[LONGREAD] Expectations of Modernity : Extractive Economy of Assam

Recently, three incidents have rocked Assam: a coal mining concession in a part of Dehing-Patkai Elephant Reserve, an oil blowout in Baghjaan, and the extra-judicial killing of an Assamese youth in Jorhat by security forces and police. While the state narrative regarding Jayanta Bora, the deceased youth, seems to connect him with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) without any conclusive proof, multiple local media outlets have reported a different version of his death. This version states that Bora was seen taking photographs of trucks carrying illegal coal from the adjacent Naga hills, which might have had a role in his death. Meanwhile, different narratives have emerged from Baghjaan oil blowout as well. While one calls for a relook at the extractive economy and its power relations in Assam vis-a-vis the Indian state, another emphasize on reading it as an industrial disaster. In an interview with The Wire a few years ago economic commentator Swaminathan Ankalesaria Aiyar said, “Assamese chauvinism has long come in the way of oil exploration. The government must dismiss it for the narrow-minded silliness that it is,” suggesting how the Baghjaan oil blowout can be plotted in extractive relations of competing groups and nationalist aspirations. This essay seeks to reflect on the extractive economy, the historical and the contemporary, that has been at the centre of the development narrative in Assam.

1. Expectations of Modernity

A bridge on the Surma and making Assam a garden

In late 1884, two young men in their thirties, travelled from the small town of Sunamganj in the plains of Sylhet to Shillong, the seat of colonial administration of Assam province at that time tucked away in the undulating forest-clad Khasi Hills. One of them, Hason Raja had an interesting ancestry: until two generations ago, his ancestors were Hindu Zamindars in Sylhet who later embraced Islam. Raja, who lived from 1854 to 1924, not only saw the decadence of the Zamindari system he was part of, but also witnessed a sea-change in the economic and socio-political life of the Surma Valley. By the time he embarked on his journey to Shillong as a young man, the colonial discourse of development, of reclamation of resources, and of nature serving the nation in a bid to boost the civilizational zeal to improve community life was firmly rooted in the social discourses of the native elites of the resource-scarce Surma valley.

Hason Raja’s portrait by an unnamed artist from Sunamganj, Sylhet. Raja’s ancestors were Hindu zamindars who later embraced Islam. Remembered for his songs and poetry, splashed with shreds of folk and mystic elements, Raja is probably the most prominent literary-cultural figure from the town of Sunamganj. Photo: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Raja told his companion Kadir Baksh Miyan as they trudged along uphill and approached the denser forests.1

Hey Kadir, look at the trees. I’ve never seen such gargantuan trees before. Alas! If we had such huge trees in Sunamganj, I’d definitely have a bridge constructed on the Surma.

In 1847, thirty-seven years before Raja’s visit to Shillong, Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, one of the first prominent native subjects of mid-nineteenth century British Assam who came to be known as “Assam Raja” when he travelled to Calcutta for attending the Hindu school with an entire ship to himself along with a retinue of Brahmin cooks and a Bengali clerk, wrote in an essay in Orunodoi how he was struck by the technocratic advancements in erstwhile England. “Assam will shed its jungle foliage to become a garden, edifices will rise in place of huts, small boats will give way to steamers, and the whole place will prosper… O merciful God of Creation..,”  wrote Phukan in the essay titled ‘Inglandar Bibaran’ imagining future Assam in the image of the England of his times and exhorting his countrymen to emulate its technocratic-utilitarian model of progress.2

Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, a prominent Assamese figure of nineteenth century and visionary of modern Assam, who envisioned future Assam on the model of erstwhile England. He wrote the iconic line line: “Axam habi gusi phulbari haba” (Assam will transform into a neat garden from an assortment of jungles). Photo source: Arupjyoti Saikia

These narratives of physical (Raja’s) and mental (Dhekial Phukan’s) journeys—of “secular pilgrimage” of sorts in Benedict Anderson’s sense3—tell us at least three things. First, the nineteenth century native elites in the two valleys were brimming with expectations of modernity 4 Second, the native elites of Brahmaputra and Surma valleys had internalised the state’s developmental-modernist notion of progress that was at the heart of colonial modernity and the utilitarian and fiscal logic cardinal to such models of progress. On chancing upon the huge trees, Raja immediately recognized the possibility of using them as raw materials for constructing a bridge—a vital cog in the apparatus of development both in literal and metaphorical senses, and Dhekial Phukan was envisioning a future where jungle-infested Assam (habi) would be transformed into a neat garden (phulbari) bejewelled with all markers of modernity. Third, the disparity of resource in the two valleys: for Raja, the majestic trees of the Khasi hills, scarce in his hometown in the Surma plains, were a treasured resource whereas Dhekial Phukan saw the jungle foliage (habi) in the forest-abundant Brahmaputra valley as something devoid of any positive value. In other words, forests, at the time of Dhekial Phukan, were abundant in the Brahmaputra valley and value had not yet accrued to them.

