When World War II ended in 1945 and the British left South Asia two years later, the rivers of the Himalaya were still unbound by the high dams already ubiquitous in North America and Europe. Not for long, however. The new rulers of the Indian Union were convinced that rapid industrialisation was the path to progress, and hydropower was to fuel that growth. Dams, decreed independent India´s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, would serve as the temples of modern India, and in the decades to follow, these temples were consecrated in river after Himalayan river.
The dam builders moved earth, raised scaffolding, poured concrete, and tunneled through rock with missionary zeal. Their mission was "development" of the masses. Electricity, irrigation and flood control were the mantras. The dams provided all the answers.
Years passed before economists and political scientists began to challenge the "development paradigm" which strove for economic growth as the exclusive goal to be achieved at all cost; before geologists raised fears of earthquakes and "seismic gaps"; before environmentalists stood up to protect endangered species and habitats; and before villagers and activists decided that they wanted to have a say on how their Himalayan resource—flowing water— was to be utilised.
Back then, technology was the supreme deity which would ultimately alleviate all of society´s ills. The national government at the Centre knew best, and peoples from isolated pockets which held the resources be it coal, oil or hydropower—were to sacrifice unquestioningly for the greater good of the larger population.
As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, the development myths of the 1950s began to make way for more complex understandings of the issues of equity, regional disparities, and the limits to the ability of technological fixes to bring social and economic advance. Understandings of democracy seeped into far corners, individuals and com-munities began to take a handle on their lives, and dams no longer looked the knights in rock and concrete armours come to rescue populations in distress. Questions began to be asked: above all, what do we the mountain people get in return for allowing you plains folk to use our mountain waters and inclines for your benefit?
Opposition to dams, initially, consisted of the isolated voices of displaced "oustees", all too easily ignored or silenced with meager compensation. For the unorganised poor, it is next to impossible to stop dead in its track a mega project backed by government power, approved by international donors, and applauded by the national elites and media.
Over the years, however, this situation has changed. Education and exposure to the plains economy have made the highlanders more informed of the value of what they have and aware of the possibilities of questioning and opposing projects. Today, opposition to dams take on many forms, and with the help of academics and others in the plains centres, hill activists are questioning the technical risks, ecological costs, social justification, and eco-nomic rationale for doing dams which in an earlier era would have been built without a murmur from the mountainside. Some dam opponents argue on the basis of fair play and payment according to value of resource (wa-ter) used. Others speak of the spiritual sanctity of despoiled landscapes. Still others warn of reservoir-induced earthquakes and earthquake-led dam bursts which could wipe out whole populations.
The varying modes of protests provide a glimpse of societies groping for ways of gaining control over their resources and peoples grappling with the vocabulary of protest. Individually and collectively, their voices offer South Asia and the World, opportunities to underst and the diversity of concerns that may come up when projects with unclear benefits to the hill people are pushed on their land.
Bhakra and Pong
The first proposal to dam the Sutlej dates back to 1908 when Sir Louis Dane, Governor of Punjab, floated down the Sutlej in a khatnau, a wooden boat. At 37.2 million rupees, the project was considered too expensive and the idea rejected. The proposal resurfaced in 1919 and again in 1927, but was shelved both times as other diversion projects on the Sutlej received priority.
In the mid 1950s, when the large dam era began in India, the Sutlej and its Indus tributary Beas were the first to be tapped for high, darns. By 1963, Bhakra on the Sutlej was complete—a 226 metre high concrete gravity dam which created the first marunade lake in the Himalayan region, the Govind Sagar.
Bhakra irrigated 3.5 million hectares in Rajasthan and Punjab and generated 13,000 million units of energy annually. A project that boosted the economy of the plains, Bhakra submerged 17, 864 hectares of 371 villages and displaced 36,000 people. These belonged to the erstwhile State of Bilaspur, which today falls in Himachal Pradesh.
The experience of the Bilaspuris indicated how future dam projects would treat "oustees"—a recurring issue in the opposition to dams. Their area was merged to a newly created Himachal Pradesh State which felt no responsibility for the rehabilitation of the oustees. With the Central Government not living up to its promises, the Bilaspuris were left on their own. Their demands were modest, but their sacrifices were not compensated even by a fraction.
