08 / 2011
A 116m high dam that is presently under construction on the Assam- Arunachal Pradesh border and on the river Subansiri has attracted controversy like no other project has in recent times. And it seems like the conditions of this controversy are contained in the landscape as a result of which they may continue as long as the project exists.
The initial feasibility studies for the project were undertaken by the Brahmaputra Board way back in 1983. The execution of the project was entrusted to National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), a Public Sector Company in 2000. Once built, this 2000 MW project will be the biggest project in the country and the first of such a size to be taken up in the northeastern region, identified as one of the most seismic areas, a biodiversity hotspot and a home to a large number of diverse indigenous communities.
This is not the only river that has a proposal for a dam on it. Since early 2000 upto march 2010, over 117 MoUs have been signed by the Government of Arunachal Pradesh. Out of these, MoUs with private firms for 10 major hydropower projects target the generation of 30,000 MW in 10 years. Most of these rivers that have proposals for dams on them flow from China into India and finally through Bangladesh. The Lower Subansiri project being built on the river after it flows down the himalayan regions of Western Arunachal Pradesh and into the state of Assam is likely to alter the very nature of the river downstream.
The opposition to the Subansiri dam that began in 2003 following a major meeting called by a local student organisation, the Takam Mishing Porin Kebang (TMPK), has risen mainly from the challenge to two commonly held expert views about dam building based on conventional wisdom and experience of indian proponents of such projects. The first is that the projects in the Northeast will affect only small numbers of people. The Lower Subansiri project was given a No Objection Certificate from the state in 2002 and granted environmental clearence in July 2003. The Environmental Impact Assessment report and the documents presented at the mandatory Environmental Public Hearing that was conducted at Gerukamukh in Assam on September 4, 2001 stated that only 38 families in two villages would be affected by the project. Compared to the many firsts that this project would bring to the development starved Northeast, and the fame the region would receive by setting off the process of becoming India’s PowerHouse, this cost of having to compensate a small number of families or resettle them elsewhere seemed a small price to pay.
While India has had the disrepute of building approximately 4000 dams since Independence which have officially affected large numbers of people, some of who are still waiting for rehabilitation, compensation, etc, this has today become one of those few cases where there is not even an official recognition of the number of people who will be affected by the project. The opposition to the project from the people of Upper Assam brought to light a significant oversight in the accounting of the human costs of dam building. The calculation of people who are likely to be affected only takes into account those whose lands or homes will be submerged by the creation of a reservoir. This may have indeed been the greatest impacts when the projects being built were in Central, Eastern or Western India. However, in the himalayan region, where the rivers flow through narrow gorges and then open up into wide valleys, the situation is quite different.
The Peoples Movement for Subansiri Valley is a group made up of several indigenous organisations, student groups and affected communities. It has been at the forefront of opposition to the project on the grounds that it is the large populations of people who populate and cultivate the flood plains in Assam who stand to face all the risks of the project. These risks are in the nature of chance events such as the great earthquake of 1950 that brought down so much debris and silt from the upper regions that the bed of the Brahmaputra rose and the waters broke all earlier course. A project on such a landscape multiplies the devastation that such an event could cause. The groups opposing the project demand that all the people who live downstream of the proposed biggest hydropower station be declared affected.
Other than this worry that a catastrophic event such as an earthquake or cloud burst could alter the basic parameters such as land stability and volume of water in the river, there is a far greater impact that the project will have on a everyday basis. The project is proposed to be operated as a run-of-the-river project where the flowing river water will cause the turbines to produce electricity. However himalayan rivers get lean during winter as the upper reaches freeze up.
During these months, the flood dominated landscape of the Subansiri valley transforms. The flood waters have drained and the land is made fertile by the annual deposition of silt. It is flush with grasses and is grazed by the large number of cattle owned by people of these regions. Driftwood that flows down is collected and sold. Fish and other food are grown in the wetlands known as beels. The expansive riverine sand spits or chapories, exposed only during these months are sown with paddies. To anyone travelling by boat from Dibrugarh to Bogibeel ghat, the economic importance of the lean season is apparent by the bustling activity of people, their animals and goods.
