Thursday, June 30, 2011

Political Ecology of Big Dams in India’s North-East Frontier: Emerging Critical Issues and Environmental Concerns

Dilip Gogoi
[Is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Cotton College, Guwahati]

Dams, development and nationalism have historically evolved as potential agendas for nation building since 1950. The Nehruvian modernization dream was to transform agrarian India into a powerful industrialised nation based on scientific temperament. In the post 1990, these dreams have been more enthusiastically pursued to engulf our frontiers and borderlands as potential sites for the experimentation of modernity. Sanjib Baruah in one of his papers terms this as a process of ‘nationalizing frontier space’. The era of protected regime till the 1980 had a strong policy towards restricting mega structures to the core or mainland. The obvious reflection can be seen in Punjab, J&K and the North Eastern part of the country where big dams and heavy industries were not planned because of the regions proximity to hostile neighbours. In the post 1990 period one of the single determinant of India’s growth has been dragged by an acute power shortage. The growth of Indian economy is dependent on harnessing power from all potential sources. Hydro-power in this regards has emerged as a viable compliment to hydrocarbons, Coal, as a clean energy source and the Brahmaputra River basin its largest repository. Before the liberalization era power prospecting and harnessing was monopolised by public sector companies, however with the deregulation of this sector private players have conglomerated to harness more and more power. There is a spate of Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with different hill states. In the North East India, Arunachal Pradesh has the most vibrant potential to generate hydro power. However, the innumerable network of dams that are proposed for the different river basins in Arunachal Pradesh, do not only threaten displacement that are projected to be small as compared to their counterparts in Narmada and Tehri, but will have more complex outcomes as the communities in the states are innumerable, small in size and heterogeneous.

Big dams will have serious implication on the cultural bonds that the Arunachali tribes maintain. But, the challenge towards contesting such vehement resource use lies in understanding how marginal landscapes are integrated into a nationalist dream of integrating frontier space. The logic of resource exploration to propel the national economy is linked to the very process of the production of capital. Beyond the ecological consequences of mega projects, question of displacement of local communities, the cultural diversity of the local region presents unique challenge to the production of capital. Dam construction in recent years has invited lot of controversy. Lack of comprehensive EIA and project planning threatens local biodiversity and has tremendous downstream and upstream upheaval affecting livelihood and aquatic life. Poor EIA appraisal has already led to unwanted deluge in the lower riparian areas of Assam. Beyond these obvious imperatives of damming fast flowing Himalayan tributaries, the location of these dams in highly sensitive seismic zone hinges the danger of flash floods in the event of a dam burst triggered by earthquake tremors. Underscoring the geo-ecological sensitiveness of the region, dam building is promoted as the most important developmental goal for the Himalayan state and the north-eastern region in particular. The Power Grid Corporation of India is one power sector player that has integrated the regions power potential with the nation. This mean the power produced here will be transmitted to other parts of the country to server the deficit regions. It strongly permeates the philosophy, the Nehruvian idea of development that marginal communities should pay for the development of a nation. Big Dams do not only represent states resourcefulness they also generate a sense of nationalism. This paper looks into not only the traditional challenges posed by big dams and but also tries to look into the other challenges, posed by ideas of modernization, developmentalities and privatization of resource use. What are the stakes of the local community? Here it will also be interesting to see how the neo-Nehruvian dream of calling to duty the marginalised people of the periphery are negotiated by local elites who act as brokers in bridging nexus with corporate interest in power projects.

State of Northeast Today

The north eastern region, which comprises eight Indian states , is connected with mainland India through a narrow corridor of land and , it has some unique features which sets it apart from the rest of the Indian landmass. The geo-strategic location of the North east region is also unique as it is surrounded by China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. The contemporary NE India is witnessing grave challenges: from within – contested ethnicities and complex historicity, from external environment – especially from Bangladesh, China and Myanmar and finally from the Indian state in context of not granting sufficient autonomy, regional underdevelopment and disparity which is responsible for the instability in present day NE India. There is a growing tension between the center and the people of the periphery regions due to the predominance of the center in certain matters and also due to the negligence towards the region which resulted in widespread unrest and insurgency and people’s discontent in the region.

The area has a rich natural resource base and the potential to emerge as a developed region. However due to the lack of effective strategies and will on the part of the Indian state and the on-going armed insurgency, the region has lagged behind the rest of the developed areas of the country. among the people there is a perceived notion that New Delhi is treating NE India as a “neo-colony” within India the way the British did with the region. There are several popular uprisings against this attitude of the center the most recent being in the context of the anti-dam uprisings hugely protesting against the construction of mega dams in ecologically and seismologically sensitive zone.

