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Internally Displaced Persons in India's North-East

Most internally displaced persons in the north-east are victims of environmental degradation, skewed development processes and ethnic conflicts. Though technically they are citizens of the country, empirically they are refugees, and their exact numbers are still to be estimated. Their deplorable condition in the camps and general neglect suggests that the state is not bothered.

Internally Displaced Personsin India’s North-East

Most internally displaced persons in the north-east are victims of environmental degradation, skewed development processes and ethnic conflicts. Though technically they are citizens of the country, empirically they are refugees, and their exact numbers are still to be estimated. Their deplorable condition in the camps and general neglect suggests that the state is not bothered.


nternally displaced persons (henceforth IDPs) and refugees remain the most marginalised and excluded of all social groups. The IDPs’ status is very similar, to that of refugees except to become a refugee one must cross an international border whereas an IDP does not usually cross the border of her country. Technically, an IDP is a citizen but empirically s/he is a refugee in his own country. Both the groups lack a voice of their own, and many a times they remain invisible. By and large, they remain outside the public “consciousness” or “imagination”, experiencing a high degree of alienation, marginalisation and exclusion from the larger society. Hence, they deserve attention from the state and the civil society.

North-east India is a very distinct civilisational, geographical, socio-economic, cultural and political entity in India. As a result of distorted environmental, socioeconomic and political transformation, the entire region has experienced massive internal displacement of its population. Perhaps this region has generated the highest number of IDPs in India. The citizen-IDP ratio in north-east India is indeed very high. It is, of course, very difficult to ascertain the exact number of IDPs in the region. However, we must point out explicitly that we find all three categories of IDPs, i e, environment, conflict and development-induced, in all the seven states of north-east India. The people of these states have suffered immensely from the degraded environment, brutality of state-sponsored development and fear of violence caused by political conflicts for space and identity.

Degradation and Ethnic Conflicts

As a result of continuous environmental degradation, flood and river-bank erosion in the plains as well as landslides in the hills have become endemic. This has caused innumerable deaths, destruction and population displacement. The intensity of flood, river-bank erosion and landslide has increased substantially over the years in terms of area and victims claimed. It would be pertinent to point out that the plight of displaced people due to the river-bank erosion, is much more severe than that of the victims of flood. The victims of flood at least can go back to their original land once floodwaters recede. However, the people displaced due to river-bank erosion cannot go back to their land. Because, their land has become a part of river’s new/extended bed. It is not only the mighty river Brahmaputra but also the innumerable small- and medium-sized rivers that are also causing havoc in the plains of Assam, i e, theBrahmaputravalley and the Barak valley.

North-east has remained an economically blocked and underdeveloped region in India despite being rich in terms of natural resources. Whatever development that has taken place in north-east India during the entire post-colonial period under state initiatives has caused massive displacement of population, particularly of the tribals. Even a state like Assam, where the tribals constituting no more than 12 per cent of the population, has experienced the brunt of development-induced displacement the most.

North-east India has remained a politically sensitive and disturbed region since it entered the post-colonial phase of its history. Its perpetual vulnerability to ethnic conflicts and the resultant violence has caused innumerable deaths and massive displacement of population in the region. Unfortunately, the question of conflictinduced IDPs does not find any place in the agenda for building peace and conflict resolution in the north-east. Here, the benefits of any state-sponsored rehabilitation package go first to the insurgents/ ex-insurgents and the criminal elements among the insurgents only. Right to rehabilitation has only been granted to the ex-insurgents, but has been systematically denied to the actual IDPs.

Estimate of IDPs

It is difficult to ascertain the exact number of IDPs in the north-east because even the states do not maintain any proper data on them. Of course, for the state it is difficult to acknowledge the existence of IDPs because it bespeaks of “state failure”. The state is not at all transparent in this regard. Besides, it is extremely difficult if not impossible for the individual scholar or journalist to investigate the situation because of inaccessibility of conflict zones and the people living therein.

It is difficult to estimate the number of IDPs who are victims of environmental degradation, i e, flood, river-bank erosion and landslide, etc. However, it is possible to draw some reasonable conclusions about the enormity of the problem. If we look into last year’s (2004) flood in Assam, it alone affected more than 10 million people; most of them ordinary peasants. Except two hill districts, all the districts of the plains of Assam experienced devastating

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006 flood and river-bank erosion. In an unprecedented flash flood in October 2004 nearly 1,000 people died in Goalpara district. The government provided relief to some of these flood-affected people which was far from adequate. The situation demands proper and scientific assessment, adequate relief and rehabilitation measures. It is not only the flood that pushed the people of Assam into an uncertain future; the riverbank erosion too has affected millions of people. Over the years, environmental insecurity has increased substantially. According to an official report, the river Brahmaputra eroded 4,29,657 hectres of prime agricultural land. Roughly, 7 per cent of the land in the plains has been eroded between 1951 and 2000. This has definitely displaced at least three million peasants. Today, they constitute the most pauperised community in Assam’s plains. In the absence of proper resettlement and rehabilitation policy, most of them have experienced multiple displacements.

