In the Indian state of Meghalaya —the world’s wettest region— the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia tribes constitute about 85% of the total population. There, they act as defenders of the region’s unique forests.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2021, the demand for energy spurred the government to construct a dam on the Umngot river. This would force indigenous communities off their forests, agricultural lands and destroy their source for fishing.
“As long as we have forests, we can survive”, said Merrysha Nongrum, a keystone indigenous activist who mobilised the villagers to fight for protecting their lands and forests against the dam.
This is one of the instances where projects related to the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic —even green projects— resulted in hostile actions against indigenous people and their local ecosystems.
In the same year, there was an unabated surge of illegal coke factories —which use coke as a fuel to produce steel– posing a grave threat to the health of indigenous communities and their surrounding ecosystem. These factories operated in the area without proper environmental permits.
In the face of these threats, indigenous communities took to the streets in protest by non-violent means, which after two and a half months helped sweep the government’s decision in their favour.
The movement managed to grab the attention of the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Conrad Sangma, who assured 31 illegal coke plants would be shut down.
Earlier, War brought the findings of his own investigation to the government’s notice. He found 35 out of 48 of the coke plants were illegal: three of them indulged in operation (were actively producing steel) despite only having the consent to establish.
War also found 10 factories were given the consent to operate despite flouting vital environmental norms, as issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Any industry has to obtain the consent to establish in line with mandatory pollution control systems before applying for the consent to operate.
After enormous pressure from local communities and activist groups, the government in Meghalaya decided to suspend the construction of the dam.
Indigenous movements also generated pressure against illegal coke factories in their areas, which resulted in the closure of 31 plants established in their territory and operating without necessary permits.
The Umngot dam
When the Umngot hydroelectric project conceived by the Meghalaya Energy Corporation Limited was set to proceed this year, it had the state’s indigenous communities on edge.
The Umngot river is more than just a river to both the Jaintia and Khasi indigenous communities. The banks of the river were fertile grounds for community-owned forests that bore medicinal herbs foraged by the womenfolk, as told by Pynskhem Mukhim to Climate Tracker.
Mukhim is a 27-year-old farmer who grows crops such as rice, fruits and ginger in the traditional slash-and-burning method —locally known as Jhum— along the banks of the Umngot river. This area would’ve been lost if the dam came into place.
In the Jhum method, farmers clear the forest and burn the biomass, which fertilises the soil and prepares the land for cultivation. After cultivating for a year more than a dozen crops in a single plot, farmers then move on to the next forest, abandoning the previous land where the forest naturally grows after 5-10 years.
“In northeast India, the conservation model followed by people is based on land-sharing, where you use the land and conserve it at the same time. This is the basis for Jhum cultivation, where you remove the forest for one year and they grow back as you practice forest-crop-forest rotation,” said Bhogtoram Mawroh, Senior Associate, Research and Knowledge Management at North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society.
But the Environmental Impact Assessment of the dam sought to replace 788 ha of land where shifting agriculture was practiced, changing them to mixed cropping on the river banks and submerging another 253.75 ha of land.
Projects like this would threaten the food security of the indigenous tribes, according to Mawroh.
A FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) study conducted in the 18 villages of Nagaland and Meghalaya found that moderate and severe food insecurity of these areas was only around 11%, while the corresponding figure for South Asia (which includes India) was more than 40%.
Put simply, food security in these areas —where Jhum is being practiced— is relatively higher than the rest of India, as people depend on their forests and produce.
Protests against the dam
The Meghalaya Energy Corporation Limited conceived the Umngot hydroelectric project, which was set to produce 210 MW of energy to cover its shortage of power.
Sensing the threats to the villagers, Merrysha Nongrum mobilised locals to block the public roads regarding the dam at Siangkhnai village in East Khasi Hills when the officials chose to not engage them on April 8.
“Protests were happening sporadically but the moment the government called for a public hearing, the protests became active again. Merrysha got in touch with civil society groups, activists and the media was instrumental in getting the news out”, explained Mawroh
Merry said she approached the Meghalaya Pollution Control Board before the hearing and called out the release of Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] on the web, which was just a summary [extracted from the main report] and was not released in the local language, only English.
