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Not this North-east policy

Big dam projects are rolling into north-east states like Sikkim and Arunachal. And it’s not the anti-development traditionalists who are opposing them, but the youth who want a thriving economy, writes Neeraj Vagholikar.

india Updated: Aug 27, 2007 23:52 IST

As we celebrate 60 years of India’s independence, a section of youth from north-east India are challenging the vision of ‘development’ being sold to them by the central and state governments. Since June 21, 2007, the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) are on a satyagraha against a plan to build 27 large hydroelectric projects in Sikkim. Among the many concerns are the serious ecological impacts on the fragile and sacred Khangchendzonga landscape, including the Teesta river and the socio-cultural impacts due to the influx of large labour populations, particularly on the vulnerable Lepcha tribal community. Sikkimese youth from around the world have been writing proactively on the internet (weepingsikkim.blogspot.com) expressing their concerns. The protest has also received support from the Budhhist lamas (monks) of Sikkim who have been offering prayers for the well-being of the satyagrahis and the natural landscape they consider sacred.

In many development debates around the country, we often hear that while the older generation is resisting forms of development that uproot them from their cultural roots, the youth are more amenable to sacrifice their cultural and natural heritage in their quest for short-term gains. Current examples such as those in Sikkim tell another story.

Further east, Arunachal Pradesh is experiencing a similar phenomenon. Since May 2007, student groups across the state have been up in arms against plans to build a staggering number of 104 large dams in the state to produce over 55,000 MW of electricity. The state is a biodiversity hotspot and home to tribal communities that have been given constitutional and legal protection, particularly with respect to their land rights and restricted entry of outsiders. While Arunachal is considered ‘underdeveloped’ and the youth are certainly keen for economic activity and its associated livelihood opportunities, they are clearly worried about the sudden spurt of mega-dams proposed in this ecologically and geologically fragile, seismically active and culturally sensitive landscape.

For example, the Dibang Valley in Arunachal is home to the Idu Mishmi tribe with a population of only about 12,000 people and is in the news as 13 large hydroelectric projects are planned for the area. The All Idu Mishmi Students Union (AIMSU) has been raising serious concerns about the proposed developments and holding awareness meetings in the region. A major concern is the socio-cultural upheaval due to the influx of large labour populations from outside for long periods for the construction of these projects.

The Dibang Valley also contains some of the last large contiguous tracts of tropical, sub-tropical and temperate forests in India and is home to several rare species of flora and fauna. The cumulative environmental and social impacts of 13 large projects in the Dibang Valley has got the students worried.

“These mega dams are not the development we want,” says Tone Mikrow, a mechanical engineer and General Secretary of AIMSU. “We cannot allow such massive destruction of our rivers and submergence of our lands, which are intricately connected with our identity. Development activities need to keep in mind the absorption capacity of the region. We would rather go in for a few small hydropower projects which are relatively benign — they will involve small dams on some of the tributaries, minor influx of outside labour and will be finished in short periods. This can help us set up small-scale enterprises like horticulture processing bases, giving an impetus to the local economy and providing local employment.”

Two sentences used by AIMSU in its awareness posters against the mega-dams in the Dibang valley raise very basic questions that India at 60 cannot ignore: ‘Don’t violate fundamental rights under the guise of development’ and 'Economic development can never be a goal in itself.’ Will New Delhi listen to these people?

Neeraj Vagholikar is a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group.