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India Wants Its Northeast To Be Its ‘Powerhouse’. What of the Indigenous People?

A view of the Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Arif Siddiqui/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

  • The Lower Subansiri project has been marred by controversy from the beginning due to apprehensions of adverse impact in Assam’s Dhemaji and North Lakhimpur districts.
  • In Ghunasuti area 50 km downstream of the dam site, members of the Mising community have alleged that flood frequency on Subansiri river has worsened since the dam’s construction resumed in 2019.
  • The Lower Subansiri project is not the only one that keeps people in India’s hilly northeastern region worried.
  • Speaking only of hydel projects costing over Rs 1,000 crore, the Union power minister said 29 such projects with 22,768 MW of cumulative capacity have obtained approvals but construction is yet to begin.
  • About three-fourths of that power generation will be in the five states in India’s northeast and Sikkim. As much as 15,858 MW is to come from 13 projects in Arunachal Pradesh alone.
  • The Lower Subansiri project will be dwarfed once India manages to build the proposed projects on Dibang river – the Dibang Multipurpose Project and the Etalin hydroelectric project.
  • Both are set in the Dibang river valley in Arunachal Pradesh, which is home to the indigenous Idu Mishmi and Adi communities.

This article is the first of a two-part series that examines India’s plans for over two dozen mega hydroelectric (hydel) power projects in the Himalayan and Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspots, straddling land inhabited by Indigenous people. Read the second article here.

Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim: At a place called Gerukamukh, on the border of the northeast Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, an unfinished dream of India’s National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) is giving many Assam residents recurring nightmares. Here, India’s biggest hydropower project, the 2,000-MW Lower Subansiri dam on the Subansiri river, is inching closer to completion.

Being built by NHPC, a public-sector company and India’s premiere hydropower agency, the Lower Subansiri project has been marred by controversy from the beginning due to apprehensions of adverse impact on environment, ecology, livelihoods and flood-management, especially in Assam’s Dhemaji and North Lakhimpur districts downstream of the dam.

Construction started in 2006, stopped in 2011 due to anti-dam protests and litigation before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), and resumed in 2019 after getting the tribunal’s clearance. However, due to the delay, the project cost escalated from the initial estimate of Rs 66,086.8 million in 2002 to Rs 199,924.3 million in 2020.

NHPC authorities have been announcing one achievement after another using social media platforms, as the project is expected to be commissioned in 2023. But in the last few months, it has been in the news mostly for the wrong reasons.

In June, following heavy rains in Arunachal Pradesh, water overflowed from the dam and inundated about a hundred villages in Assam. A flood struck the dam site on September 24, 2022, causing parts of the guardwall to collapse.  After this, the All Assam Students’ Union and the Raijor Dal staged separate demonstrations in Lakhimpur town demanding scrapping of the project.

On October 11, a major landslide occurred at the dam site, triggering further panic and protests. Then there was another landslide on October 27, prompting more protests.

These events are not exceptional. The dam site was hit and damaged by flood in 2019 and 2020 as well. In August 2021, following heavy rains in Arunachal Pradesh,  a few score villages in Lakhimpur were flooded after water rolled over the dam. They have prompted local residents and political and environmental activists to call the project “a ticking water bomb”.

“We have repeatedly demanded that the government stop this water bomb in the interest of public life and security,” said Nirmal Payeng, a resident of Lakhimpur and an activist with the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS). “Otherwise, there will be intense protests. The guardwall has already collapsed. It is proven that the people are not secure from the NHPC’s water bomb.”

In Ghunasuti area in North Lakhimpur, 50 km downstream from the dam site, members of the indigenous Mising community have alleged that flood frequency and erosion on Subansiri river have been aggravated since the dam’s construction resumed in 2019, forcing people to relocate.

“Whenever they release water, it creates an emergency situation here. It becomes very difficult to protect cattle and houses,” said Dinesh Kutum, a resident of Balibheta village in Ghunasuti. “Agriculture is finished. Hundreds of acres of fields have gone underwater. The river’s erosion is eating farmland.”

Another Balibheta resident, Ananta Mihi, alleged that after the dam released a large amount of water in late September, the intensity of the current in the downstream increased manifold and exacerbated the erosion of the Subansiri river, forcing people living by it to relocate deeper inland.

The family of Madhujya Pegu was dismantling their residence, which stood about 10 metres from the river, on the day of my visit. They estimated the river could take one or two weeks to reach their home. They had found a small plot of land 2 km away where the house could be rebuilt, Pegu said. Four other families had relocated in the last seven days.

“When people downstream are being shifted from the riverside, they are being cut off from their roots,” said Lakhimpur resident Hemanta Madhab Gogoi, an activist of the Raijor Dal, the newly-launched political arm of KMSS. “Their life and livelihood was dependent on rivers.”

