The Dam and the Tribal

At 10,039 square kilometres, Tripura is northeast India's smallest state. But this was not always so. The Manikya rulers controlled much of East Bengal's Comilla region during medieval times, and later Maharaj Bijoy Manikya is said to have had the rein from the hills all the way west to present-day Dhaka. With royal patronage, tolerance and multiculturalism flourished in an area otherwise divided by ethnicity and religion. As late as the year 2000, readers of the Agartala-based daily Tripura Observer voted Maharaja Bir Bikram as 'Tripura's Man of the Millennium' in preference to those who have led the state since the end of the royal order.

Even after the advent of the British, when the Tripura kingdom was restricted to its present hill confines, Bengalis and indigenous tribes-people lived in peace. No riots, not even sporadic ethnic clashes were ever reported between Bengali settlers and the original populace of princely Tripura. If the Manikyas welcomed Bengali professionals or peasants to modernise their administration or increase their land revenue through the spread of settled wet-rice agriculture, they also created a tribal reserve, which, in many ways, is the precursor of today's Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council.

The Partition unleashed a wave of migration from East Pakistan to Tripura and other states on its borders. Though the indigenous tribes-people in the state had not enjoyed a decisive majority like in the neighbouring Chittagong Hill Tracts or the Mizo hills, they did account for up to 60 percent of the total population. In the first three decades after Partition, the indigenous people were reduced to below 30 percent of the state's population, a situation which left them completely marginalised in both self-perception and reality. This land alienation it is which has fuelled the violent insurgency that has eaten into the vitals of this once vibrant state.

The problem did not emerge as long as the tribals had enough land and the Bengali population was limited to certain urban or semi-urban pockets or rural areas around the capital. That changed with Independence and the merger of princely Tripura in the Indian Union. A state which in 1951 had a population of 6.5 lakh saw an influx between 1947 and 1971, of six lakh Bengalis displaced from East Pakistan. It is not difficult to gauge the enormous population pressure thus created. During this period the state government primarily resettled the refugees on land under different schemes, some enabling the refugees to settle down with financial assistance and some just helping them to buy land.

The operation of these schemes accelerated the process of large-scale loss of tribal lands. The pauperisation of the tribals can also be discerned in the growing number of tribal agricultural labourers in the three decades since the Partition. In 1951, cultivators constituted close to 63 percent of the total tribal workforce, while only nine percent were in the category of agricultural labourers. By 1981, only 43 percent of the tribal workforce were cultivators and 24 percent were agricultural labourers.

But it would be wrong to assume that tribals alone became landless paupers, with their lands were taken over by Bengali settlers who grew at their expense – a stereotype that tribal extremist groups seek to create. For while it is true that tribals today account for 41 percent of the agricultural landless labourers in Tripura, the rest are non-tribals, almost wholly Bengalis. In fact, the percentage of landless agricultural labourers in Tripura's rural workforce is largely in keeping with the population ratio of the two communities in the state.

While the Bengalis who arrived were accustomed to sharp class differences in their erstwhile homeland, East Bengal, the tribes-people of Tripura were not. At an individual level, the indigenous people lost lands mostly to Bengalis, rich or poor. Nevertheless, studies made by the Law Research Institute in Guwahati in certain areas of Tripura show the huge land loss suffered by the tribes-people at the hands of the Bengali settlers. The study analysed the land transfer pattern in seven 'non-scheduled' and an equal number of 'scheduled' villages in south and west Tripura. In the former 60 percent of the land transfers were from tribals to non-tribals. In the latter the position was worse, with 68 percent of the total land transfers made from tribals to non-tribals. Of the villages under study, the heaviest tribal to non-tribal transfer took place at Hawaibari on the Assam-Agartala road.


One has to go to Teliamura, once a small village but now a vital road junction connecting west, north and south Tripura. Gunomoni Sardar is grandfather of the Indigenous National Party of Tripura (INPT) leader Debabrata Koloi and former Tripura National Volunteers (TNV) military-wing chief, Chuni Koloi. He used to own almost seventy percent of the lands in Teliamura. In 30 years, his descendants have hardly got a few hectares left for themselves by the side of the Tripura Road Transport Corporation (TRTC) bus stand on the Assam-Agartala Road.

Under the Congress administration, some Bengali refugee leaders even set up 'land cooperatives' like the Swasti Samity in north Tripura. These cooperatives violated the Tribal Reserves regulations, taking over large swathes of land, a process that was legitimised by conniving bureaucrats. The Communist Party mobilised the tribesmen and even took the matter to courts to secure a favourable verdict that was not honoured by the bureaucracy. Angry at such collusion, and frustrated by the lack of institutional support to undo the damage, many tribal youth took to the jungles. The first significant underground group in post-merger Tripura was born — the Sengkrak or 'clenched fist'.

