Nagaland govt on slippery ground again, this time due to oil row

Militant groups feel that extraction of any mineral from Nagaland without resolving the Naga political standoff amounts to the exploitation of state resources by a “colonial power”  

Neiphiu Rio, Nagaland, NDPP, oil and gas, Assam
Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio (in pic) and his Assam counterpart Himanta Biswa Sarma have “agreed in principle” that the two states will explore and extract oil along their disputed boundary

The cash-strapped Nagaland government’s decision to monetise its huge untapped oil and natural gas resources has rekindled an old row, pitting the ruling dispensation against community-based organisations, land owners, and militant outfits.

Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio and his Assam counterpart Himanta Biswa Sarma on April 21 “agreed in principle” that the two states will explore and extract oil along their disputed boundary.

The move is expected to generate an additional revenue of around Rs 1,800 crore annually in oil royalty, according to a senior Nagaland government official.

The decision, however, has raised concerns about how the natural resources of this special-category state should be used and its benefits be distributed — the same issue of locus standi that grounded the ambitious revenue mobilisation drive almost three decades ago.

NSCN opposition

The latest to join the bandwagon of protests is the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) whose ultimatum had forced the Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) to stop crude oil extraction in the state in 1994.

“Until an honourable political settlement between the Nagas and the government of India is reached, no exploration of oil and natural gas in Naga territories in any form shall be allowed. This is the resolute stand of the NSCN,” the militant outfit stated in a statement issued on May 3 evening.

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“As much as the government of India attached huge economic significance to the mineral wealth, particularly oil and natural gas of Nagaland, the same degree of political commitment should be demonstrated in a meaningful and credible manner as demanded by the ongoing Indo-Naga political talks,” the statement read.

The outfit has been engaged in political negotiations with the government of India since 1997. Monetisation of the state’s natural resources is one of the contentious issues being negotiated in the peace parleys between Naga militant organisations and New Delhi.

More warnings

The Naga National Political Groups (NNPG), a conglomerate of another six militant outfits that are also in peace talks with the Centre, also warned the state government against the joint deal.

“Assam and Nagaland have no power to negotiate or enter into mutual agreements on any joint contract on oil exploration or unsettled border areas, as the matter has been the subject of intense negotiations between the NNPG and the Government of India,” the NNPG said in a statement and asked the Nagaland government to withdraw its decision.

Naga militant groups are of the view that extraction of any mineral from Nagaland without resolving the Naga political standoff is tantamount to the exploitation of state resources by a “colonial power”.

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Former Nagaland chief minister S C Jamir too questioned the sagacity of the state government to propose the oil exploration in disputed border areas at a time when political negotiations are on to hammer out a final solution to the vexed Naga political issue.

“Since negotiations are on and an agreement has already been drawn up and agreed upon, it would be best to wait for a final political settlement,” he told media persons in Dimapur.

Assam angle

Jamir, who also served as governor of multiple states, is the only living signatory to the historic 16-point agreement between the central government and the Naga People’s Convention that led to the formation of Nagaland as a 16th state of the Indian Union in 1963.

The Naga political problem, however, is not the only bone of contention in the oil-exploration logjam.

The state’s estimated reserves of around 600 million tonnes of crude oil and gas are primarily scattered along its disputed border with Assam. The main oil fields are in Changpang and Tssori in Wokha district, Geleki/Changki in Mokokchung district, and Singphan in Mon district.

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To pave the way for oil exploration in the contested areas, the Nagaland government has decided to share oil royalties with Assam, a move that can be seen as an acknowledgement of the neighbouring state’s stake over the disputed areas.

Tribal bodies such as Nagaland Tribes Council (NTC) and Lotha Hoho (the apex body of Lotha tribes) and the Naga Students Federation have questioned the decision.

“It escapes the rationale of the youth and students’ community as to why the state government should share royalty with any other state for any resources whose extraction exercise is carried out solely in the areas being administered by the state government of Nagaland,” the NSF said in a statement.

Land ownership

There should not be any oil exploration prior to settlement of border disputes, the NTC said. The Lotha Hoho raised similar objections.

Another hurdle to oil exploration in Nagaland is the special-category state’s unique ownership rights over land and its resources. Land in the state is collectively owned by individual landowners, tribes, villages and clans. Hence, the collective owners of the land are entitled to the royalties against the oil extracted.

The Nagaland government, however, by a contentious rule called Nagaland Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulations, 2012, and Nagaland Petroleum and Natural Gas Rules, 2012, made itself one of the owners of the land.

Tribal bodies allege that the regulations and rules deprive the individual land owners and community of their rights and benefits. The Lotha Hoho, the apex body of one of the affected tribes, said the 2012 regulations and rules also needed to be amended before going for oil exploration.

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In the face of these multiple hurdles, the fate of the Rio government’s contentious oil deal with Assam now hangs in balance.

This is the second time after returning to power in March this year that a decision of the Rio’s Democratic Alliance (PDA) government is facing a pushback.

Under pressure from the tribal bodies, the Nagaland government went back on its promise to hold urban local body elections on May 16 with 33 per cent seats reserved for women, a decision that earned it the wrath of the Supreme Court.