Dams Do Not Mean Development: The Case of Hydro-Electric Projects in North East India

Protests against the mega dam projects in North East India highlight the issues related to land acquisition, compensation, resettlement as well as rehabilitation for displaced and project-affected people.

The Indian state has been seeking to control its water resources by implementing various policies and acts, such as the National Water Policy, National Hydro Power Policy, etc. By commissioning various boards and committees like the Water Board, the Inter-State Water Commission, etc, India’s plan to commission hydro-power projects in various parts of the country also reflects the hydro-electric-based development model of the Indian state.

In this context, it is important to discuss the development debate in India, and the role of the state in resolving the issues related to development-induced displacement. The concept of development, whether economic, political or social, is a Western imposition. While the whole world is now prioritising concepts like human development, human security, etc, India is still in pursuit of economic development as one of the major means to meet the challenges of development. Right after independence, the government of India opted for planned economic development, but the process of industrialisation in India has also brought its own set of problems. Experiences of postcolonial developmental policies show that development has been biased, uneven, unequal and has had unjust manifestations. Imbalanced and uneven development has degraded the socio-economic, political, cultural and traditional lives of the marginalised.  This includes, among other things, the issues of Internally Displaced People (IDP). The issues of resettlement and rehabilitation has gotten policymakers, and even the government standing against its own citizens. 

Here, it is important to mention Vandana Shiva’s (1988) critique of India’s hegemonic vision of development, which has been a postcolonial project based on the commercialisation of resources, and capital accumulation. It is associated not only with the creation of profit and surplus, but also with the problem of poverty and dispossession. As such, development based on exploitation and degradation of nature often results in the loss of political control over sustainable natural resources. It erodes traditional land use rights for those who have been displaced and affected by development projects.

On the other hand, Ramachandra Guha (1994) emphasised on the Gandhian way of reshaping development projects at the local level, and prioritised common property resources (CPRs) to restore community-based environment management. Thus, Guha tried to link the conflict over natural resources to the very process of development, since development projects, like dams, have had a negative impact on nature. As such, the degradation of the environment directly threatens the survival and livelihood options in the Indian context. Environmental conflicts have close connections to questions of sustenance and survival, and have prompted a critique both of consumerism and of uncontrolled economic development.

Anti-Dam Movements in North East India 

Energy is crucial for economic development, and for fulfilling all basic human needs. Over 32.8% of India’s population does not have access to electricity, and providing electricity for 24 hours in rural areas is a major challenge (Power for All Assam 2015).   The government envisaged hydropower as one source of energy that could transform the North East in general, and Arunachal Pradesh in particular. It had decided to construct 168 mega dams to tap the region’s hydropower to the maximum.

In this context, it may be noted that the Government of Arunachal Pradesh has signed 158 Memoranda of Agreement and Memoranda of Understandings with public sector undertakings and private companies under Build, Own, Operate and Transfer (BOOT) basis for the execution of power projects with an estimated 63,000 MW of power. According to a provision in the National Hydro–Power Policy, Arunachal Pradesh government will get 7,560 MW of free power, though the present estimated demand of the state is only 105 MW of power. So, it is understandable that the Arunachal Pradesh government is going to sell the surplus power to other states and will earn at least Rs 10,000 crore every year from hydropower, which is much higher compared to the state’s current annual budget of Rs. 2,500 crore (Deka 2010). The power minister of Assam, on the other hand, has claimed that according to the clauses of the Memorandum of Understanding, neither National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) nor Arunachal Pradesh Government is responsible for the damage caused by the dam break due to earthquake or landslide though Arunachal Pradesh falls in a highly seismic zone (Deka 2010: 1–4). 

However, large hydro projects in India have been resisted on environmental grounds, and for violating human rights.  The citizens of the region have organised movements against the state-sponsored mega dams, because these projects are responsible for both physical displacement and livelihood displacement. Furthermore, they lead to environmental degradation  because of adverse downstream effects. The protest movement against the Tipaimukh dam, Pagladiya dam, Siang dam and the Subansiri dam are some of the examples of grassroots movements against mega hydropower projects in the Northeastern region (Hussain 2008: 101). Therefore, an analysis has been taken up here, for an understanding of the politics associated with the problem of internal displacement as well as for an insight into the politics of big dams in light of the protest movement against the Lower Subansiri Hydro Electric Project (LSHEP).

The article is based on the content analysis of the government reports and expert committee reports set up for the study of the LSHEP. I have interviewed the president and secretaries of the organisations protesting against the project. I have also collected data from the displaced and project-affected people from both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The data collected sheds light on the nature of displacement, the compensation received, resettlement and rehabilitation plans, as well as on the involvement of the protesting organisations in the affected sites. In view of the problems arising out of the LSHEP, an empirical study has been conducted to analyse the issues of land acquisition, displacement, resettlement and rehabilitation of the project-affected people. The data collected through a sample survey of two villages, viz Gerukamukh from Assam and Litmori of Gensi circle from Arunachal Pradesh, has been analysed and, for that purpose, a total of 100 respondents (50 from each village) have been interviewed through structured questionnaires.

Here, it is important to note that the people of Assam have been protesting against the LSHEP since 2001, under the banner of various students and civil society organisations, like the People’s Movement for Subansiri Valley, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), and the Takam Mishing Porin Kebang (TMPK), and  pressurising the union government, state government as well as the NHPC, to halt construction work until a cumulative downstream impact assessment study is conducted. As such, these organisations are protesting against the construction of mega dams, not only to mitigate the adverse impacts of mega dams but also to place the right of the displaced and affected people in the overall developmental agenda. The primary concern of the protesting organisations is that the people settled downstream (the Displaced Personss and Project Affected Persons)  are sacrificing their lives and their livelihoods in the name of national development, even though Assam will get only 25MW of free power from 168 mega dams, with the installed capacity of 70,000MW of power. 

