Civil society is up in arms over plans to turn north-east India into a hydroelectric powerhouse. But a lack of data on ecological and cultural impacts is stalling the debate, writes Teresa Rehman.

A new “powerhouse” is emerging in the frontier state of Arunachal Pradesh, north-eastern India. Public and private companies have proposed 168 massive dams, to produce 57,000 megawatts of hydropower, in this strategically important region, which borders Myanmar in the east, Bhutan in the west and China in the north.

There is big money involved. Arunachal Pradesh amassed 168.7 crore Indian rupees (nearly US$34 million) from hydroelectric projects’ processing fees and developer premiums alone in the year 2010 to 2011. Apart from the micro hydroelectric projects, mega-schemes have been planned on the five major river basins of the state, Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, Dibang and Lohit.

All of these dams are proposed for the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh and in Assam, the next state downstream. The Brahmaputra – known as the Yarlung Zangbo in Tibet, where it originates, and the Jamuna in Bangladesh – is one of the world’s largest rivers. Together with the Barak River, it ties together much of north-eastern India, a region known for its flora, fauna and cultural diversity.

The issue of big dams in north-east India is getting more complex every day. Resentment against the projects has already led to a series of agitations, mostly in Assam. The epicentre of the controversy now is the Lower Subansiri Dam, a 2,000 megawatt hydroelectric project being built by the state-owned National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC). The project is located in Gerukamukh on the lower reaches of the Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and is the largest dam in India now under construction.

But, since December 16 last year, work on the project has been almost at a standstill, thanks to opposition, led in Assam by a farmers’ organisation called Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS). The protesters say the dam will affect the flow of water on the Brahmaputra, which will impact irrigation downstream, and increase the danger of sudden floods in an area that is already highly flood-prone. The protesters have clashed with the police many times. On one occasion, the police opened fire, injuring many protesters.

Dissent is also growing over the proposed 1,750-megawatt Demwe Lower Hydroelectric Project, positioned barely 800 metres from Parsuram Kund, a sacred Hindu site on the Lohit River in Arunachal Pradesh. Reports say the 13,000-crore rupee (US$2.6 billion) project will likely involve the felling of more than 43,000 trees and threaten endangered wildlife species including the Bengal Florican and the Ganges River Dolphin.

Discord over the dam has triggered animated debates on television and in public forums; protests; motorcycle rallies; road blockades; and even violence. Activists hold that engineers and technocrats alone cannot determine all aspects of the impact of dams on people downstream. They argue the authorities must also involve social scientists, who will understand how the identity of certain ethnic communities will be lost forever if they are uprooted from their homelands.

Ethnic minority communities like the Lepchas of Sikkim and Idu Mishmis of Arunachal Pradesh have expressed apprehension about the multiple mega-dam projects on their native soil. But at the same time, some of the 20-odd major tribes in Arunachal Pradesh have supported the dams. Environmentalists say that the support is coming from tribes with a stake in the state’s ruling Congress party, while those who would be displaced by the dams are from smaller tribes, with fewer votes.

Raju Mimi, a young activist from the Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, explained how his community of around 12,000 has been protesting against construction of the 3,000-megawatt Dibang hydroelectric project in the Lower Dibang Valley: “The whole dam-building process has been going on without taking the people into confidence or their participation. Most of the local people are dependent on agriculture and are not ready for such big dam projects. They will be further marginalised culturally, economically and politically.” Mimi also said that powerful tribes have been promised money or other benefits from the projects and see them as a route to power and riches.

The NGO Forum for Siang Dialogue has been leading the movement against the 2,700-megawatt Lower Siang Dam in Arunachal Pradesh and a 10,000-megawatt dam on the Upper Siang. (The Yarlung Zangbo is called the Siang as it enters Arunachal Pradesh from China; it becomes the Brahmaputra further downstream.) The forum’s spokesperson Vijay Taram said: “In the belts inhabited by the Adi tribe [which has a population of over 150,000], 43 massive dams are coming up. We are on the verge of being annihilated by all these developmental activities. Our language, forest, rivers, culture, tradition and identity will perish.

“This land belonged to our forefathers and today we are being asked to vacate our land. The compensation offered is also meagre – just 1.5 lakh rupees [US$3,000] per hectare.” He added that their village elders have repeatedly pleaded for the Siang to be able to “flow of its free will”. The forum supports construction of small dams.

The proposed dam sites are ecological hotspots. Wildlife biologist Firoz Ahmed said: “A dam kills the river and its ecosystem over a period of time, putting at risk all flora, fauna as well as human beings. Wildlife species like the river dolphins, elephants and tigers will be affected.” Fish and other species in the rivers are also likely to be drastically impacted by the flow regime, which will artificially change the river flow in line with electricity-generation needs.

Developers point out that each hydro project was approved by the state and federal governments only after a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Under the law, open consultations with affected people – called public hearings – are supposed to be integral to an EIA. Activists and local residents argue that these public hearings were not held in a transparent or inclusive manner.

There is little sign so far that either the state authorities or India’s central government is going to agree with the opponents of the dams. Apart from the hydroelectric potential of these projects, security analysts in India point out another reason why they would like the dams to be built. Medha Bisht of the influential think-tank the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses wrote recently, “The urgency of dam building in Arunachal Pradesh on the part of the Indian government can also be gauged from the strategic importance that water rights have for states sharing trans-boundary rivers. Diversion of the Brahmaputra by China has received much attention in the past few months. The spate of dam building in Arunachal Pradesh therefore has to be situated in this broad context of establishing ‘prior use’ on Brahmaputra waters.”

There is serious concern in India that the Chinese government is planning to divert the waters of the river to the parched regions of northern China. This is the western route of the South-North Water Transfer Project, which Beijing says it has dropped because it is not feasible. But alarm bells ring loudly in India every time someone in China says something in support of the diversion plan, and the Chinese government is repeatedly forced to deny that there is any such plan. According to the authorities in Beijing, there is only one hydroelectric project being built on the Yarlung Zangbo before it crosses into India, and that is a “run of the river” project which does not involve holding back water behind a dam. The unease in India persists despite these assurances, and those researching the subject say it will be better for everyone if China and India enter into a transparent and fair water-sharing pact on the Brahmaputra.

One major problem surrounding any debate over the dams is lack of data. “Very little scientific information and documentation on which a good debate can be held is available,” said Partha Jyoti Das, senior scientist at the NGO Aaranyak, who has been studying the Brahmaputra basin and local dam projects. There is little data in the public domain on seasonal changes in the current water flow in the various rivers, let alone how that flow will be affected by the dams. Similarly, lack of data makes it difficult to accurately predict the effects of the dams on the ecosystem.

There are also serious data gaps when it comes to the lifestyles of the many tribes and communities who live in this part of India. Right now, these gaps are being used by project supporters to describe the criticisms as “mere emotional outbursts”. But in future, such gaps can become major obstacles in the process of rehabilitating people displaced by the dams.

Apart from the committed supporters and opponents of the dams, public opinion in north-eastern India is veering in favour of a consensus based on scientific opinion. But both physical and social scientists are working in largely uncharted waters. There is an immediate need to study the hydrology, ecology and society of the entire Brahmaputra basin in far more detail than has been done to date.

Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Assam, north-east India.

Homepage image from International Rivers

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