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'How much will you exploit?’

india Updated: Sep 25, 2010 22:50 IST

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Activist Medha Patkar spoke to Sanjib Kr Baruah on what the dam network in Arunachal would mean.

It is said hydropower is renewable, non-polluting and environment-friendly. Why the opposition on just these grounds?
India generates 25 per cent of energy from hydro electricity, but it is not necessarily clean and cheap as claimed. It doesn’t make the air look black like in the case of thermal energy. But it pollutes the river, the environment, destroys prime agrarian land. There are displacements and loss of livelihood of the people living in these areas. Upstream and downstream impacts take place only after the projects become fait accompli. There are forests destroyed and a huge toll on land. The other issue is that there are no proper cost benefit analyses. And in the Northeast, there are questions on seismic vulnerability also.
India has about 5, 000 large dams and till date, not a single large dam has been checked even once by the Planning Commission. Moreover the promised benefits never seem to be reaching the tail end of the community spectrum.

You have come back from a visit to some of the dam sites in the Northeast. How do you read the ground level situation?
In the proposed projects, there are no viable stakes for the affected people. On top of that, there has been no consultation with local communities. Community consent is very important and crucial. This is not being done in the Northeast. Only the riparian state governments have been consulted, but what about the people? It is a classic case of the industrial economy benefiting at the cost of the agrarian economy.
Moreover, how much of power does the Northeast need? A maximum of 6,000 MW. So the rest — out of the total planned 63,328 MW — will be transported to mainland India. How much power will you exploit from one particular region and at what cost? This is exploitative and amounts to internal colonisation. Local populations always should have the first right to resources. You cannot compel them to bear the cost.
And now a very powerful grassroots movement is building which has activists, peasants, lawyers, students, scientists, in a single fold that is raising pertinent questions. Not much space has been given in the national media on this as the Northeast is on the political periphery.

So how do you reconcile with the country’s developmental needs?
The issue is not power but energy. All other modes need to be explored. It is time for really renewable sources like solar, tidal waves, biomass or even micro dams. For instance, gobar gas has the potential of generating 20,000 MW in India. How have we tried to exploit it? On the other hand, USA has not built a single large dam since 1994 because of a moratorium.
Our environment impact assessment mechanism is also making fundamental procedural mistakes. Are we taking transmission and distribution losses into account, as the power in the Northeast will be brought to the mainland? There should be a thoroughly comprehensive cost-benefit study.

It has been pointed that a dam network in the Northeast is of strategic importance vis a vis China?
How can that be? China is upstream for most of our rivers. On the contrary, we should be raising issues over China’s plan to build dams across the Brahmaputra as river basins have far reaching national and international linkages.

If these 168 dams do take off, what do you visualise in the future?
In the Northeast, the downstream impact will be immense. Already the region is disturbed with insurgencies, illegal immigration, etc. The dam network will add a host of problems to the already existing ones. Rivers will die out, the fragile environment will be in ruins, natural resources-based communities will be destroyed, many livelihoods will disappear. There will be no end to it all really.