Hydroelectric dams have been polarising for some time now, mostly because of where they’re located. India is currently planning many dams in the Himalayas. This is a biodiverse region, the birthplace of many rivers and home to many indigenous communities.
In the Dibang valley, in Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian government has been planning to set up the Etalin Hydropower Project over two rivers, the Dri and the Tangon, situated inside the Dibang catchment zone.
The controversy around the project has many aspects. One is environmental: close to three lakh trees are expected to be felled to make way for the dam, and the project site is home to several species of wildlife. But while these concerns have drawn the most attention thus far, the dam is also bound to be controversial for its impact on the identity and rights of indigenous tribes in the area, for challenges from an engineering point of view and for its untenable position from a techno-legal point of view.
The Idu Mishmi
The Idu Mishmi is an animist tribe in the Dibang valley. The Etalin project and the Dibang Multipurpose Dam (DMD), set to be built on the Dibang river, will directly affect their living areas and imperil their existence.
The DMD will divert 5,349 ha of land and affect 2,000 Idu Mishmi individuals. Etalin will divert 1,150.08 ha of land designated ‘unclassified state forest’ (UCF) and affect 285 families in 18 villages.
The Idu Mishmi have been living on these lands for centuries and consider them to be their own. They also coexist with the forest and wildlife. For these people, the land is their sole source of livelihood, so encroaching on their land will only force them to migrate away, and change the way they live.
In addition, according to official estimates, 3,800 and 5,800 workers will be hired for the Etalin and DMD projects, respectively. However, the region’s locals have contended that the two dams could facilitate a cumulative influx of about 27,000 workers into the region. Indigenous mountain tribes have always led a secluded lifestyle, their consumption balanced with what resources are locally available. So a sudden population explosion in the region will likely affect the natives.
The engineering marvel
The Etalin project proposes the construction of two dams, 101.5 metres and 80 metres high on the Dri and Tangon rivers, respectively. According to the project’s report, their reservoirs will submerge 83.32 ha and 36.12 ha of land, respectively. Several studies have shown that large reservoirs develop reservoir-induced seismicity, increasing the frequency of earthquakes in areas that already experience high seismic activity. Such quakes have been observed especially with dams over 100 metres high.
The Dibang valley falls in one of India’s most active seismic zones, and has experienced at least 34 earthquakes in the last century, including one of magnitude 8.6 in 1950. In these conditions, high dams with large reservoirs are ripe for disaster.
Additionally, the presence of thinning glaciers upstream of the proposed project threatens the dam’s structure. Thinning glaciers form glacial lakes that break and release lots of water in a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). A GLOF plus torrential rain increases erosion and leads to landslides that collect a large amount of sediments, rocks and vegetation on their way down.
Global warming and ongoing glacier recession make it difficult to correctly estimate the frequency and magnitude of GLOFs and their peak discharge. In such a scenario, if a deluge greater than what the dams’ reservoirs can withstand befalls the region, the reservoirs could experience structural failure.
In addition, the western plains of Assam already suffer from multiple dams in Bhutan. In the last decade, about a lakh families have lost their homes and more than 600 sq. km of farmland has been destroyed by floods. This scares the people living downstream. For them, these dams are ticking time bombs, and should the dams fail, the lives and livelihoods of millions will become endangered.
No Indian law clearly defines the term ‘indigenous people’. In Samatha v. State of Andhra Pradesh and Others (1997), the court said that government lands, forest lands and tribal lands in a scheduled area can’t be leased to non-tribal people or to private industry. In Kailas and Others v. State of Maharashtra (2011), the Supreme Court held that “the scheduled tribes are the original inhabitants of the country, who were the first people to reside in India and hence they be recognised as the indigenous people.” And in the famous Niyamgiri bauxite-mining case (2013), the court again recognised the rights of indigenous people over their land and forests. These judgements strengthen the hold the Idu Mishmi have over their land, at least in law.
The Arunachal Pradesh Land Settlement and Records Amendment Bill 2018 recognised the land rights of indigenous people and did away with customary principles of community land-holding. Critics said however that the Bill would only make it easier for companies and the government to acquire land from local tribes.
India is also a signatory to the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People, which recognises these peoples’ rights as derived from their political, economic and social conditions, and from their cultures, traditions, histories and philosophies – especially their right to their land.
The Essential Practices Doctrine (as invented in the Shirur Math case) protects the core religious practices of a community under Articles 25 and 26, and could have a say with the Etalin project as well since the dam could interfere with the Idu Mishimi’s right to access their primary site of pilgrimage, Athu Popu, just north of the project site.
Also read: Etalin Hydel Plant’s Future Now Hangs on Its Economic Viability
With over 169 dams proposed in the mountain state of Arunachal Pradesh – Etalin simply being one of the more controversial – the region’s rich biodiversity, unique cultures and ecosystems downstream are all under threat. The Government of India must instead reconsider its plan to convert Arunachal Pradesh into a powerhouse for the rest of India, and make sure it protects the region and its inhabitants first.
Abhishek Chakravarty is an assistant professor at Sai University and Daksha Fellowship. He trained as a lawyer specialising in environmental law. Hemant Kumar Neopaney is a former Young India Fellow and is currently working as a senior associate at 9dot9 and is a founding member of the Daksha Fellowship.