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Sanjoy Hazarika is a columnist, author, filmmaker, Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair at the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.

Insurgents are a taxing burden on the Northeast

Armed groups impose ‘taxes’ on the people but give nothing in return.

Leaders of various Naga groups raise hands at the Naga Reconciliation Meeting in Dimapur in February. PTI

nsurgency and conflict are big business. In fact, entire books, plays, films and PhDs as well as government programmes have been developed around the business of war and conflict. Organisations study the Economies of War.

Organizations which fight government sometimes set up taxation and fund raising systems of their own. In return, they offer either a rough form of justice and distributive system or a sophisticated one as was seen in Sri Lanka under the Raj of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, where every person, business, establishment, school, college and government employee was documented and assessed for his or her tax paying capacity.

In the Northeast, most of the "ugs" or underground militant groups employ a taxation system that is at times not just unfair but usurious for they give nothing in return, in terms of basic services like water, electricity or roads, barring ensuring that the person paying or his family does not get harmed or targeted by their group in some way. There's no guarantee of that either. The problem is that there is such a proliferation of armed groups and government officials and business often pay to two or more such organisations.

A tax structure instituted by the underground has existed in parts of the Northeast for decades, particularly in Nagaland and Manipur, but also in Assam and parts of Meghalaya and Tripura. This takes different forms and slabs: but in Nagaland officials are expected to shell out up to 25% of their annual incomes. There is a not so subtle irony here: the "tribal" states like Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya as well as the hills of Manipur are not taxed by the Government of India. But they pay far heavier rates to the illegal and informal system devised by armed groups, although this is not working as well in Assam as before because of the diminishing of these very groups.

But there's still a gold mine of revenue to be had if new business ventures open up. If anything, the entrepreneurial abilities of leaders of these armed groups are to be seen to be believed. If they had turned these skills to legal use, the benefits to them and the region would have been enormous. A courageous young IAS officer who is posted to the northern Assam industrial district of Tinsukia (arguably the richest district in the state because of oil, gas, tea and local businesses) has torn the veil from state collusion as well as the involvement of armed groups in massive illegal coal extraction.

At least three insurgent groups, one of which is in negotiations with the Centre, another which has a ceasefire and a third which is bitterly opposed to Delhi, are involved in illegal sale of coal from Tinsukia and in Arunachal's Changlang district. They operate through local contractors and are virtually "stealing" from Coal India leasehold areas "mines and depots", says S.S. Meenakshi Sundaram, the Deputy Commissioner of Tinsukia in a detailed report. Low grade quality coal is sold at the rate of high quality coal, enabling those involved to make huge profits.

Night cloaks the illegal movement of goods.

The groups involved are the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) which has a ceasefire with Delhi but has a tie-up with the Paresh Barua faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom, which, despite diminishing numbers, is opposed to India. A late entrant is the rival NSCN (I-M) and Sundaram says he is worried about a turf war erupting.

Despite the gravity of the situation, Coal India employs only unarmed home guards at its sites instead of the Central Industrial Security Force, which is trained for the safety of industrial complexes.

The Centre and the two states must take swift, coherent, cohesive and combined action. If public resources are not for plunder, they must show their seriousness to breaking the nexus between armed groups, the coal mafia and corrupt officials. A decade-old turf problem between the Naga groups in Changlang has been allowed to fester thanks to the connivance and short-sightedness of state and Central governments; now the poison from the wound is seeping across borders.

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