News & Events
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1.Simmering Northeast: Centre must constitute a new boundary commission to resolve the region’s internal border disputes
The extraordinary and frightening spectacle of police forces of two states of the Union of India training guns on each other, causing deaths and injuries – as happened between Assam and Mizoram – should tell the Centre that business-as-usual approaches to long-simmering inter-state conflicts won’t do. Some elements of this dispute seem as ugly as one between two aggressive countries. Assam says Mizoram police fired on Assam cops with light machine guns. Mizoram counters Assam police overran a police duty post in its territory. Origins of this particular fight seem to lie in claims over roads and forest land. But the bigger picture is even more worrying – this is just the latest in a series of inter-state border issues between Assam and its neighbouring Northeast states. Given how sensitive NE is, India simply can’t afford these flashpoints getting worse. To put it simply – China will be watching these fights with relish.
At the heart of these disputes is not just ‘discrepancies’ between constitutionally-set boundaries and those perceived to be historical boundaries. Economic competition for land, engendered by lack of non-farm jobs across NE, is the primary cause. Mizoram CM Zoramthanga unwittingly acknowledged this when he recently suggested that large tracts deemed to be within Assam’s constitutional boundary have been used by Mizos for a century, while Dispur’s claims over these areas result from population pressure due to influx of migrants into Assam’s Barak Valley. Many NE-focussed central schemes are running. The principal criterion for their success should be their ability to attract job-creating investment.
But, and this shows how serious intra-NE state border conflicts can become, the Centre also must offer a political solution. Asking states to solve this between themselves is an idea whose time has gone. The Constitution’s mechanisms for addressing inter-state disputes include activating an Inter-State Council (Article 263) or asking the Supreme Court to adjudicate (Article 131). Commissions headed by formidable ex-judges like MC Mahajan and YV Chandrachud haven’t found acceptance in the past. In 2006, SC ordered a three-member Local Commission headed by a retired SC judge to demarcate all the boundaries between Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal, and then attempted mediation between 2010 and 2013 – all to no avail.
But such attempts remain the best bet. A timebound court-monitored commission involving local communities in joint demarcation exercises should be announced. Politically, with many NDA governments in NE, this exercise will at least not fall at the first hurdle.
2.Tap it for India: Puri’s tap water is safe to drink. When will the rest of the country get there?
Well done, Puri – Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik has declared it to be the first Indian city to get 24×7 safe drinking water on tap. Think about this, rest of India – it’s 2021, but piped water isn’t universally available, and tap water isn’t potable in most of the country. The result of this failure is a public health scandal. As Niti Aayog’s 2019 composite water management index noted, India’s per person disease burden due to unsafe water and sanitation is 12 times higher than Sri Lanka’s and 40 times higher than China’s. Water-borne diseases like diarrhoea are a leading killer here.
What is promising though is that supply of drinking water has finally become a political priority. Other than state governments like BJD’s in Odisha and AAP’s in Delhi, it is being pursued by the Centre in mission mode since 2019, when the jal shakti ministry was formed. Some states have seen major progress. In Bihar households with tap connections have swelled from around 2% to 86%. Water minister GS Shekhawat says three states with the worst numbers that worry him are UP, West Bengal and Rajasthan. Performance here needs to be pulled up, not only for that jump in GDP that drinking water availability promises but to protect millions from completely preventable diseases.
Installing pipes is only one part of the challenge of supplying safe drinking water. In Odisha for example, attention is paid not just to surface water but also groundwater, checking whether the source is a health hazard and calls for purification. Just because it ‘looks’ clean doesn’t mean it’s safe. In Puri, the government says it will ensure stringent quality control. Reliable and real-time monitoring of water quality is as important as its supply. That’s how people will trust the tap enough to drink directly from it.
