On September 30, Myanmar's President Thein Sein surprised many by stopping the construction of the $3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric project. In the midst of a transition towards democracy, the move can be seen as the final gambit to win the hearts and minds of his people, even though it has angered China. The project is a collaborative effort between Myanmar and the China Power Investment Corporation, a State-owned entity. An upset China has already called for talks over the decision.
The dam, which was being built near the confluence of two rivers and the source of the Irrawaddy, would have displaced more than 15,000 people across 60 villages in the Kachin State in north Myanmar. Fearing ecological, social and economic consequences, the green lobby has long been warning against the building of the dam. The Kachins have been fighting the Myanmar government for years and, therefore, the announcement seems to be an effort to earn their goodwill.
Not very far away from Myitsone, a similar situation exists in India's North-east where people are fighting against a proposed network of 168, largely mega, hydropower projects. In terms of seismicity, the North-east is one of the six most active regions of the world and has witnessed 18 massive earthquakes in the last century. Placed in the most-vulnerable zone 5, it lies at the intersection of the Himalayan arc and the Burmese arc.
Experts have warned of environmental, geological, demographic and socio-economic problems. For example, the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project, where work is going on despite opposition, will use 31,000 bighas of forestland out of which 25,000 bighas will be submerged. The submerged area is the meeting point of the jungle tracts of Assam's Subansiri, Kakoi and Dulung reserved forests with Arunachal's Tale valley sanctuary and the Tale and Panir reserved forests. The submergence of forestland will happen despite a 1996 Supreme Court ban on tree felling in the region.
Or let's take another example: the 3,000 MW multipurpose Dibang Valley project where the public consultations are slated to start from October 28. To build the project, about 32 lakh truckloads of river boulders will be removed. According to a recent Environment Impact Assessment, cumulative operation of the 2,700 MW Lower Siang, 3,000 MW Dibang and 1,750 MW Demwe Lower project will result in a 12-feet daily fluctuation in water levels in winter in the downstream Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam. An average relatively uniform flow of approximately 1,920 cumecs in January at the tri-junction of Siang, Dibang and Lohit where the Brahmaputra is formed, will fluctuate between 663 cumecs for 21 hours and 7,610 cumecs for 3 hours. This will have devastating ecological and social impacts downstream.
Public opinion be damned seems to be the government's mantra for a region long neglected by New Delhi. Then there is also a ploy on part of vested interests to raise the Maoist bogey - that opposition to the dams has been engineered by Maoist sympathisers.
The government will do well to recall former environment minister Jairam Ramesh's letter to the PM on September 16, 2010. After holding a public consultation in Guwahati, Ramesh wrote that some of the concerns cannot be dismissed and that there is a feeling that mainland India is exploiting the North-east hydel resources for its benefit, while the costs of this exploitation will be borne by the people of the North-east.
There are several parallels between the dam network in the North-east and the Myitsone project. The question is: can India do for its people in the North-east what Myanmar has done in the Kachin State?