Assam

Industry, Insurgency, and Illumination in India

NE India Light MapThe “nightlight” map of Burma posted in the previous GeoCurrents article reveals an interesting contrast with northeastern India. Although India’s far northeastern region is generally considered one of the least developed and most insurgency beset parts of the country, it is well illuminated when contrasted with neighboring Burma. To highlight this contrast, I have taken a detail from Google’s Earthbuilder “Earth at Night 2012” world map and added national boundaries (at approximate locations).

India Oil Pipelines MapThe most surprising feature of this map, to my eyes, is the bright cluster of lights in eastern Assam, not far from India’s northeastern extremity. As it turns out, this area contains the substantial cities of Dibrugarh (population 186,000) and Tinsukia (population 108,000), both of which are major industrial centers. According to the Wikipedia, Dibrugarh is “presently one of the 10 richest revenue NE India Oil Mapdistricts of India.” Industrialization here is based largely on local oilfields, which were the first to be exploited in India. Some reports indicate the presence of shale oil in the vicinity, which could result in enhanced production though fracking, although such a scenario does not seem likely in the near-term The center of oil production is the town of Digboi, located in the same general splotch of light. The Wikipedia description of the town provides its own form of illumination:

With a significant number of British professionals working for Assam Oil Company until the decade following independence of India, Digboi had a well-developed infrastructure and a number of bungalows unique to the town. It has eighteen holes golf course as part of the Digboi Club. It has guest houses and tourist residential apartments laid on Italian architectural plan to promote tourism in upper Assam.

“‘Dig boy, dig’, shouted the Canadian engineer, Mr. W. L. Lake, at his men as they watched elephants emerging out of the dense forest with oil stains on their feet]” This is possibly the most distilled – though fanciful – version of the legend explaining the siting and naming of Digboi.

Brahmaputra Braided RiverWikipedia articles on the region and its cities make much of the Dibrugarh Airport and its new “state-of-the-art and integrated terminal.” Infrastructural development is evidently a major issue in this remote corner of India. Other discussions focus on the potential use of the Brahmaputra River for shipping, although the obstacles here are considerable. The Wikipedia article on Assam frames this matter in rather understated terms:

The Brahmaputra suitable for navigation does not possess sufficient infrastructure for international trade and success of such a navigable trade route will be dependent on proper channel maintenance and diplomatic and trade relationships with Bangladesh.

The Brahmaputra has a gargantuan flow, but it is also a classic example of a braided river, with ever-shifting, rock- and gravel-choked channels. Maintaining shipping routes in such an environment would be quite a challenge, to say the least.

South Asia Light Map“Nightlight” maps of India as a whole are also interesting. What strikes my eye is the correlation between the large relatively non-illuminated areas in east-central India and the zones of Maoist (or Naxalite) insurgency, which is a huge security problem for India even though it receives little attention in the global media. A report in Eurasia Review suggests that a recent merger of several insurgent organizations 1639px-India_Naxal_affected_districts_map.svgmight result in an expansion of this rebellion to the south, potentially having a “significant impact for the Maoist movement in the tri-junction area of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.” This area, not surprisingly, is another dark zone on the nighttime map of India.

 

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Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India

 

The seven states of Northeastern India make up a diverse, historic, and (as GeoCurrents has previously noted) unstable region. Recent flooding and landslides have claimed at least 81 lives around the Brahmaputra River (map at left from Wikipedia), forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and garnered worldwide attention. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to Assam, perhaps the worst hit state, and promised at least Rs 500 crore (~$90 million) in aid. The floods are a major humanitarian crisis, and they may help to deflect attention from recent escalations in the long-simmering border dispute between Assam and its neighboring state, Meghalaya.

On June 30, over six-hundred Khasi[1], members of a tribal group located primarily in Meghalaya but also in parts of Assam and Bangladesh, began a hunger strike aimed at encouraging the two Indian states to resolve the quarrel over the status of twelve disputed areas that has kindled years of violence. The unresolved issue has also kept rural villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border from receiving the benefits of government electrification programs. Since a January, 21, 2010 GeoCurrents post cautiously observed the “declining violence in Northeast India”, violence has continued to stay at a relatively low level compared to the 2000s. However, most of the underlying issues remain unresolved, and the potential remains for future clashes.

Map of Northeastern India

Entailing much more than the border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam, strife in Northeast India has been a function of ethnic and tribal rivalries playing themselves out against a background of nationalist and antinationalist agitation. For example, the militant Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), based in Meghalaya, continues to vociferously oppose what it sees as attempts by India’s national government to “Indianise or else to Hindunise the Hynniewtrep race”. The HNLC also sets itself up in opposition to the Garo, a largely Christian group that is the second largest ethnic formation in Meghalaya after the aforementioned Khasi.

The people of Northeast India also face many wrenching challenges as both a globalized economy and outside social norms gain a foothold hold in their land. The Khasi and the Garo remain, for the most part, matrilineal societies where property and clan membership is passed down through female descendants. This certainly adds a measure of stability to womens’ lives, and female defenders of the system are able to point to the plight of women in other nearby groups and remark favorably on the status and safety of women in societies adhering to matrilineal traditions. Men who oppose the system claim that it “breeds a culture of men who feel useless”, feeds social problems like alcoholism, and denies men the inheritance they need to build their lives. The debate has been going on for years, and seems unlikely to end soon.

With flooding now the dominant issue in the Brahmaputra watershed, it remains to be seen whether the chaos and disruption that follows will bring more violence in its wake. Most of the Indian outposts along the border with Bangladesh have flooded as local officials express concerns about national security. Living near some of the rainiest places on earth, as the people who make their homes along the Brahmaputra do, can be a dangerous proposition.

Readers interested in a fantastic satellite image of the Brahmaputra flooding should see this one from the NASA Earth Observatory.



[1] GeoCurrents readers would be interested to note that the Khasi are the northernmost speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language.

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