The human face of development. Mahatma Gandhi once asked the nation's planners to keep in mind the costs of their ideas borne by the people, while making their decisions, and over the years every Prime Minister has found a reason to refer to it at one time or another. The most common invocation of the human face has been in the context of the many dams the country has built, often in the face of spirited and determined resistance from local communities. And so the Prime Minister's visit to Manipur this month marks the next phase in this saga.

The original schedule for Manmohan Singh's travel included plans for the inauguration of the Tipaimukh Dam and Loktak Downstream Project, both of which were scrapped by the previous Union government in February 2004 after a high level committee recommended so. This plan is subject to many changes, presumably as the PM weighs the political implications of yielding to one lobby or another. On the one hand, Dr.Singh has declared his intention to bring new development to the northeast to combat many local residents' antipathy to New Delhi. On the other hand, it isn't clear that the sort of development he brings is any more popular that the actions of the armed forces in the region.

The Tipaimukh Multipurpose Project - which was put on hold after Manipur State Assembly had raised objections - has faced protracted protests from potentially affected people in India, and from downstream neighbour Bangladesh. The project will dam the river Barak, which bifurcates into two streams as it enters into Bangladesh as the rivers Surma and Kushiara. The Meghna originates at the confluence of the Surma and the Kushiara. Opponents have warned of an economic, ecological and human catastrophe; thousands of people will be displaced as the dam will submerge 73 villages, including many sacred sites. Expressing grave concern over the possible consequences of the dam, the protestors said in a recent memorandum submitted to the central government of India, "Once the dam is built, the land, covering an area of 275.5 sq km, will be submerged permanently."

Environmental activists from Bangladesh have apprehend that the project will block the flow of the country's major riverine network in the North east and deliver a fatal blow to downstream communities in Bangladesh, or have consequence of no less magnitude than the Farakka barrage across the Ganges to the North West of Bangladesh. In an editorial, New Age, a Dhaka based newspaper argued, "The hydrogeological balance of the entire region ... would be affected by the project denying the crucial life supporting river system to the tens of millions of people and the flora and fauna that thrive there. ... The Padma basin has already undergone irreversible changes for the worse as a result of the Farakka barrage. In a similar fashion, Tipaimukh would spell doom for what is left of the fertile alluvial delta, the supplier of our staple crops." It quoted Quamrul Islam Siddiqui, the president of the Institution of Engineers and chairman of the Global Water Partnership, Bangladesh chapter saying, "After completion of the project, Bangladesh would get less water in three rivers - the Meghna, Surma and Kushiara. Tipaimukh can spell disaster for Bangladesh."

On February 24, 2004 Imphal Free Press reported that a high level meeting in New Delhi, presided by the Secretary (Power) for the Government of India discussed the issue at length and in spirit resolved to drop the 90 MW Loktak Downstream project, as well as Tipaimukh multi purpose project, in the face of opposition from a strong anti-dam lobby. But the New Age noted that there may be other important considerations that have "put a damper on the idea of the project. ... the Loktak downstream project has been abandoned as it would not be viable from cost considerations." The paper also noted that with politicians and the bureaucracy in New Delhi favouring the project, Bangladesh will have to continue its effort to "create public opinion at home and abroad about the catastrophic consequences of the project not only in Bangladesh but also in large parts of [India]."

The Loktak Downstream project was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs in December 1999, and its cost was estimated at Rs. 578 crores. It was part of then-PM Atal Behari Vajapyee's Agenda for Socio-Economic development of the North Eastern States and Sikkim in 1999. But the work on the project was stalled indefinitely when the Chief Engineer of National Hydroelectric Power Corporation was killed.

In February 2004, the Union power secretary declared that the project would not be cost effective as the loss incurred on completion could overrun the initial projection by more than 50%. Increase in provisional costs of the project from time to time and additional demands to provide security - a proposal not included in the earlier project report approved by the Centre - have also led to the decision to scrap the project, the secretary said. Moreover, compensation amounts of more than Rs.60 crores had been demanded by then, mounting further financial pressure. Even if the project was completed, it was believed that there would be no state willing to buy the additional power generated by it at the high costs necessary to operate the dam viably.

However, in March 2004, the Status of implementation of Programmes and Schemes didn't admit the scrapping of the project. The report instead simply noted that all the original planning and estimates had proved wrong. "Due to the disturbed law and order conditions the cost of security has been estimated substantially high. Land compensation claims have also been inflated and matter has not been resolved. As against a provision of Rs 20 crores, Rs 19.99 crores has been spent on the site by the end of December 2002. The cost of power generation from this project is very high at Rs 4.45 per unit (the executive summary of the same document puts the figure at Rs 4.10 per unit!). NHPC is yet to find the purchasers of the power to be generated by this project. Due to security problems, cost of project has increased to Rs 832.98 crores and sale rate of energy to Rs 5.15 per unit". (cf. p 4 and 24)

Who will buy the costly power generated, in the end? That question is the one least asked and answered, amidst all the numbers that are tossed about.
But that wasn't the end of it. The state government decided that the huge increase in costs - from 578 crores to 833 crores - could be dealt with in a different way. Its Detailed Project Report pegged the estimated cost at Rs 670 crores, an overrun of less than 100 crores from the first estimate. But how did the state government make a lower estimate than the one cited by the Secretary for Power? Simple - it decided that the cost of security would be borne by the state itself, and therefore not counted along with the cost of the project. The state has also approached the Power Finance Corporation to fork out 50% of the cost in loans. The PFC's portfolio has already been marked in red by the Comptroller and Auditors General for having disbursed nearly Rs.100 crores in violation of pre-disbursement conditions in the case of another dam - Mahshwar Hydro project in Madhya Pradesh. But that hasn't deterred Manipur from taking this route.

And who will buy the costly power generated, in the end? That question is the one least asked and answered, amidst all the numbers that are tossed about.

Now again the Imphal Free Press on Novemebr 6th has reported that the Prime Minister's Office has turned down the appeal of the state governments to the PM for laying the foundation stones for the Tipaimukh and Loktak Downstream project. It isn't clear, however, whether this means simply that the inaugural function has been cancelled, or if the Central Government is going to undertake a thorough review of the controversial project. The human face that Dr. Singh promised the northeast will probably require the latter, but many vested interests are clearly pushing for the project to go ahead, regardless of local sentiment. Only time will tell how earnestly New Delhi is seeking a new direction in the troubled region.