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Is India's Hydrocarbon Potential Being Marred by States Sparring in North East?

Control over oil & gas resources have shaped up cross-border disputes between Assam and her neighbours in the NER.

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Is India's Hydrocarbon Potential Being Marred by States Sparring in North East?
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The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas’s (MoPNG) Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 aims to ramp up oil and gas production in the North Eastern Region (NER) so as to ensure its overall socio-economic development. This is in congruence with the Centre’s plan to develop the NER as the gateway to South Asia and South East Asia’s hydrocarbon markets, as part of its Act East Policy. By increasing production, India can be a supplier to Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Oil and gas account for important and valuable commodities across the globe, and are a major source of income for respective governments and corporations which control their production and distribution. As a result, control over such resources come to be equated with the issues of territorial sovereignty and have shaped up cross-border disputes between Assam and her neighbours in the NER.

Connected to the harnessing of the region’s hydrocarbon wealth are the complexities of land sovereignty, black marketing practices, corruption and conflict that ought to be addressed, in order to help transition this well-thought-out vision to actual reality.

It is important to explore the several dynamics of hydrocarbon resource politics found to be increasingly noticeable between Assam and her immediate neighbours—namely, the states of Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal and Meghalaya, which were once part of it.

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Snapshot
  • Control over oil and gas resources have shaped up cross-border disputes between Assam and her neighbours in the North East Region.

  • Mizoram and Assam have sparred over encroachment issues with regard to mineral and gas rich Kolasib district.

  • Four ONGC blocks that carry tremendous potential for crude oil potential fall within the disputed areas along the Assam-Nagaland border, also known as the Disputed Area Belt (DAB).

  • Apart from being rich in hydrocarbon deposits like oil, Kharsang in Arunachal Pradesh is also found to be rich in coal reserves, where vast amounts of its illegally mined coal are traded off to the neighbouring Tinsukia district in Assam.

  • Coal has often been extracted illegally from the East Jaintia Hills district of Meghalaya, which shares its borders with the Dima Hasao district of Assam. The illegally mined coal is, thereafter, exported to Bangladesh by being passed off as Assam coal.

  • Centre-funded initiatives—that place all the northeastern states on an equal footing—could help reduce inter-state competition over the control of hydrocarbon resources.

Assam-Mizoram Fight Over Border Areas Rich in Hydrocarbon

The Assam-Mizoram border is found to be rich in mineral and gas deposits. Recently, the ONGC discovered vast reserves of hydrocarbon deposits in parts of the sensitive Kolasib district that borders Assam—it is speculated that upto 5,52,674 cubic feet of gas could be extracted from the Meidum exploration site in Kolasib.

Often, Mizoram and Assam have sparred over encroachment issues with regard to this district, and have blamed police personnels in each other’s state for breaching the status quo. Tensions have often flared up along the resource-rich 164-km-long border with both states beefing up their police forces in such disputed areas.

At present, the situation remains tense in the Kolasib district, despite both states having committed to maintaining peace since border skirmishes between the two keep escalating from time to time.

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Drilling Stalled Due to Assam-Nagaland Conflict

Among several major oil fields that are currently operational in Assam- Lakhmani, Nahorkatiya, Geleki and Lakwa to name a few, lie near the Assam-Nagaland border. Apart from these, there are four ONGC blocks that carry tremendous potential for crude oil potential fall within the disputed areas along the Assam-Nagaland border, also known as the Disputed Area Belt (DAB).

Exploration of these blocks could not be completed due to law-and-order issues emanating from inter-state disputes between the conflicting neighbours. Drilling activity ceased after objections had been flagged-off by Naga Student Federation (NSF) and other organisations against these explorations, on grounds of breaching the special protection that was given to Nagaland as guarantee by Article 371A of the Indian constitution. The Nagaland government also shut down drilling activities at Tokishe, Piheku and Nikihe villages in Dimapur district, since these sites fall within disputed areas between Nagaland and Assam.

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Illegal Mining Along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh Border

The Kharsang oil field is located near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, and falls under the Assam Arakan Basin—a primary commercial oil and gas producing basin in India. Territorial disputes between the conflicting neighbours are quite rampant, as Assam police personnels are accused of intermittent encroachments in the Kharsang circle of the Changlang district that borders Assam.

Apart from being rich in hydrocarbon deposits like oil, Kharsang is also found to be rich in coal reserves, where vast amounts of its illegally mined coal are traded off to the neighbouring Tinsukia district in Assam.

The state of Arunachal Pradesh lacks any railway infrastructure, as a result of which delivery of goods is completely dependent on road infrastructure. Given the proximity of the Changlang district to Assam, the Ledo railway station and Dibrugarh Airport fall closer to the Arunachal district. Hundreds of trucks carry coke from Kharsang to Tinsukia on a daily basis, resulting in heavy losses for Coal India.

It is to be noted that a dearth in transport and infrastructural facilities create regional imbalances and perpetuate underdevelopment in certain regions, creating scope for growing malpractices: Assam and Arunachal being a clear manifestation of this.

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Illegal Coal Exports From Assam-Meghalaya Border Region

Rat-hole mining is a common practice of coal extraction that takes place in Meghalaya: it is economically viable in comparison to the practice of open cast mining that involves the removal of rocks from hilly terrains and placing pillars inside the mines. Coal has often been extracted illegally from the East Jaintia Hills district, which shares its borders with the Dima Hasao district of Assam. The illegally mined coal is, thereafter, exported to Bangladesh by being passed off as Assam coal.

In the past, the East Jaintia Hills district has been an area of dispute between the two states. Thought this dispute seems resolved at the moment with a historic agreement being signed between the two states, illegal coal exports remain an irritant in inter-state relations.

The Gasuapara Land Customs point in the South Garo Hills district has been often used to carry out this malpractice by misusing E-Way passes in place of legal transit challans. While the revenue generated is sent off to Assam, an illegal nexus of authorities from the South Garo Hills and North Garo Hills districts in Meghalaya that borders Bangladesh, have been charged with making money by facilitating this illegal trade.

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Way Forward to Make NER Into an Energy Hub

With vast reserves in the resource-rich border areas of the NER remaining under-utilised as a result of the deteriorating law and order situation, it remains one of the most backward regions in the country. Such a situation has a negative impact on developing much-needed infrastructure, and creates an unattractive market for drawing investments from the international private sector.

Centre-funded initiatives such as the North-East Natural Gas Pipeline Grid that connects Guwahati in Assam to other major cities in the NER such as Itanagar, Dimapur, Imphal and Shillong, acts as a unifying factor since it caters to all the states within the region, thus ensuring well-balanced economic development.

Having more of such Centre-funded initiatives—that place all the northeastern states on an equal footing—could help reduce inter-state competition over the control of hydrocarbon resources. It helps to keep alive the spirit of a competitive/cooperative federalism, and provides an impetus for the development of the NER as a hydrocarbon hub.

(Prarthana Sen is a Master's graduate in Political Science from St. Xavier's College, Kolkata and former Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation. Her areas of research interest include Sustainable Development, Forced Displacements and Development Cooperation.)

(This is a member's opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Energy 

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