A recent move to allow exploration of oil and natural gas in Nagaland raised concern among local groups. So much so that rebel outfit NSCN(I-M) issued a diktat saying it would allow any such move until “honourable political settlement” of the decades-old Naga political issue is reached.
Earlier, the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG), an umbrella body of nearly half-a-dozen outfits including the NSCN(I-M), had expressed resentment after Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio and his Assam counterpart Himanta Biswa Sarma agreed in principle on April 22 for oil and gas exploration in the disputed border areas between the two states. The two leaders were of the view that both states will benefit from this.
Under fire, the state government has now decided not to go ahead with signing any MoU with Assam on oil exploration before a final consultation is held with stakeholders and tribal bodies, deputy chief minister Y Patton told reporters.
Nagaland is estimated to have 600 million tonnes of oil and natural gas reserves, according to experts. In the 1970s, the state-owned ONGC acquired a licence to explore oil and natural gas in Wokha district, following which 29 oil wells were drilled. However, protests backed by the rebels, who claimed that the central PSU did not have the right to extract natural resources that belonged to the Nagas, had stalled any further move in the 1990s.
Article 371A of the Indian Constitution that applies to Nagaland has a special provision. It says “no Act of Parliament in respect of… ownership and transfer of land and its resources shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides”. Citing this constitutional provision, local communities claim they have undisputed rights over natural resources including oil and gas.
There’s a backstory – after ONGC abandoned oil exploration in 1994, the Nagaland government took over the oil fields. Subsequently, the state framed its own policy, Nagaland Petroleum and Natural Gas (NPNG) Regulations in 2012, and handed over the oil fields to a private entity. But the matter reached court after the Lotha Hoho, the apex body of Lotha tribe of Nagaland, filed a petition against the state government’s move.
The tribal body claims that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Neiphiu Rio government in 2018 for an amendment to NPNG, following which the former had withdrawn its PIL from the Kohima Bench of the Gauhati High Court.
Irked by Rio’s agreement with Assam CM, the Lotha Hoho threatened to revive the PIL if the state government did not revoke the move. “We fail to understand why the Nagaland chief minister is bypassing stakeholders and showing ‘so much confidence’ in Assam’s chief minister Dr Himanta Sarma… The MoU that was signed between the state govt and Lotha Hoho is a legal document, and the Lotha Hoho can revive the PIL at any time, as enshrined in the MoU,” the tribal outfit said in a statement as quoted by local media.