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For the colonial state and its local allies, this disparity of resources in comparison to population in the two valleys would remain the central logic behind a series of land development and reclamation schemes and transfer of population for a century to follow since Dhekial Phukan’s essay was published. But the story doesn’t end there. In the postcolonial, as we shall see, it would have many, multifarious social and political lives. It could also be a lens to understand the extraction economy that took wing in the later part of nineteenth century, when Raja’s time began and Dhekial Phukan’s came to end.

2. The Extraction Regime—Colonial

Creating (waste)lands, deleting subsistence land users

On 7 February, 1904, Andrew Henderson Leith Fraser, the lieutenant governor of Bengal, wrote,5

Eastern Bengal is the most densely populated portion in the country, that it needs room for expansion and that it can only expand towards the East. So far from hindering national development we are really giving it greater scope and enabling Bengal to absorb Assam.

When Assam was annexed to the British Indian Empire through the treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, the colonial officers were struck to see massive tracts of land not being under settled cultivation. By the time of the division of Bengal and creation of Assam and East Bengal Province, the narrative of ‘wastelands’ lying vacant for the ‘enterprising immigrant peasant’ to colonise in the ‘land-abundant Brahmaputra valley’, home to the opium-eating ‘indolent’ ‘lazy native’,6 was not only firmly rooted in the popular colonial discourses of the region, but necessary legal-administrative arrangements were already in place to facilitate mass migration of surplus-oriented farmers from East Bengal to Assam.

Francis Jenkins in 1836 had first provided a schema for defining and categorizing ‘wastelands’ lying vacant in Assam (the Brahmaputra valley) for colonization. Jenkin’s theory of the ‘wastelands’ had at least two strands of validation: first, the economic-political that drew heavily from John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government on private property, land, and colonisation; and second, the Judeo-Christian moral-scriptural injunctions such as ‘be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it’.7

Wastelands, by the Government of Bengal rules of 1836, meant: forestlands, reed and grass wastes, and grasslands amongst cultivated lands.8 That the term ‘wastelands’ indeed meant forests and land not under settled cultivation could be assumed from the fact that Atul Chandra Barua, Sub-Deputy Collector of Rangia in the 1950s, translated the word into Assamese as janghal (jungle) echoing similar connotations of Dhekial Phukan’s habi.9

In 1854 the wasteland rules were revised. The new rules effectively discriminated against the subsistence land users. Only an applicant with capital worth a Rs. 3 per acre was allowed to occupy land, with a minimum limit being fixed at 100 acres. So for reclaiming land one must be able to invest Rs. 300, a prohibitive sum for an average local of the Brahmaputra valley at that time as the valley was still largely non-monetised and un-integrated into the grid of the imperial-mercantile economy. The prospects of making the upper Brahmaputra valley the Empire’s tea production hub, meanwhile, had grown brighter. The new wasteland rules were aimed precisely at drawing European tea planters and speculators to Assam. These rules succeeded. By 1871, 7,00,000 acres of forestland was given in grants to tea gardens in the upper Brahmaputra valley.10

The colonial state acted primarily on a fiscal logic. While the lower Brahmaputra valley was opened for surplus-oriented immigrant peasants, land concessions were granted to tea planters in the upper part of the valley, which was found to be more profitable. As tea economy thrived and number of workers in the industry swelled, the lower valley districts would be turned into a rice basket by the skilful labour of enterprising East Bengali peasants being settled. This, by and large, was the general line of thinking among the colonial administrators.

A screengrab from the book ‘The Story of the Assam Railways and Trading Company Limited 1881-1951’ shows Namdang Tea Estate of the 1940s. Once tea was discovered in upper Assam, tea-capitalism followed afoot, and the region was made the British Indian Empire’s tea production hub. Photo courtesy: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Middle class Assamese intellectuals and local elites welcomed immigration along the lines of Dhekial Phukan’s dream, and opined that reclamation of these lands would boost Assam’s revenue. Writing in the 1880s, Balinarayan Bora, the publisher and de facto editor of Mou captured this mood. He appreciated the colonial government’s policies encouraging immigrants to settle in the valley in a bid to transform the assortment of jungles that Assam was (habi) into a modern, developed garden (phulbari).11

