Damming the Northeast

A new resistance in the Indian northeast could lead to the damning of the insensitive national developmental paradigm

Subansiri Lower hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh: one of a potential 117. ANUPAM NATH / AP PHOTO
01 October, 2010

IN THE PAST TWO MONTHS, a new kind of resistance has taken shape in India’s northeast—and it stands apart from the separatist insurgencies and local nativist movements that seek to uphold the identity and rights of indigenous population groups. The new movement is about land rights, environment protection and social defence, and it was shaped during the protests this year against big dams in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

In Assam, peasants and environmental protection groups have been joined by student-youth radicals to stop the movement of materials for the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri Hydro-Electric Project in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. The local intelligentsia, thinking national, question the big-dam development paradigm of using the region’s considerable resources without paying heed to the fears such big projects generate.

These concerns cut across every class and race in the Northeast, especially in the polyglot state of Assam, where the distress is typical of a lower riparian. These dams will be located in one of the world’s most seismically sensitive zones, so the fears of a dam collapse wiping out huge areas of Assam cannot easily be dismissed. In Arunachal Pradesh, there is apprehension about the displacement of the indigenous tribes and damage to their social-cultural fabric, and the adverse impact on the biodiversity hotspots that mark the state’s importance on the global biodiversity map. In Manipur, the Kukis and the Hmars dread displacement and the environmental impact of the 1500 MW Tipaimukh hydro power project.

Assam’s power minister, Pradyut Bordoloi, while addressing the Northeast Power Ministers Meet, asked his Arunachal Pradesh counterpart, Jarbom Gamlin, to stop the “wanton construction of big dams.” Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu denounced Assam’s attitude as “anti-national,” sparking a furious altercation during which Bordoloi reminded both his Congress colleague across the state border and New Delhi that “Assam’s rights as a downstream state have to be protected.” Gamlin eventually had to take refuge behind the Centre, saying, “They have the technical know-how to say which project is safe and which is not. Assam should take up the issue with Delhi.”

The Northeast challenged India’s post-Independence nation-building project in the 1950s through the 70s because it felt its distinct identity was under threat; it is now challenging the country’s current development paradigm, particularly its obsession with big dams, because it feels the Centre is not bothered about the possibility of damage to the region’s manifest socio-cultural heterogeneity, its environmental concerns, and even its physical security. It sees the resurgence of the ‘exploitation syndrome’—that New Delhi is prepared to ride roughshod over regional concerns to fulfil the goals of national development.

The Centre has disclosed plans to build at least 117 dams with a total capacity of 56,000 megawatts in Arunachal Pradesh. Apart from a rash of micro hydro power projects, mega projects have been planned on the state’s five major river basins—Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, Dibang and Lohit. At least another giant dam is to be built on the Tipaimukh in Manipur. Since these projects are being considered as infrastructure, they are meant to contribute substantively to state budgets in the coming years. But the resistance is also to the here and now.

The problem lies in the region’s relatively recent projection as, literally, a powerhouse, a major resource to fuel India’s energy-starved but rapidly booming economy. (While the Tipaimukh project reaches back to the early 1990s, the dams in Arunachal Pradesh are post-millennial conceptions.) And the government seems desperate to push through its developmental plans. More than 30 Memorandums of Understanding involving 103 power projects were signed in the five months preceding the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in Arunachal Pradesh.

All this has added a new dimension to the region’s palimpsest of old problems and apprehensions. As India completes a decade in the 21st century, and is acquiring the identity of a power of some reckoning, New Delhi needs to get it across to the people of this troubled (and distant) region that its state policy will be mindful of the needs of the legitimate stakeholders.

Tribal leaders must be engaged through local interlocutors and compensation packages must be drawn up by those responsive to the cultural and social mores of the people. It is unfortunate that this has not happened so far.

Prior Informed Consent (PIC) of the indigenous groups, as stressed by human rights activists like Babloo Loitongbam, could have provided a platform for multi-stakeholder dialogue, which should include concerned environmentalists, civil society representatives of lower riparian Assam, engineers, private companies, representatives of state and central government and existing informal groups working on human rights and other issues. This is integral to the process of shaping a consensus on such a contentious issue.

In order to sustain the process, however, medium or large projects should only be allowed after a thorough environmental impact assessment is carried out. Public hearings should be monitored by a group of representatives, and the process of bidding by private companies should be made transparent. The fears of the tribals that migrant labourers working on the projects might encroach on their culture and disturb the region’s demographics should be adequately addressed.

As has been recognised the world over, the ‘big dams’ issue is a complex one with major and often irreversible consequences. As riparian issues become increasingly central to debates on development, the protests in the Northeast drive home a very important point for those who run the country: the damming of the Northeast could lead to the damning of the developmental paradigm that is blindly at work in the country.