However, NHPC’s director of projects Biswajit Basu said in a written response that blaming the dam for increasing flooding would be inappropriate. According to him, in the last 45 years, there have been three floods every year of 8,000 cubic metre per second (cumec) magnitude – both figures on average – whereas 2022 had had two floods of 7,000 cumec magnitude. He also claimed that analysis of water discharge data from the partially constructed dam indicated there was a moderation of flood peak by 10%.

Of the 30-km river-bank protection work that NHPC is taking up downstream, work on up to 23 km has been completed using the “latest technology of slope protection works with jack-jetty, geo-bags, sack gabion, gabion mattress etc.,” in consultation with institutions like the IITs at Guwahati and Roorkee, Basu said. However, places 40-50 km downstream, such as Ghunasuti, were “too far away”  and “not in the scope of the NHPC”.

To allay safety concerns, Basu said water level in the dam would be kept 15 metres below the full level of 205 metres and that early warning systems have been put in two place about 70 km upstream of the dam, which, he continued, “helped a lot in timely evacuation of man and machinery at construction site and protection in the downstream of dam during the flood events of June, September and October 2022”.

He also said the collapse of the guardwall was not a matter of serious concern as it was a temporary structure meant to be dismantled once the construction is complete. Besides, due to the long delay of the project, the wall had outlived its lifespan. The wall has been restored and adequate safety measures were being taken to arrest further landslides and strengthen the slopes, he finished.

The 2,000-MW Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project, nearing completion on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border, is the biggest hydel project India has undertaken so far. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya

Look northeast for hydropower 

The Lower Subansiri project is not the only one that keeps people in India’s hilly northeastern region worried. Speaking only of hydel projects costing over Rs 10,000 million, R.K. Singh, the Union minister for power and new and renewable energy, informed the Rajya Sabha in April 2022 that 29 such projects with 22,768 MW of cumulative capacity have obtained all the necessary approvals but construction is yet to begin.

About three-fourths of them – accounting for 16,715MW– are in the five states in India’s northeastern region and the adjacent Himalayan state of Sikkim. As much as 15,858 MW is to come from 13 projects in Arunachal Pradesh alone, plus another 52o MW from Sikkim, 186 MW from Nagaland, 85 MW from Meghalaya and 66 MW from Manipur.

Projects totalling 1,157 MW are currently under construction in this region – 1,037 MW in Sikkim and 120 MW in Assam. And there are even more projects not on this list as they cost less than Rs 1,000 crore each.

The Lower Subansiri project will be dwarfed once India manages to build the proposed projects on Dibang river in Arunachal Pradesh – the 2,880-MW Dibang Multipurpose Project (DMP) and the 3,097-MW Etalin hydroelectric project. Both are set in Dibang river valley, home to the indigenous Idu Mishmi and Adi communities.

According to Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers & People, the Indian government has been eyeing the northeastern region since the beginning of the millennium but could not make progress in the first two decades due to intense opposition. Protests will continue in this decade as well, he predicted.

Carrot and stick

Arunachal Pradesh is frequently called the “future powerhouse” of India for its hydropower potential. The state’s chief minister Pema Khandu had earlier blamed “petty politics played by some vested interests” for trying to stall hydel projects. “Those who put hurdles in developmental projects just for the heck of it are anti-nationals,” he had alleged. “Think how much will be our revenue when we start earning Rs 15,000 crore per year only from hydropower projects if implemented.”

This year, Khandu again said that “some individuals are trying to mislead the people of Arunachal about dams and it’s a worldwide conspiracy to stop India from developing.”

Among the two mega projects on Dibang river, the NHPC has taken up the DMP while the Etalin project will be developed by a public sector company, Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam. The latter has bagged four more projects in the state: Attunli (680 MW), Emini (500 MW), Amulin (420 MW) and Mihumdon 400 MW.

DMP, initiated in 2008, managed to get consent from landowners in 2013 following prolonged protests, and took another seven years to get environmental clearance and two stages of forest diversion clearance. The final clearance came in 2020. The land is in the NHPC’s possession and the project is awaiting final investment approval from the Government of India. The project cost is an estimated Rs 32,983 crore.

In 2019, the Government of India said that the total value of benefits to Arunachal Pradesh from free power and contribution to local-area development funds will be Rs 26,785 crore over the project life of 40 years. The NHPC said in a statement in February 2022:

“Dibang Multipurpose Project will be instrumental in bringing overall prosperity to the region in terms of infrastructure development and socio-economic development apart from the green energy generation and flood moderation in the downstream areas of Arunachal Pradesh & Assam.”

Currently, there is no strong protest against DMP as the owners of the land being acquired have accepted the compensation offered. The people downstream, who are not entitled to compensation because their land is not being acquired, have many apprehensions, however, even though they have not yet decided to take the path of active protests. Only a handful of environmental activists have raised concerns of public safety and adverse environmental and ecological impact.