In this colonial modernist meta-narrative of development, at the heart of which was a surplus-oriented economy, a specific category of people was rendered invisible: the subsistence land users who failed to enrol, or resisted integration, into the colonial mercantile economy. That is, when lands were arbitrarily brought under the category ‘wastelands’ and opened for peasantization, the previous land use history was glossed over. For instance, during six years preceding 1936, as many as 59 grazing, forest and village reserves had been opened in Nowgong under the colonization scheme for settling surplus-oriented migrant peasants.12 These lands were not ‘lands without people’. When these lands were declared ‘wastelands’ and opened for profit-oriented settled agriculture that would boost the colonial state’s revenue regime, the previous usufructuary history of these lands was effectively erased. Indeed, the process of creating ‘wastelands’ was also a process of deleting pam farmers, graziers, itinerant Nadial farmers, cattle-rearers who used to keep bathans/khutis on riparian tracts, and tribal subsistence hunters.

A sketch from ‘The Story of the Assam Railways and Trading Company Limited 1881-1951’ shows a scene of the timber extraction economy of late colonial Assam. Three elephants are seen being used to load logged lumber onto a wagon. Photo courtesy: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

That many tracts of lands marked as ‘wastelands’ had existing land use history could be gauged from that fact that when the Barpeta colonization was launched in 1930 Nepali graziers and local peasants registered strong protests. “The strongest opposition to further settlement of immigrant peasants came from Nepali Graziers and local peasants,” noted by W. A. Cosgrave, the Deputy Commissioner of Kamrup, in 1930, when implementing the ‘Colonization Scheme for Barpeta Sub-division in the Kamrup district’.13 In short, the colonial state’s quest for fiscally meaningful subjects, the developmentalist plans ‘to improve the human condition’ and the extraction regime (the tea industry, the jute industry, the oil and coal industries) in the colony, involved a process of invisibilizing and deleting (indigenous) subsistence and non-capitalist land use history and modes of production.14

3. The Extraction Regime—Postcolonial

The oil-coal-tea-hydropower hegemony

Hegemony, as has been amply shown by Antonio Gramsci, is often in the realm of the invisible. Gramsci’s work primarily deals with cultural hegemony, which states that cultural norms are constructs subject to framing and restructuring by the elite. In Gramscian sense, hegemony can be roughly understood as a tool for ruling people through power and ideas framed, embraced, and restructured by elite classes. Drawing from Gramsci, John Gaventa in his Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley (1982), in the context of the early coal camps of West Virginia, frames a concept called ‘coal hegemony’ 15to understand life in these coalfaces. He explains ‘coal hegemony’ as a process in which coal mine owners, operators, investors, and their companies shaped and continue to shape life in and around coalfields by creating a dominant ideology that benefits the coal extraction economy; coalfield residents then internalize this ideology and treat it as their own set of ideas. We can extend Gaventa’s concept of ‘coal hegemony’ to ‘oil-coal-tea-hydropower hegemony’ in order to understand the ideologies of the extraction economy in Assam which involves the oil-coal-tea-hydropower assemblage. Like any other industry, the production of ideas and ideologies is an essential part and parcel of the extraction industry. One would not be hard-pressed to locate the dominant ideologies of the extractive regime within the modernist meta-narrative of development. Just a day after temporary suspension of all operations by the Northeastern Coalfields (NEC) of Coal India Limited (CIL) on 8 June 2020 after coming under a public outrage for the coal concessions in Saleki, many banners in Margherita read: “NEC CIL bandha hale Margheritar unnayan bandha haba” (If NEC CIL stops operation, the development of Margherita will stop). Similarly, the emerging discourses of support for mega hydropower projects in the region is virtually a mainstream development-speak. “Uttar-pubar unnayanar swarthat nadi-baandh xamarthan karu aahak” (Let’s support mega-hydropower projects for the sake of development of the Northeast) read many exhortations on social media, mostly in pro-government Facebook pages and Twitter handles.

A sketch of the Makum collieries from ‘The Story of the Assam Railways and Trading Company Limited 1881-1951.’ Photo courtesy: Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

What I am tempted to call the oil-coal-tea-hydropower hegemony, these dominant ideologies, suitable to the extraction economy, are produced by the power elites from the region in collusion with the revenue-oriented, centrist state. One example will suffice to understand the colonial continuity of the extraction regime in the modus operandi of the postcolonial state. While almost all other subsidiaries of the CIL are transparent about their land acquision process, the NEC, according to their prospectus, follows a policy of off-the-court negotiations for acquiring lands from the Tangsa and other tribals, underneath whose jhum fields many of the coal deposits are located.16 The miniscule local tribal elites, who do not find themselves favourably placed in the power relations vis-à-vis CIL, play a significant role in such land transactions. Reminiscent of nineteenth century colonial ‘wasteland’ narratives, one of their project reports of the Lekhapani Open Cast Mine (proposed) says that the land acquired for that project is of no value as such as it was a “mere abandoned jhumland.” Here one could not miss the tone of condescension towards the subsistence land user—an echo of the colonial narrative of ‘wastelands’ of Assam.

