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No to oil exploration

Yambem Laba |

Manipur is said to be sitting on a massive oil belt, estimated at some eight trillion cubic feet and also has huge reserves of natural gas. A good reason for the people to rejoice as when oil starts flowing, it is bound to usher in an era of rapid development and prosperity and drastically change the economic face of the state, as happened in the Gulf countries and the USA’sTexas region at the turn of the last century.

While most people have more or less welcomed the new development they are not happy with the seemingly hush-hush manner in which the Government of India is trying to engage some home-based oil companies and foreign firms in an otherwise disturbed state. Not to forget that the state harbours 50-odd militant outfits with control over some areas.

The trouble started in 2010 when the Centre signed a contract with the Netherlands-based Jubilant Oil and Gas Private Ltd for drilling in Manipur’s oil blocks like Jiribam, Tamenglong and Churachandpur districts. The Centre signed the “production sharing contract” on 19 July 2010 in New Delhi. A year later Jubilant Energy entered into a contract with the Alphageo and Asian Oilfield and commenced drilling operations in two blocks.

Naga villagers in Tamenglong complained that they were not even consulted before starting the drilling operations. Then the oil companies officials are said to have approached the NSCN (IM) leaders at Hebron in Dimapur (Nagaland). After some sort of an understanding and alleged payoff, the NSCN (IM) leaders are said to have directed its frontal organisation in Manipur, the United Naga Council, to tell the Naga villagers not to object and keep quiet.

Some time ago a Tamenglong village chief showed this correspondent the “No Objection Certificate” the UNC is supposed to have issued. By 31 March, the Jubilant group announced and released its first Resource Assessment report of the gross (100 per cent) unrisked estimate and the presence of gas running into billions of cubic feet in the two blocks. Thereafter road shows in cities like London, Houston, Calgary and Perth seeking bids from oil companies followed.

Earlier, on 20 September 2010 the Manipur government had granted the licence. The total area given for oil exploration was 3,850 sq km and within this area a total of 5,000 billion cubic feet of oil was estimated. Jubilant Energy was entrusted to drill oil from 30 wells identified by the Alpha Geo Company, a Hyderabad- based group.

Then in May 2016, Oil India Limited announced the commencement of a survey for the presence of hydrocarbons in Jiribam district and further stated the survey had covered Khaidem Village in Imphal West District. That was confirmed by Sumit Mahajan, the project manager of the Manipur State-level Convention Oil Exploration team, adding that there will be a surge in the employment sector paving the way for Manipur’s economic prosperity.

In January 2017, Oil India Limited transferred the exploration contract from the Jubilant group to Asian Oilfield Services, a unit based in Gurgoan, at an estimated cost of Rs 143 crore. The company began surveys in Khaidem, Moidangpok and Sangaithel villages in May 2017.

And that was when the trouble began. Soon the Committee on the Protection of Natural Resources in Manipur took up arms against the exploration bids. They contend that there are no provisions of vital information on the project, like the detailed project report, environment impact assessment, social impact assessment, production sharing contract or the Petroleum Exploration Licensing agreements entered between the Centre and Manipur. All these were not made public. It was also pointed out that the village authority of Balongdai in Tamenglong had imposed a fine on the Alphageo Company for conducting surveys without informing the village authority. In 2011, they asserted that the move by the oil prospectors was circumventing the traditional and community-oriented land ownership practices and that it was a clear cut case of undermining indigenous rights over their land and resources and a source of tension.

They also added that the Centre and the oil companies were trying to push through their agenda without an impartial and detailed assessment with community participation. Social and environmental impacts in surveys and in direct drilling have never been conducted. Further, there was no cumulative social and environmental assessment due to introduction of oil exploration and also due to the introduction of multiple scale infrastructure projects in Manipur. The state belongs to two of the world’s Bio-diversity hotspots — the Eastern Himalayas Bio-diversity hotspot and the Indo-Burma Hotspots — and that the oil exploration along with its blasting operations will adversely affect the Loktak wetlands eco-system, the Barak River and Manipur river systems, thereby endangering the livelihood of people depending on such fragile eco-systems. Cases of oil spills and contamination abound worldwide as in Nigeria, Ecuador, the Gulf region and even in nearby Tripura and Assam. The main cause for worry is that the effluents of the drilling process with a high PH and salt content will find its way to the ground and surface water.

Speaking to The Statesman, Yumnam Jiten, one of the chief protagonists of the movement against “No to Petroleum exploration” in Manipur and an environmentalist with experience in Ecuador, Nicaragua, Africa and South-east Asia, said that the entire oil exploration business in Manipur was being carried out like a military operation. The prospectors are given accommodation in areas with military security and police protection. It is another aspect of militarisation of the state. The Army is not only here to fight militants but also protect the oil prospectors’ corporate interests, it seems, he added. As regards the state prospering from the oil wells, he said, “Look at Assam, how much has it prospered although drilling for oil there started 100 years ago.”

Unlike in the hill areas where the diktats of the militants run large and having had their coffers filled, nothing much can be done to physically stop the actual drilling and exploratory process except by protesting. Opposition in the valley had been quite different. For instance at Khaidem Lampha Village in Imphal East, the people prevented the agents of Asian Oilfield Services Ltd from carrying out the activities. According to A Samjai Singh, secretary of the Khaidem Youth Club, “Unless the entire details and planning of the project are made known and assurance given that it will not harm our interests, the surveying process will not be allowed.”

All said and done, a discovery that could have transformed the economic face of Manipur seems to have run into stiff opposition because of the Centre, state government and oil prospectors’ lack of clarity and transparency in their bid to strike gold at any cost. After all the indigenous people of Manipur today are well aware of their rights following the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

At the moment, the general mood of the people is a simple “No to petroleum exploration” in Manipur.

The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman