Oil row: Nagaland stands up to Veerappa Moily

Esha Roy Posted online: Wednesday, Dec 25, 2013 at 0000 hrs
Over the past seven months, Nagaland and the Centre have been at loggerheads over the right to explore and excavate oil and natural gas there. Senior Naga leaders believe the issue could derail an already tottering dialogue between the NSCNs and the government.

The state has been citing Article 371 A, which gives it a special status similar to that enjoyed by Jammu and Kashmir. It states, “Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, no Act of Parliament in respect of religious or social practices of the Nagas, Naga customary law and procedure, administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, 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.”

The petroleum ministry, on the other hand, has been citing the Mines and Minerals Regulation and Development Act, 1957, which brings oil and gas excavation and the awarding of blocks under the purview of the Centre. The Nagaland government insists the special status means land and all its resources, including oil and gas, belong to the state exclusively.

Flash point

Petroleum Minister M Veerappa Moily wrote to the Nagaland government this year asking it to withdraw the Nagaland Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulations and Rules, notified on December 7 last year. The notification had followed a July 2010 resolution passed unanimously in the assembly: “All previous actions and decisions on oil exploration in the state of Nagaland are treated as cancelled and new modalities be framed by the state.” By the time the union minister’s letter came, Nagaland had invited expressions of interest for oil and gas exploration; by now, it has shortlisted seven companies.

Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio told The Indian Express he feels the letter is the result of pressure from oil lobbies losing out in the bidding. ONGC was in Nagaland from 1982 to 1994, said T R Zeliang, Nagaland’s mining minister, who met Moily in July to explain the state’s position. He told The Indian Express ONGC wound up operations in Nagaland following an agitation led by the Naga Students’ Union.

In 2009, Nagaland set up a cabinet subcommittee to look into Article 371 A in the context of oil resources. After the assembly resolution, the government sent a copy to the ministry.

Interpreting 371 A

In March 2011, an unstarred question was raised in the Lok Sabha on the ownership of oil and gas resources. Then MoS for petroleum R P N Singh replied, “...The Nagaland Assembly on July 26, 2010, passed a resolution [that] in respect of ownership and transfer of land and its resources including mineral oil, no Act of Parliament shall apply to the state, which shall make appropriate rules to apply and enforce within the state... Ministry of Law and Justice is of the opinion that the term ‘land and its resources’ in Article 371 A would include mineral oil and their resources and the State of Nagaland would have the power to frame its own laws...’’

Following the invitation of expressions of interest, Moily wrote to Rio on June 13, 2013, saying his ministry had consulted the home ministry and that Article 371 A “does not confer legislative power” to Nagaland “for regulation and development of mineral oil”. Moily wrote the Nagaland regulations “lack constitutional validity’’ and that the matter has “serious constitutional and economic implications”. He asked the Nagaland government to withdraw the notification and rescind the new rules. He wrote again on November 21. Moily could not be reached for comment.

Nagaland has stuck to its guns. “We have decided the companies that have paid the permit fee will go ahead and nothing will be cancelled. The ministry has been making contradictory statements. We are not asking for permission from anyone. We don’t need to,” said Zeliang.

The seven shortlisted companies are Metropolitan Oil and Gas Pvt Ltd, Kaashivishweshvara Minerals Pvt Ltd, Sila Energy Holdings Pvt Ltd, Deep Industries, Linkson and Sons, Jubilant and Assam Oil.

‘Castastrophic’

Naga People’s Front general secretary K G Kenye calls the Centre’s attitude a “political accident of catastrophic proportions”. “At a time when the Naga people have begun accepting their belonging to the Indian state and the insurgent movement has been petering out, if India behaves like this, then will we have a choice but to go underground once again and take up arms?” says Kenye.

‘Why will underground groups deal with Delhi if it can’t honour agreements?’

Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio in conversation with Esha Roy

On how he intends to respond to the petroleum ministry’s letter asking Nagaland to withdraw a December notification inviting expressions of interest for oil exploration:

“I held a meeting with my ministers and senior officials on December 7 and we have decided not to rescind any of our notifications, as well as go ahead with the process of awarding works to companies so far shortlisted. We have not replied to the petroleum minister’s letter yet [Rio spoke to The Indian Express on December 12] but will do so very soon. The minister has called our legislation unconstitutional. This is incorrect, what we have done is entirely within the ambit of the Constitution and in keeping with Article 371 A which confers upon the state of Nagaland special status.”

On the pressure from the ministry:

“Why has the Union petroleum ministry woken up now, just as we are about to actually award works to the companies that we have shortlisted? Why was there no objection when the rules were framed and when they were informed of it last year? The ministry’s attitude is in contravention of Article 371 A of the Constitution.’’

On the implications of the dispute:

“This is a very very big issue in Nagaland, and we Nagas are very sensitive about it. The Indian government is trying to work out a solution with underground groups to bring the Indo-Naga conflict to a final resolution. But why will the underground groups, or even the rest of the Naga people, enter into an agreement with the Indian government if the government is incapable of even honouring the first 16-point agreement of 1960?” [The agreement spelt out Nagaland’s status within the Union of India].

On Article 371 A:

“Legal experts [consulted by the government both within the state and outside] have made the matter very clear. We have no option but to strictly go by the constitutional provision in Article 371 A, which gives special status to the state of Nagaland — and which means that no Act of Parliament is applicable to us unless we pass it in the state assembly, and also that the ownership of land and its resources lies entirely with Nagaland and its people.”

On Nagaland’s objectives:

“We are of course prepared to talk to the Government of India and resolve the issue as early as possible. But we cannot continue to be poor like this [he calls Nagaland “wholly reliant on the Centre” and believes that the possibility of oil excavation will end that dependence] and not utilise our resources.”