Print edition : September 13, 2019

The site of the 2,000-MW Lower Subansiri project. A file picture. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The Cabinet Committee’s clearance for the Dibang Multipurpose Project and the National Green Tribunal’s go-ahead for the Lower Subansiri project in Arunachal Pradesh revive anti-mega dam protests in downstream Assam.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the renowned television presenter Bear Grylls, on the Discovery channel show “Man vs Wild”, which was first aired on August 12, that conservation of nature was close to his heart. However, on July 17, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) chaired by Modi cleared India’s largest hydroelectric project, the 2,880-megawatt Dibang Multipurpose Project in Arunachal Pradesh, which will require the felling of 3.24 lakh trees on forest land. The CCEA’s decision shows why Modi’s message on conservation of nature was not convincing to those opposed to the construction of mega hydroelectric projects in Arunachal Pradesh.

In early August, anti-dam activists in Assam protested against this project and the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) judgment clearing the hurdles for the construction of the 2,000-MW Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric project at Gerukamukh on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border. National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) had begun work on the Lower Subansiri project in 2009.

But the work got stalled in December 2011 following vigorous protests in Assam over the adverse impact the project would have on downstream areas and apprehensions over the safety of the dam. The NGT, on July 31, dismissed a petition seeking reconstitution of a three-member expert committee on the project. The petitioners questioned the independence of the members of the panel.

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, had rejected the Dibang multi-purpose project proposal twice, in July 2013 and April 2014, on the grounds of environmental and social concerns. In 2013, the FAC said that “ecological, environmental and social costs of diversion of such a vast stretch of forest land, which is a major source of livelihood of the tribal population of the State, will far outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project.” In its rejection letter in 2014, it cited the biodiversity of the area and the disruption of the habitat for endemic and endangered flora and fauna. The committee also felt that the project located in Lower Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh was likely to have considerable downstream impact, including on the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam. The project was conceived to protect downstream areas from floods.

The then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, laid the foundation stone for the Dibang project on January 31, 2008, during the UPA I regime when the project had received no clearance. Three types of clearances are mandatory for hydroelectric projects from three wings of the MoEF—environmental clearance from the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), forest clearance from the FAC, and wildlife clearances from the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL).

In September 2014, four months after the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) assumed power at the Centre, the FAC gave its clearance to the Dibang project subject to reduction of the dam height by 20 metres from the proposed 288 m. Following the FAC clearance, the MoEF gave the environmental clearance on May 19, 2015, paving the way for the construction of a 278-m concrete gravity dam across the Dibang river about 1.4 km upstream of the confluence of the Ashu Pani and the Dibang for the generation of 2,880 MW of hydropower.

The NDA government’s eagerness to clear hydroelectric projects in Arunachal Pradesh has surprised anti-mega dam agitators in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. For, in 2010, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who was at the time national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led a party rally against the construction of mega dams in Arunachal Pradesh. In its 2014 Lok Sabha election manifesto, the BJP promised to “set up small hydropower generation projects to harness the hydropower not being used at the moment. Small projects can be set up with local support and without displacement of the local population”.

It is not just the mega hydroelectric projects in Arunachal Pradesh; the issue of the environmental impact of the mega projects built in Bhutan with Indian assistance on downstream Assam has also returned to centre stage. The release of excess water from the Kurichhu hydroelectric plant located at Gyalpozhing, Mongar, on the Kurichhu river in eastern Bhutan, is believed to have aggravated this year’s flood situation in western Assam districts bordering the Himalayan kingdom.

On August 17, a month after the CCEA approved the Dibang project, Modi and his Bhutanese counterpart, Lotay Tshering, jointly inaugurated the 720-MW Mangdechu hydroelectric plant in Bhutan.

The forest land that is proposed to be cleared for the Dibang project is a major reservoir of some of the flora and fauna listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Wildlife species such as the elephant, the Hollock gibbon, the Mishmi takin, the cIouded leopard, the tiger, the leopard, the fishing cat, the mithun, the slow loris, the snow leopard and the Himalayan black bear are found in the area.

Flood moderation, key objective

The government sought to allay apprehensions over the adverse impact of the Dibang project in downstream areas by insisting that the project was envisaged as a storage-based hydroelectric project with flood moderation as the key objective. “The construction of Dibang MPP shall prevent the sizeable downstream area from floods. After implementation of master plan of the Brahmaputra Board for flood moderation of all rivers contributing to the river Brahmaputra, of which the Dibang MPP is one of the components, [a] sizable area will be protected from flooding and [will] help in mitigating the perennial damage due to floods in Assam,” states the official release issued by the Press Information Bureau.

The CCEA approved Rs.1,600 crore as the expenditure on pre-investment activities and various clearances for the Dibang project. The estimated cost of the project is reported to be Rs.28,080.35 crore at the June 2018 price level. Dibang is slated to be the largest hydroelectric project, and once completed, it will be the country’s highest dam at 278 m. Until it is commissioned, the 2,000-MW Lower Subansiri will enjoy the position of being the largest hydroelectric project in India.