4. The Assemblage of Environmentalism—Continuity of a Colonial Discourse

Government-speak, a maze of categories, and environmental NGOs

When the British Indian colonial state needed to divert forestland for revenue-oriented use in a bid to fillip the extraction economy, as a rule they first changed the category of the land in question. In 1915, George Hart, the Inspector General of Forest (1913-21), protested against the arbitrary practice of changing of, and assigning categories to, a particular piece of land from a revenue-oriented vantage point. Arguing against the practice of peasantization of Unclassed State Forests (USFs), Hart said the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation 1886 and the Assam Forest Manual should not run counter to each other17

When coal mining concession was given in the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF) in the Dehing-Patkai rainforest complex in April, 2020, sparking a digital protest, certain conservationists argued that the protesters are misinformed and that they are misleading the people as the government hasn’t permitted any mining activity inside Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary (WLS) and the site of mining concessions is in Saleki PRF, which comes under Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve (ER). So, according to them, the confusion started with these three bureaucratese: ‘Wildlife Sanctuary’ (WLS), ‘Proposed Reserve Forest’ (PRF), and ‘Elephant Reserve’ (ER). While the first has legal standing i.e. it is a legally recognized protected area (PA), the second and the third don’t have any legal standing as such. Ecologically, the first two are generally contiguous, un-fragmented forests; and the third, an ‘Elephant Reserve’ is not one unbroken and contiguous forest. Rather it’s a vast elephant occurring landscape spanning up to hundreds/thousands sq. km, which might include protected and non-protected forests, agricultural fields as well as human habitats (given that the elephant is a long-ranging animal).

It is worth noting that this government-speak that creates a maze of categories, isn’t an indispensable part of forest governance per se. It emerged as a conscious strategy, as a tool of colonial governance that helped befuddling the colonial subject and enabled the state to extract forest/ natural resources in the garb of a ‘legal discourse.’

It has not changed in the postcolony.

Let’s look at how and why categories such as RF, PRF, and WLS—the protected areas—came into being in the first place and evolved, and what functions these categories serve. The forest department in Assam was formed in the 1870s and soon it began to take over the enormous forests that dot the landscape. Thus, what previously were public commons became the colonial state’s property. From a purely fiscal logic, the colonial forestry regime categorized forests under different labels: ‘classified’, ‘unclassified’, ‘reserved’—some open to diversion and some not. When tea and mineral resources were discovered in the upper Brahmaputra valley, the colonial state reasoned between the revenues to be earned from forests vs. that from tea or mineral extraction, and whichever seemed to fare better in terms of revenue was decided to opt for. Evidently, in most cases tea and mineral resources speculators won the race, and forests were diverted. The amount of forests thus diverted was so huge that the landscape of the upper Brahmaputra valley altered forever: ecosystems transformed into agroecosystems and teascapes.18

In simpler terms, and from an inverse logic, when the colonial state declared a reserve forest it didn’t mean forest conservation as such. What it actually meant was this: in vast a forestscape, a small forest patch has been ‘reserved’ for future use and the rest opened for diversion for tea or coal or whatever it maybe. That’s why Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, the two most resources-rich districts of Assam, boast so many reserve forests. Whenever any plan of forestland diversion was up the sleeve, the state declared an RF, meaning opening more forest patches for diversion in the landscape in return for ‘conserving’ a certain relatively small forest.

There is, however, one more caveat. Once a forest was inscribed with one of the labels of protected forest, that forest was imagined and rendered as ‘inviolate’, ‘pristine’, ‘people-free’ and ‘disturbance-free’ in a strategy to shut the local people out and curtail their previously existing rights, including the most contentious of them: grazing rights. Berthold Von Ribbentrop, a forester in colonial Assam, had a particular disdain for goats and cattle which for him was the “universal destroyer” of forests. It is, therefore, not surprising that most of the early forest cases in Assam were about grazing cattle inside protected forests19

That these policies have been continued in the postcolony is exemplified in the process of facilitating coal extraction in the Dehing-Patkai forestscape. The Dehing-Patkai coal mining controversy also helps us understand how the assemblage of environmentalism works as a mercenary of the postcolonial extraction regime.

How are (certain) actors in the ‘assemblage of environmentalism’ co-opted in this strategy/process?