The families that stayed back in Bilaspur were each given 167 square metres of land—hardly enough for families which on average had three sons. They were entitled to loans, but lacked the means to pay them back. A generation of Bilaspuris has lost its most productive years fighting for compensation. From the oustee township of New Bilaspur, when the water level of Govind Sagar goes down before monsoon, the Bilaspuris can see the gates of the palace of Anand Chand, Bilaspur´s raja, and roofs of a dozen temples.
It was not that the displaced Bilaspuris were passive victims to what visited them, but their voices were drowned together with homes and hearth. They were a powerless minority whose interest disappeared in the face of the benefits that millions stood to gain from the regulated Sutlej waters. Without lobbying power, their concerns remained local.
If Bhakra illustrates how power politics sidelines the interests of those displaced by development projects, the Pong dam on the Beas, completed in 1974, is a study of how local interests are ignored in inter-state wrangling. The second large reservoir project in the Indian Himalaya, Pong submerged 29,000 hectares of land in Himachal Pradesh and displaced 150,000 people from 94 villages. The dam´s benefit was to be distributed downstream between Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. New Delhi gave Rajasthan the responsibility to provide rehabilitation to those displaced, as the state was the main beneficiary of a project that would produce 360 MW of electricity and irrigate 1.62 million hectares.
In 1970, as the dam construction was in full swing, 4000 people marched to the dam site. Work on the project halted as the Pong Dam Oustees´ Samiti demanded their resettlement before they would let the work continue. Faced with this collective force, the Pong project authori-ties reassured them that they would get land in the project´s command area in Rajasthan.
It is 25 years since those promises were made and repeated again and again, but more than half of the Pong oustees remain in limbo. They have not been resettled, and Rajasthan continues to shirk the responsibility of delivering the promised 91,056 hectares of land to them. Meanwhile, Shimla lacks sufficient clout in either Jaipur or New Delhi to resolve the problem of the oustees, a quarter of century after their property went underwater.
The dam site at Tehri lies just half a day east of Bhakra by bus. The Uttar Pradesh government gave clearance for a project on the Bhagirathi in 1976, but it had bargained without Uttarakhandi activism. The Garhwal hills had a history of activism that Himachal never did, and Pong and Bhakra had already shown the activists here what all they should guard against.
Tehri contains all the problems apparent in the two earlier projects in Himachal Pradesh. Its 260.5 metre high rockfill dam, with its reservoir stretching 44 kilometres up the Bhagirathi valley towards Uttarkashi, will submerge 43 villages fully and some 80 villages partially, forcing the relocation of more than 85,000 people.
For all that it does not do for the hills, Tehri is to provide 8.5 cumecs of drinking water for New Delhi, a powerful and well known water guzzler. It will provide ´stabilised irrigation´ for over 600,000 hectares in the Uttar Pradesh plains and bring an additional 270,000 hectares under irrigation. Uttar Pradesh will also receive 12percertt free power for letting its territory be used, but as Tehri forms just one of the 63 districts of the sprawling Uttar Pradesh state, it is unlikely that it will receive a significant share (of the power).
The battle in Tehri has been long-drawn, with Lucknow´sstategoverrimentbackedbytheCentreonone side and a handful of activists and a few scientists on the other, with moral support from dam opponents elsewhere in India and overseas. The first protests in Tehri had spiritual underpinnings. "We tried to appeal to the reli-gious sentiments of our poli ticians," recalls journalist Sardar Prem Singh, a member of Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsha Samiti, formed in 1978, as its name suggests, to "oppose" and "agitate" against the dam.
The Tehri project would submerge, along with Tehri town, the old route to the four pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand—Yamnotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. If the dam were to break, the flood waters would carry away the Hindu heritage of India as represented by Rishikesh and Hardwar in one devastating sweep.
As the opposition began and was sustained, the history of Tehri has been an endless procession of committees and commissions. In 1980, the Central government appointed a committee headed by Sunil Kumar Roy, a former bureaucrat, to look into the environmental impact of Tehri dam. Roy´s report, submitted six years later, referred to seismic hazards and environmental problems and recommended that Tehri´s design parameters be re-examined. It suggested "a revised project either with a low dam or a modified run-of-the-river project." After the report was submitted, some members of Roy´s committee disclaimed their involvement in it. A working group set up that year to evaluate the seismicity and safety aspects of the dam, also pronounced the dam unaviable.
