07 / 2011
The Mapithel Dam is located on the Thoubal River in Ukhrul district of Manipur, a small state in Northeast India. This article, which details the struggle against the dam, is based on a visit to the dam site and its surrounding villages in March 2010. During the visit I met with village kings who preside over Village Councils, elders, youth, men and women of the affected villages, as well as the manager of Progressive Construction Limited, the company that has been given the main contract to build the dam.
The project has been undertaken by the Government of Manipur’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD), with assistance from the central government. Construction began in 1989, amidst heavy protests from those to be affected by the dam. Several reasons accounted for their discontent. In the early 1970s, while the government informed local villagers of a project and of benefits that were apparently meant for them, there was no mention of actually building a dam! No free, prior and informed consent was sought from those to be displaced by the dam, nor were the procedures mandated by India’s Land Acquisition Act followed. As part of the Government’s survey work prior to the launch of the project, soil test teams began working in fields without permission of land owners, only to be chased away. Thus, the comprehensive survey needed for the proper conceptualisation of the project never took place. With the approval of the project in 1980 and the resulting acknowledgement that it involved construction of a mega-dam that would result in the submergence of entire villages, resistance to the dam began to grow. In 1990, the Mapithel Dam Affected Villages Organisation (MDAVO) was formed, mostly by villages that fell within the submergence area. Downstream villages in the valley that would be affected by the changed river flow were as yet not a part of the struggle. At this time MDAVO also did not have the support of all the villages to be submerged. However, in 2008, these villages formed the Mapithel Dam Affected Ching-Tam (hill-valley) Organisation (MDACTO), bringing together even those who had at first cooperated with the project authorities. The eventual resistance of these villages after 28 years of approval underlines the failure of the state to address the concerns of affected communities.
The hills of Manipur have been under the rule of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 for more than 50 years, while the valley has been under the Act for over 20 years. This draconian law has been imposed in areas declared “disturbed” by the State, including most of Northeast India, as well as Jammu & Kashmir. It permits soldiers to make arrests without warrants and to fire, “even to the causing of death,” at those in contravention of the law; it also grants soldiers legal immunity, which has led to a culture of trigger-happy armed forces in these regions. The area of submergence and the dam site is inhabited primarily by people from the Kuki and Naga ethnic groups. When resistance to the dam began in the 1980s, there was already significant conflict between the State and armed militant groups from both the Naga and Kuki communities. The atmosphere was tense, with heavy counter-insurgency operations launched by the State. Since anti-dam protests began, the armed forces have been used to repress even the nonviolent, constitutional means of resistance that the struggle adopted. The context of that resistance was in fact the unconstitutional means deployed by the Government of Manipur in launching the project without informing those to be affected of its impacts.
During the 1980s, the resistance movement grew. In a major protest towards the end of the decade, trucks and machines of IFCD were burnt in opposition to the forceful implementation of the project. Large numbers of villagers were arrested and several were beaten up in lockup, while others were given electric shocks, a method of torture that has become commonplace in Manipur. Despite such state brutality, places like Chadong, the largest village that falls within submergence area, have made it clear to dam authorities that they are not to enter the village without permission of the village authorities.
Continued resistance from the villagers forced the Government of Manipur to sit down for talks in 1993. At the meeting on June 19, 1993 a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) was signed between affected villagers, represented by MDAVO, and the Government of Manipur. According to the MoA, the process of Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) was to be completed within two years of signing the agreement. However, by the time of my visit in 2010 little headway had been made.
Meanwhile several of the downstream villages came together to form the Mapithel Dam Construction Area Committee, which extended its cooperation to the project authorities. Villages like Louphong that today stand right by the dam site decided to accept the compensation offered by the state and moved to its current location in 1989-90. The compensation offered by the state was in the form of money to be given in seven installments meant to be spread over 6-7 years. However, such a form of ‘compensation’ has little meaning since no land can be purchased without lump sum amounts. Moreover, the amount received by those households that did not own individual land but received a share from the amount given for common village land has been as low as 30,000 rupees ($675)! Houses and community buildings like the Church were to be rebuilt at the expense of the state, but were in fact built by the villagers themselves. Now a part of MDACTO, these villages have come to realise the promises made by the state were false; the quality of life has deteriorated as a result of the combined affects of relocation, dam construction and militarization, and the nature of monetary compensation was a farce. Finally, after the government had dragged on the compensation process for more than 20 years, MDACTO joined hands with MDAVO in demanding a review of the R&R policy.