The LSHEP has led to internal displacement both in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. But, the people of Arunachal Pradesh have been compensated for it,  and as such, people are not protesting against the project in an organised manner, although the Village Action Committee at Gengi village tried to mobilise the villagers against the project.  Thus, it is apparent that the protesting organisations are based mostly in Assam. However, the local people have alleged that KMSS and other protesting organisations staged protests, mostly in Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Tezpur and Guwahati and other district headquarters, but they have never protested at the project site as yet (The Assam Tribune 2010). 

The people of Arunachal Pradesh are also critical about the role of the protesting organisations in Assam, as none of these organisations have visited the affected villages of Arunachal Pradesh, and they have not tried to focus on the problems faced by the displaced people in Arunachal Pradesh, who have been directly affected by the project. The affected people also alleged that the protesting organisations in Assam are protesting only to fulfill their vested interests.  They have also claimed that while the proposed hydroelectric projects have benefited the union and state government of Arunachal Pradesh, it gravely undermines the life and security of the people living in the Subansiri valley. There have also been allegations that the leadership of the KMSS and the TMPK have Marxist–Leninist leanings, and as such have mobilised opinion against big dams. 

The Importance of Protests

However, it is evident from the study that the issues raised by the protesting organisations are very crucial to the problem of internal displacement. Though no physical displacement has taken place in Assam so far, these organisations are trying to build support on the basis of the perceived threat of the dam collapsing because of natural calamities like earthquakes. They are critical about the safety and security of the dam, as it is situated in an earthquake-prone zone, but the seismic design parameter of the dam is not adequate to prevent earthquakes of magnitudes 8.5 and above. The area is also vulnerable to floods and landslides. Consequently, the protesting organisations are not satisfied with the planning of the project. One of the main allegations that these organisations have made is that the project does not meet the environmental safety parameters as the project has been given environmental clearance without conducting or cumulative impact assessment study. Moreover, the project does not have provisions for flood moderation. 

These organisations have also been successful in bringing out  the issues of livelihood displacement, and the degradation of the riverine ecology, owing to the construction of the dam. However, all the protesting organisations are based in Assam, and they have blocked the transportation of construction materials and equipment to the project site. But, they have refrained from visiting the project area. On the other hand, significant displacement has taken place upstream. However, no such protest movement is going on in Arunachal Pradesh against the LSHEP, despite the fact that the people of Arunachal Pradesh too had protested against the project at the initial stage, under the leadership of T Dasi, the president of the then Village Action Committee.  During his interview with me, Dasi alleged that he was arbitrarily removed by the Arunachal Government from his position, presumably to suppress the movement. 

It can therefore be argued that the protesting organisations, such as the KMSS, are keeping a distance from the project site, and thereby alienating themselves from the affected people. There has thus been a failure to utilise the  huge mobilising potential that a project like  LSHEP has for organising a genuine mass movement against these development projects. In other words, although the protesting organisations have raised certain pertinent issues relating to the LSHEP, they have failed to convert the resistance against this dam into a popular movement.

The distrust of the project-affected people came to the fore when it was pointed out by some respondents that the protesting organisations had stalled the transportation of construction materials for some time, and thereafter, they allowed the same, presumably due to some understanding with the NHPC. This clearly reveals that the organisations have not been able to earn the confidence of the local people in the project site as such.

Another significant issue that emerges from the politics of LSHEP is that the protesting organisations are seeking to mobilise public support on the grounds that Assam will not get an equal share of free power vis-à-vis Arunachal Pradesh after the completion of the project. This shows that the issue of power sharing is an integral aspect of politics of big dams, which are located in more than one state. 

The response of the union and the state governments to the issues raised by the protesting organisations had been confined mainly to the constitution of committees. However, it appears that none of these committees are multidisciplinary. Most of the members of these committees are only technical experts. But, the people are demanding a multidisciplinary committee so that the study covers every aspect of the problem of affected people— economic, political, social, psychological, cultural or environmental, in order to make the study a comprehensive and systematic one (The Assam Tribune 2011). The protesting organisations are also opposing the state government’s decision to appoint technical experts from Switzerland to examine the technical aspect of the project.  Instead, these organisations are demanding a multidisciplinary body, comprised of experts who have knowledge of the indigenous culture, tradition, and environment, to study the cumulative impact of all the 168 proposed mega dams to be built in Arunachal Pradesh. 

In this context, it can be noted that, according to the NHPC authorities, no technological and structural changes can be carried out at this stage, as almost 80% of the construction work of the project has been completed. The NHPC has also pointed out, in its discussion with the Expert Committee, that the concrete gravity run of the river project cannot be implemented as a multipurpose project. However, the NHPC has promised to maintain the minimum flow of the river and to make provision for flood control and soil erosion by building embankment and through disaster management mechanism, afforestation etc. But, neither the government nor the NHPC has paid any attention to the problems faced by livelihood losers and the impact of the project on the environment and ecology. 

Conclusion

From the above discussion, it is clear that the LSHEP has led to the displacement of people living both upstream and downstream of the project. Some are directly displaced by the project, whereas others are being alienated from their means of livelihood. A majority of the tribal people residing in the vicinity of the project site are either dependent on agriculture and allied activities, or on CPRs for centuries, but the LSHEP has altered their traditional way of living by introducing modern facilities, which are unfamiliar to their culture and tradition. Loss of traditional means of livelihood and community networks and the fear of the possible collapse of the dam due to natural calamities have undermined their cultural rights as well as their right to life. On the contrary, although the government has constituted various technical committees to address the problem of IDPs, other possible adverse consequences of the project for the people and the environment have been completely ignored.

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