At 2PM, sitting on a small stool on the bank of a furious river, Bora is tipsy with the local brew. Tending to customers buying his wares — betel nut, paan, cigarettes etc — he is at his philosophical best: “We are waiting to be destroyed by the deluge. Anyway, who gives a damn?” he spits out his betel juice.
Not everyone is resigned to fate. Keshab Chattradhara, a local youth, is a key activist of the Peoples’ Movement for Subansiri and Brahmaputra Valley, a anti-dam NGO that started work a decade back. “If the dam over the Subansiri breaks, for 54 km, there will be 34 feet high waves that will rage on for 35 minutes, carrying a catastrophic 2,59,000 cubic metres of water every minute.”
And those figures of doom are for just one dam, the 2,000 Megawatt Lower Subansiri hydroelectricity project. A gargantuan network of 168 dams is being built, in various stages of construction, across Arunachal Pradesh. This network is expected to generate 63,328 MW of power.
All this is being done in brazen disregard for environmental and safety norms. For one, in seismic terms, Arunachal Pradesh lies in the Very High Damage Risk Zone, having seen 87 major and minor quakes in 67 years (1929 -1993), besides flash floods and a recent phenomenon of cloudbursts. “We are aware of the concerns. So the government is on to promote hydropower projects as run of river instead of big dams as far as possible,” says Dorjee Khandu, chief minister, Arunachal Pradesh. “Efforts are also on to cause least disturbance to the ecological balance.”
Meanwhile, MOUs have reportedly been signed already for more than 140 dams. Once completed, the projected annual revenue from various hydropower projects in Arunachal would be to the tune of Rs. 7,468 crore by the end of the 13th Plan period.
“The Lower Subansiri project lies on a major fault zone. There is no way a mega dam is feasible here. If this is the manner in which the dam network will be built, we are headed for nothing but a catastrophe,” says Ranju Duarah, who heads the Geo-science division of the Assam-based Regional Research Laboratory.
With 94 per cent of the land area under forests and a low population density of 13 persons per sq km, Arunachal is among India’s most pristine regions. “The local tribal population is 7 lakh only, 4 lakh are outsiders. If 168 projects are set up, at least 5 lakh outsiders will come in. We will get marginalised in our own land and become another Assam or Tripura. This cannot be allowed,” says Ojing Tasing, advisor, All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union. Still at a nascent stage, the Lower Subansiri project has already employed more than 2000 non-local people. “No one is against development. But we do not want this kind of development. It will destroy the heart and soul of Arunachal,” he says.
Khandu refutes: “Such apprehensions are not true. The developers have been directed to use heavy machineries instead of manpower and the required labour force shall be from amongst locals. Labour brought from outside shall have to go back as soon as the projects are completed.”
The green cover in the populated areas is largely due to the traditional shifting cultivation, where the soil is left alone for a certain period to rejuvenate itself. “Such a massive dam network will totally disrupt peoples’ way of life, the culture, demography, and the delicate ecology,” says Tapir Gao, a former Lok Sabha MP. There are questions being raised like the consent of the local communities.
“Not a single strip of land or water body in Arunachal is free. In accordance with traditional laws, local tribes own everything. Now the land is being handed over to private companies by the government without any consultation with the local people,” says Gao.
“The lower Subansiri project was started without a thorough study on the downstream impact. And the story is the same for the entire network of 168 dams. So people downstream are in the panic mode,” says Chattradhara.
In June, an expert committee comprising scientists and researchers had clearly recommended against the construction of dams at the present sites due to environmental, socio-economic and geological concerns. It had also categorically questioned the incorporation of adequate safeguards.
“Brahmaputra is the lifeline of the people of Assam. The entire civilisation is under threat because of these dangerous dams which will curtail normal flow into the river,” says Rahul Loying, a student leader of the Mishing community, a tribe that traditionally inhabits riverine tracts. “The rich flora and fauna downstream will get severely impacted. The rivers bring in a huge quantity of sand. Sand casting, already a huge problem in Assam, will be difficult to control,” says Shashwati Goswami, an activist.
“If the government can scrap the Loharinag Pala dam in Uttarakhand on grounds that Ganges is a holy river, then why not the Lower Demwe dam which is being built just 100 metres away from Parasuram Kunda? It reeks of neo-colonial double standards by New Delhi,” says Akhil Gogoi, an RTI activist and a peasant leader.
Besides being one of the holiest shrines for the Assamese, Parasuram Kunda is also considered the birthplace of the local Deuri tribe. Floodplain households whose mainstay is agriculture, will suffer immeasurably. Moreover during dry season, the water flow in the rivers will be very low which might even restrict the movement through river routes. And during summer, the sudden release of excess water from the reservoirs when the rivers are in spate will result in floods. “Besides destroying swaths of prime agricultural land, the dams will rob the livelihood of 39 lakh fishermen. How many jobs can the government give?” asks Gogoi.
“(Negative impact) can be reduced or eliminated by careful planning, and with incorporation of a variety of measures. The key to their environmental and social sustainability is to explore all possible options and consider the entire basin in question,” says IP Barooah, CMD, North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited.
Much like the infamous ‘mining’ MOUs, more than 140 MOUs have already been inked between the Arunachal Pradesh government, public agencies and various companies like Reliance, Jaypee, Jindal, Athena, India Bulls, Bhilwara, etc. A clause in one the bipartite MOU copies that is with HT, absolves either party of any responsibility in any manner for the losses arising out of situations like earthquakes, fire, flood, etc. “This is a very nonsensical and absurd clause. Building mega dams in such a highly earthquake-prone area is a prime reason why this network is being opposed. By no means can they shy away from responsibility. If you are going to profit, you have to take responsibility for the life and property,” says Gumjum Haider, secretary general, Northeast East Students Organisation.
Strong voices of opposition are also coming from across the international border. “The dam network will cause an alarming water deficit as Brahmaputra provides 50 per cent of Bangladesh’s water. It will lead to death of a riverine civilisation and impact more than 150 million people,” says Muhammad Hilaluddin, chief director, Angikar Bangladesh, an NGO taking up the issue in that country. “The sudden bursting of dam reservoirs in the event of earthquake in the upstream hilly areas might create tsunami like catastrophe for the downstream plains. The earthquake prone zone surrounding the dam is a veritable mega water bomb.” Those voices are not very different from that in Gerukamukh on the banks of the Subansiri. As Bora says: “We will be rootless in our own land.”