Damming the Northeast


The Brahmaputra Basin in Northeast India was identified as having the highest potential to generate hydroelectric power. Thus, sounding the death knell for the region’s ecology and biodiversity, says Geetartha Pathak. What’s the way forward?

The forests in the Northeast would have been completely destroyed had the Supreme Court not banned all forest activities in the country by a verdict in the case of T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs Union of India & Ors on 12 December 1996. The forest was the main source of revenue of most of the states of the Northeast. It was also a good source of money for politicians and the babus. Forests are being depleted as a result of the illegal felling of trees, but it has been checked to a large extent.

Now a new challenge has cropped up not only to the forest, but to the entire environment and ecology of the Northeast. The corporate groups collaborating with the corrupt politicians have stepped in to exploit the economic potential of the cascading streams and rivers. The region has got recognition from the government as India’s ‘future powerhouse’, and at least 170 large hydroelectric projects are set to change the hydrology of the Northeast. The Government of India conducted an assessment of the country’s river systems for hydroelectric potential in 2001.

Brahmaputra’s hydroelectric potential or ecological disaster?
The Brahmaputra Basin was found to have the highest potential and accordingly, 168 projects were identified with a capacity of 63,328 MW. The Northeast is exceptional for its distinctiveness in cultural and biological diversity, and the unique Brahmaputra and Barak river systems. There are 34 globally recognised biodiversity hotspots in the world, two of which are situated in this region, namely, the Himalayas and Indo-Burma. Its rich biodiversity with significant populations of species such as rhino, elephant, tiger, leopard, wild water buffalo and river dolphin make this region a unique biological spot. Though covering only 8% of India’s landmass, the region shelters 21% of the country’s important Bird Areas. A key factor in environmental clearances by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC) is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, a mandatory document aiding in decision making. If all the power projects get a favourable EIA report from MoEF & CC and are built in the Northeast, then this region will turn into a time bomb. It will be a matter of time before we see a catastrophe in this region.

The dams constructed for these hydro projects are likely to trigger changes in the flood cycle, sedimentation pattern and ecology of the river. It will affect the national parks like Kaziranga, Manas, Nameri and Orang. The impact of 60 MW Kuri Chu dam of Bhutan has already been felt. A large area of lower Assam is inundated almost every year due to release of water from the Kuri Chu Dam in the rainy seasons since 2001, the year when the dam was commissioned in the neighbouring country with the economic help and expertise of India.

India has constructed five dams in Bhutan and another six hydro projects are under construction. All these dams constructed in Bhutan along with the dams constructed inside the Northeast will pose a big threat to this seismic region. All these commissioned and under-construction hydro power projects have already raised many issues that include displacement, identity crisis of indigenous people, calamities etc. The Kaptai Dam, built in Bangladesh in the 1960s, displaced indigenous communities like the Hajongs and Chakmas, and forced them to migrate to Arunachal Pradesh, where they had to face conflict with local communities.

In Tripura, the Gumti Dam commissioned in the 1970s displaced local tribal people. Recently, we have seen major conflicts in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh over the impact of around 170 dams which have been planned in upstream rivers in Arunachal Pradesh. The 405 MW Ranganadi hydroelectric project and the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri hydroelectric project have been stalled in the face of intense opposition from local communities. Indigenous communities such as Adis, Idu Mishmis and Lepchas have expressed their indignation against these mega power projects in their native land. The Siang People’s Forum (SPF) and Lower Siang Dam Affected Peoples’ Forum (LSDAPF), who have been spearheading the anti-mega dam movement in the Siang Valley, had appealed to the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre, and now the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), to scrap the project over Siang. The organisations have submitted a memorandum to the MoEF & CC and vowed that they would not compromise on their demand of scrapping all mega dams over river Siang. The Tipaimukh Dam in Manipur is another project which has triggered controversy from its very beginning.

A key factor in environmental clearances by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, a mandatory document aiding in decision making. If all the power projects get a favourable EIA report from MoEF&CC and are built in the Northeast, then this region will turn into a time bomb.

The Tipaimukh Dam is a multipurpose project for flood control and hydroelectric power. The proposed dam is to be constructed over River Barak. It is apprehended that a large project on a river like Barak would adversely affect the lower riparian areas of Bangladesh, affecting the livelihoods of over 20 million people. The influx of outsiders is another problem which will threaten the identity of native populations. These projects will need large amounts of both skilled and unskilled labour, which the indigenous states are not equipped with. Though the indigenous people of the state are enjoying some constitutional land rights and the governments of some of the states have restricted entry of outsiders in their land, the projects will change this. It is estimated that just in the Dibang Valley projects, more than 1,50,000 labourers from outside the region will be contracted for long periods of stay, whereas the population of the indigenous Idu Mishmi tribe of the area is a only 9500. These projects will definitely bring demographic and other socio-cultural changes which will be faced by the local ethnic groups. In Sikkim, the indigenous Lepcha community is fighting against the hydro projects being built in the state. The Lepcha community worships mountains, lakes, caves and rivers. There are many mythological stories involving nature among the Lepcha community. They recognise nature as sacred.

The EIA report as well as the Expert Appraisal Committee report, which cleared the Teesta Stage IV project, have ignored the sacred nature of the Kanchendzonga, its importance in the culture and value system of the indigenous people of Sikkim, the Lepcha’s argue. According to Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta, the people of North Sikkim have already suffered a lot of environmental damage from two other mega projects on the Teesta (Stage III and Stage V) which produce over 1,700 MW of energy, even through Sikkim only needs around 112 MW. Under the project agreement for Stage IV, Sikkim will get 12% of the electricity for free and the remaining power will be exported to the rest of India.

The Green Tribunal’s role
The National Green Tribunal (NGT), which has attracted much ire of the politicians and the governments for pulling them up on environmental issues, has the power to register cases suo motu against environmental offenders. The issue of water contamination and air pollution by diesel powered vehicles in Delhi had last year prompted the NGT to seek the response of the city government in the matter. The green panel had taken suo motu cognisance of a newspaper report on these issues. Although hydropower projects are legal, considering the colossal damage it can do to the environment and the human lives NGT can sou motu take up cases against the respective state governments of the Northeast and the power developers. It can also seek details of how the EIA for these projects have been given from the MoEF & CC. The time has come for the indigenous people to unite and fight against construction of big dams and hydro power projects. Ignoring the issue may sound the death knell for the ecology and environment of this part of bottlenecked landmass of the country.


Geetartha Pathak

Geetartha Pathak is a Guwahati-based senior journalist. He is vice-president of the Indian Journalists Union, and also a former member of the Press Council of India.