3.Assam-Mizoram: A constitutional breakdown
The bloodiest-ever incident between the two states was the culmination of the discontent that had been simmering since October 2020 over incidents of violence and Assam’s residents blocking NH-306, the lifeline to Mizoram, for 12 days
On Monday, Assam and Mizoram clashed over a disputed boundary. Five policemen and one civilian (all from Assam) were killed and nearly 50 others were injured. The bloodiest-ever incident between the two states was the culmination of the discontent that had been simmering since October 2020 over incidents of violence and Assam’s residents blocking NH-306, the lifeline to Mizoram, for 12 days. While Assam claims Mizoram has encroached on its boundary, Mizoram maintains the area belongs to the state.
Mizoram has accused Assam police personnel of entering its territory, indulging in violence, and claimed that it only retaliated after tear gas canisters and grenades were hurled by Assam’s security forces. Assam has blamed Mizoram of breaching existing agreements and status quo on the border, and accused the Mizoram police of firing on its security forces and civilians using light machine guns. A violent clash of this nature between two Indian states represents a constitutional breakdown. And the fact that the clash played out on Twitter, with chief ministers (CMs) of both states sparring and urging home minister Amit Shah to intervene, represents a political and institutional failure. Incidentally, Mr Shah had met the CMs of all Northeastern states over the weekend in Shillong where long pending inter-state border disputes were discussed.
Mizoram’s border dispute with Assam goes back to 1972 when the former was first carved out as a Union Territory (it became a state in 1987). Assam also has border disputes with Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. With states in the region either ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments or, as in the case of Mizoram, by constituents of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a BJP-led political platform of anti-Congress parties, there were expectations that border issues would get resolved. Instead, the situation appears to have become worse. Monday must serve as a wake-up call for the Centre as well as states in the region.
4.Dangerous conflagration: On Assam-Mizoram border clash
The clash between Assam and Mizoram’s police forces was clearly avoidable
Following a dangerous and avoidable escalation of an otherwise dormant border dispute, five policemen and a civilian from Assam were killed in the Mizo border town of Vairengte in clashes between police from the State and their counterparts in Mizoram, on Monday. The sequence of events, beginning October 2020, suggests that what began as skirmishes between residents close to the disputed border between Assam’s Cachar and Mizoram’s Kolasib districts has snowballed into a violent confrontation between police and residents. The events point to a failure of the constitutional machinery, empowered to de-escalate tensions at the border. The presence of central paramilitary forces should have helped maintain the peace, but it is curiously not the case. Besides, Assam and Mizoram are governed by the BJP and its ally, the Mizo National Front, respectively, and are part of North-East Democratic Alliance, of which the Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, is a founder-convenor. The political bonhomie should have allowed the respective Chief Ministers to tamp down border tensions and to return to the status quo through joint fact-finding teams, involving the administrative officials in maintaining the peace over the border issue. Instead, both Chief Ministers have been exchanging allegations on Twitter, seeking the intervention of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and using videos to tell a story that suited their version of the events — a farcical means of communication. This also occurred just days after both Chief Ministers (along with others) met with Mr. Shah to discuss the resolution of inter-State border disputes. The unfortunate loss of lives has led to hardened stances, with Mr. Sarma announcing that Assam would deploy “4,000 commandos to guard its border”, even as Mizoram’s Chief Minister Zoramthanga has maintained that the casualties followed from the Assam police’s actions.
Sectarian tribalism has been the bane of the North-eastern States, with underdevelopment acting as a catalyst in complicating knotty issues over land and other issues in the region. There is no sure-shot and quick solution possible to the border disputes between various States without a spirit of give and take and a civic engagement brokered by the Union government. But for that to happen, governments should, first, not condone violence of any kind and restrain partisans engaging in such activity in their respective States. A resort to one-upmanship will only prolong the disputes and harden stances. The Home Ministry must ensure that the Assam-Mizoram border situation is first subject to de-escalation and steps taken to return to the status quo that prevailed before the skirmishes began in October 2020 with the cooperation of the respective States.