The Sengkrak movement, as the first manifestation of overt ethnic militancy, started   in 1967 as a direct fallout of the large scale loss of land, abetted by the state. The ruling Congress government backed the occupation of tribal lands in the Deo valley by Bengali settlers grouped under the Swasti Samity, while the Reang tribesmen organised themselves into a militant group to hit back at the new Bengali settlers.

This writer had conducted a correlation analysis between land alienation and tribal insurgency in August 1984 by choosing to interview the family members of 84 extremists of the Tribal National Volunteers. They had been gathered at a government hostel as part of Chief Minister Nripen Chakrabarti's 'motivation drive' to facilitate the return of the guerrillas to normal life. Fully 64 percent of the families had suffered loss of land to Bengalis while 32 percent of them were from families of jhumias or shifting cultivators who were under increasing pressure to find fresh lands for cultivation due to the growing occupation of hill stretches by Bengali refugees. Only four percent were from families with enough land that had not been lost to the settlers.

In settled agricultural areas like Khowai and Sadar, all within a hundred kilometres of the state's capital Agartala, between 20 to 40 percent of the tribal lands had been alienated by the end of the 1970s, when tribal insurgency gathered momentum. In some parts of south Tripura, as much as 60 percent of the tribal lands were alienated — sold in distress conditions as a sequel to an unequal economic competition with the Bengali settlers. The land loss at the level of the individual was further compounded by large scale loss of tribal lands to huge government projects such as the Dumbur Hydroelectric project, where an estimated 5000 to 8000 families lost their holdings with only a small percentage of them possessing title deeds to prove ownership for the sake of rehabilitation. The pauperisation of Dumbur's once prosperous tribal peasantry contrasted with the huge benefits that Bengali urban dwellers gained by electricity and Bengali fishermen gained by being able to fish in the large reservoir. This was not lost on a generation of angry tribal youth who took up arms and left for the jungles to fight an administration they felt was only working in the interests of the Bengali refugees alone. Insurgent leader Bijoy Kumar Hrangkhawl, now back to mainstream politics after his TNV returned to normal life following an accord in 1988, used to refer to Nripen Chakrabarty as the 'refugee chief minister' of Tripura.

Catchment of resentment

The heartburn over steady land loss on a one-to-one basis was further exacerbated by the submergence of huge swathes of arable lands owned by the tribals in the Raima Valley as a result of the commissioning of the Gumti hydel project in south Tripura.  This project not only disturbed the fragile ecology of the Raima Valley, but also introduced a permanent sense of loss into the tribal psyche. All tribal organisations including the Communist-backed Gana Mukti Parishad fiercely protested the commissioning of the Gumti hydro-electric project in 1976. But the Congress government crushed the protests. The project was determined to augment Tripura's deficit power supply but it ended up augmenting the catchment area of tribal unrest by dispossessing thousands of them of their only economic resource and collective symbol — their land.

A 30 metre high gravity dam was constructed across the river Gumti about 3.5 kilometres upstream of Tirthamukh in south Tripura district for generating 8.6 megawatts of power from an installed capacity of 10 MW. The dam submerged a valley area of 46 sq km. This was one of the most fertile valleys in an otherwise hilly state, where arable flatlands suitable for wet rice agriculture are extremely limited. Official records suggest 2558 families were ousted from the Gumti project area – these were families who could produce land deeds and were officially owners of the land they were ousted from. Unofficial estimates varied between 8000 to 10,000 families or about 60 to 70 thousand tribes-people displaced.

In the tribal societies of the Northeast, ownership of land is rarely personal and the system of recording land deeds against individual names is a recent phenomenon. Most of those ousted by the Dumbur failed to get any rehabilitation grant and were forced to settle in the hills around the project, returning to slash-and-burn agriculture called jhum. The present Left government has recently announced that all Dumbur ousted, wherever they are, will be covered under the 'Kutir Jyoti' electrification programme. A list of 500 Dumbur ousted families was supplied to the Power Department, which has provided electricity connections to 114 families under the Kutir Jyoti programme. But what these families need more than free electricity is arable land and resources to earn a livelihood.

The dam destroyed the once surplus tribal peasant economy of the state. Tripura's leading economist Malabika Dasgupta has shown in her study on the Gumti hydel project that "attempts either to protect the environment to the exclusion of considerations for the well being of the people or to improve their level of well being without consideration for the environmental impact of such policies can neither protect the environment nor improve the standard of living of the people".

