Picturesque Arunachal Pradesh in India’s north-eastern corner, blessed with perennial rivers and a generous forest cover, is sometimes referred to as the country’s potential powerhouse. But it is struggling to cope with its own electricity demands as its people live with hours of outages. And there is little likelihood that the electricity situation will improve anytime soon.

The state government, led by Chief Minister Nabam Tuki, has been seeking support from the central government and forums such as the European Union as well as agencies like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for hydropower projects. But there has been little movement.

The state is currently deficit in power. It buys from the national grid and uses diesel generators. India’s Central Electricity Authority (CEA) says Arunachal Pradesh has the potential to generate 49,126 MW per year from the 89 hydroelectric projects (HEPs) proposed in the state. Though this is installed capacity and actual generation would be far lower – especially in the lean months before spring snow melt and the monsoon – so many hydroelectricity projects would make Arunachal Pradesh a big power provider to the national grid. With major rivers Kameng, Subansiri, Dihang/Dibang, Siang and Lohit all joining to form the Brahmaputra, engineers consider Arunachal Pradesh perfect for hydropower generation.

Developers from the public and private sectors rushed to the state in the wake of the CEA study, and many projects were started without all mandatory permissions, mainly those that were supposed to deal with damages to the environment. Now permissions have been held up, and most projects have stalled.

Mini hydroelectricity projects have sprung to the rescue. The state’s departments of hydropower and power have so far developed 33.21 MW from 53 mini hydro projects.  Besides, other mini HEPs under the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) are also underway – Ranganadi (405 MW), Kameng (600 MW) and 37 other mini projects with a target of 58.99 MW.

While mega projects will take years to take off, given the layers of approval required and the financial crunch, the state, it appears, will have to manage with its existing mini projects.

If mega power projects were to be approved, experts point out, a huge amount of forest cover, agriculture and dwelling lands will have to be compromised, and along with it flora and fauna. Besides the ecological disturbances, there are also the long-term implications on the socio-cultural fabric of the state.

In this scenario, mini projects can contribute towards the protection of the environment and also resolve some of the socio and political tensions arising out of proposed mega projects– intra and inter community ties, interstate relations, centre-state and international relations.

Still, working on multiple tracks to solve its power woes, the government is lobbying hard to ensure that the mega projects get off the ground. In October this year, Chief Minister Nabam Tuki again approached New Delhi and pressed for an early solution to the many stalled projects.

Earlier in the year, as India’s economy hit a low and the rupee plumbed new depths against the US dollar (crossing Rs. 68 to the dollar in August), Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had said in the lower house of parliament that stalled mega development projects should  be given a go-ahead. This, he believes, is one way to revive the economy.

A meeting of all chief ministers of the states in the northeast – Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura and Sikkim besides Arunachal Pradesh – will be held in January 2014 to review infrastructure in the region.

This is good news for Tuki, who has been trying hard for funds to continue with the ongoing proposals for several infrastructure projects, including HEPs.

The many hurdles

In November last year, Tuki had requested Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene to facilitate the scope of externally aided funding of development projects in the state through organisations like the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank.

He met the prime minister and also wrote to him, pointing out that Arunachal Pradesh had submitted infrastructure development projects for funding to ADB but due to certain hurdles these had not yet seen light of day. He requested the prime minister personally intervene to clear these hurdles so the state can also benefit from international funding agencies like other states.

China had reportedly objected to the flood management project in Arunachal Pradesh in 2009 under ADB’s Country Partnership Strategy for 2009-12. Though there is no clear reason coming from China, the main objection was on the ground that the project falls under a disputed area.

Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China, is a bone of contention between the two countries with Beijing laying territorial claims on it and New Delhi contesting that claim.

In July 2009, then external affairs minister S.M. Krishna had said in the upper house of parliament that the Chinese objection to the project in Arunachal Pradesh was a violation of ADB’s charter that bars it from evaluating a project on non-economic criteria. According to Krishna, “China’s objection on political grounds is a clear violation of the ADB’s charter which prohibits the Bank from evaluating any proposal on grounds other than economic.” But ADB still backed out. China is the third largest shareholder in the ADB, after the US and Japan. It has a share of 6.54% in the organisation.

In October this year, when Manmohan Singh visited China, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on strengthening cooperation on transboundary rivers. However, there was no mention of grants or funds for hydro projects.

Current status of mega projects

Of the major hydroelectricity projects planned, the Dihang/Dibang basin will have 29 projects with an installed capacity of 22,489 MW, Subansiri 22 with a capacity of 15,191 MW, Kameng 29 with a capacity of 4,637 MW, Lohit seven with a capacity of 6,669 MW and Siang two projects with a capacity of 140 MW.

ne india dam mapPromoters of most of these projects have now reapplied for revalidation of the Terms of Reference, since these have expired. These include the Talong Londa in the Kameng basin and Lower Siang projects. These big projects have a long way to go even if they are cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi over strong objections by environmentalists and local residents. The ministry has asked the state government for a review and re-assessment of environment impact assessments and environment management plans.

As just one example of how these projects were started and how they have stalled, the 3,000 MW Dibang multipurpose hydroelectric project got site clearance in 2004 but the mandatory public hearing before the promoters were even supposed to apply for environmental clearance was conducted only in 2013. The environment ministry has now asked for a reassessment and re-evaluation of the flora and fauna and other socio-ecological impacts. It observed that a huge area of forest land would be submerged and noted its reservation on forest clearances. The reassessment has not been submitted to the ministry yet.

Many of the project developers have chosen to lobby the state government, the central power ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office against the decision of the environment ministry, instead of submitting reassessments.

The debate on mega projects is not new, neither is the struggle for power in the state and the rest of the country. While the wrangles continue, mini projects in Arunachal Pradesh have stepped in to bridge the gap between demand and supply – and give people of the state some respite from their power woes.

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