In 1985, the Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsha Samiti filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking that the work on Tehri be halted. The petition raised the issue of dam safety, citing the threat of earthquakes. Five years later, the court dismissed the petition, stating that in view of the material on record, it did not find any reason to stop construction of the dam.
In 1989, an Environment Appraisal Committee headed by D.R. Bhumbala, an agricultural scientist, was set up to look into the ecological and social impacts, costs and benefits of the Tehri dam project. The committee also reviewed the geological and seismic factors and concluded that the Tehri dam did not merit environmental clearance.
The following year, a Committee of Secretaries was asked to review the recommendations of the Appraisal Committee. It turned the responsibility over to a High Level Committee of Experts headed by D.P, Dhoundial, Director General of the Geological Survry of India, who in April 1990 pronounced the dam safe. A member and eminent geo physicist, V.K.Gaur, expressed disagreement with the conclusion and asked that the matter be referred to an independent seismologist of international repute. Jai Krishna, a professor and former President of International Association of Earthquake Engineering, was chosen for the purpose, and he pronounced the dam safe against the strongest expected earthquake in the region . The New Delhi-based Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage challenged Jai Krishna´s objectivity, on the ground that he had earlier been associated with the Tehri project.
Geologists have predicted an earthquake of M-8.5 or more in the area in the next few decades and after nearby Uttarkashi was hit by an earthquake in 1991, the seismicity argument appeared more compelling than ever. Environmental guru Sunderlal Bahuguna, who had been camping on the banks of the Bhagirathi demanding a halt to the work on the dam, went on a fast demanding that construction on the project be stopped and the project be reviewed for its safety aspects. A committee of seismologists, geophysicists and others was set up, and in 1992 they concluded that the dam, as designed, was safe from earthquake risks.
Work on the dam was slated to resume when in mid-1994 the movement for statehood erupted all over Uttarakhand and construction activity ground to a halt. The agitation had lost steam by January 1995, and the Tehri Hydropower Development Corporation took advantage of the lull to resume the construction. In May, Bahuguna, went on fast again, demanding an independent review of the Tehri dam project. He broke his fast on the forty-ninth day, when he was assured by the Prime Minister of India that the concerns he had raised would be looked into (see box, page 13).
This w ill be the eighth committee setup by the Centre to look into the safety aspect of the Tehri Dam project. The pattern is by now familiar: the opposition will continue to demand committees and the Indian government will continue to set them up. Both sides, however, will pick and choose from the recommendations. The government will highlight the reports which declare the dam safe, viable and necessary, while the activists will condemn reports that underplay the seismicity, rehabilitation and environmental aspects.
Both sides, in the end, will hear only what they want to hear in the war of attrition between the state apparatus and the opposition. In essence, the government fights to maintain the status quo, in which a decree from Lucknow or New Delhi is to be followed in the mofiissil for "the greater good", which it is the government´s role to define. The opponents, meanwhile, are in essence fighting a battle to ensure—whatever arguments they may use—that the region that has the dams also benefits from their largesse.
During the Uttarakhand agitation´s peak, from mid-to late 1994, there was much talk in Naini Tal and Dehradun about how the hills must ensure proper income from Tehri. Every other person cited Tehri as an example of exploitation in the hands of the plains and the bypassing of development in the hills. "A dam like Tehri is being pushed on Garhwal because we are the powerless hill districts of a politically powerful state," said Bahuguna.
Indeed, the benefits of the Tehri dam as it is planned today will mainly go to Delhi in the form of drinking water and to the Uttar Pradesh plains in the form of irrigation and energy. There is no mechanism in the project document or in the minds of the planners to pay for a resource which, after all, is hill property. The place-specificity of natural resources is not an idea that is accepted either by India or by any of the other nation states in South Asia, as this would go to the very core of the government´s ability to control and define nationhood.
While the statehood agitation has subsided momentarily, it is bound to rise again. "When the statehood demand in Uttarakhand comes up again," says Rajiv Lochan Sha, editor of the fortnightly Nainital Samachaar, "it will be because the people will want answers to the question of Uttarakhand´s control over its resources. And water will be the most important among them,"
It is not only major engineering projects such as Tehri which will arouse the locals. If the Tehri opposition represents the hill people´s resentment of the powerful plains players, that against the Rathong Chu project in West Sikkim indicates that the historically docile Bhutia-Lepcha community has finally found a voice vis-a-vis the dominant Nepali-speakers of the state.
