On 31 January 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone for the 3000 Megawatt (MW) Dibang multi-purpose project in Itanagar. Laying foundation stones is routine for Prime Ministers, but this particular one stood out for all the wrong reasons. For one, the project is to come up not in Itanagar, but near Roing, around 600 kilometres away in the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh.

More serious, the project has not yet secured the mandatory environmental clearances. Ironically, a public hearing on the environmental impact assessment was also scheduled for 31 January, but had to be postponed due to heavy snowfall. The report of the public hearing is supposed to be an important consideration for the Ministry of Environment and Forests in according clearances to a project.

The laying of the foundation stone for a project that is not even legally cleared is an indication of the mood in which the current dam building spree is being pushed, where such niceties as environment and social impacts are considered too trivial to be bothered about, where environmental clearances are mere formalities that do not even deserve lip service. Dam construction plans for hydropower are being especially focused on the North Eastern part of the country, which is being dubbed as the new powerhouse of the nation.

Dams galore

The economically exploitable hydropower potential in India through medium and major schemes has been assessed at 84,044 MW at 60 per cent load factor - that is about 148,000 MW installed capacity. The North and North Eastern regions contain the lion's share of this, with 54,000 and 59,000 MW respectively. Nearly all of this (93 per cent) is as-yet undeveloped capacity, but this potential is also highly concentrated, with 50,000 MW located in Arunachal Pradesh.

In May 2003, the Prime Minister of India launched the 50,000 MW Hydroelectric Initiative to fast track hydropower development in the country. This initiative proposes to bring on line installed capacity of about 50,000 MW through 162 projects in 16 states by 2017. While 72 out of 162 schemes totalling to 31,885 mw are in the Northeast, Arunachal Pradesh alone has 42 schemes with 27,293 mw capacity. Little wonder then, that Arunachal has emerged as the new centre of massive dam building in the country.

As of September 2007, the state had signed 39 Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) to generate 24,471 MW, with both public and private sector developers. These include companies like NHPC, NEEPCO, Reliance Energy, Jayprakash Associates, GMR Energy and several others. To put this in perspective, this capacity that Arunachal wants to add in the next ten years or so, is just less than the total hydropower capacity added in the whole country in 60 years of independence. Unfortunately, as has been the case with much of the dam building in the country, many serious questions have been left unanswered and massive negative impacts have been ignored.

Social and environmental impacts

The World Bank's report on strategic issues for the water sector in India, prepared in 2005, says that the hydropower sites in India's Himalayan region are among the "worlds most environmentally and socially benign sites for hydro power." It is true that due to low population density the numbers of people displaced directly by dam projects in these areas appear to be small. However the social impacts of these projects are likely to be huge. This is because majority of the population consists of tribes with distinct identities and customs, dependent directly on land, forests and rivers for their sustenance.

Take the case of the Subansiri (Lower) project in West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. This 2000 MW project being built by NHPC is supposed to displace only 38 families from two villages. But the impact is likely to be much bigger as the project will adversely affect the natural resource base on which the people in the area depend for agriculture, fishing, and other goods and services. In fact, the full impacts of the dam on the area remain to be assessed, including the impacts on ecology, wildlife, flora and fauna.

Durpai village, near the site of the Subansiri dam.

According to Dure Bui, headman of Durpai village, apart from the two villages directly affected by submergence, many of the rice cultivation plain areas of other villages would also be affected. Moreover, about 4000 hectares of forest is to be taken for the project, most of it to be submerged. This will have serious implications for the villages around the area as some of this area is a part of their jhum (shifting) cultivation cycle, along with a source of many other things. The damming of the river has already adversely impacted fishing, another important component of the community's sustenance base. Material for housing is brought to this area by the people using rafts on the river. This movement has already been disturbed due to the construction activities on the dam and will be permanently blocked when the dam is completed.

The situation in Arunachal is complicated by the fact that rehabilitation or compensation for the loss of resources is not easy as the 'ownership' of land, forests and even rivers is attached to specific clans and tribes. People expressed fear that attempts to resettle one tribe or clan in another's land or forest would lead to tensions between the various communities.

The Subansiri dam is also likely to have serious impacts downstream as it will disrupt the pattern of the natural flows. In particular, the Subansiri valley downstream is filled with wetlands called beels, which are an important source of livelihood and fisheries. These will be seriously impacted. Even further downstream, in the riparian state of Assam too, additional impacts will be felt.

The Ranganadi fiasco

The example of one dam that has already come up in Arunachal Pradesh cannot give the locals much faith in the authorities' other plans. The 405 MW Ranganadi Hydro Electric Project (RHEP) Stage I, commissioned in 2002, is Arunachal's first and so far the only completed large dam project. It involves a dam to divert the flow of one river into the Dikrong river, creating 300 metres of head and generating power. This is how Tana Pinje of village Upper Cher (District Papum Pare), downstream of the RHEP describes its impacts:

"After the completion of the dam, water flows in the river have gone down drastically. Our fish are totally gone. Earlier even outsiders used to come here to fish, now there is no fish even for us. Our fields are also affected badly as the channels we had made to take water to the fields have become dry. Horticulture, which is a very important source of livelihood for our village and includes banana, oranges, pineapple and spices like black pepper, cardamom - has almost finished along the river banks."

The Ranganadi river has been reduced to a trickle downstream of the dam.