Conservationist Anwaruddin Choudhury, who played a critical role in notifying the Dehing Patkai WLS, was recently seen lamenting the fact that out of 320 sq. km. forests only 111 sq. km. could be declared a WLS and the rest of the forests were to be gradually absorbed, which hasn’t happened anyway. Why it hasn’t happened we can only speculate. One reason could be: when coal was nationalized in 1973, the state knew where exactly the coal deposits are located and the forests with coal deposits underneath were taken off the table when declaring the Dehing Patkai WLS. All such forests were studiously left out as non-protected areas, so that any future legal impasse doesn’t occur. Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh in her Dancing to the State: Ethnic Compulsions of the Tangsa in Assam (2017)20presents evidence suggesting that the Tirap coal area, also called Rangpang, was transferred from the erstwhile Tirap Frontier Tract to the plains district jurisdiction with a motive to facilitate unhindered future coal exploration which would have been difficult had it remained in a tribal Sixth Scheduled area. Understandably, the ‘conservation vs development’ choice is a tough and tricky slippery slope for a developing country like India.

Be that as it may, in my understanding, declaring Dehing Patkai WLS served two things at least. First, it assuaged the psyche of the liberal middle-class environmentalists, wildlife enthusiasts, and others of that ilk. One would be tempted to recall the ‘eco-heroism’ narrative of Nature’s Beckon in getting WLS status for a part of forests (111 sq. km.) in the Dehing Patkai forestscape and the jubilation thereof in various discursive sites. Second, and most important, it smoothened for the state the way to open the vast biodiversity-rich non-protected forests in the Dehing-Patkai landscape for resource extraction and other concessions on the logic that ‘Dehing Patkai WLS has already been conserved.’ Choudhury, who laments the inability to conserve the non-protected forests of the Dehing-Patkai landscape, was present as a representative of The Rhino Foundation for Nature in NE-India, a conservation non-profit, and member of the State Board for Wildlife (SBWL) in its 9th meeting on 20/09/2016 which “recommended the project [the Tikak open cast mining project at Saleki PRF that has stirred the current NEC CIL controversy] subject to implementation of a set of mitigation measures.” The minutes of the meeting do not show any note of dissent from Choudhury. It needs no reiteration that Saleki PRF is evidently one of those forests that Choudhury publicly lamented couldn’t be protected in the Dehing-Patkai landscape.

Similarly, when Nature’s Beckon and its founder-chief Soumyadeep Datta said that no permission has been given to mine in a protected area—the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary—and that the government hasn’t flouted any law/norm, they weren’t wrong. But it belied more than what it laid bare.

Moreover, when conservationists and environmentalists and others in the assemblage of environmentalism speak and imagine the forest as a ‘pristine’, ‘inviolate’ space, they deny the history of forest (resources) use by the people living in and around the forest. They sound no less than Berthold Von Ribbentrop, the colonial forester, in doing so. This also brings us to the root of why the assemblage of environmentalism is so keen to ‘depoliticize’ their works and to portray themselves as a cog in an ‘anti-politics machine’ of conservation/environmental protection.21

5. Beyond the extraction regime

Questioning (under)development first

Anthropologist James Ferguson in his book Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (1994) has critically looked at the development discourses forged and promoted by the international development agencies, NGOs, and INGOs in Lesotho, a small land-locked country surrounded in all sides by South Africa. One of the key findings of Ferguson’s research in Lesotho was how the country was portrayed in the various discursive sites of development as a ‘pastoral’, ‘traditional’ space removed from the modern world (and hence non-modern; and a relic of the past in the spatiotemporal sense)—all the qualifiers of underdevelopment—whereas in reality the country was far from being so as Ferguson found in his ethnographic study. The takeaway here is that, in the mainstream development discourses a space is first discursively rendered underdeveloped which would then be shown as a space requiring developmental intervention. If we are to see things beyond the extraction regime, which is at heart of the meta-narrative of development in Assam and which, to a large extent, follows a colonial model in its function and in its imagination vis-à-vis Assam (and the Northeast), we must start with unpacking the discourses of (under)development first. Only then can we hope to leave behind the legacy of Dhekial Phukan’s mid-nineteenth century dream of colonial modernity and the kind of development that was at the heart of it.

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Independent Researcher based in Assam

One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Jaya
    June 22, 2020
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    Thank you for this interesting article.

    The recent conservation debates and discourse in Assam have inclined toward problem analysis with a myopic lens. This article therefore is a good overview to understand the the associated complexities of land use and ownership. Although the recent slacktivism created opinions, we cannot afford to solve the underlying issues of environment and conservation in the region without the idea of justice at the grassroots level.

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