While R&R work has stalled, actual construction work has been sporadic. The atmosphere at the highly-militarized construction site is tense. In 1997, a Ceasefire Agreement was signed between the Government of India and Naga armed militant groups, and in 2008, a Suspension of Orders (SoO) was signed with Kuki armed militant groups. Despite these agreements, state militarization is intense near the project site, leading to a high degree of surveillance and restriction of mobility. Though construction of the dam began in 1989, it soon stopped due to the unrest. It restarted in 2005 only to be stopped again. In 2007 the coffer dam was built, and following its construction, work on the dam stopped again. Company officials claim that five of its workers were killed by unknown armed groups in 2008. Following this latest spate of deaths (apparently similar incidents have occurred in the past), a fresh wave of militarization took place. Presently the dam site and its surrounding area have armed forces at every turn and hilltop, who quickly spot outsiders in the area and follow their every move. The armed forced deployed here include Assam Rifles (AR), India Reserve Battalion (IRB) and the Border Security Force (BSF).
During my own visit to the area while riding pillion on a motorcycle to the relocated Louphong, within a minute of our arrival, a jeep with 7 IRB commandos drove into the village. Six of them, guns at hand, jumped out before the jeep had even come to a complete halt and spread throughout the village, while one of them, David, came up to my host inquiring about me. Since I came from Delhi, I got an invite to the dam site and a meeting with Sarabjit Randhawa, manager of Progressive Construction Limited. Locals have limited access to the militarily-protected site (of which I received a personalised tour!), and Ms. Randhawa said that Honrei (my host) was the first person from Chadong she had met inside the dam site. Her access to the upstream villages is also limited since she isn’t allowed to travel there without heavy security. The company claims it is not responsible for the problems in the region; the matter is a conflict between affected villagers and the Government of Manipur. As for their part, they have been given a job by the Government, and are here to finish it. However, they still build the dam, now about 70% complete, despite disputed claims to the surrounding lands, large parts of which will be submerged by the reservoir.
Ironically, the central government’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has built a micro-hydroelectric plant in Chadong. This could well provide electricity to the area, but it has not been completed due to the embarrassment it will cause, given the claims of the Government of Manipur that Mapithel, a mega-dam, is being built to provide electricity to this region. Adding to the irony, this plant has been built by the central government in the submergence area. Locals that have been in a state of limbo for the last 31 years have set aside repair works and developmental works in the area, not knowing whether the dam will submerge these efforts. In 2003, however, in a bold step to challenge the Government of Manipur, several people including my host joined together to build a school, the United Christian Academy, within the proposed submergence area in Riha village. This school stands tall as a symbol of resilience of the locals to resist the force of the State in imposing what it terms as ‘development’.
In 1998 a new R&R policy was formulated to provide just rehabilitation to affected communities, but little was done. During my visit in 2010, no comprehensive rehabilitation had taken place. In 2008, under pressure from both MDAVO and MDACTO, an Expert Review Committee for Rehabilitation and Resettlement was constituted by the Government of Manipur to re-review R&R in light of another ten years passing by! The review and subsequent R&R that is to be agreed on by both parties is meant to be completed a year before the project ends. While the project was due for completion in March 2011, the Review Committee continues its review even in April 2011. The present target for completion of the project is now March 2012.
In the latest instance of violation of human rights, a women’s rally on 3 November 2008 was attacked by the police, grievously injuring one woman who is now disabled for life and injuring many others. The rally was stopped from entering the dam site where they were to present a memorandum to dam authorities to meet the demands of affected people. This is only one example of many that demonstrates the misuse of the police and armed forces, which act with impunity in a heavily militarized area. The incident, which has been caught on tape, lays bare the state’s agenda to crush constitutional forms of resistance.
The oft-repeated accusation that such resistance movements are “anti-development” is but a conscious strategy of masking the skewed nature of state and industry-sponsored development projects that further deepen the gap between the rich and the poor, the city and the village. What the struggling people of the area are protesting is not development or roads and infrastructure. What they are protesting is the distribution of the benefits of that development. They are protesting against roads that are flanked by army posts that stop, interrogate, frisk, humiliate and restrict the mobility of locals and act as surveillance mechanisms. They are protesting against infrastructure that consistently serves the interests of those that consume more and more to forget about those that hardly consume. They are protesting against development that demands that one set of people make sacrifices for the ‘nation’ for nothing in return but bad faith and armed forces.
I am grateful to Ramthing Kasar and Honreikhui Kashung for their warm hospitality and sharp inputs that made the visit to Mapithel a truly insightful one.
This article is available in French: La lutte contre le barrage de Mapithel au Manipur en Inde