For the past three decades, the Lotha Naga people in the state of Nagaland in north-east India have been struggling against the state-owned giant Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd (ONGC), which has been exploring and extracting oil and gas from their land. The struggle is a fight against the company’s violation of their right to control and manage their natural resources, and against the complicity of both the Government of Nagaland and the Government of India. In the process, the community exposed ONGC’s attempts to morally and financially corrupt individuals within the community in order to manoeuvre around the community’s assertion of their right over oil resources, which stood as a hindrance to the company’s designs.
As the Lotha Nagas have considered the reality of millions of tonnes of oil underneath their lands, the demands of the community have evolved. Today, the issue at hand is not only determining who owns natural resources, as it was at the initial days of the struggle, but also building a framework for resource management based on the community’s rights over these resources.
Asserting Lotha Nagas’ right over oil resources
In 1973, ONGC  acquired a Petroleum Exploration License (PEL) from India’s Ministry of Petroleum to explore oil and natural gas in the villages of Changpang and Tsorri, located in Wokha district in the state of Nagaland. These villages are inhabited by Lothas, a tribe of the Naga indigenous people. The Schuppen belt, which passes through Lotha territory, has an estimated reserve of 110 million barrels of high-quality oil, with a recoverable reserve of approximately 1,600 barrels per day. ONCG began extracting from a huge reserve in March 1981, after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the State Government of Nagaland. However, irregularities in the process that led to the extraction soon emerged.
In 1991, the Changpang Land Owners’ Union (CLOU), which included the two villages’ residents, was registered with the State Government of Nagaland. The CLOU raised concerns over the fact that the State Government had issued a PEL to ONGC without obtaining free, prior and informed consent of the community, as per national and international laws on the rights of indigenous people. ONGC never signed a MoU or a lease agreement with CLOU, the Changpang Village Council or the Lotha Hoho (the highest parliamentary body for the tribe) and no Petroleum Mining Lease (PML) was issued, even though this is legally required. According to the CLOU, the license was therefore illegal.
CLOU exposed the profit-sharing arrangement of the MoU between the State Government of Nagaland and ONGC, which they felt was unfair to the community. CLOU argued that the compensation was inadequate since their land and natural resources were totally destroyed by the exploratory works and cultivation could not be practised on the sites any more. CLOU asked for 20% of the royalty collected by the State Government to be shared with the community, instead of the meagre 2% provided by the MoU.
As neither ONGC nor the State Government responded to CLOU’s complaints, the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) intervened and organised protest rallies and general strikes in the State, expressing their concern over the illegal extraction of oil and natural gas from Nagaland in general and the Changpang-Tissor area in particular.
NSF exposed ONGC for over-exploiting the resources it had been given access to. The four-year PEL provided for a limited extraction of 18,000 litres of oil and 25 cubic meters of natural gas per day, as samples for experimental purposes. The license did not allow additional extraction or commercial exploitation. However, a mismatch between estimates of exploitation post-1981 provided by ONGC and the estimates of the Department of Geology and Mining strongly suggest that ONGC has extracted far in excess of the agreed limit, without proper consent and knowledge of the people. The NSF denounced ONGC’s breach of agreement as a theft of Nagas’ national property that caused loss of revenue to the people, and a violation of Nagas’ right to own, control and manage their natural resources. NSF demanded that the PEL be cancelled and illegal extraction of petroleum in Nagaland be stopped.
After continued protests by numerous groups, work came to a halt in May 1994 and, the same year, the State Government withdrew ONGC’s permission to exploit oil and natural gas in the State.
Peoples’ right over natural resources as a community right
Close to a decade after ONGC’s PEL was withdrawn, discussion over reopening oil exploitation in Nagaland heated up again. The State Government of Nagaland is consistently in budgetary deficit as not enough revenues are generated in the State, and it depends on the Government of India for running its activities. The Government of India has put pressure on the State Government of Nagaland to create revenues from the abundant natural resources available in the State. The Nagaland State Human Development Report 2004 clearly expresses that for the State to develop, its natural resources have to be harnessed, and the most promising resource is the Schuppen belt’s oil. On its side, ONGC has kept the pressure on the State Government to ensure it recovers access to this abundant oil reserve.
In 2001, a fresh PEL was issued to ONGC by the Ministry of Petroleum, without the consent or a MoU with the landowners. Seismic surveys began. Negotiations with the villagers were restarted by the State Government, but remained unsuccessful. In 2006, landowners on whose land ONGC had set up rigs for the exploration of oil and natural gas formed the All Lotha Resource Management Cooperative of Changpang (ALRMCC) in order to start the process afresh. In the light of the past exploitation by ONGC, the cooperative approached oil company Spice Resources Management for exploitation of oil in the villages. ALRMCC obtained a mining lease from the Changpang Village Council for 25 years, along with a no objection certificate, issued on 2 October 2006.
