The Dibang river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, is central to the belief systems of the Idu Mishmis, a small indigenous community of Dibang Valley, which is a biodiversity hotspot in the north-easternmost corner of Arunachal Pradesh. They believe that departed souls, guided by shamans, make their way along the sacred river till they reach heaven. Such beliefs, closely intertwined with nature, evidently have no place in modern development narratives. If builders have their way, the 3097 MW Etalin Hydroelectric Project might come up soon on two tributaries of the Dibang. blocking the Idu Mishmis’ pathway to the otherworld.
Etalin is just one of the many hydropower projects proposed in Arunachal Pradesh, which, with its many fast-flowing mountain rivers, is posited as the “power house” of India. Since 2007, the Arunachal Pradesh government has signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with public and private investors for about 140 big dams, 66 of which were later cancelled.
Seventeen hydropower projects are being planned to generate 13,000 MW in the Dibang basin alone, and Etalin, if approved, will be the biggest hydropower project in India in terms of installed capacity. These mega dams are all part of the grand plans for new India, which is envisioned as having uninterrupted power supply generated by water—thought to be one of the clean sources of energy as it does not involve the burning of fossil fuels. Vigorous dam-building lends itself to the nationalist narrative too: India is engaged in a game of one-upmanship with China, which is noted for its huge dams, among other things.
However, in a world of drastically altered realities brought about by global warming, big dams are already yesterday’s story. Back in 2016, a study from Washington State University pointed out that methane, which is more dangerous than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, makes up 80 per cent of the emissions from water reservoirs created by dams. Large dams block the flow of organic matter along rivers, ravaging downstream delta areas, especially fisheries, on which people depend for their livelihood. Even in the 1950s, when Jawaharlal Nehru envisioned dams as the temples of modern India, a parallel narrative was taking shape as dams displaced thousands of people, making landless migrant workers out of rooted communities. As the climate crisis deepens, dams are more outdated than ever considering their human and environmental costs.
Seismically active zone
In recent times, some nations have granted legal rights to natural entities to counter their reckless exploitation: in 2019, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court declared all rivers in the country as “living entities” with rights as “legal persons”. But in India, while rivers are worshipped on the one hand, on the other hand, they are sought to be “tamed” with huge dams, resulting in repeated environmental disasters from which no lessons are learnt apparently. The 2013 Kedarnath flood that killed 6,000 people and destroyed two hydroelectric powerplants in Uttarakhand is just one example. Dams on the Himalayan rivers are especially dangerous because the region is seismically active. The growing Himalayan mountains are prone to landslides, which can increase siltation in reservoirs and trigger off floods. In a 2015 article on hydropower in India by Keith Schneider, Maharaj Pandit, a professor of environmental studies at Delhi University, is quoted as saying, “The costs for these big dams are so high it doesn’t make economic sense. The time has passed for big dams in the Himalayas.”
Arunachal has a long history of anti-dam protests, which raged from 2008 to 2013. Even as the government was signing MoUs, people were vociferously protesting against the dams, at least one of which, the Ranganadi dam, materialised nonetheless. The 405-megawatt Ranganadi hydropower project became operational in 2001. Ever since, it has been causing floods in the downstream areas of Assam, besides converting once-lush landscapes into sandy floodplains and drastically bringing down the fish population in the river. Yet, till date, reportedly no post-dam environmental assessment has been conducted either upstream or downstream.
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Then there the people the dam displaced. Bengia Ajum writes in an article in The Arunachal Times (“Chun: A village drowned by a mega dam”, March 29, 2022): “During my initial years, I grew up in Chun village, near Yazali in Lower Subansiri district.... Today the village no longer exists. It was located just below the present Ranganadi hydroelectric project dam, at 43 km, near Yazali. After the dam came up, the villagers were shifted to the present-day Potin village as part of the rehabilitation process. But hardly anyone benefited from the project. No proper compensation was paid and very few got jobs under NEEPCO [North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited]. For the people of Chun starting a new life in Potin was a struggle and many went into poverty.”
What purpose do the mega dams serve? If power generation is the main objective, then we must consider that Arunachal Pradesh, with a population of 13,83,727 (Census 2011), has one of the lowest population densities. The power generated by the proposed projects will be much in surplus of the State’s needs. If Arunachal intends to lend power to other States, the cost of installing power grids and overhead lines for that purpose will be high considering the remoteness of Arunachal and its mountainous topography.
As to the argument that dams generate jobs, the pervasive displacement and resultant poverty they cause are certainly more than the economic benefits, which go only to a handful of people. Another argument, that dams control floods, is also questionable since they themselves cause floods when excess water is released. The Ranganadi dam, for example, has added to the inundation that takes place annually in Assam’s Lakhimpur.
In March 2022, a lawyer and an artist were arrested for painting ‘No More Dams’ on a wall of Arunachal’s civil secretariat building. Chief Minister Pema Khandu of the Bharatiya Janata Party terms any opposition against development projects as “anti-national”. It is one of the reasons why anti-dam protesters from the late 2000s have preferred to engage in community-based efforts to conserve the environment. But the fact remains that big dams are dangerous and this has been pointed out by scientists, environmentalists, and researchers, who back their claims with data.
The 2,000-MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project (SLHP), which is under construction at Gerukamukh on the Assam-Arunachal border, was recently in the news when one of its guard walls collapsed on September 24 following heavy rain in Arunachal and Assam. This created fears that the power plant might be submerged soon. The SLHP has been mired in controversy ever since work on it started in 2006. Delayed by widespread protests, it is now supposed to start functioning in 2023.
