In a gathering of anti-dam activists in Assam, a small boy of about seven is asked whether he knows why he has come. “Brihot nodi bandhor biruddhe (to protest against mega dams on rivers),” he replies confidently in Assamese.
The issue of the construction of an intricate network of 168 dams, largely mega, in Arunachal Pradesh, has put people there and in Assam in panic mode. Political parties are using it as an election issue ahead of Assam’s assembly elections in March-April 2011, but there is an element of déjà vu for those who have been witness to the heady days of the six-year-long anti-foreigner agitation in the northeastern state.
Not even the vexed issue of insurgency has fired popular imagination as much as the mega dams. As an Arunachali poet puts it, “These massive dams will destroy the heart and soul of Arunachal Pradesh.” To build the Dibang valley project itself, about 32 lakh truckloads of river boulders will have to be removed.
Ignoring local opposition, work is going on at a furious pace at most of these dam sites. Already, experts have pointed out a plethora of environmental, geological, demographic and socio-economic problems the network will cause. But another set of core issues bear close scrutiny.
It is anyone’s guess as to how many trees will be felled and how much virgin forestland will be submerged by the dams in an area described as a biological hotspot. For example, the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project will use up 31,000 bighas of pristine forestland out of which 25,000 bighas will be submerged. The submerged area is a 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.
In 1996, in view of the rapid depletion of fauna and flora, the Supreme Court had imposed a blanket ban on the felling of trees in the region. The ban is now being violated with impunity. In Manipur, 83 lakh trees are to be felled to build the Tipaimukh dam.
Another issue pertains to Memorandums of Understanding with public and private entities for building dams instead of going for competitive and global bidding. Till very recently, any hydroelectric project of more than 200 MW capacity would have invited global bidders. In this case, MoUs are essentially being seen as instruments to block transparency and promote the arbitrary fixing of deals.
The issue of public hearings is another grey area. Visits and interactions made by this correspondent with local people from the affected areas is a pointer to that. In the Lower Subansiri dam project, public hearings were just an eyewash. For the Dibang project, public hearings have been postponed 13 times because of public opposition.
Local activists as well as the public are also apprehensive of the fact that many dams have understated capacities. There seems to be no guarantee that the stated capacities in megawatt terms will not rise in the days to come. If it does, who will monitor that?
New Delhi has already protested China’s damming activity on the Yarlung Tsangpo (as the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet) on grounds of the downstream impact. On November 8, the Chinese government has admitted that work in indeed underway for the 510 MW Zangmu project. Yet riparian rights and issues of downstream impact are conveniently set aside when dissent raises its head in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Bangladesh.
Recently, the Central government has become ‘proactive’ on issue of river dams, passing strictures on a whole slew of projects across mainland India, from Uttaranchal’s Loharinag Pala (on socio-religious grounds) to the Polavaram dam in Andhra Pradesh (on grounds that the mandatory public hearings were not conducted). It would be interesting to see if the same standards are applied to the northeast where there is already a perceived sense of neglect.
Since independence, New Delhi has consistently followed a policy of winning the hearts and minds of the people in the Land of the Seven Sisters and to wean their minds off a history that has more often than not seen the fires of separatism and mindless bloodshed. “If the present thrust to build mega dams continues, mistrust against New Delhi will only grow and the battle for hearts and minds will be lost,” a local sociologist sums up the prevailing public mood.