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Stop putting up the sluice gates

Despite being a poll issue, Assam is reluctant to assess the downstream impact of hydropower projects. Neeraj Vagholikar writes.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2011 12:30 IST
Neeraj Vagholikar

One of the important issues in the run-up to the just-concluded elections in Assam has been the individual and cumulative downstream impacts of over 100 large hydropower projects proposed in upstream Arunachal Pradesh on the Brahmaputra floodplain - the lifeline of Assam. In spite of being debated, the issue found no mention in the Congress' manifesto. The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a major peasants' movement in the state, has castigated the party for ignoring an issue that impacts the lives and livelihood of millions of people.

Some of the concerns raised include loss of fisheries, changes in wetland ecology in the flood plains, impact on agriculture on riverine islands and tracts, incre-ased flood vulnerability due to boulder extraction from riverbeds for dam construction and sudden water releases from reservoirs in the monsoons, dam safety and associated risks in this geologically fragile and seismically-active region, drastic daily flow fluctuations due to power generation patterns and disruption of intricate socio-cultural linkages of indigenous communities with the river.

While Opposition pressure ensured that a House Committee of the Assam Legislative Assembly was set up to investigate the issue, the state has been hostile to democratic protests, often alleging that these are backed by Maoists. Priv-ate and public sector players have signed at least 135 MoUs for hydroelectric projects with the government of Arunachal Pradesh in the Brahmaputra basin, each agreement accompanied by huge upfront premiums paid before Detailed Project Reports are completed and mandatory public hearings are held.

It was expected that the public hearings would help democratise the decision-making but that has not been the case as every single project is assumed to be a fait accompli. Let us take the case of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydr-oelectric project on the Assam-Arun-achal Pradesh border. One of the prominent inhabitants of the Subansiri valley in Assam is the Mising tribe. The environmental and social impact assessments presented at the public hearing did not have even a single mention of the impact on the Mising community. Repe-ated requests by locals to re-conduct the public hearing based on credible impact assessment studies were ignored and the project given the green signal. Later, post-clearance impact assessment studies were commissioned even as construction continued.

After a sustained movement by downstream communities, both the central and the state governments have acknowledged the need for individual and cumulative downstream impact assessment of the hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh. But there has been no word on public hearings in downstream Assam for upcoming projects in Arunachal Pradesh on rivers like Lohit, Dibang and Siang. Official papers related to projects such as the 1,750 MW Lower Demwe (Lohit), 3,000 MW Dibang Multipurpose and 2,700 Lower Siang acknowledges that these dams will impact flow patterns in downstream Assam. Ironically, the state government has not felt the need to take up the demand for public hearings with the Centre.

(Neeraj Vagholikar is a member of Kalpavriksh, an environmental action group. The views expressed by the author are personal.)