Adopting this year’s official theme “Bridging the gap: implementing the rights of indigenous peoples” on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we would like to talk about the issue of large dams which are threatening both environment and cultures in indigenous territories of Northeast India.
With the region finding recognition as India’s ‘future powerhouse’ and at least 170 large hydroelectric projects set to change the rivers, large dams are emerging as a major issue of conflict. The region is no stranger to this. For example, the Kaptai Dam, built in Bangladesh in the 1960s, submerged the lands of the Hajong and Chakma indigenous communities, and forced them to migrate into parts of Arunachal Pradesh where they had to face conflict with locals. Similarly, the Gumti Dam in Tripura in 1970s submerged large tracts of arable land and displayed local tribal population. In the 1980s, the Loktak hydroelectric project impacted the wetlands of the Loktak Lake in Manipur, severely affecting the endangered Sangai (brown-antlered deer) and the livelihoods of locals. Recent times have seen major conflicts emerge in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh over the impacts of more than 100 dams which have been planned in upstream rivers in Arunachal Pradesh. Large scale projects such as the 405 MW Ranganadi hydroelectric project and 2000 MW Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project have been under scrutiny with intense opposition from communities due to dam-induced flooding as one of the main reasons. All around the eastern Himalayan uplands, minority indigenous communities such as Adis, Idu Mishmis and Lepchas have spoken about the alarms of multiple mega projects in their native soil. As Neeraj Vagholikar & Partha J. Das write in their research “The large dams’ juggernaut promises to be the biggest ‘development’ intervention in this ecologically and geologically fragile, seismically active and culturally sensitive region in the coming days.”
Consisting of the eight states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim, Northeast India finds rareness for its cultural and biological diversity and the unique Brahmaputra and Barak river systems. 2 of the 34 globally recognized biodiversity hotspots cover parts of the region, namely Himalaya and Indo-Burma. The biodiversity is exceptionally rich, with important populations of species such as rhino, elephant, tiger, leopard, wild water buffalo and gangetic river dolphin. Though covering only 8% of the India’s landmass, the region shelters 21% of the country’s important Bird Areas. Still much undocumented, recent years have seen discovery of new species. This also includes large mammals such as primates, discovery of which is rare in today’s age and is an indication of potential for future discoveries. Regarding the flora, a high level of endemism has been observed; plants species found nowhere else.
The Brahmaputra, flowing through 3 countries, is one of the world’s largest rivers, with an exceptional drainage basin of 580,000 sq km. It travels and drains diverse landscapes such as the cold dry plateau of Tibet, wet Himalayan forests, the landlocked alluvial plains of Assam and the vast Bangladesh delta. As one research paper writes “An extremely dominant monsoon interacting with a unique physiographic setting, fragile geological base and active seismo-tectonic instability, together with anthropogenic factors, have moulded the Brahmaputra into one of the world’s most intriguing and gigantic river systems.” In Tibet, the river sees a dramatic reduction in elevation as it cascade through the world’s deepest gorges in the Himalayas before entering the Assam plains. This explains the sudden outbreak of the enormous energy of the river and the resulting delivery of massive amounts of sediments downstream. The river has the second largest sediment capitulation in the world, while it ranks fourth in terms of water discharge. The river system is precious as it is intricately linked with the floodplain ecology of wetlands and grasslands.
In is only natural that the rivers of Northeast India support livelihood based on fishing and agriculture. This fertile and bountiful richness has with time seen an astounding diversity of indigenous communities and cultures, most of who depend on nature for daily living. These communities trace their ancestry to faraway lands in Mongolia and Southeast Asia and display a massive amount of unique traditional knowledge. In respect to this diversity, the government of India has made certain provisions for the northeast which offer a degree of autonomy and self management to the indigenous peoples. But despite this, in practicality there is little opportunity for them to make their voice heard in decisions related to large scale development projects.
It was in 2001 when the Indian government conducted an assessment of the country’s river systems for hydroelectric potential. The Brahmaputra basin was found to have the highest potential and accordingly 168 projects were identified with a capacity of 63,328 MW. This push for large hydropower projects continued till the gradual liberalization of hydropower policies allowed states to tie up with private companies. While Sikkim was the first to start collaborating with the private sector, the process gained momentum in 2005 when most states started multiple agreements with corporations. This was a bizarre trend, as observed the erstwhile Union Minister of State for Power who raised concern that agreements for new privately run dams were being signed like viruses without proper regulation. For example, the government of Arunachal Pradesh allotted 120 projects to private companies just within 2-3 years. These agreements of these allotments have been initiated with huge monetary advances taken from the companies, while ignoring public consultation, project reports and environmental clearances. This kind of upfront gains greatly compromises the manner in which subsequent clearances take place. CAG, the supreme auditing institution of India has highlighted serious concerns about the manner in which projects have been handed out to corporations. Meanwhile, local communities, NGOs and the press have also raised concerns about this. Though environmental clearance has been given to man of these projects, experience shows that Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) grants clearances to over 95% of all projects it reviews.