The project under fire is the 30 MW run-of-river scheme on the Rathong river, the first independent power venture of Gangtok´s government, being built to sell electricity to India´s Eastern Grid. The project had received the go-ahead when three trib at organisations (the Association of Buddhist Monks of Sikkim, the Bhutia-Lep cha Association, and the Tribal Women´s Association) submitted a writ petition in August 1994 to the Sikkim High Court stating that the project would cause irreparabled amage to the distinct cultural identity of Sikkim.
The Yuksum area beneath the Kangchendzonga massif holds enormous historical and religious signifi-cance for the Bhutia-Lepcha, the original inhabitants of the former kingdom before Nepali migration swamped the lower hills. Of all the deities of the land, the most important is the mountain god Khangchen Dzonga, who is considered the head of all territorial deities and spirits of Sikkim. The area below the range is the most sacred area of Sikkim, and the Rathong Chu project is located at the very heart of this region, where the first king of Sikkim was crowned in 1642 and Sikkim was born as a kingdom.
Construction was started at the project site even while the writ petition was pending, which prompted a group, the Concerned Citizens of Sikkim (CCS) to be formed. CCS believes that "the project´s cost in terms of environmental and socio-cultural impacts are too high a price to pay for its hypothetical financial benefits." Besides, stated the CCS, "one cannot help notice that all new sites which have be en selected for the construction of large hydro-electric projects in Sikkim are either located in areas inhabited by Bhutias, Lepchas and Tsongs [Limbus], or are located near sites which are sacred to the Buddhists."
While Sunderlal Bahuguna was undertaking a much better publicised fast over in Tehri, a similar exercise was underway in Gangtok. With the Power Department proceeding with the work on Rathong Chu despite the protests, Sonam P. Denzongpa, US-returned member of the CCS, went on hunger strike. He ended his fast after 28 days when the Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling reportedly promised to set up an independent review committee to study the project.
The opposing point of view on Rathong Chu is expressed by R.B. Bhattarai, Executive Engineer of the project: "If you look at it that way, every stone, tree, rock, hill, lake, in Sikkim has religious value. This is not how you bring development; you can´t let all that precious white gold [flowing water] go to waste."
The opposition in Sikkim seems to have borrowed tactics from the other side of Nepal and has looked to Tehri as a model of sophisticated protest. The Rathong Chu opposition has highlighted the religious significance of the Yuksum region—Sikkim´s own Dev Bkumi. They warn of environmental degradation by the project´s earthworks and road construction, and of the cultural degradation that will occur once hard hats ascend by the thousands into the region and the market economy is thrust upon these isolated tribal lands. Much better to have tourism provide perennial income from these unspoilt region with so much natural and cultural attractions, say the activists.
Says Col. Yap Sonam Yongda, once aide de camp to the late Chogyal of Sikkim, "There will be upward migration to West Sikkim as people come in search of job opportunities from West Bengal and as far as Bihar. The Bhutia-Lepchas will then become minorities in what is left of their land."
The case of Rathong Chu is a harbinger of the days to come. Dam planners cannot expect to get the easy ride that they have had in the past, when all that was required to build a project was governmental approval. Even a community as widely known for docility as the Bhutia-Lepcha is now able to organise and oppose a project which in earlier times would have faced no picket lines. Rather than wish such opposition away as irritants, or suggest that state power ignore or crush them, the planners of future projects must understand the need for dialogue with communities in situ.
Gandaki, Kosi, Karnali
Many more dams would have been built in the Himalaya if governments got along better—for one of the main objections to building certain dams a certain way comes not from anti-dam activists but from governments, whose motives for opposition can be quite different. Suspicions of another government´s intent, geo-political considerations, and bureaucratic hurdles have done more to block dams than activism, at least in the case of Nepal-India.
For those who accuse activists of being "anti-devel-opment" and even "anti-national" for opposing dams, therefore, it will come as a surprise that governments are also capable of opposing dams, although their consideration tends to be more strategic than based on questions of equity, environment or economics.
