs feeding to grow into an adult.” This according to him is the purpose of mega plans and mega projects.
Sangma, like the other proponents of the unending growth model, seems to be suffering from a serious case of denial. He swooned over the fact that Meghalaya had bagged a place of pride as one of the top tourist destinations of the world in a high profile survey, thanks to the presence of living root bridges, which the local people use to cross the mountain streams in the state. These, he said are ‘products’ to sell to the world, urging Meghalayans to create more such “wonderful products”. But, the simple fact is that these living root bridges are the result of centuries of harmonious living with nature. How long would these living roots bridges last given the kind of “business” he expects it to generate in terms of tourist footfalls, is a query he stops short of.
Implementing mega plans based on exploitation of nature is not going to be a smooth ride for the Government and the banks even in the ‘development’ starved north east as people have realized that these projects and programs are not about creating a better life for the people in the vicinity of the natural resource. The struggle is most terribly obvious in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and the adjoining states where the government is unabashedly using state violence to strip their citizens to feed their corporate ambitions. In the north eastern region similar struggles and people’s movements has been going on unfocused by the metro-media. The most recent flare up was in Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh where two anti-dam activists were killed by police who fired into a crowd of protesters. It got wide coverage in media mainly because of its location being within the area claimed by China.
Leaders like Meghalaya CM, Mukul Sangma believe that those who question his kind of thinking are “creating hopelessness and insecurity,” in common people’s minds and this view continues to gain currency promoted as it is by the mainstream media. The reality is that it is leaders like him who are reminiscent of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, leading the innocent over the cliff to their doom while the ruling class enjoys their common properties. The region, already a battlefield of varied interests, is now in the final stage of being taken over by the state-armed capitalist gods, ie unless the people wake up to the reality and unitedly resist.
First Published in Countercurrents