Due to the uniqueness of the region and the scale of projects planned, it is significant that proper assessment of the social and environmental impacts is studied before proceeding. A key factor in environmental clearances by MoEF is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, a mandatory document aiding in decision making. Coming to the validity of the EIA reports for dams in Northeast India, for example, Dr. Anwaruddun Choudhury, a renowned environmentalist of the region who has studied the reports, finds them poor regarding to wildlife. He says ““It is shocking that mega hydel projects in the northeast are being granted clearances based on such reports. How can we decide the fate of some of the country’s most important wildlife habitats based on sub-standard impact assessment studies?” In fact, there is poor verification in all the reports, as if making fool of an important regulatory mechanism of the country. The EIA for the Siyom River project lists 5 bird species in the area whereas there are over 500. The EIA for the Kameng River project reclassifies herbivores such as red panda, pangolins and porcupines as carnivores. In the Subansiri River project, the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) spent days on an additional study only to proclaim falsifying statements such as “… The long and vast water body thus created by the reservoir will be a happy haunt for aquatic creatures”, whereas it is well known that native aquatic species accustomed to fast-flowing waters cannot properly survive in still waters. This is a reason for serious apprehension when a reputed government institution such as ZSI delivers poor reports.
Environmental risk assessment is perhaps the most important issue when large dams are being built. The current framework only allows for risk assessment in case of the breaking of a dam which results in floods downstream. The expert committee studying the Subansiri River projects has brought to highlight the risk of construction in geologically and seismically sensitive areas. It is indeed a common man’s sense as Northeast India has seen 2 of the world’s largest earthquakes, both occurring in the last century or so. There is still a relatively poor understanding of ‘geological surprises’, a prime risk concerning hydropower projects, particularly in the Himalayan region. For example, if we talk about earthquakes, even though a dam may survive a major earthquake, tremor induced changes in the river systems may have a serious impact as the morphology of rivers and their channels will change. Moreover, researchers have highlighted the presence of large dams will only fuel a natural phenomenon’s destructive ability. The last two major earthquakes in the region (1897 and 1950) caused a multitude of problems, such as landslides on hill slopes which led to the blockage of rivers, flash floods, raising of riverbeds due to massive deposition of silt and creation and destruction of water bodies. Existing scientific data clearly indicates that the tectonic activity of the Brahmaputra Valley and its surrounding highlands in the eastern Himalayas has profound effects on the characteristics of the river and its tributaries, which in turn deter the long term viability of dams. In 2009, a meeting by the expert committee on the Dibang River project noted “After critically examining all the issues the committee noted that the Dibang high dam is located in high seismic zone V and the area receives very high rainfall during monsoon. The dam impounds huge reservoir stretch (43.0 km). A situation may arise when high rainfall together with a major earthquake may occur. The steep slopes charged with rain water and triggered with earthquake are very vulnerable and may lead to large scale landslide. A major landslide may occur into the reservoir which may lead to creation of water waves in the reservoir….overtopping causing serious safety problems may happen.” An example of downstream affects is the 1963 incident in Italy when the Vaiont set off earthquakes as soon as its reservoir began to fill. It took only one tremor to set off landslides that plunged into the reservoir, creating a huge wave that overtopped the dam by 110 metres. About two minutes later, the town of Longarone was leveled and almost all of its 2,000 inhabitants killed.
Dr. Dulal Goswami, environment scientist and an expert on the Brahmaputra Basin says: “The geophysical nature of the Brahmaputra river basin is fragile and dynamic. The scientific knowledge base on the river system is currently very poor, for example on aspects such as sedimentation and hydrology which are linked to the economic life of the project. This needs to be strengthened urgently, more so in light of emerging threats from climate change (see separate section). Without the availability of comprehensive information, how can we determine the long-term viability of projects in this region? The wisdom of such public policy has to be questioned. Economic viability apart, the mega-projects planned come with tremendous ecological and social costs which are unacceptable.”
Though the promoters of these hydroelectric projects have put forward the notion that there will be small displacement of communities, the ground reality is that of displacement of the local peoples livelihoods and their rights.