In March 2022, the police in Arunachal Pradesh arrested an Assamese graffiti artist and an Arunachalese lawyer for defacing a mural depicting a dam on the boundary wall of the state secretariat in Itanagar. The duo was accused of writing “no more dams” in black on the mural. They were released on bail after two days.

Their advocate, Ebo Mili, an Idu Mishmi, told The Wire Science that the government’s carrot-and-stick policy broke the anti-dam movement.

“Initially the local people were against the dams because the indigenous peoples’ lives are deeply connected to forests and rivers and big dams will not only snap that very essential connection but also cause irreversible damage to the environment and livelihood,” Mili said. “But then politics was played and people got divided. Greed for money changed some people’s ideas, while some others went quiet due to the pressure they faced from the administration.”

According to Mili, from 2011 to 2014, the state administration repeatedly branded the protest as being spearheaded by Maoist insurgents. “Such [proclamations] scared the people and the movement fizzled out.”

Eja Pulu, a conservationist and activist in Roing, the headquarters-town of Lower Dibang Valley district, said that people living uphill, whose livelihoods are linked to fish, wouldn’t be able to run their families once the dam is up.

“When the dam blocks the flow of the river, how will the fish species that swim upstream to spawn during the breeding season come? How will breeding happen?” Pulu, also an Idu Mishmi, asked. “The aquatic life will be highly disturbed. Some species will go extinct.”

His fears may not be misplaced: the 66-MW Ithai barrage in Manipur had had a similar impact on the lives of the fishing community in villages upstream of the dam.

The Dibang Hydropower Project Downstream Area Affected Committee has been in discussions with the NHPC regarding safety and livelihood concerns. Gotem Tayeng, its chairman, said that people had to unwillingly accept the dam.

“What could people do when the state government took a decision and the Union government approved it? At present, the [committee] is not anti-dam. We want the dam. But we have our concerns, which we are conveying to the government and the NHPC,” Tayeng said.

He said that the organisation is going to submit a memorandum to the NHPC demanding that it use the inundation map and construct concretised guide bunds on both banks of the Dibang river from the dam intake point until its confluence with the Brahmaputra. “Only that can save the downstream people from future catastrophe. But per my knowledge, the NHPC does not yet have sufficient funds allocated for such work,” he said.

For the Etalin project, which involves the diversion of 1,165.66 ha of forest land and the felling of around 2.8 lakh trees, the government has obtained affected landowners’ consent and environment clearance. But the project is yet to receive forest clearance.

In 2020, some environmental activists formed a civil society group called Dibang Resistance to oppose the Etalin project. One of its organisers, Bhanu Tatak, a member of the Adi tribe and a young painter, alleged that consent and approvals are being “manipulated and manufactured in corporate interest”.

“Our concerns are not limited to the Dibang river basin but the whole of the biodiversity-rich and fragile Himalayan region,” she said. “It is very difficult to fight two governments [state and Union] but we must try to do whatever we can to prevent such devastation.”

NHPC’s Teesta State IV dam in Sikkim has been in the pipeline for over a decade, but it has failed to obtain forest clearance because four gram sabhas have rejected the proposal. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya

Battle in a sacred land

Whether the scattered voices of concern against the projects in Dibang river valley will have any impact on the dams’ fates remains to be seen. But in Sikkim’s Dzongu valley, local residents are propping up more active resistance against the proposed 520-MW Teesta Stage IV dam.

In Sikkim, the Himalayan transboundary river Teesta has been dammed twice: by the 1,200-MW Teesta Stage III in upper Sikkim and the 510-MW Teesta Stage V in lower Sikkim. The 500-MW Teesta Stage VI further south is under construction. The new dam is proposed in between Stages III and V, on the last free-flowing stretch of the Teesta.

The project has been in the pipeline since 2006. It is sprawled over 10 gram panchayat units; six on the left bank of the river have given their consent while the four on the opposite bank – in Dzongu – have rejected the project. Getting the consent of the gram sabha, or the village assembly, is necessary under the Forest Rights Act 2006. In October 2022, the state government called another meeting of the gram sabha at the right-bank gram panchayat unit of Lum Gor Sangtok to reconsider the same proposal. The gram sabha rejected it again.

“These four gram panchayats have clearly, very clearly and loudly, said that we don’t want this project and we reject Stage IV. Yet the government wanted them to reconsider,” said Gyatso Lepcha, secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta, a civil society organisation protesting the Teesta Stage IV project since its conception. “Does it mean that the government is going to hold more gram sabha meetings until we say yes?”