Projecting NE as India’s Future Power House

As India has a highly centralized planning process which is a conventional top down model, it identifies north east India as future power house considering its vast potential of hydroelectricity generation. India in order to keep up the development pace and growth India needs power. As India is witnessing several resistance movements against dams in various parts of India, northeastern region is an easy catch because of its —strategic location, vast potential for power generation and relatively low level of population density in comparison to other parts of India. In 2001 the Central Electricity Authority has done a preliminary study of the hydroelectric potential of the various Indian rivers. It has identified 168 prospective projects in the Brahmaputra Basin alone, which could generate more than 60,000 mw of hydel power.

On the basis of this report, GOI and Arunachal Pradesh Govt decided to initiate both medium and large dams through memorandums with the both Public Sector Power Company as well as private sector power companies. Accordingly, large dams are being constructed in many parts of ecologically sensitive zones of Arunachal Pradesh including 2000 MW Lower Subansiri Dam without addressing the serious people’s concerns and proper downstream impact assessment. It generate considerable debates and invites popular resistance movement from the local people and the civil society specially in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh by the students bodies Such as AASU and KMSS. The expert committee, consist of IIT, Guwahati, Gauhati University and Dibrugarh University , in its reports raised serious concerns and faulty design of the lower Subansiri project .The Assam Assembly House committee report also showed similar view and suggested without comprehensive downstream impact assessment study and addressing the genuine grievances of people , there should not be construction of large dam , particularly lower Subansiri dam.

However, GOI is continuing the same stand without addressing the genuine apprehensions and risks involved in the mega dam construction in the region in the name of national interest. Recent debates and reports also suggest that while initiating the project, the concerned authorities have overlooked the probable impacts and did not conduct any comprehensive study including that on the downstream impacts as well on the ecological consequences. This raises the serious flaw of mega-project execution and brings to the forefront the ulterior motives behind the construction of mega dams, which goes against the people and the environment.

Social and Environmental Cost

In India, construction of hydroelectric projects needs mandatory environmental clearances from the Ministry of Environment and the Forest, GOI, to review the feasibility on environmental and social grounds. Based on their specific locations they could also require other permissions such as – forest clearance from MoEF and approval from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) if protected areas (PAs) are involved. An important part of the clearance process is Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Report which is a very crucial document in terms of decision making. However, EIA reports revealed insufficient and faulty study in the context of mega hydel projects specially – Kameng. Lower Subansiri, Middle Siang, Tipaimukh and Dibang. All of them without exception, very poorly highlighted the area of conservation of wildlife and critical ecology of the region .This is particularly very important as two out of three bio-diversity hotspots of India pass through the north east – the Himalayas and the Indo- Burma region. However quite interestingly this area is poorly documented and in the recent years biologists have discovered many new species as well as range extension of existing ones in the region.

In specific context of the Lower Subansiri Hydel Project it needs to be realized that it is situated at a highly susceptible environmental location, which has an extremely sensitive ecosystem and above all this it is a part of the Tally Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, known for inter-border diversity. It is also one of the 25 richest bio-diversity hotspots of the world. The region is also affluent in terms of ornithology as the Bird Life International has identified two Endemic Bird Areas in this region.

The region is immensely rich in terms of forest cover as it experiences a very high average rainfall rate which is conducive for the growth of thick vegetation. Besides sporting thick forest and a wide range of bird this area also houses an assortment of animals which are endangered. Examples of such species would be – Great Pied Hornbill, Himalayan Black Bear, Golden Cat, Hill Mayna, Flying Squirrels, and Wild Hog etc. certain varieties of flora and fauna have already been marked as risk species. The National Forest Policy of the country also states that forest which clothes steep slopes, catchments of rivers, lakes and reservoirs and geologically unstable terrain and other such ecologically sensitive areas should be severely restricted. Tropical rain/moist forests particularly in areas such as Arunachal Pradesh, Kerela, and Andaman & Nicobar Islands should be totally safeguarded.

Field survey has revealed that the large scale mining and construction work has had a serious impact on the river flow by increasing the sedimentation. Muddy water and wide-ranging deforestation has resulted in acute land, water and air pollution in this ecologically sensitive zone located at the foothills of the Himalayas in the backdrop of an inadequate knowledge base. Critical concerns such as land degradation, forest land acquisition, generation of muck, increase in turbidity of water, water pollution due to various project activities and sewage disposal, cutting of trees, destruction of wildlife habitat, increased air pollution and most importantly displacement of local village people are witnessed from the project area. Besides all this one most imperative feature which totally goes against the construction of dams in this part of the country is that, this area is a seismic zone as it falls in Seismic Zone – V and thus is highly prone to destructive earthquakes like that of 1950 and periodic occurrence of earthquake in the region. Environmentalists, experts stressed on this vulnerability of the region and its devastative consequences. High pressure of water or a massive earthquake or even a major landslide could increase the flow of the river during monsoon and thus cause a havoc in the lower part of the project area which has thickly populated towns and villages. And this might also have adverse effects on the world heritage site Kaziranga and the much prized possession of the region, the largest river island of the world, Majuli.