In the absence of a proper database, it is difficult to ascertain the number of development-induced IDPs in north-east India. However, we can have a broad idea about the enormity of the problem from the following facts. The Dumber hydroelectric project in Tripura ejected 40,000 people occupying prime agricultural land displacing about 2,00,000 tribal people. The Pagladiya dam project in Assam, if implemented, will displace about 1,50,000 people from their land. Besides, the Kaptai hydroelectric project in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh displaced a large number of tribal chakmas. It too had a severe spillover effect in the north-east. About 40,000 of the Kaptai project affected people were shifted to erstwhile north-east frontier agency (NEFA), now Arunachal Pradesh. Till today, Chakmas now numbering about 80,000 have remained stateless in India, and still await the ever elusive Indian citizenship.

The government of India is now proposing to construct 145 dams of different varieties including mega dams in northeast India. This region is ecologically fragile and vulnerable to high intensity earthquakes. Hence, the people are questioning the very wisdom of such mega dam projects. The Naga, Kuki and Hmar people who are going to be affected by the ongoing Tipaimukh hydroelectric project have vehemently opposed the construction of the dam on their sacred land/site. Similarly, the people of Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts of upper Assam are opposed to the construction of Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project being constructed at a site near Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. This area was affected by a severe earthquake in 1950. People consider it a big threat to their lives and existence. The potential IDPs of the Pagladiya dam project are resisting the construction of the dam. Dams have become a major source of displacement and threat for the future of the entire north-east India. If we combine all the categories of development-induced displacement together with the affected people as a result of urbanisation, it is likely to be a massive three million plus IDPs in the north-east. Significantly, most of the development-induced IDPs, like in the rest of India, are tribal people.

North-east has a large army of conflictinduced IDPs. Though, we do not have exact data, with a fair degree of certainty we can talk about the number of IDPs in Kokrajhar district in lower Assam. Till April 2005, 1,26,263 inmates were living in 38 state-sponsored relief camps in the district. Besides, there are also relief camps in Bongaigaon, Dhubri, Barpeta, Karbi-Anglong, North Cachar and Cachar districts in Assam. At one stage there were more than 2,00,000 IDPs living in the relief camps in Kokrajhar district alone. All these IDPs were victims of the Bodoland movement. Some of these conflict-induced IDPs have been living in the camps for more than a decade now. The government provides only rice to the inmates of the camps for 10 days a month. The IDPs live a dehumanised life in the camp.

Besides, about 40,000 Reang/Bru IDPs are living in state-sponsored relief camps in Assam and Tripura. They were displaced from Mizoram as a result of ethnic conflict there. Besides, about 40,000 Chin refugees who were working in bottomlevel jobs in Mizoram for quite a long time were forced to go back to Myanmar from where they had fled to Mizoram earlier. On the other hand, there are a large number of conflict-induced IDPs in Manipur because of the Naga-Kuki conflict there. The Hmar and Dimasa conflict also has displaced several thousand people in the North Cachar Hill district in Assam. The Karbi and non-Karbi conflict also displaced thousands in the Karbi-Anglong Hill District. Movements against outsiders in Assam and Meghalaya have displaced a large number of people.

Neglect of IDPs

Most IDPs living in camps receive little medical care and their children have neither access to formal education nor to

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

health services. Though some receive food aid, it often arrives sporadically and is insufficient in quantity and nutrition. Within the IDP communities, it is the children and women who suffer most. Throughout the north-east, conditions of the displaced are pathetic and no intergovernmental or international organisations are present. The displaced live in a most degrading way in public buildings and makeshift shelters. They have lost their most precious possessions, i e, the land, home and livelihood. If we look at the IDP issue from the impoverishment risk model developed by Micheal M Cernea, we find that all the IDPs of the north-east suffer from landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalisation, food insecurity, increased morbidity and mortality, loss of access to common property rights, social disarticulation and disintegration.

We must point out that in post-colonial north-east one cannot look into the problem of internal displacement of population only through the category of displacement alone. In many situations, one person may experience the same kind of displacement more than once. Similarly, one may become the victim of environmentally-induced displacement repeatedly and again, the same person may experience conflict-induced displacement in his/ her new place of residence or livelihood. For example, a person displaced by flood or river bank erosion may cross the boundaries of her district or region in search of livelihood, where she may become a victim of conflict-induced displacement. This very often happens in Assam. And the status of “displaced” which is supposed to be a temporary or transitory, becomes permanent where a displaced person waits and struggles to survive in an all-encompassing situation of fear and uncertainty. It seems the displaced people in Assam in most cases experience displacement more than once. It is a serialised and multiplied experience. The displacement being repeatedly reproduced in north-east India in different shapes sizes situations and even space, is now an inseparable part of the post-colonial political economy of India.

Are we in a position to stop or at least reduce the number of IDPs in north-east India? This is a difficult question. Obviously, the ongoing process of perilous environmental injuries, developmental brutalities and sharpening of exclusivist ethnicities and the resultant violence, all have together propelled massive internal displacement of population in the northeast and this will continue with higher degree of intensity in future until and unless we look afresh at the whole gamut of environmental, developmental and political issues involved in the specific context of north-east. The issue of north-eastern IDPs deserves the special attention and care of the larger civil society and the Indian state. To address the IDP issue one requires political will; and it is this that remains the real obstacle to stop avoidable displacement of population anywhere in India, including the north-east. It would be of crucial importance to alter the environmental, developmental and political conditions and processes that generate IDPs in north-east India. Besides, in the absence of a clear-cut IDP regime in India, one can look to the “UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement” in order to address the human/democratic rights of internally displaced persons in the northeast and in India.



Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

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