The Centre said that on completion of the Dibang project, Arunachal Pradesh would get 12 per cent free power from the project (1,346.76 million units) while 1 per cent of free power, that is 112 million units, would be given to the Local Area Development Fund (LADF). “The total value of benefit to Arunachal Pradesh from free power and contribution to the LADF will be Rs.26,785 crore over the project life of 40 years,” states the official press release. This amount works out to nearly Rs.669.63 crore annually for 40 years of project life. If the construction period of nine years is also taken into consideration, the total annual benefit to Arunachal Pradesh from the Dibang project will be Rs.546.63 crore anually.

The EIA report on the Dibang project states: “Boosting up of electricity generating capacity is an urgent national need, because of the growing power demand year by year. North-eastern region has huge hydel potential for electricity generation and also has the advantage of exporting the same to other SAARC/South Asian Countries due to its strategic location.”

As on May 31, the installed solar capacity in Arunachal Pradesh was 5.39 MW (1.27 MW ground-mounted and 4.12 MW roof top) against 6,134.91 MW in Karnataka, 3,290.76 MW in Andhra Pradesh, 3,598 MW in Telangana and 2,564 MW in Gujarat. The total installed solar capacity of the country as on that date is 29,409.25 MW (27,443.44 MW ground mounted and 1,965.81 MW roof top). Assam has an installed solar capacity of 26.87 MW (10.67 ground-mounted and 16.20 MW roof top).

If NHPC is able to resume work and complete the Lower Subansiri project and the work on Dibang starts this year, then by 2023 Arunachal Pradesh can be expected to generate 2,515 MW of hydropower, which will increase to 5,395 MW in 2028.

Hydroelectric potential

As on May 31, 2019, the installed generation capacity in the country was about 357 gigawatts (GW), sufficient to meet the power demand of the country. The maximum peak demand in the current year (up to May) was around 183 GW, the government informed the Lok Sabha on June 27.

The hydroelectric potential of Arunachal Pradesh is 50,328 MW (50,064 MW in respect of hydro-electric scheme above 25 MW). Of the identified capacity, two projects, Ranganadi (405 MW) and Pare (110 MW), aggregating 515 MW, are in operation in the State.

Three projects, Kameng (660 MW), Lower Subansiri (2,000 MW) and Gongri (144 MW) are under construction. The State government has allotted 107 hydroelectric projects with an aggregate capacity of 49,386.5 MW, of which 17, of 16,952 MW, have been cleared by the Central Electricity Authority but are yet to be taken up for implementation and seven, with a capacity of 397 MW each, have been cleared by the State government.

These projects will take about 36 to 114 months for completion from the date of the start of construction. Further, 20 hydroelectric projects with a total capacity of 12,340.5 MW have been terminated/dropped by the State government as per basin study recommendations, the government informed the Lok Sabha on February 7.

One of the primary reasons for the opposition to mega hydroelectric projects in Arunachal Pradesh is that these projects have been pushed without conducting any study on their cumulative impact in downstream areas. Release of excess water during the monsoon from the reservoir of the Ranganadi hydroelectric project, operated by North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited, causing flood havoc, damage to river ecology and livelihood issues in downstream areas in Lakhimpur district in Assam, added to the apprehensions over the impact of the proposed project.

However, declaring all hydroelectric projects renewable irrespective of their size and capacity is likely to have an impact on the campaign against mega projects in Arunachal Pradesh and other north-eastern States.

In March, the Union Cabinet approved a slew of measures to promote the hydroelectric sector, including provision of renewable energy status for large projects. Earlier, hydroelectric projects up to 25 MW capacity were categorised as renewable energy source and were eligible for incentives such as financial aid and cheaper credits.

The Modi government had the recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy in this declaration. The Ministry of Power submitted the official position before the committee that “all hydro projects are traditionally renewable in nature”.

Since hydropower projects up to the capacity of 25 MW stand allocated to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy [the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources, formed in 1992, was renamed as the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy in 2006], only these are categorised as renewable energy source.

The 43rd report of the committee on hydropower, presented to the Lok Sabha on January 4, states: “Thus, the categorisation was on the basis of allocation of work and not on the renewable nature of source. In regard to declaring all hydro as renewable, they have stated that one of the measures formulated by the Ministry of Power in the proposal for ‘Revival of Hydro Power Sector’ includes declaring all hydro projects as renewable irrespective of their size and capacity. The proposal is presently under advanced stages of inter-ministerial consultations. During the examination of the subject, the committee found that declaration of all type of hydro as renewable energy source is the common and long-standing demand of the State governments/project developers. The committee also find this demand genuine and logical, therefore, they strongly recommend that all types of hydro power should be categorised as renewable source of energy as soon as possible. The proposal in this regard which is under inter-ministerial consultations should be expeditiously finalised.”

The committee also recommended that the Central government persuade and provide all possible assistance to the Arunachal Pradesh government, enabling it to take various measures necessary to expeditiously develop hydropower projects in the State.

“The committee also expect the State government of Arunachal Pradesh to take initiatives and cooperate with the Central government in this regard. The committee also recommend that the projects, which have been stuck due to the inability of the developers, should be reallocated to public sector undertakings, which have the required expertise of the field,” the report added.

Opposition to Union Cabinet’s approval to the Dibang project and the NGT order on the Lower Subansiri project indicates that anti-mega dam groups in Assam will be intensifying their agitation in the coming days. However, the intensity of the revived agitation will have to be weighed against the new narrative that the Modi government seeks to create on the need to harness the hydroelectric potential in the border State for the country’s energy security.