Another serious concern is the displacement of the indigenous people, in the downstream area, the violation of their community rights and their livelihood and the issue of their resettlement and rehabilitation. These issues are perceived as grave because community rights are linked to the sources of livelihood of these people living in the lap of nature, specially the Mising community in Assam. The river and its resources are an integral part of the lives of these people living in and around the river; hence inaccessibility to the river and its resources poses as a hindrance in the running of their daily lives. Apart from the downstream people’s livelihood is also at stake, because they primarily rely on natural ecology for their agriculture and other livelihood sources. Hence, probable apprehensions such as large-scale displacement as well as sense of insecurity and environmental consequences cannot be ignored.

Politics behind the Mega Dams in the North East

There is a lot going on in as far as the construction of dams is concerned. The issue is not just one, but many matters entangled with one another. Within this major issue there are many sub-issues which are a matter of concern. The Government of India had adopted a neo liberal policy which is capital intensive and people insensitive. Thus this development through dams is regarded by many as anti-people which is solely focused on benefiting the government. The issue becomes further more crucial because it deals with the northeastern part of India. The northeast is projected as potential power house due to the fact that the GOI is offered strong counter resistance for its development projects in other parts of the country. It has also a strategic dimension as China frequently claims Arunachal as a part of Chinese territory and also China is building a dam in the upstream area. The origin of the Brahmaputra and most other rivers is in the Chinese territory and they flow through Arunachal and Assam of India and finally touch Bangladesh. Hence three countries are involved, thus the strategic importance of the rivers is by large enhanced. Inside India again these rivers by and large pass through two or more states and hence can be characterised as inter-state rivers. And thus unfortunately, the downstream states like Assam are completely ignored in the context of both policy making and shared benefits.

In the context of the proposed mega power project, the plans are also perceived by the local people as essentially neo-colonial in nature because GOI is not addressing local genuine concerns and is bypassing the people’s interests in the name of national growth. Hence critics argue that it ignores the very foundation of equitable justice. The proposed power distribution centre for the project has been fixed outside the region which also causes centre-periphery dilemma as the people at the periphery perceive that the GOI is pursuing a neo-colonial policy bypassing local interests. Also, because of the popular resistance movements spear headed by AASU and KMSS, are fully supported by the civil society including eminent activists like Medha Patkar, the movement is gaining momentum but GOI seems adamant and is sticking to it neo-liberal agenda.

Towards Environmental Security and Sustainable Development

To come to a solution on this issue is a rather critical exercise, as it would require a reconciliation of many critical dimensions of the issue. What is required as of now, that is in the immediate context of mega dam construction is --- identifying the critical environmental concerns through a comprehensive environmental impact study covering all the proposed dams in the region including the Lower Subansiri Hydel Project. As a mere project specific study does not suffice and does not provide a holistic picture of anticipated impacts, hence a comprehensive study is the need of the hour. Secondly it is equally important to address the people’s concerns in a more apposite manner. The Government should keep in mind that development is definitely a priority; we need development for sure, but development for whom? Are the people right? Hence if a development project itself becomes the cause of anxiety for a people that what good is such development?

Thirdly, there should be Permanent Liability Act, back by proper rule of law in order to effectively address the people’s genuine concerns like alternate livelihood, resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaces in case of construction of such big dams. Such an act is imperative because only then will the misery and the woes of the displacees and the sufferers be properly addressed. Projects like mega dams can seriously alter and affect the lives as well as the patterns and sources of livelihood of the indigenous communities who rely to a great extent on community resources like river, land etc. only a Parliamentary legislation can protect their indigenous and human rights and put an end to such grievances of the lot who suffer in the name of such parochial development. Fourthly, there should be initiatives on behalf of the Regional water resource authority for utilizing natural water of north east India with a sustainable approach as these are interstate rivers. This can also provide some kind of a gradual solution to the proper use of water for power generation etc.

What is needed is a coming together of development, sustainability and people’s progress. In brief we need development which is sustainable and people sensitive. An approach which brings development parallel to environment and which also does not overlook the convenience of the people concerned. Therefore the linking of local needs with nation building needs a more amicable cooperative federal approach rather than absolutist central approach.

We as people of the 21st century should be foresighted. We need to think not only about our survival and development but also about the sustainability and development of the future generations, of the people who are yet to come. Hence our approach should be one which is based on --moving ahead on the pattern of -- thinking globally acting locally and living ecologically. Sustainable development, that is, accessing nature sustainably without destroying the needs of the future generations, should be our goal.

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