“The officials said they wouldn’t allow the EIA to be printed in local language”, Merrysha recalled. The selective choice of language was discriminatory, she said, as it would leave the villagers in oblivion about what they were going to lose when the dam would be built.
Merrysha had to translate the contents of the abridged EIA to the villagers who would lose their forests, homes and the river if the dam project was finalised.
At the dawn of April 8, Merrysha guided the residents of six villages lying upstream of the Umngot river to a village 20 kms away from the site of the public hearing. Voicing their exclusion from the public hearing, the residents demanded to scrap the project, while also blocking roads for officers driving their way to the public hearing at Siangkhnai. Fearing increasing reprisal, the hearing was stalled.
Ultimately, the movement turned the tide: the massive public pressure was enough to compel the government to scrap the Umngot dam project that was announced in September
The movement against illegal coke factories
“Coke factories are more dangerous than Covid-19” was one such message on placards raised during the protest against the illegal coke factories by indigenous villages in northeastern India.
The Elaka Sutnga villages [ Elakas are existing traditional provinces of the tribal administration of the indigenous population of Meghalaya] in East Jaintia Hills, district of Meghalaya, organized the demonstration against encroachers of indigenous territory in June and August last year. .
East Jaintia Hills is home to one of the major tribes in Meghalaya: the Jaintias and other sub-tribes like the Wars and Biates. The Jaintias account for the majority of the local population.
“Villagers on the outskirts won’t believe unless they see the effects of pollution. When illegal coke factories sprouted near their homes, people had to close their doors, windows and sleep to stop smoke seeing inside their homes,” said Reading War, the forerunner of the movement against illegal coke factories since 2019.
As it is, the villages under Elaka Sutnga were already facing a water crisis. They stock water during monsoons from rains. They were worried when they saw their water turning black.
In fact, the pine trees unique to Meghalaya were the first victims of pollution. “There was a massive turnout [at the protest site] despite any intimation or notification on,” said War, often facing intimidation and threats to his life.
By the end of 2020 to the beginning of 2021, he observed the mushrooming of coke plants on lands leased out by an indigenous local to by outsiders [non-tribals].
The local partners had the smallest share of profits generated by the plant, hovering around 1-5%.
“The outsiders saw lockdown as an opportunity to bypass environmental clearances for setting up of coke factories as government offices were shut down and filing for petitions against them or monitoring was delayed,” said War.
35 factories of the 48 operating in the area are illegal, meaning they don’t have the necessary environmental permits, explained War, who is a legal adviser of the local Environment Coordination Committee.
Three other factories had obtained the consent to establish only but started production without permission. Finally, the other 10 units which obtained the consent to operate and establish were operating on inhabitable lands, a violation of the Factories Act that forbids hazardous industries near people’s homes.
Any industry has to obtain consent to establish —which is the primary clearance— from the concerned pollution control board. Then, industries need consent to operate according to mandatory pollution control systems.
War added these factories were emitting pollutants without any pollution control equipment or filters, as well.
The active moment which rocked the State from June through September bore an effective result: facing public pressure, the Meghalaya government shut 31 coke plants, assuring physical action against them.
Unity for accountability
Even after the movements succeeded in halting the projects, activists revealed they are not satisfied with mere announcements unless there is some action on the ground.
War, who led the movement against coke factories, is still sending follow-ups to the government officials to ask why the government has failed to take physical actions against the coke factories even after the official announcement.
The same goes for Merrysha, who says she is a part of a committee [comprising villagers from West Jaintia Hills and East Khasi Hills], to keep track of what the government has done following its announcement to scrap the dam project.
The committee has been writing memorandums to the Chief Minister seeking updates. “We will not rest until we get an official document from the government that the people living near the river will not be affected,” explains Merrysha.
The success of the movement, in part, lies with how the activists placed their issues in front of the government by setting their facts right away, local activists say.
“I have been providing proofs [photographs] and other findings to the media and the ministers in charge”, said War, who said there is no arguing with facts, a major factor in making the movement effective.
Suhas Chakma, Director of Rights and Analysis Group, an independent human rights think-tank, said indigenous communities have power in this particular region because they are key to electing public officials.
“The politics is clearly between the common people and the State Government, both constituting indigenous communities in the majority. There is a lot of pressure for the government if they harm the communities that elect them to power”, said Chakma.