A flood of dams

India's Northeast has been identified by New Delhi as the country's future 'powerhouse', and Arunachal Pradesh is slated to be the major contributor. In 2001, the country's Central Electricity Authority did a preliminary ranking of the hydroelectric potential of various Indian rivers. It identified 168 large projects in the Brahmaputra Basin alone, which collectively could generate more than 63,300 megawatts of hydropower. Out of these projects, as many as 87 were in Arunachal Pradesh.

Subsequently, in 2003, a new hydropower initiative was launched at the national level, promising 50,000 MW of power. Under this, initial reports were prepared for 42 projects in Arunachal, out of which 19 were short-listed for further investigation. Prior to these studies, at least ten large projects in the state were either already in operation, under construction or in an advanced planning stage; since then, the number has skyrocketed. The current figure of completed, under construction and planned projects is 104, in both the public and private sector, promising a cumulative 55,556 MW of energy.

The government and other proponents of large dams in Arunachal say that the proposed projects will have advantages for everyone involved: the projects will be utilising the country's largest perennial water system to produce cheap, plentiful and renewable power for the whole country; and at the local level, these installations will offer economic benefits through power export across the country and employment opportunities, not to mention flood control.

Several unique features of Arunachal pose a challenge to this argument, however, including the state's large number of tribal communities and rich biodiversity, the existence of which makes the social and environmental costs of the dams extremely high. Perhaps more worrying is the region's geological fragility and seismic activity. Although nearly all of the Indian Northeast is considered highly prone to seismic activity, Arunachal is one of the only places in all of India that has areas in which earthquakes are rated a 'very high hazard'. This consideration takes on a dramatic twist when it is realised that one of the dam proposals calls for a structure 288 metres high. This would mean that India's tallest dam to date would stand in its seismically most active region. Even larger dams in Arunachal are also on the drawing board.

As far as small-scale hydro is concerned, according to government records, Arunachal currently has a potential for 492 projects, totalling 1059 MW. As of January 2007, 64 small projects (44 MW) had already been installed, and 48 more (41 MW) were under construction. Both the Ministry of Development of the Northeastern Region and the Arunachal government have in recent times publicly invited organisations to take up small-scale hydropower projects, with an eye towards addressing local energy needs. The large hydropower projects, however, have been planned specifically to earn revenue for the state by exporting power to the rest of the Northeast and the mainland.

Although concern has been raised over the past half-decade with regard to Arunachal's hydropower development, the past few months have seen a spurt in opposition. On 4 May, the Itanagar government publicly invited bids for 13 large hydropower projects, with a total capacity of 7920 MW, in the Dibang and Lohit valleys – areas populated by a vast number of endangered and endemic plants and animals, as well as several prominent tribal communities. Prior to this, the area had hardly been seriously explored for its hydropower potential, and the move took the state's citizens by surprise. Of the 13 proposed projects, 10 are located in the Dibang Valley. Three of the projects had already been assigned (in 2006), although they were not yet under construction. Mite Lingi, General-Secretary of the Idu Cultural and Literary Society (ICLS), the apex body of the Idu Mishmi community in the Dibang Valley, says that the state government kept local communities "in the dark" during preliminary planning.

Following the early-May revelation of the state government's plans, Lingi's major concern was the amount of external labour that would have to be imported for the new projects, over a long period of time – cumulatively, at least 20 years. "The population of the Idu Mishmi community is just about 12,000," explains Lingi. "Thirteen projects will bring in at least 100,000 labourers. These are long-gestation projects, and we are seriously concerned about demographic changes in the Dibang Valley." As one of India's constitutionally recognised Scheduled Tribes, the Idu Mishmi receive various legal protections, including those regarding ancestral lands and the limited entry of 'outsiders'. Lingi says that the Idu Mishmi feel the central government's actions are in direct contradiction to these legal safeguards. "Just as we were debating about the impacts of three major projects in our valley, we are suddenly faced with 13 projects."

Power politics
Politics in Arunachal works a bit differently than elsewhere. The state is fully funded by Central government largesse, and therefore New Delhi exercises great clout here. As such, the first major thrust of Arunachal's hydropower programme (starting around 2000), was when several projects were taken up by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) and the Northeastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO). Under this, 12 percent of the power generated from a project was to be provided free to Arunachal, which could then sell the electricity for revenue. Evidently, this agreement has begun to chaff some in Itanagar, the state capital.