For half a century, Nepal and India have been engaged in talks on harnessing Nepal´s much-vaunted theoretical capacity of 83,000 MW for sale to India. To date, while a handful of medium sized plants have been built to supply Nepal´s domestic demand, some of them with Indian aid, not one hydropower plant has been built which exclusively exports electricity. The waters of the Gandaki, Kosi and Kamali—Nepal´s three main river systems—continue their energy-laden journey to the plains without India getting the power it needs to spark develop-ment in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And, hundreds of millions of dollars that Nepal could have made through sales over the decades have gone un-earned.
The major reason for failure of dam negotiations is the Nepali suspicion that India is out to swindle it on hydropower just as it has supposedly duped Nepal in the two major water projects that they have done together thus far. These are barrage systems on the tarai border— one the Gandak Barrage where the Narayani exits the Churia range to enter India, and the other on the Kosi near Hanuman Nagar.
It has been an unquestioned gospel of modern Nepali thought that Nepal has been ´cheated´ on these two bar-rages, whereas given the incline of the tarai land southwards—after having agreed on their location—there is not much more that Nepal could have expected than what it has gotten. Nevertheless, the Nepali grouse has been that Nepal´s gesture of goodwill in allowing these barrages to be built has not been reciprocated by India in negotiation on subsequent projects.
Such is the level of suspicion of India´s designs that the framers of the new Nepali constitution of 1990 included a section which states that all treaties which deal with natural resources (read ´water sharing´) have to be ratified by a two-thirds majority in the Parliament if they are of a "comprehensive, serious, and long term nature." This is meant to be an automatic trip mechanism to pre-vent dam projects not considered to be in Nepal´s interests.
While on one side is Nepali suspicion, on the other is the inability of New Delhi bureaucrats to come to terms with Nepal´s desire to control its resource and demand market value for it. For New Delhi, this is a geo-strategic consideration; Nepal would have the potential to ´blackmail´ India once it held the key to the hydro-power on which the industrialised plains had become overly dependent.
Then there is the Indian negotiator´s inability to comprehend buying electricity at more than token rates from another country. The Indian negotiator fails to realise that rivers outside India´s borders cannot be exploited on the same basis as rivers inside the country (such as the Bhagirathi or Sutlej), and that they have to pay realistic rates for using Nepal´s rivers. The conviction in New Delhi is that as long as India makes the investment on the dam structure and pays (cheaply) for the electricity utilised, it does not have to pay anything extra to use Nepal´s sites for flood control and irrigation in the plains.
As India plans for and proposes storage schemes in Nepal such as Kosi High,Karnali, West Seti, Pancheshwor and Budhi Gandaki, in order to benefit from flood control, irrigation and electricity, say Nepali planners, it has first to reconcile itself to the idea of paying for what it gains.
Those who keep up with the news in Kathmandu know more about Tehri than about West Seti. Both are high dams, within 300 km of each other, one in Uttarakhand and the other in West Nepal. Both fall within the much-talked-about ´seismic gap´ said to exist between Kathmandu and Dehra Dun, where a sudden and devastating movement of tectonic forces is said to be more than likely in the next half century. Tehri has a high media profile while West Seti is unknown. This ignorance is due, basically, to the fact that the Nepali media has been unable to cover issues of this nature.
For opposition to germinate, basic information is required, and often it is the media that generates information by keeping an eye on developments. In South Asia, however, many dam projects do not receive coverage because journalists consider them "development subjects", that are invariably less than exciting.
In June 1994, Nepal government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation of Australia, within three weeks of receiving the formal proposal—a record of sorts, to construct a 360 MW project on the Seti river. Nepal would get lO percent of the power free of charge, while the rest would be sold by the private company. If Nepal had an alert media which focused on important socio-economic issues rather than exclusively on political sensationalism, West Sett would be reported, and views of critics would be discussed and debated. The media has not even covered the possible conflict of interest when an Australian ambassador, a few months after relinquishing his post in Kathmandu, returns as a key lobbyist for West Seti.
Ananda Bahadur Thapa, Director of Kathmandu´s Water and Energy Commission, is critical of the West Seti project because it is being developed only as a power project. "The vast irrigation benefits accruable from the West Seti High Dam Project will completely slip out of our hands forever" if this is done, he wrote in the WECS Bulletin in May 1995. The Nepali media has yet to pick up on his point, though it is a subject of national interest.