The benefits of the lean season to the landscape and the people will be lost once the dam is operational. During this time, the project will have to store water for longer periods to be able to generate peak load electricity. This cycle of diurnal storage and release of water, much higher than what would normally flow in the river during winter, will lead to ‘winter floods’. As pointed out repeatedly at different fora by Neeraj Vagholikar, a colleague engaged in the dams debate in the region, this poses a different dimension to the debate on dams so far. Since most dam projects have been storage reservoirs, the repeated complaint that has arisen from these sites is that the river is reduced to a trickle downstream of the dam. As a result of dogged activism by affected people and environmental groups, the regulations now require a minimum flow to be maintained during the operational phase of the projects. In the new sites for hydropower production in the Northeast, the downstream areas stand to suffer dam induced winter flooding. These artificially produced daily floods will also be much colder than the annual monsoon floods.
These lean season activities are important for the livelihood of some of the poorest peasant and pastoral communities that have made Assam their home. Many of them are migrants and landless communities without any constitutional or legal safeguards. For a decade now, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a mass based peasant movement has advocated for their rights. The movement is now a pivotal part of the struggle against the Lower Subansiri project. Together with the groups of Upper Assam that have worked with communities on flood relief and rehabilitation programmes and the All Assam Students Organization (AASU), the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), the Takam Mising Porin Kebang (TMPK) and people directly affected by activities of the dam project, they have brought immense pressure upon the politicians, technical experts and intellectuals of Assam to envision an alternative to dam centred development.
Due to their mobilising actions, more and more elected representatives from the opposition parties in the State Assembly have engaged in the debate on whether downstream areas will benefit or be affected by a dam. A multi-party committee of the Legislative Assembly was set up to investigate into the matter in July 2009. After conducting several Public Hearings and discussions, it submitted its final report in March 2010 asking for the suspension of the project for the sake of the security of the people of Assam. The Central Government also set up a Committee comprising technical experts from Gauhati University, Dibrugarh University and Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati. The interim report submitted by them raises concerns about the geological and technical aspects of the project. A more significant impact of this mobilisation has been on policy. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, the nodal agency for Environment Impact Assessment and grant of environment clearances, has begun to include downstream studies in the Terms of Reference given to the project proponents so that these issues are studied through the EIA process. This does not necessarily imply that these issues will indeed be studied well enough to influence decisions on projects as the implementation of exisiting EIA norms has been fraught by many design and institutional constraints. An independent Technical Team has been set up by the Planning Commission in January this year. Comprising international experts, this group has been asked to study safety and stability of all dams, which are proposed to be constructed or under construction in Arunachal Pradesh, including the Subansiri Project.
Though several debates have revolved around the scientific and technical issues that the project raises, it seems to have little decisive role in the fate of the project. The Centre and State of Assam, both run by Congress governments seem to make a concerted attempt to clear the hurdles for these projects despite the unaddressed technical deficiencies. Repeated references are made to the Chinese plans to build dams on these rivers on their side of the border. Speaking at a meeting in April this year, Minister for Water Resources Salman Khurshid made it clear that India must build these projects. It is an agreed idea among the supporters of dams in this region that in the light of China’s plans we will be able to claim water rights over the Brahmaputra basin only if we start constructing dam projects on them.
In order to weaken the public opposition to these projects, since 2010 several well known activists who have been speaking about the impacts of these dams, raising awareness and developing the space for an engaged debate on the scientific, technical and ethical issues of dam building have been identified as maoists. While they were always termed as anti-national, anti-development, agents of foreign power etc this is the first time that they are being specifically assigned a label that has been caricatured by the central government and media in recent times as a violent, senseless and opportunistic political formation that takes up local development issues to mobilise troops against the State.
A September news report quoted the Government’s spokesperson stating that the state government will convince the All Assam Students’ Union to withdraw its opposition to the project by showing their willingness to implement the recommendations of the Expert Committee. However the government, he said, is unwilling to speak to the KMSS calling it a group that is “obsessed with agitation”.
The struggle against the Subansiri project has heightened this year after NHPC declared that the project will be ready for commissioning in 2014 and the flash floods in Upper Assam in June this year due to the breaching of temporary dam structures. To protect the project the turbines had to be removed. Now, the opposition groups have called for a united stand to disallow the Company to bring back the turbines by road or river transport. What happens at this site will be crucial to determine the future of Assam as a downstream State.
This article is available in French: Une bataille sans fin : la lutte acharnée contre le projet de barrage sur la rivière Subansiri en Assam
Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: manjumenon1975(@)gmail.com