For example, Azing Pertin, a member of a forum for indigenous peoples based in Siang Valley, says “Since our state is hilly, there is very little land where permanent cultivation is possible. Virtually all our available arable lands will be submerged by the 2700 MW Lower Siang project in the affected area in the Siang Valley. The magnitude of impact has to be understood keeping this context in mind. It is misleading to argue that the land being lost is a small percentage of the total area of the district or state and wrongly assume that the project is benign.”
It is important to think about the resources considered in these projects are also shared by the local communities and are vital for their livelihood. The agriculture cycle of the region, which is based primarily on shifting cultivation (jhum), is predominantly at threat by large dams due to the submersion of large amount of indigenous land which are already under pressure from global climate change. However, impact on communities is beyond just the scope of submersion. Regions such as Arunachal Pradesh contain pockets of small populations of culturally sensitive indigenous communities, and any direct or indirect displacement is threatening to this when viewed from a local’s perspective. Dr. Mite Lingi, who is the Chairman of the Idu Indigneous Peoples Council, says “The ‘small displacement’ argument to sell these projects as being benign needs to be confronted. The entire population of the Idu Mishmi tribe is around 9500 and at least 17 large hydel projects have been planned in our home, the Dibang Valley in Arunachal. As per this faulty argument, little social impact will be indicated even if our entire population were supposedly displaced!”
An essential argument from the indigenous communities throughout Northeast India is that their very citizenship and democratic rights are integrally embedded with the land, forests and rivers and these must be safeguarded and protected for all time to come.
There has been a heated debate in northeast regarding the impacts large dams in the eastern Himalaya will have downstream. When large dams block the natural flow of a river, they trap sediments and nutrients vital for fertilizing the plains downstream. This concerns the people of the plains due to loss of fisheries, altering of livelihoods, changes in ecology of the flood plains, changes in agriculture in river side tracts, vulnerability to floods, and issue of dam safety in seismically fragile region. Moreover, the fluctuation in the flow of the rivers will have a serious impact on flora and fauna of the plains, for example, the breeding grounds of the critically endangered grassland birds such as Bengal Florican, foraging area of the Asiatic wild water buffalo, environment of the endangered ganges river dolphin and significant national parks such as Dibru Saikhowa and Kaziranga. The natural flow pattern of the river is like its ‘heart beat’ and changing the flow on a daily basis is a threat to both ecological and social security and stability.
HYDRO PROJECTS VS CLIMATE CHANGE
With a rapidly changing climate of the planet, there is a huge scope for dams being jeopardized. Due to the unfortunately melting glaciers of the Himalayas, it is estimated there will be increased summer flows and flooding in the Himalayan rivers, especially Brahmaputra. In fact, the upper Brahmaputra has already lost around 20% of its glacial water reserves in the last 30 years. However, the hydropower projects in the northeast have not yet considered the possible impacts of climate change on rivers and dams. Trends such as extreme rainfall, water level and discharge, which are used to design dams, become uncertain in a scenario of climate change, often resulting in massive fluctuations in the normal inflows of dams. They thus underperform due to the lack of an adequate flow or increase hazardous flooding if flows increase.
The water stress of climate change will be peak in the winters, resulting in weak rainy seasons and a significantly poor agriculture which is the prime livelihood of the people of the northeast. Further, climate change will alter the soil moisture quotient. Ultimately, it boils down to the wisdom whether investing insane amount of citizen funds in projects which loom with uncertainty due to a changing climate is feasible and the right thing to do.
In is understood within the public domain that for an emerging India there needs to be power. Experts are not against development, but stand with a sustainable approach to development. In the case of northeast and other places, we find alternatives. The first is the promotion of micro, mini and small dams on a case-to-case basis instead of large dams. The benefit of thinking small in the hydropower sector is their minimal altercation on the river systems, environmental friendliness and fulfillment of genuine power requirements of the local communities. This should be combined with an honest approach to find and apply alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass.
It is clear today that large dams increase people’s vulnerability and risk in a changing climate. The effort to develop multiple hydropower projects on the region’s rivers will increase manifold the risks and is definetly not the way to provide climate security to the people of Northeast India. To meet the demands of the corporate sector and industries, it is not right for the government to encourage exploitation of indigenous lands and make them colonies where wave of mining and hydropower schemes damage local ecologies and the way of life of the local communities. Development should be sustainable and people sensitive. It should complement the growth of environment and culture. As Dilip Gogoi, a leading researcher writes “Therefore the linking of local needs with nation building needs a more amicable cooperative federal approach rather than absolutist central approach.
(This article is an adapted version of a briefing paper ‘Damming Northeast India’, co-published by Kalpavriksh, Aaranyak, and Action Aid India.)