And then, there is the issue of the media´s constituency. A journalist of a Calcutta-based newspaper might well decide to ignore the opposition to the Teesta project, which has been simmering in Sikkim hills for more than a decade, because it would go against the plans of the Calcutta state government and, by extrapolation, Bengali interests. By the same token, it was also natural, back in the 1960s, that the metropolitan media was more interested in the benefits of Bhakra and Pong to the Punjab economy than what happened to a handful of Himachali villagers.
An independent and inquisitive media is a prerequisite for the development of any country and the Himalayan region loses out in the absence of an effective, homegrown press. In a region which has only a handful of activists opposing bad projects, and where power projects get built with little or no scrutiny, the role of the press is all the more important. When the press fails in its job, projects slip through the fingers.
Those who protest dams are regularly asked why they did not protest projects in the beginning, why they did not raise their voice in the planning stages. Such questions fail to perceive the many hurdles lying before those who choose to stand up and fight dams. First, there is the social disapproval in being against what everyone else is supposedly for. Then there is the natural timidity of populations in remote hill regions, which is where dam projects are invariably located.
Again, the few educated and aware persons from these regions who might have had the potential to speak up for the interest of the people living in the hills are easily co-opted, or have their plates so full with other important issues that they fail to raise their voice. While in Tehri, Bahuguna sits in protest against the dam that will create havoc downstream if it breaks, small contractors in Chamma in Tehri District, see no point in opposing the project. There is even resentment against Bahuguna as he is seen to be taking away their source of income.
Unless opponents have access to a well-organised network of supporters with expertise in different areas— from engineering to economics to organising a popu-lace—it is extremely difficult to maintain an opposition against the entrenched forces of government, business and the technocracy. With international institutions picking up ever-larger pieces of the financing packages on dam projects, friends abroad to provide information not easily available to activists on the ground are essential. A document that is said to be impossible to lay hands on in Kathmandu, for example, may be easily accessed by NGOs in Washington DC or Tokyo.
Project reports are rarely available, and it is normally too late for the local people to raise an effective opposition by the time they realise that their lifestyle, culture and economy have been disrupted. The Indian Planning Commission approved the Tehri dam project in 1972. By the time Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangarsha Samiti, could lay its hands on the report, it was already 1978. India´s Land Acquisition Act of 1894 states that the notification to acquire land be published in the government gazette and two regional newspapers. However, gazettes were difficult to come by and regional newspapers had limited circulation. Many of the people living in the villages to be submerged by the Pong dam, for example, did not get to know about the project until surveyors arrived to mark their land. Even after the Supreme Court in Kathmandu directed the Nepal Electricity Authority to disclose its list of documents on the Arun III, its Public Information Centre lists only 151 documents and does not mention another 147 which are known to exist.
Governments are notorious for their reluctance to share information—even when ordered by the courts. In South Asia, where so many projects are located in frontier regions, the secrecy slapped on dam projects is legendary. This secrecy on the part of the state inhibits open debate and ultimately rebounds against the planners. In the future, need for extreme confidentiality is bound to ruin the projects which might have been saved if there had been dialogue and transparency from the start. One of the reasons that the Tanakpur Project on the Mahakali rankles Nepali officials as much as it does, even though it is built mostly on Indian territory, is that India planned and built the project without informing the Nepali government, and feigned ignorance when asked.
When the secrecy is carried over to a project that requires inter-country participation, it is the one element which could kill the entire programme. Take the case of the Tipaimukh project on the Barak River in Cachar, close to the Manipur,Mizoram and Assam border, for which India has approached the Japanese-backed Global Infrastructure Fund (GIF), stating that it would benefit both India and Bangladesh. Except for a five-page document listing rudimentary data such as the height of the reservoir and the construction materials to be used, says Ainun Nishad, a Bangladeshi member of the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission, no other information was shared with Dhaka.
When in January this writer visited the Brahmaputra Boarding Guwahati to seek more information on Tip aimukh, its chairman (who refused even to allow his name to be used!) said he could not provide information on the project—no, not even the height of the dam. "The matter is now with the Ministry of External Affairs," he said, "Unless I receive clearance from the government, I cannot speak to you." It seems that if the water bureaucrats had their way, they would implement the entire project without letting anyone know of their existence.
