India's Northeastern Hydro Plans Run Into Trouble

As Asia’s environmentalists concentrate on their concerns over Chinese and other dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong and the Irrawaddy, in fact the two northeastern Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh bordering Tibet could easily be as big a battleground – or bigger.

As with the concerns over the Mekong and the Irrawaddy, the proliferation of dams on the Brahmaputra is expected to have seriously negative impacts on the lower parts of the river including southern Bangladesh, where any reduction in the great river’s flow would allow the saline waters of the Bay of Bengal to back up into the flood plain, which is almost at sea level, destroying the region’s agricultural potential.

Big dams have come under fire across the globe because of the potential for environmental damage. Two big ones – the Xayaburi in Laos and the Myitsone in Myanmar – have been stopped, the Myitsone possibly for good. Nonetheless, governments regard hydroelectric power as remains a proven way to produce carbon-free electricity on a large scale.

Northeastern India has been identified by the energy-starved central government as having huge hydropower potential, with as many as 150 big dams planned for the state of Arunachal Pradesh alone. It is estimated that the region, comprised of eight states that are the home of 60 million people, has the capacity to produce nearly 60,000 megawatts of hydropower. The present installed capacity of large hydropower projects in the region is around 1,700 MW against only 215 MW in 1985-86.

Although a number of big hydroelectric power projects have emerged in the region, the question remains whether the indigenous people, who are dependent on the age-old natural flows of the Brahmaputra River, will countenance the consequences of the dams.

Considering the geo-seismic situation and the fragile erosion-prone mountains of the eastern Himalayas and its silt-laden rivers, the appropriateness of large hydro projects has come under fresh scrutiny.

Major opponent groups and movements have built up in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and many other parts of the northeast to oppose the dams in view of their serious downstream impact, including the changes in the flood characteristics of the rivers.

“Poor appraisal and even poorer compliance are characteristics of such projects in India. In the Northeast the situation is much worse,” said Himanshu Thakkar and Bipin Chaturvedi in a recent presentation. The two, who represent the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, say the installed capacity of hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh alone is 423.5 MW, where Ranganadi (405 MW) is recognized as a large hydropower project. The installed capacity of large hydroelectric projects in Assam is 325 megawatts from two dams, Karbi Langpi and Kopili. For Manipur, the Loktak project contributes another 105 megawatts.

The people of the region, mostly the inhabitants of northern Assam, have been waging a figurative war against the Congress-ruled government at Dispur, the government seat in Assam, and the NHPC Ltd., formerly known as the National Hydroelectric Power Co.

Various student associations, farmer organizations and civil society groups have brought people to the streets against the Arunachal Pradesh dams, most of whose power is designed to be transmitted to central India for industrial production. The region is considered to be a highly unstable seismic zone with the possibility that those downstream could face danger, given India’s often-notoriously poor construction quality.

The opponents have the 2000 MW lower Subansiri project as a case study, which has been the epicenter of protest since May 2000 when the project was taken over by the NHPC. Primarily led by the All Assam Students’ Union, an influential students association in the region, the anti-dam movement gained momentum at the hands of a farmers’ group and other like-minded organizations.

The dam has been fought over continuously in the State Legislative Assembly, with public hearings called repeatedly which eventually came to the attention of then-Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who reportedly brought the dam to the attention of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, arguing that ‘some of the concerns that were expressed (by the people) cannot be dismissed lightly.”

While that continuing activism has delayed the dam, the NHPC has not stopped construction. Talks have continued, with the opponents enlisting the aid of 23 ethnic groups in their campaign. The government and the NHPC have vowed to continue construction in the face of the opposition.

The leader of the Assam students union, Samujjal Bhattacharya, who is also the chairman of North East Students’ Organization, insisted on a peaceful resolution of the issue through talks, saying the union is “not against development, but if it comes at the cost of the people’s life and civilization,” they would not allow it.

The Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists has also expressed concern at the ongoing construction of the dams on the Brahmaputra inside Tibetan region of China. The organization argues that once the dams on the 2,900 km long trans-boundary river are commissioned, there will be massive negative ecological effects in northeast India and also in Bangladesh.

The journalist union, in a statement cautioned that ‘if the government at Beijing diverts some volume of water from the Brahmaputra, Bangladesh will be severely affected, as the saline water of the Bay of Bengal will enter to south Bangladesh and destroy the aquatic life and agricultural fields.”

No solution has been found, which means the opposition will continue and could grow. The group of state ministers that negotiated with the agitators maintain their views that the construction process at the Subansiri project should continue. The instant reaction of Assam power minister Pradyut Bordoloi, also the head of the Group of Ministers after talking to 23 the indigenous organizations on the issue was, “The work on the Subansiri project cannot be stopped like this.”

Meanwhile, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a major protest group, has organized a national convention on mega dams in Assam for the third week of this month. Its leader, Akhil Gogoi informed the media that the convention will be attended by leading anti-dam activists. The protests show no sign of diminishing.