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Up for grabs: new sites for private hydropower production in Northeast India


08 / 2011

In the era of climate change, ‘clean’ development has acquired an immediate urgency. Sustaining economic growth while simultaneously reducing the carbon footprint is now a crucial strategy for tackling issues of poverty or ensuring improved quality of life. It is in this context that hydro-electricity in India has re-emerged as a potential win-win energy solution: being a relatively low carbon emitter and offering itself as a renewable resource towards achieving positive development outcomes.

The Indian government’s enthusiastic embrace of hydro has, however, called for a dramatic geographical reorientation. Energy planners have increasingly directed their attention at the great Himalayan mountain ranges, which potentially offer some of the best sites for tapping flowing energy. These steep and high mountains are crisscrossed by innumerable torrential streams and cascading rivers that, according to them, possess near limitless possibilities for turning voluminous cusecs into kilowatts. In hydro, in fact, the Indian government has been enabled to imagine electrical energy not only as a cheap and abundant national resource but, significantly, as also providing the capacity to ‘green’ the national economy through clean energy.

Not unexpectedly, by shifting geographies for non carbon power, North East India (NE) ─ much of which is cradled in the shadow zone of the Eastern Himalayas ─ appears as a natural ‘standing reserve’ for harnessing hydro. A region uniquely endowed with raging fluvial powers and cliff dropping currents that cut across and connect a string of folded mountains, low lying hills and narrow valleys, before tumultuously unwinding as sluggish waters into wetlands and large saucer like depressions called ‘beels’. To many a civil engineer, the NE, perhaps, looks like a gallery of spigots; with countless natural ‘gunshot’ sites and deep valleys that are literally calling out for hydropower projects.

In recent years, over 168 major dams have been planned for the region with the exercise of building them being officially termed as ‘vital’ to reconciling imperatives for growth with agendas for development and for conserving the environment. To understand why regional development is so critical in the discourse of dam building in the Northeast, a historical understanding of how the region came to become a corner of the Indian Union from being at the intersection of South, South East and East Asia is critical. The partition of British Burma and British India in 1937 and then the partition of 1947 that created India and Pakistan resulted in the Northeast becoming a border region that is hemmed in by shared boundaries with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. The region, especially today’s Arunachal Pradesh was seen as the vulnerable part of the country after the war in 1962 when Chinese troops came in.

Prior to becoming the Seven Sisters as the Northeastern states are called, they were all part of undivided colonial Assam. State formation for all of them except Manipur and Tripura took place in graded steps from being Autonomous Councils and Union Territories. It was also not a very peaceful process for all and most official histories of these areas are locked in a narrative of insurgency and counter-insurgency. It seems that Statehood was earned in barter for accepting to be part of the Indian nation as well as for being allies with the Centre (New Delhi) in protecting the territory as part of the country even though there was little in common culturally or politically. But this in no way allowed them to function as federal units. As border areas that needed surveillance, transport, telecommunication and all other development projects were undertaken to strengthen the Centre’s eyes of these areas. Roads network is best in the areas from where Chinese came in, not necessarily where they may have been needed for local communities. In states like Mizoram, the arrangement of living spaces were reorganised as part of counter-insurgency operations.

Economic activity mostly revolved around an unsophisticated extractive system of harvesting raw wood, coal and tea and transporting it out of the region. In the case of wood, timber felling was brought to a crushing halt by the Supreme Court order of 1996. Incomes from tea are severely subject to market fluctuations and ecological conditions. Coal extraction, done manually, has faced much opposition on human rights and environmental grounds. With little by way of revenue sources, these young States were attached to the Centre for development funds. This relationship with the Centre as provider has been a source of much frustration to the new citizens of these states. The efforts to both develop yet control the states of the NE has resulted in the creation of agencies such as the North East Council and later the Department of Northeast Development. Most schemes designed by these agencies have a dual purpose of actively containing the actions of armed groups as well as reducing poverty. In such plans, the differences between development and counter-insurgency seem to blur.

The Central Water Commission’s 2001 study of the hydropower potential of the Brahmaputra basin and the subsequent quick moves made by National Hydro-electric Power Corporation (NHPC) and NEEPCO to undertake technical investigations in more than a dozen sites in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim can be seen in this light. As Public Sector companies with a monopoly over power generation, these experienced dam building agencies had collected all the required skills, contacts and strategies to get a project approved and set up. NHPC had by then already worked on sites in Rangit and Teesta V in Sikkim and Loktak in Manipur and its Chairman Yogendra Prasad was confident that his projects would sail through. They seemed to outweigh the State Governments in negotiations around siting of the project, compensation for land, the scale and time of the returns that State Governments may enjoy. In one instance, the Chief Secretary of Arunachal Pradesh Shri Ashok Kumar, the highest ranking State Government official, said that despite the system of the Inner Line Permit, where every person who is not a resident of the State is to obtain permission of entry, the movements of NHPC officials directly to the location of the Lower Subansiri project were unknown to him. He seemed to indicate that the politicians at the Centre had enough influence over those in the State to allow such circumvention of the State bureaucracy. Both the supporters of development by dams and the opponents understood the events unfolding as the Centre exerting its power over the pliable and dependent State Government.

The year 2002 saw sweeping amendments made to the Electricity Act whereby private players were allowed to compete in the sectors of power generation and distribution. States like Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim suddenly saw a frenzy of interest from private companies, many of them, first time dam builders, wanting to invest in hydropower. With much greater capital at their disposal and few rules that cannot be broken of greater profit margins, these Companies showed much greater flexibility in their terms of negotiation with the State governments. They were willing to pay more and pay quicker. In these Companies, the newly emerging hydropower states saw bail-outs packets from Central debts, a route to development on their own terms and a balance of political power in Centre-State relations. With private, green power flowing from the NE into the central grid, NE was to become a productive and revenue surplus regional unit. Dorjee Khandu, Arunachal’s Chief Minister, in an interview to Frontline stated that the State had already earned Rs. 1320 crores as upfront premium and processing fees by September 2010. There seemed to be no need to wait for the projects to be completed to rake in the much needed payments.

In this situation, the opposition to dams has become far more focussed yet challenging. The question now is not of domination of the Centre and the Public Sector companies under the national water bureaucracy over the views of the state governments on the use of the hydropotential of the rivers. The arena of resistance is clearly within the State and therefore compels those engaged in it to confront the layers of power that have sedimented through the process of Statehood and after. In many ways, these developments force the attention of scholars and activists to the issue of intra community relations and the politics of negotiation that animates it. Rather than viewing the Northeast region as one block, each state as one cohesive unit and each group of people as ‘the local community’ with certain ascribed characteristics such as nature loving, the realpolitik that pulls and pushes to form alliances and adversaries within and between people deserves attention. While the narratives of technology, development and conservation are still critical to understanding the debates on hydropower in the northeastern states, they would also need to address issues of state-making, class formation, intra community dynamics in their specific context. In order to take the question of development seriously in these states, all those interested will need to engage with the aspirations that people have in the present rather than with the stories of their past or of an utopian future.


production d’énergie, électricité, montagne, privatisation, gouvernance, barrage

, Inde


Environmental and social movements in India and Colombia



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(@)


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