Meanwhile, opposition brewing in Bangladesh could backfire on the face of the Indian proponents of the project because they have kept information under their hats. Two Bangladesh based organisations, the Jamat-e-Islam and the Brihatter Sylhet Gana Dabi Parishad, have claimed that Tipaimukh is another ´Farakka´ being foisted by New Delhi, which will turn the Sylhet region into desert. That may or may not be true, but the right lips in Guwahati and New Delhi are not helping matters.
Thoubal, Dulhasti, Uri
In the days to come, Tipaimukh could bring forth dam building problems that are more dire. The project, based in the increasingly-violent Northeast of India, could be the harbinger of dam opposition that decides to go beyond satyagrahas and argumentation—to violent reaction. Thus far, dam opposition in the Himalaya has been overwhelmingly peaceful; if any thing it is the state that has used force to quell demonstrations and jail activists. However, given the plans for dams in areas that are full of disquiet, there is every likelihood that some of the opposition of the future will speak a different language than a fasting Bahuguna.
Tipaimukh, whose rockfill dam would generate 1500 MW of power, threatens to submerge 31 villages and displace 3000 famines. The oustee people, of the Hmar tribe, want the governments of Manipur, Mizoram and Assam (which will all benefit from the project) to rehabilitate them in one Hmar area with adequate plans for economic support. Given the accelerating violence in the region, it is not unlikely that one faction or another will use the occasion for violence.
In nearby Nagaland, there has already been violent reaction to a dam, Naga insurgents, dissatisfied with sops offered them by the state government on the Thoubal multi-purpose dam, have decided to take matters in their own hands. The Naga Nationalist Socialist Council(NSCN) opposed the project on the grounds that it would displace 1750 people from six villages and submerge 1400 hectares, including 800 ha of agricultural land.
The government had agreed to pay IRs 24,300 per submerged hectare, but NSCN demanded IRs 40,500 per ha, and that the compensation be paid in advance. Unhappy with the response, the NSCN in September 1990 set ablaze IRs 20 million worth of construction equipment. In February 1992, a bus owned by the construction authorities was set on fire, and in June two workers were killed at the construction site. In face of the escalating violence, the Thoubal project has been halted.
While the authorities tend to press ahead with construction of projects where the opposition is peaceful, it is practically impossible to go ahead with a project once it has become violent. Large projects cannot be built under armed guard. This is why, at the other end of the Himalaya from Tipaimukh, the Dulhasthi project in strife-torn Kashmir ground to a halt in 1992. The French consortium involved in constructing the 390 MW project pulled out after one of their engineers was kidnapped by militants. Today, some 700 armed Central Industrial Security Force guard the project site. Similar is the case with Uri project in Jammu & Kashmir, being built by Swedish engineers.
The local population was dissatisfied with the authorities´ dithering on property rights, and some militants decided to tackle the matter head on and kidnapped two Swedish engineers from the project site.
Chukha, Yamdrok Tso
The Nepali Constitution of 1990 guarantees Nepalis both the right to development and the right to information. This allowed the Arun Concerned Group, a coalition of human rights NGOs, to file a case in the Supreme Court demanding that the government make available all documents relating to Arun III. The Court ruled for the petitioners, stating that Nepalis had the right to be fully informed about development projects.
In Bhutan and Tibet, opposition of the kind that is now possible in neighbouring Nepal and Sikkim is unthinkable. One is autocratic and the other ruled from a Beijing which wi11 brook no resistance. The Chukha Project, a 336 MW run-of-river project in West Bhutan, is held up as a shining example of India-Bhutan friendship. The Chukha Accord was signed between India and Bhutan in 1974 and built entirely with Indian technical and financial support. India pays Nu 29 per unit for the "clean" Chukha energy, which by international standards is considered extremly cheap.
While Thimphu officials would certainly seek to maximise the benefits of the dam projects they have on hand, it is unclear how much leverage they have with India to stand resolute in their country´s long-term interests. India presently has a powerful bargaining chip on its hands it is the only power which can force Bhutan to take back the Lhotshampa refugees Thimphu has ejected, but has maintained a deliberate silence on the subject till now.
