On October 4, when horrifying visuals of the devastation in Sikkim hit social media, the Arunachal Pradesh-based journalist and activist Tongam Rina tweeted: “As Arunachal embarks on a huge hydropower mission, it’s a good idea to relook at the whole thing. There are lessons to be learnt from devastations in Uttarakhand, Himachal and Sikkim. Hill States aren’t meant for dams. Coercion has a very small lifespan.”
She was referring to Arunachal Pradesh’s history of protest against huge hydropower projects. Since 2007, the State government has been on a signing spree, dashing off memoranda of understanding with public and private investors for big dams, which are mostly unfeasible for the State. Some of the reasons for the unsuitability are the State’s location in Zone V of the seismic map (high to very high hazard); its turbulent and flood-prone mountain rivers; its demography consisting of tribal communities whose lifestyles are braided with rivers and their produce; its vast stretches of ecologically sensitive zones with a unique array of flora and fauna and insects, many of which are found nowhere else in India.
While people have vociferously protested against big dams—most recently against the proposed 3,097-MW Etalin Hydroelectric Project in Dibang Valley—go-aheads have been given on the basis of botched-up reports in favour of the projects. In 2016, two activists were killed in police firing when they protested against the arrest of a monk who was spearheading the anti-dam campaign in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district.
The 1,750-megawatt Lower Demwe hydroelectric project is one among six such projects planned on Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit river, which, as a river originating in the high Himalaya, is turbulent and unpredictable.
- Since 2007, the Arunachal Pradesh government has been on a signing spree, dashing off memoranda of understanding with public and private investors for big dams, which are mostly unfeasible for the State.
- The 1,750-megawatt Lower Demwe hydroelectric project is one among six such projects planned on Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit river.
- But big dams kill rivers and its associated wildlife and spell doom for river-dependent countries.
Loopholes in the clearance
Clearances were given to the projects chiefly on the basis of the Cumulative Impact Assessment Report of the Lohit basin conducted by WAPCOS Ltd, which, significantly, is a public sector enterprise under the Ministry of Jal Shakti. A study of the report by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) pointed out various loopholes in it, concluding, “Considering these issues, the WAPCOS’ Lohit Basin Study Report should be rejected and a fresh study by an independent, credible agency should be initiated.”
The SANDRP assessment underlined how the river would be severely fragmented by the six dams, thus damaging the ecology. “All the migratory routes and spawning grounds of endangered fish like Trouts and Golden Mahseer… will be destroyed,” it said.
Incidentally, destruction of the local fish population was one of the chief points of the sustained anti-dam campaign carried out by Native American tribes and environmentalists, which finally resulted in the decommissioning of dams along the Klamath river in California. In 2002, nearly 70,000 salmon floated up dead in the rivera—a massacre attributed to the hydroelectric dams that blocked the fish’s access to their spawning grounds. The resulting outrage added bite to the campaign, and a humongous, $500 million project of dismantling the dams and restoring the river is now under way.
Meanwhile in India, we await the day when commissioning authorities will wake up to what environmentalists and experts have been shouting from the rooftops for decades: big dams kill rivers and spell doom for river-dependent countries like India.