Following the May request for bids, there has arisen widespread protest in the Dibang Valley, as well as across the state. But officials have sought to dismiss the demonstrations as politically motivated. Such allegations arise from the significant political shake-up that Itanagar witnessed, also in early May, when then-Chief Minister Gegong Apang abruptly stepped down from his post. Dorjee Khandu, at that point Arunachal's power minister, was tapped to replace him. Activist Bamang Anthony, who has followed the dams issue for years, believes that state- and national-level "hydropower politics" was the main reason for the changeover. Apang had been roundly accused of incorrectly favouring private hydropower developers. More to the point, however, the agreements he signed had flouted Central guidelines, which subsequently set the state up to receive around 19 percent of the revenue – this last part not illegal per se, but certainly enough to raise some hackles in New Delhi. Once all 104 projects are commissioned, the Itanagar government estimates its earnings will be around INR 87.6 billion every year.

There are suggestions that the ousted Apang is now backing the protests. But while Anthony notes that some protesters could indeed be aligned with Apang, he emphasises that "it is important that this crucial issue is not hijacked, and that the protests are not dismissed as mere political machinations. The large dams planned threaten the livelihood and ecological security of people across Arunachal, and it does not matter to us if a destructive project is constructed by the public sector or by private players – we should not give in to either."

In June, a suit was filed before the Guwahati High Court by the Environment Protection and Sustainable Development Society, a newly formed group in Arunachal, challenging the state government's invitation for bids on the 13 hydro projects. The petition raised concerns about irregularities in awarding the projects, particularly to companies in the private sector, in violation of national guidelines on competitive bidding. The petition contended that the state government had violated such norms on multiple occasions: first with regards to six projects in the Lohit and Kameng basins in 2006 (totalling nearly 4200 MW); then regarding eight projects in the Siyom, Siang and Dibang basins (12,300 MW), again in 2006; and finally with regards to the May 2007 invitation for bids for 13 new projects. The document also highlighted the environmental and social risks posed by these schemes, including to downstream populations in Assam. On 6 June, the Guwahati High Court issued notices asking the Arunachal and Assam governments, as well as the Central government, to provide their opinions on the petition.

Two public hearings scheduled for the massive 3000-MW Dibang Multipurpose Project in May 2007 were postponed after Jibi Pulu, an activist from the Dibang Valley, served legal notice to the state government, accusing it of not complying with various legal provisions, including those related to public disclosure of information. Pulu contended that meaningful public participation was not possible without access to information about the impact of the project, as mandated by law. Following this pressure, the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) decided to postpone the hearing until after the monsoon. This does not mean, however, that planning on this project is not going forward.

Uneducated decisions
Beyond the legalities, in the Central and state governments' rush for power and money, regulators have largely sidestepped the concerns of the scientific community. Tone Mikrow, a mechanical engineer and General-Secretary of the All-Idu Mishmi Students Union (AIMSU), warns that next to nothing is known about the cumulative impact of the numerous projects currently in the offing in Arunachal. "We need to study the absorption capacity of this area," he says. "While we want development and jobs, this flood of large dams will only marginalise us … We welcome small hydropower projects, which bring in a smaller labour population, have a short gestation period and are less risky from an environmental perspective. Why this sudden hurry to exploit an area which has been protected until now?"

Mikrow is particularly concerned that the required Environmental Impact Assessment reports are being shoddily prepared. One such report, he notes, stated that there would be very few local residents displaced by the project. In so suggesting, however, the report's authors have ignored the impact on local jhum (shifting agriculture) farming. "The submergence and methods by which the project will seek to reduce siltation in the reservoir from the catchment will restrict land use over a much larger area," Mikrow says. "This will not only reduce the shifting agriculture cycles, making jhum cultivation unviable, but will result in the opening up of newer forest areas to meet livelihood needs. The social and ecological impacts of this have not been studied at all."

It is not just poor EIA reports that have become a regular feature appending large dams cleared in Arunachal. Dulal Goswami, a well-regarded environmental scientist in the region, says that, given the fragility of the Brahmaputra River basin, the government is making extremely uneducated decisions in general. "The scientific knowledge base on which we are planning such major interventions is poor," he warns. "This is not only ecologically unsustainable, but socially unacceptable. The whole large hydropower policy for the Northeast needs to be re-examined."

The ICLS's Mite Lingi says that, despite the growing public opposition, bureaucrats in Itanagar and New Delhi appear to see the projects as a done deal. "One hundred and fifty crores out of the 225 crore rupees have been received for the 3000-MW Dibang Multipurpose project, but no public consultation was held before the signing of the MOU!" Lingi exclaims. "Moreover, the project is yet to receive the other mandatory clearances. The public hearing on the environment is only scheduled for November. By taking a huge advance, it is clear that the state government is going to present us a fait accompli. Our indigenous natural resources have thus been mortgaged by the state government." 
~ Neeraj Vagholikar is an environmental researcher, writer and activist with Kalpavriksh, Pune. 

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