However, neither the Lotha Hoho nor the Naga Hoho was informed or involved in the agreement or the creation of the ALMRCC and soon raised objections. The Lotha Students’ Union exposed the process by which the chairman of Changpang Village Council, claiming extraordinary circumstances, passed the order granting permission for oil production activities to ALRMCC. Allegations surfaced of the chairman taking bribes from the oil company, leading to his suspension by the State Government of Nagaland. On its side, the State Government refused to allow Spice Resources Management any toehold in the state’s oil sector, in a bid to protect ONGC.
By the end of 2007, following a series of meetings, the Lotha Hoho resolved that as oil is fluid underneath the ground, it does not belong exclusively to the owners of the land through which it is accessed, i.e. where rigs are put, but to the entire community that lives on the land underneath which it has formed. In this context, the role of the Lothas Hoho is to put a system in place which can set a precedent for how the community deals with the State Government and oil companies in similar cases in the future.
However, ONGC still approached CLOU for an agreement. ONGC had engaged Canadian-based oil company Canoro Resources Ltd for fast-paced exploration work in Nagaland . In April 2008, CLOU and Canoro signed an agreement for the exploration of oil in Changpang. The Changpang Village Council strongly opposed the agreement, as it was inked without the knowledge or input of the village council. Regarding the role of ONGC, the DICE Foundation, which has extensively worked on the issue of oil exploration in Nagaland, states:
“Giving individual benefits is a cost-effective strategy of the corporate and this has been the methodology of the ONGC. The ONGC [has targeted] the individuals and alienated the collective. [This] has been exhibited clearly in all their approach for negotiations with the Lothas in particular.”
On 13 January 2009, facing this tense situation, the State Government issued a directive for the suspension of all exploration and production activities of ONGC in the State. By the end of the year, a resolution was passed in the Nagaland Legislative Assembly that had the effect of annulling all previous decisions including the issuing of PELs and PMLs.
The oil spill rehabilitation struggle
A more recent phase in the Lotha Nagas’ assertion of their rights has been centred on a controversy about widespread oil spills from wells earlier operated by ONGC. Villagers allege that when ONGC closed work at the Changpang oil field in 1994, it did not invest enough to ensure the oil well sites were properly secured, and improper and negligent capping led to a spillage. Over the years, oil seeped into the soil, rendering acres of farmland barren, contaminating rivers and streams in the lowland areas and affecting aquatic life. With crude petroleum staining large swathes of the village area, villagers fear devastating fires that would damage property and resources and endanger lives. Villagers’ health has also been affected by the continuous exposure to the oil spill for more than 17 years, causing serious chronic disease, including severe respiratory problems, skin irritation, severe headaches, back pain and dizziness.
The mental health of the villagers has also been affected by the aftermath of the oil spill. While the surface area affected is 133 square kilometres, the pollution in both air and water extends beyond the perimeter of the two villages.
In 2007, a formal complaint was filed with the State Pollution Control Board by Changpang villagers, and government officials inspected and confirmed an extensive leakage of oil from the well sites formerly exploited by ONGC. Since then, several bodies of the State Government raised the issue with ONGC and sought immediate intervention by the company.
ONGC prizes itself for its best-in-class safety and environment protection practices, as well as its community-oriented development programs in the areas where it operates. However, while it admitted to the oil spill, it effectively held the affected villages and the State Government at ransom, setting the condition that the clean-up of the oil leakage will be done only after ONGC is allowed to re-start operations in the area.
The State Government has failed to confront ONGC and force it to intervene and contain further damage to the environment and harm to the villagers. Responding to the state’s inaction, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filled in March 2011 at the Gauhati High Court, on behalf of the affected people of the Chanpang and Tssori villages, and against ONGC, the State of Nagaland, the Union of India and several of their bodies. The PIL states that ONGC has violated the legal and fundamental rights of the people of the area and “be it plant, animal or human life, impacts of oil spill are lethal in nature”. 
In January 2011, a high-level team of Nagaland government officials visited the Wokha district oil fields and interacted with land owners in hopes of resuming oil and gas production. However, the government has not yet taken a clear stand regarding the responsibility of ONGC in the oil spill. In response, the Lothas Student Union has led agitations across the Wokha district questioning whether the government is sincere in its assertion that it will take care of the rights and the health of the people.
In this context, the PIL comes as an assertion that people’s rights cannot be violated with impunity and that the lives and rights of the community have to be respected. In response to the PIL, the Court has directed the government of Nagaland to immediately address health issues resulting from the spill and to treat those who were affected by it. The court has noted that about 7.5 million rupees must be spent on this to ensure sufficient treatment.
Meanwhile, the larger struggle goes on. The debates and issues raised by the Lotha Naga community in the course of their struggle are important for people engaged with questions of indigenous rights and collective ownership of natural resources. The relationship between indigenous communities and the ecosystem they inhabit, and the role of these communities in maintaining the balance of these ecosystems, is recognised internationally. The Lotha Naga struggle shows that the land, and the natural resources within it, has to remain a common property of the community if the community’s positive relationship with the ecosystem is to remain. While natural resources such as water and land have a long history of common ownership and community control, oil does not. This struggle has been marked by the community’s decision to make oil a community-owned resource. However, the magnitude of monetary resources that might flow from oil exploration will bring their own challenges to the community.