Does this weaken Thimphu´s hand on the bargaining table? Is this why, goaded by India, Thimphu is involved in an accelerated programme of turnkey dam projects, all proposed and to be built by India? It is impossible to say, but one can conjecture that the Bhutanese bargaining position is weak and cannot be strengthened merely by smart diplomacy. Is the Bhutanese government, then, looking at the long term interests of the Bhutanese population when it negotiates these projects with India and decides on the per unit price of the exported power? There is no space for open questioning in Bhutanese society, and no opposition will be heard Thimphu to the government´s power planning decisions.
In Bhutan, even if mistakes are made, they are made by Bhutanese officials who presumably have the country´s interests at heart. In Tibet, neither is there space for opposition, nor is it at all clear that decisions to proceed with dam projects are made for the benefit of the Tibetans. Clearly, if there were the ability, there would be some open opposition in Lhasa to the audacious "pump storage" scheme which would empty the Yamdrok lake to produce electricity during peak hours and reverse the flow to fill the lake up with Tsangpo water during off-peak hours. The lake is considered holy, and the Chinese heeded the late Panchen Lama´s displeasure and halted work. With his passing, however, work began once again, and the open opposition to the Yamdrok Tso project is today limited to overseas newsletters and word-of-mouth.
In the Panchayat era in Nepal not so long ago, as in Bhutan and Tibet today, it was not possible to question projects. Today, one can say that even if mistakes are made in Nepal in future, it will not be for want of discussion.
The moment today is in the hands of the dam busters rather than the dam builders. IBs unclear, though, that this is the end of the road. Those who question dams out of principle rather than just for the sake of opposition, know that there are also dams which can be built taking into account the concerns of equity, economy, seismicity, culture or environment. After having won their ground against the mindless dam builders and having made sure that the governments will listen to their arguments, these opponents, too, have the responsibility to use all their skills— and power—to help good dams be built even while pre-venting bad dams from getting past the drawing table.
The response to the need for power in the modernising societies of South Asia cannot always be the refrain, "No Dams!"This single-note refrain may not be realistic, for the demand for power from the fast-growing market economy of the plains is going to be too overwhelming to resist. The challenge is therefore for those who have been opposing dams to setup criteria that can help differentiate bad dams from good dams.
Indeed, dams should be allowed once it is clear that they are sound economically, environmentally and in terms of seismic and other hazards. Over and above these elements, however, the principle to guide dam building in the Himalaya should be the maximising of the income to the hill people from the economic resource represented by flowing water. Neither the Centre, of whichever nation state, nor the dominant communities, can regard Himalayan waters as their birthright. The ´owners´, if they are to be found anywhere, live up in the hills, and as it is they who are quickly learning the language of the marketplace. They are realising that these rapids and waterfalls, or the height differentials on two sides of a mountain, have value. That people have ways of converting these into hydro energy which will command a price is no longer a remote concept.
The skills of opposing bad dams and judiciously supporting good dams will be vital in the decade ahead, for the liberalisation of the South Asian market is going to result in skyrocketing demand for electric power. The newly unleashed private sector power developers and government power departments are making a beeline for the Himalayan gorges, desirous of building an endless line of power projects from Peshawar to Aizawal. Scores of dams are in various stages of implementation or planning along the Himalayan rim, among them Uri, Dulhasthi, Salal, Thein, Vishnuprayag, Tehri, Pancheshwor, Seti, Kamali, Kosi High, Teesta, Tipaimukh, Dihang, Subansiri and Thoubal.
When governments build dams, their hand can be stayed by the politician´s concerns for lost votes, the diplomat´s strategic interests, and bureaucratic rigidities. But, when the market forces want something badly enough, they usually get it. This is all the more reason for the dam opponents of today to gear up for the battles of the future. As they do so, they will have to thank those who went before them—in Narmada, Tehri and Arun in particular— for having dared to stand up when very few understood why it was they were fighting something as "innocuous" as a dam.
Until now, the power planners in the plains have looked the other way when the issue of compensating the hills came up. But no more. Increasingly, they will have to learn to strike commercial deals and pay commercial rates if they want to use the Himalayan waters for flood control,irrigation, power and drinking water. This, after all, is what the market economy that everybody wants is said to be all about.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
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