The Gumti, Tripura's principal river, is formed by the confluence of two small rivers, Raima and Sarma, the former flowing out of the Longtharai range, the latter originating from the Atharamura range. Prior to the dam, the river Gumti flowed southwards through a gorge in the Atharamura range, beyond the confluence point of the Raima and Sarma. It spilled over a series of rapids which were locally known as the Dumbur falls at the point of Tirthamukh (literally 'pilgrim's point'), a place considered holy by the tribals as well as the Bengali settlers, who would bathe in the river during the pious Sankranti every winter.  Beyond Tirthamukh, the Gumti flows westwards up to Malbassa village and then changes direction again, cutting through the Deotamura range. After crossing the Deotamura, it flows for another 60 kilometres before it enters Bangladesh. After flowing about 80 kilometres through eastern Bangladesh, it joins the Meghna river which flows into the Bay of Bengal.

The upper catchment of the Gumti comprises of 11 Gaon Sabhas – nearly 60 villages in all – in the Gandacherra block of Tripura's newly formed Dhalai district. The upper reaches of the catchment area is steep and hilly, but as it flows towards Tirthamukh it is flanked by small flat-topped hills locally called tillas with many lungas or lowlands between them. As the river comes down to Tirthamukh, the Gumti waters huge flatlands all the way along its course into Bangladesh. Before the commissioning of the hydel project, the upper catchments supported a small population of tribals. The small Bengali population practised wet-rice cultivation around Boloungbassa and Raima and some were into trading while the tribals, originally almost all slash-and-burn agriculturists called jhumias, had began to settle down to wet-rice cultivation, having learnt it from the Bengali farmers. The Kings of Tripura had settled some Bengali farmers even in such remote areas to encourage tribals to pick up wet-rice cultivation and abandon jhum, which is ecologically damaging.

Before the dam, the hills around the present project area were sparsely populated and the area was almost wholly under dense forest cover supporting wildlife. The Tripura Gazetteer of 1975 talked of sighting 'large herds of Indian elephants in the Raima-Sarma region along with some tigers and bears in the dense forests'. Dasgupta writes that the area "was an abode of deers, bears, wild boars, tigers, elephants and a wide variety jungle cats". The region was rich in flora and fauna.

However, after the hydel project was commissioned, not only did almost half of the tribal families displaced by the Dam move into the hills in the river's upper catchment area, but the roads built to first transport construction material and then to support the Hydel project opened up the rich forests of the area to illegal logging. The surplus-producing tribal peasantry were not only angry for having lost their rich flatlands and lungas – they were forced to revert back to slash-and-burn jhum cultivation that has caused irreparable damage to the ecology of the upper Gumti catchment. Illegal logging by businessmen backed by politicians has further damaged the ecology. During two extensive trips into the Gumti valley in 1985 and 1998, this writer found extensive felling of trees and no presence of forest guards.

The tribal insurgents of the National Liberation Front of Tripura, or the NLFT, have not banned tree felling, as has been done by some rebel groups in the Northeast such as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Instead, NLFT has encouraged it. In large parts of the Gumti valley upstream of Tirthamukh, tribal villagers report that the insurgents have allowed loggers to operate freely so long as they made their payments. In fact, relatives of some insurgent leaders were in the business, entering partnership deals with the Bengali-owned saw mills of Amarpur, Udaipur and Sonamura. Thus, the tribal insurgents who had capitalised on the community's anger at the large scale displacement in Gumti were now collaborating with the most exploitative segments of the settler society.

The present ethnic conflict that pits the Bengali settlers against the indigenous tribes-people in Tripura has much to do with the large scale land alienation of tribals because land is seen not only as the prime economic resource in a rather backward pre-capitalist agrarian society like Tripura but also as the symbol of the 'ethnic space'. Secondly, the psychological pressure felt by the tribes-people has been further aggravated by the Dumbur hydel project which, in one stroke, has contributed the most to the ongoing process of land alienation. The project has caused huge damage not only to the ecology of the Raima-Sarma valley but also to inter-community relations in the state. Finally, it is this writer's contention that this white elephant project should be decommissioned to make way for large scale land reclamation that can be used to resettle landless tribes-people in a major gesture of undoing injustice.

Decommission the dam!
The Gumti hydel project must be decommissioned for four reasons:
Firstly, the Gumti hydel project is now producing not more than seven MW of power even in the peak monsoon season. The state government claims that by investing INR 11.8 million, it has been able to restore the output to the original installed capacity of 10 MW. It also says that while the running cost of the project is around INR 30 million per annum, it rakes in nearly INR 210 million through sale of electricity. Officials in the Tripura power department describe the project as "very profitable". But experts say the siltation levels would continue to increase unless the reservoir can be dredged, there can in fact be no increase in output. The power production from Gumti is expected to diminish progressively.