“Dzongu is a protected area and the holy land for the Lepcha community,” he added. “It’s the indigenous Lepcha people’s last bastion. We have to protect it.” According to the Sikkim government website, “Dzongu has been established as an official reserve for the Lepcha people, the aboriginal inhabitants of Sikkim.”

There are, of course, people in favour of the dam. In July, a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Dzongu met NHPC officials demanding speedy implementation of the project. In September, some pro-dam landowners organised a rally in the district headquarters at Mangan.

The majority of the locals, however, appear to be against the dam. In October, during a football tournament in Dzongu, members of a team from Hee Gayathang village sported jerseys with “Save Teesta” written on them. One of the members of the team, Norden Lepcha, told this reporter that people who do not want the dam were in the majority.

“Those who allowed Teesta V are facing a lot of harassment due to floods and cracks in houses,” he said. “They are now in trouble and are protesting a lot of things. But they have already made the mistake of their life. They shouldn’t have allowed it in the first place. Now, nothing can be done.”

In Dikchu, the site of the Teesta Stage V, floods and landslides have repeatedly caused panic. In June 2019, following a cloudburst in North Sikkim, floods washed away the NHPC guest house in Dikchu. Next month, a massive landslide occurred near the site. In 2020, another major landslide followed near the Dikchu dam, but NHPC officials claimed that the dam was not damaged.

According to Tek Bahadur Chhetri, a resident of Lower Rakdong area near Dikchu, landslides have become worse since the dam was commissioned in 2008. “Private land, farmland and sources of water are subsiding towards the river, houses and roads are cracking. NHPC doesn’t listen to any complaints. Whom do we approach?” Chhetri asked.

He said the experience of Teesta stage V has convinced people living in the proposed Teesta IV’s area to oppose the project. “The chief minister of the government of the time told us that we will get golden birds if we gave land for the project,” Chhetri recalled. “We believed his words, the people were hopeful, and they gave away their golden land. We had no idea such things were going to happen. If we knew, we would have objected.”

Tila Chhetri, a homemaker in Lower Rakdong village, showed this reporter the cracks in the walls and floor of her house. She alleged that the dam was responsible: “That’s happening every year. We repair them every year but they still get bigger. We told the NHPC authorities and the government but nothing happened.”

NHPC’s Biswajit Basu said residents of areas around the dam site have been demanding compensation since 2015, due to which joint inspections were conducted by the state government and NHPC officials and that those inspections found no link between the damage and the dam’s construction.

“Keeping public sentiments in mind, the organisation has internally sanctioned damage compensation to the tune of Rs 12.49 crore but its execution is awaiting the state government’s approval,” he said.

NHPC has carried out both engineering and afforestation measures to stabilise landslide zones in the neighbourhood, he added.

Residents of villages near Teesta Stage V in Sikkim attribute cracks in their houses to the project. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattachrya

But in Dzongu valley, most of the local residents that this reporter met were convinced that they were duty-bound to disallow the Teesta IV project. Lakden Lepcha, a Buddhist monk at the Passingdong monastery and the president of the sangha of Dzongu, an organisation of monks, is playing a leading role in keeping monks of the region united against the project.

He said the Lepcha, who are nature-worshippers, hold their hills and rivers in a special place and treat them as deities.

“Not just monks, common people too are opposing the dam,” Lepcha said. “Village assembly meetings have passed resolutions saying we don’t want the dam. Development is the government’s responsibility. Development does not happen because of the arrival of a company.”

He said the monks were not going to give in under pressure from the administration. “We’ll do something. If the government tries to pressurise us, we’ll pressurise them too.”

Even those living uphill from the project site, in picturesque villages like Lighthem, Mantan and Tingvong, are wary of the dam’s adverse impact. “In Lingthem, people are well aware of the dam and everyone wants the project scrapped,” said Dup Tshering Lepcha, a young entrepreneur.

The Teesta Stage IV is not the only project facing opposition in Dzongu valley. The 300-MW Panam hydroelectric project, currently stalled for various reasons, is also facing strong opposition. In 2016, a major landslide near the site created a massive lake at Mantan, in upper Dzongu, near Lingthem. Work did not resume thereafter.

“If such landslides happen after the dam is built, the whole of Donzu would be devastated,” Dup Tshering said.

The Sikkim government, however, seems to have a different plan. In October, S. Sushil, the officer on special duty to the chief minister of Sikkim, tweeted an appeal to hydropower companies to invest in the state. At the end of October, the NHPC chairman and managing director met Chief Minister Prem Singh Tamang to discuss the Teesta IV project, after which the company claimed that Tamang “assured support for early clearance of the project”.

How the government can offer clearance without obtaining a no-objection from the gram sabhas remains to be seen.

Is the government overlooking the environmental and climatic aspects while pushing for hydroelectric power in the Eastern Himalaya? Read the second and final part of this series to find out.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.

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