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for SLHP, completed in 2001, went in favour of the dam. In the public hearing of its report, people who will be affected by the project were neither informed nor assembled and their objections went unheard. Then a civil society organisation, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, alleged that the project is being constructed in a region recognised by the Wildlife Institute of India and Birdlife International as “high conservation area”. Incidentally, a portion of the Talle Wildlife Sanctuary, close to Ziro, might be swallowed up by the SLHP and there is fear that a tributary of the Subansiri which flows through the sanctuary might overflow later.
In an article, “Massive dam plans for Arunachal” (2008), Shripad Dharmadhikary writes about the SLHP: “This 2000 MW project being built by NHPC [National Hydro Electric Power Corporation] is supposed to displace only 38 families from two villages. But the impact is likely to be much bigger as the project will adversely affect the natural resource base on which the people in the area depend for agriculture, fishing, and other goods and services. In fact, the full impacts of the dam on the area remain to be assessed, including the impacts on ecology, wildlife, flora and fauna.”
An expert committee on the impact assessment of the SLHP set up by the Assam government pointed out that the Gangetic dolphin population of Subansiri might be depleted by the dam. In spite of these objections, the project continued in fits and starts. The recent collapse of the guard wall brings into question the quality of the construction material being used for the project.
Other hydropower schemes that have met with protests are the 2,880-MW Dibang Multipurpose Project (DMP) and the Etalin project, both in the Dibang Valley. Experts affirm that they will lead to the dilution of the indigenous culture of the Idu Mishmis and Adis and the destruction of nearly 3,00,000 trees in the biodiverse, carbon-rich, old-growth forests of Dibang Valley. The Etalin project is currently under consideration for clearance by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC).
In a letter published in Sanctuary Asia (May 2020), Anoko Mega, a member of the Idu Mishmi community of Dibang Valley, registered his opposition to the Etalin project via an email to the FAC: “Despite mass protests from our community, India’s biggest dam—Dibang Multipurpose Project—has already been approved on the Dibang river. Our sentiments on this matter were disrespected and the project was approved under the false guise of ‘development’ and ‘economic boom’ and our resistance was crushed. It is unethical for the government to force another mega dam on our rivers. Between both dams it is expected that 6 lakh trees will be cut down. With the destruction of the Dibang Valley, where will my community turn and what will be left for our future generations?”
With a population of about 8004 (Census 2011), the Idu Mishmis are a tiny community whose lives are shaped by the landscape they inhabit. They consider the tiger to be their primal brother and protect them in the areas over which they have exclusive rights (in Arunachal, land and forests are under the de facto ownership of local people while the Forest Department controls a small percentage of the land). In a fascinating article titled “Tribal tigers” (published in Sanctuary Asia in April 2019), Sahil Nijhawan says, “There could be as many as 50 adult tigers in Dibang, up to 90 per cent of which would live in Idu-owned forests.” He suggests that the Idus’ cultural belief might have a lot to do with tigers thriving in Dibang Valley when tiger poaching is rampant in neighbouring China.
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Not just tigers, Dibang Valley is home to an astounding variety of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals, too, many of which are still unknown to science. Bhanu Tatak, a member of the Adi tribe and a citizens’ collective called Dibang Resistance which is protesting against the DMP, says, “It is to the advantage of the corporate pro-dam lobbies in Arunachal that much of Dibang Valley is still undocumented.” The inaccessible terrains mean that data on Dibang Valley’s forest wealth can be manipulated and people’s consent can be manufactured. In the absence of honest explanations from the project developers, many from the affected tribes as well as from non-tribal communities living in the floodplains downstream, remain unaware of the scale of devastation the dams would bring. Tatak says, “Land is being grabbed for the DMP without free and informed consent of the people. The project is all loss, for everyone concerned. We don’t understand why the government is still pushing it.”
Ironically, in November 2021, Arunachal adopted the Pakke Declaration aimed at “climate resilient development” in the State. Arunachal’s Corrected Hydropower Policy, 2008, acknowledges, “Over 82% area of Arunachal Pradesh is covered under forests and therefore, development of the huge hydropower potential of the State will entail diversion of forest area for the purpose.” The ancient trees of the forests, once submerged, cannot be replaced and the uprooted people will carry the trauma of displacement for generations. Exactly who will benefit from the projects is anybody’s guess.
- Arunachal Pradesh, with its many fast-flowing mountain rivers, is posited as the “power house” of India.
- Since 2007, the Arunachal Pradesh government has signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with public and private investors for about 140 big dams, 66 of which were later cancelled.
- In a world of drastically altered realities brought about by global warming, big dams are already yesterday’s story.
- Dams on the Himalayan rivers are especially dangerous because the region is seismically active.
- Arunachal has a long history of anti-dam protests, which raged from 2008 to 2013.
- The 2,000-MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project (SLHP), which is under construction at Gerukamukh on the Assam-Arunachal border, was recently in the news when one of its guard walls collapsed on September 24 following heavy rain in Arunachal and Assam.
- Other hydropower schemes that have met with protests are the 2,880-MW Dibang Multipurpose Project (DMP) and the Etalin project, both in the Dibang Valley.
- Experts affirm that these two mega dams will lead to the dilution of the indigenous culture of the Indu Mishmis and Adis and the destruction of nearly 3,00,000 trees in the biodiverse, carbon-rich, old-growth forests of Dibang Valley.