Secondly, with huge natural gas reserves now discovered in Tripura and major gas thermal power projects in the pipeline (including one with the capacity to generate 500 MW against the state's current peak demand of 125 MW), it is wasteful to invest in the Gumti hydel project. If the state can produce three times more electricity than it now uses, there is a strong case for decommissioning a dam, a process that would free a huge area for other pressing needs. An ideal power strategy for Tripura would be to produce around 500-600 MW of electricity, feed half of that into the Northeastern Grid, use 150 to 200 MW within the state keeping in mind the rising demand, and sell the balance of 100 MW to Bangladesh. This has been the suggestion of PK Chatterji former chairman of the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO). In the long run, as Bangladesh augments its own power capacity, the surplus Tripura power could be used locally in the event of major industrialisation or fed into the regional grid for neighbouring perpetually power deficient states such as Mizoram which lack the gas reserves of Tripura.

Thirdly, since  more than 45 sq km can be reclaimed from under water if the Gumti hydel project is decommissioned, huge fertile tracts of flatland would be opened up for farming and resettlement of the landless tribal peasantry. The fertility of this land – already good before inundation — is likely to increase after so many years siltation. At least 30,000 tribal families, perhaps the whole of the state's landless population, can be gainfully resettled on this fertile tract. Before the dam the area's fertility was a talking point in the state. Tripura is a food deficit state, and turning this valley into a modern agrarian zone would also help in solving the state's food problems.

During resettlement, each family can be given at least one hectare of prime agricultural land – thrice the average land holding size in Tripura. The problem of tribal land alienation would thus be tackled realistically. Solution of the deep seated conflict between the tribals and Bengalis needs both symbols and substance – and this gesture would provide both. Never before has a development project been dismantled to preserve the interests of the indigenous peoples. A white elephant project would thus be decommissioned in view of its potential to solve the problem of tribal landlessness.

Fourthly, if the entire or almost the entire tribal landless population can be gainfully resettled in the Gumti project area, this would free the hilly forest regions in the upper catchment of human pressure. Since most of the landless tribals practise jhum, it is essential to settle this entire population in wet plains in Gumti. The hills cannot take the high pressure of human settlements, while the plains can. So, from the ecological viewpoint as well, the resettlement of the landless tribals of Tripura in the Gumti project area would be a welcome initiative. The state's forest cover, now receding, would improve; degraded forests would be reclaimed for nature, and plantations would be developed where possible. A word of caution: the area likely to be reclaimed in Gumti project area should be used only for resettling tribal landless – a compact  area in keeping with Maharaja Bir Bikram's tribal reserve concept.

Empty stomachs, angry minds
The Gumti decommissioning proposal should be implemented before ethnic polarisation between Bengali settlers and indigenous tribes-people snowballs beyond control. The state is still ruled by the CPI (M)-led Left Front, a left-of-centre coalition which has support both amongst Bengalis and tribes-people. Tribal parties and militant groups will support the dam's decommissioning, and Bengali extremist groups have not yet emerged to resist it. A political dialogue can be initiated to create the proper climate for decommissioning and the creation of an alternative economy for Tripura.

Even the security agencies stand to benefit from this settlement – a happily settled tribal population, easily 'monitored', is less of a headache for the police than if it is spread out over a huge hill region with a poor economy that creates empty stomachs and angry minds. Otherwise the incidence of insurgent violence in Tripura, very considerable for such a tiny state, would be hard to control. According to police statistics, more than 3000 people including 158 schoolteachers were kidnapped and 1697 people (including security personnel) were killed in the decade between 1993 and 2003. The trend of violence has accelerated in the last year.

One would argue that the Bengalis can buy peace through the process of ethnic reconciliation that the decommissioning of the Dumbur hydel project and redistribution of the lands reclaimed can start off. The root cause of the tribal insurgency would have been addressed. The tribal peasantry can be substantially empowered through this relocation of priorities. If the dam goes, some Bengali fishermen in the area will feel the loss of the Dumbur Lake (as the Gumti reservoir is popularly known), but the rehabilitation of a few families would not pose an insurmountable hurdle. In the larger interest of ethnic reconciliation in Tripura, the dam ought to go.

Tribal insurgency in Tripura, now largely criminalised, must be fought relentlessly. The tribal population must be reminded that the insurgents never address grassroots development issues such as land. Till now, they have focused only on power-sharing or resorted to mafia-style extortions. The insurgents have not sought strategies for the empowerment of the tribal peasantry.  In one stroke, decommissioning the dam would change the face of Tripura and hold out hope for many communities and regions elsewhere on India and Southasia.

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