Ironically, the village does not suffer only from diminished flows in the river. On several occasions the project releases large quantities of water in the river without any warning, leading to flash flood-like situations. There have been many cases of cattle being washed away and some years back, one person was swept away due to the sudden releases. People are now afraid of going near the river, of allowing their children to play on its banks. "The river we loved is now an object of fear", says one of the villagers, expressing eloquently the changed relationship of the community with the river. When the people complained to North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO, the company that has built the dam), its response was the issuing of a circular on 2nd June 2006 that warned:

"... the gates of Ranganadi diversion dam may require opening from time to time ... all villages, individuals, temporary settlers etc. residing on the banks of river and other nearby areas ... on the downstream of the dam to refrain from going to the river and also to restrict their pet animals too from moving around the river ... the corporation will not take any responsibility for any loss of life of human, pet animals etc. and damage of property and others ..."

Alarmed by this, the people have now formed an association, and have submitted several memorandums and petitions to the authorities, but they have had no response, let alone any compensation for their losses.

Social and cultural marginalisation

One of the biggest impacts of dam construction is likely to be on the culture and identity of the local people. The local population of Arunachal Pradesh consists of about 20 major and several other smaller tribes. These tribes have their distinct identity, language, customs and location. As the total population of these tribes is small in number they are excessively vulnerable to the influx of outsiders that is likely to take place with the construction of such huge infrastructure projects.

Take the case of the Dibang project. Idu-Mishmi is the major tribe in the project area. Its entire population is only 11,021. According to the environment impact assessment report of the project, it is expected that a workforce numbering about 5800 will come into the area from outside. With such a ratio one can well imagine the impact on the local population. It is significant that the Idu-Mishmi tribe and language has been identified as one of the 'endangered languages and locations' of the world by the UNESCO as a part of its Endangered Languages Programme.

Where the work on projects is already on, one can get a distinct sense of outsiders coming in and alienating the locals in their own land. At Gerukamukh, the offices of the NHPC for the Subansiri dam site are surrounded by a high wall fence topped with barbed wires. Locals say that this was all their area but it has been taken over by the company without any compensation to them.

The barbed wire is not only symbolic. The entire world of the project is out of bounds for the locals. While NHPC runs a school inside its barbed wire compound, very close to the village, most of the local children don't get admission to it as they fail to meet the entrance criteria. So they have to go to the school miles away. If local people want to visit the hospital run by the company they have to first go to the police and convince them that they are really ill. Even if they are examined at the hospital, the hospital staff often refuses to give them medicines saying that these are for the project workers and that "you are outsiders."

The barbed wire fence enclosing the NHPC complex at the Subansiri dam site.

But the impact is not only a matter of numbers. For the tribal people, the rivers, the mountains and the forests are very much a part and parcel of their identity and existence. According to a memorandum submitted by Kotige Mena and Ingore Linggi to the chairman of the state pollution control board of Arunachal Pradesh on 29 January 2008:

"The construction of the Talon / Dibang multipurpose project will completely displace our Idu people who are very much dependent on the river as a source of their livelihood. The Idu community's tradition, custom, faith and beliefs are greatly attached to the river Talon / Dibang. The construction of the dam will herald the end of our culture and tradition as the river Talon / Dibang is as sacred to us, as is the river Ganga to the Hindus ... we believe that after death the Igu-myi (1st Order Priest) Sineru carries forward our souls through this river. The hills, the rivers and the mountains are deeply embedded in our ethos. It is the life force of our community. Destruction or endangerment of these will be a threat to the community itself. Development at the cost of culture and tradition is not acceptable to us."

Other issues

These are only some of the key issues related to dam building in Arunachal Pradesh. Many equally important issues remain to be addressed. The state is seismically very active. What does this imply for the safety of the dams and the nearby areas? The young mountains are highly prone to landslides. These can increase siltation in the reservoirs and potentially trigger off massive waves or flash floods.

The insensitivity of the dam building authorities to local customs and culture is also seen in incidents like scheduling the public hearing for the Dibang project just prior to one of the biggest festivals - Reh - of the local Idu Mishmi tribe.

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What would be the cost of power from these projects? This question is important given that many of the dams are to be developed by private companies who have profits as their basic interest. A related issue that is often ignored is that while such huge generating capacity is being created in the North East, much of the requirement for power is in other parts of the country. This means a massive requirement for long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines, increasing the cost of power.

These hosts of issues are compounded by the lack of transparency in the dam building programme in the state. In particular, local people are among the last to know about a project, and often this happens only when the construction work starts. The impact assessment studies remain highly inadequate and often shoddy. Many of the impacts like the cumulative impacts of a large number of dams in a given basin are not even in the ambit of impact assessment. All these add up to a potential recipe for social and political unrest, something that should be of great concern in a border state, one that has remained remarkably peaceful in comparison to the rest of the north-east. While 'development' in Arunachal sometimes gets spoken of with the foreign affairs angle, to maintain peace and stability in a border state, the way dam construction is being taken up is likely to have precisely the opposite effect.

The tragedy is that this need not be so. The state is rich in resources - land, water, forests. The people also want development. But they see the current chosen path as one that will destroy their environment, culture and identity along with the sources of livelihood - killing the goose in the greed to take all its golden eggs at one go. They argue for a different kind of development. As Anthony Bamang, a young activist of Arunachal Citizens Rights says, "The question is what kind of development do we want? And for whom? This is what we are asking."

These questions need urgent answers. And answers have to come from discussions with widespread and meaningful involvement of the people of the state and the country. The answers have to begin by assessing the full costs of the proposed hydro power development and then move towards articulating a vision of development that will not only bring revenue and prosperity but also preserve the beautiful land that is as much a resource as it is the identity of its people.