April 17, 2014
The Tipaimukh hydroelectricity project in India’s north-eastern state of Manipur – being planned by India for about four decades and being opposed by Bangladesh for almost as many – may be stalled once more by political compulsions in both countries. Environmentalists are rejoicing.
General elections are due in both Bangladesh and India in a few months. Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina is already battling charges that she is too pro-Indian, even when India is not responding positively to her overtures. In this situation, she is unlikely to push for or even agree to a project that has been opposed by environmentalists and farmers in Bangladesh for many years.
India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh tried to overcome this opposition by offering Bangladesh a stake in the Tipaimukh project this July. Unfortunately for him, the offer came just a few days after the Forest Advisory Committee, in his own government’s Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoE&F), rejected the proposal to declassify reserved forest land for the project.
Since then, political opposition in India has forced the government to shelve a land border agreement and Teesta river water sharing agreement with Bangladesh. Bureaucrats in New Delhi say this also means any chance of an agreement on the Tipaimukh project in the near future has become very slim indeed.
The Tipaimukh project is about building a 163-metre-high dam on the Barak river about 225 kilometres upstream of the point where it flows into Bangladesh from India. The project – in Churachandpur district in the southern part of the state of Manipur – is meant to control floods in Assam’s Barak valley and to generate 1,500 megawatts.
The project was conceptualised in June 1972, at the very first meeting of the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission in New Delhi, just a few months after Bangladesh became independent. The Tipaimukh site – about 500 metres downstream of the point where the Tuivai river from Mizoram flows into the Barak – was identified in 1974.
The project has been mired in controversy from the very beginning. Environmentalists in India opposed it because the reservoir that would form behind the dam would submerge 25,822 hectares of forests. Their counterparts in Bangladesh opposed it because they feared a reduction in the water flow in the Barak. Farmers in Bangladesh opposed it because they use the banks of the rivers downstream to grow a variety of rice – Boro – that depends on seasonal flooding every monsoon. They were afraid that if the dam was built, the floodplains where they grow this rice would dry out.
Environmentalist in India and farmers in Bangladesh unite in opposition
Apart from these worries, there was the question of cost. In 1984, India’s Central Water Commission estimated that the project would cost Rs 1,078 crore (US$169 million). In 2008, Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN) – one of the public sector undertakings supposed to carry out the project – estimated the cost would be Rs 9,211 crore (US$1.44 billion), well over eight times the original estimate. The Manipur state government’s estimate is Rs 5,885 crore (US$921 million).
The state government’s count of the number of trees that will be felled or drowned by the reservoir comes to over 8.2 million. It has estimated that the compensatory planting of trees that is mandatory in such situations will require 51,644 hectares, and that will cost an estimated Rs 131 crore (US$20.5 million). None of the original three project estimates includes this cost.
The state government says 2,027 residents of 12 villages will be displaced by the project, but it also has the potential to employ 826 of them. The rehabilitation costs have been included in their project estimates, according to state government officials in the Manipur capital Imphal. However, the funding for the project has not been finalized yet, they add.
SJVN was originally supposed to partner North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) to carry out the project. But in 2009, NEEPCO was replaced by National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), for reasons that have not yet been made public. On October 22, 2011, NHPC and SJVN signed an agreement with the Manipur state government to build and run the project.
Work on the project, however, started long ago, well before all permissions were in place. In November 2006, the state government wrote to MoE&F, seeking declassification of reserved forest land. The letter said all state government departments that had to approve the project had done so. It also said that though the land earmarked for submergence was classified as reserved forest, in practice it was used for shifting cultivation, that it did not have any significant wildlife, and that it was anyway being overrun by an invasive bamboo species, Melocanna baccifera, locally known as Muli bamboo. Nor did the area have any special socio-cultural or religious significance, the state government wrote.
When MoE&F’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) first discussed the project in 2007, its members said the state government had merely forwarded reports of various departments without any recommendation of its own. These reports could not be accepted as a sign of approval, the members felt.
Dubious environmental impact assessment shuts out public participation
They looked at the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report and found no mention of the date and place of a public hearing on the project, which is mandatory. The members doubted reports that biodiversity in these forests were economically insignificant. They were also surprised by reports that local residents had voluntarily left the proposed site to pave way for the project.
The committee members found that the water quality study done by the state pollution control board had been based on 1990 data and had not followed directions given by the committee. The EIA report, they found, neither classified nor listed the flora that were now in the area proposed to be submerged.
Though the entire Himalayas are an earthquake-prone region, there was no study of the seismicity of the site. In this high-rainfall area, the members were surprised by the rainfall records of the past ten years – they thought the figures were far too low.
There was one mention that 172 fish species would be affected, of which 23 were indigenous, but no mention of whether there would be any attempt to safeguard them.
Given this situation, the FAC sent the application back to the Manipur government, asked it to make the corrections necessary, and apply again. The matter has been going back and forth since that 2007 meeting, with the latest being the FAC’s refusal this July to declassify land reserved for forests.
The many apprehensions about the project from Bangladesh were summed up by prime minister’s foreign affairs advisor Gowher Rizvi in a December 2011 article in Dhaka’s Daily Star. He wrote that the Tipaimukh project would adversely impact the environment, economy and security of Bangladesh and that in the debate, experts had been pushed aside by those who were not so well-informed but had strong views.
India assures downstream neighbour, but blocks joint initiatives
Pointing out that the Barak was a transboundary river, Rizvi wrote that by current international practices, interests of the lower riparian country Bangladesh had to be taken into account. In the article, Rizvi was confident that ultimately India would not take any action over the Tipaimukh project that would hurt the interests of Bangladesh. The Indian government has given the same assurance to Khaleda Zia, the main opposition leader in Bangladesh.
Rizvi recommended that environmental groups and experts in India and Bangladesh should study the Tipaimukh project jointly. This suggestion has been made a number of times, but access of Bangladeshi experts to the project site has been repeatedly blocked by Indian authorities on security grounds.
The Tipaimukh project is now on hold, though the FAC decision is a halt on declassification of forest land, not on the entire project as such. The committee members have in fact asked for a revised plan where the forest area to be used for the project could be minimized, and so could the socio-environmental impact.
Clearly, the last word on the Tipaimukh project has not been written.
Ninglun Hanghal is a journalist with the Manipuri publication The Sangai Express