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Big Dams, Big Floods: On Predatory Development

Built on the logic of "development", big dams have wreaked havoc on indigenous communities in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh with regular flooding. By pursuing predatory development the central and state governments are equally culpable of visiting disaster on the region.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 26, 200819Big Dams, Big Floods: On Predatory DevelopmentHiren GohainBuilt on the logic of “development”, big dams have wreaked havoc on indigenous communities in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh with regular flooding. By pursuing predatory development the central and state governments are equally culpable of visiting disaster on the region.On June 30, a well-attended public meeting in Guwahati convened jointly by a peasant organisation, a Mishing tribal students’ organisation from Lakshimpur district of Assam, and two tribal students’ organisations from Arunachal Pradesh, attended by many NGOs and individual social activists de-nounced, using strong language, the poli-cies of the central government and various state governments of the north-east. They accused these governments of promoting “development” at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of the people.There are plans afoot, which are being implemented at a furious pace, to tap the immense hydroelectric potential of rivers in the sub-Himalayan belt of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan, recklessly and in disregard of the menace they pose to theunsuspecting people of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Though the matter has been in the news sporadically for some time past, and books and articles warning of grave dangers from these projects have not been unknown, people had not really expected the calamity to overtake them so soon.Unprecedented FloodsFor a number of years, unprecedented floods have ravaged the Barpeta district of Assam in the west with rivers descending from Bhutan overflowing their banks. The Dhemaji and Lakshimpur districts of eastern Assam have been threatened by unusual turbulence with rivers engulfing entire vil-lages through erosion, ruining flourishing paddy fields with heavy siltation and sweep-ing away homes, scores of men, women and children and livestock with enormous flash floods. These being flood-prone areas, at first people thought that such disasters had natural causes perhaps portending climate change. While that possibility cannot be en-tirely ruled out, it is now beginning to be realised that hydel dams upstream in rela-tively interior areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan had a lot to do with them.For the last two consecutive years dur-ing the rainy season, a massive wall of wa-ter has thundered down from the hills at repeated intervals wreaking havoc on both sides of the river-banks extending destruc-tion to a great distance. The people who bore the brunt of the fury of the floods have complained that the floods had been the result of enormous volumes of water hav-ing been released from the Kurishu dam in Bhutan and the dam on the Ranganadi in Arunachal. In thecase of the latter, excess water was being siphoned off through a tunnel to carry river, the Dikrong. Neither had a sufficiently wide and deep channel to carry the excess water safely. The newspa-pers in June were full of horror stories. Twenty-one lives were lost in one week. Prosperous farmers saw their cattle swept away by powerful currents and some lost their lives in attempts to rescue them. Young children and the elderly were par-ticularly vulnerable, and touching stories of a grandmother and a grandchild cling-ing desperately to the topmost parts of a bamboo grove for three days and nights, of huts and cottages sailing down the inflated bosom of the river like large vessels, and families sheltering on roofs of tall houses without food and sleep for a week and dreading every moment about the collapse of such makeshift shelters aroused wide-spread pity and indignation. The Assam chief minister accused the North East Elec-tric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) of mak-ing no safety arrangements, and the NEEP-CO authorities retorted saying that they had no choice but to release the accumu-lated water to save the dam and prevent a worse disaster.The arguments were bantered back and forth without reaching any conclusion.Meanwhile crops in fields and barns were damaged and people suffered from lack of drinking water. Hunger and disease was bound to follow. This is the immediate backdrop to the meeting where the promise of development held out by the state was challenged and denounced by the assembled scientists, social activists and representa-tives of grassroots people’s organisations.Before I proceed to record my observa-tions I should like to offer to the readers a number of salient facts gathered from the remarks and interventions of different speakers at the meeting. The various Hiren Gohain ( is a distinguished Assamese literary and social critic.
COMMENTARYjuly 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly20power-generating authorities under the government of India, in association with a number of private firms, are tempted by the hydroelectric potential of Arunachal Pradesh, which accounts for 50,000 out of the total capacity of 1,48,000MW in the whole country. The Central Electricity Au-thority has identified 162 sites in the whole country for hydropower generation, out of which 42 are located in Arunachal Pradesh with a total capacity of more than 20,000 MW. Some of the projects are huge, with one at Etalin expected to harness 4,000 MW and one at Dibang 3,000MW.The one which is nearing completion at Lower Subansiri under supervision of the National Hydel Power Corporation (NHPC) has a potential of the 2,000MW. Five hundred villages have been submerged by the flash flood generated by release of stored water from the Ranganadi-Dikrong project which has a capacity of 283 MW. And the People’s Movement for Subansiri Brahmaputra Valley has addressed a protest letter to the Assam chief minister to com-plain that an immeasurably larger volume of water will rush down into the plains at the foot of the hills once the bigger hydel projects go into operation. Indeed the whole of eastern Assam might sink under such an overflow. The NGO Green Heritage of north Lakhimpur has bluntly stated: “NHPC is to the north-east what the East India Company was to India”. Experts and scientists who spoke at the meeting, like D C Goswami and Neeraj Vagholikar (of Kalpavriksh) pointed out several terrifying prospects. First the dams would release a huge volume of water during the rainy season when ceaseless and extensive precipitation would call for water-control. During autumn and winter, though, when farmers require water for the kharif crop, the dams would store up all the available water for power-generation. Secondly, massive deforestation in the areas around the projects poses a danger of adding huge quantities of silt to the floodwater, spelling ruin to the fertile fields. Thirdly, the dams are being built with boulders collected from river-beds. For instance, the Subansiri dam would be built with 32,00,000 tonnes of boulders from the bed of that river. The boulders check the velocity of the current and pre-vent river-sand from being washed down. Once the boulders are taken away the cur-rents become stronger, river-sand becomes loose, and the danger of siltation increases manifold. Lastly, the dams are being raised at a sensitive seismic spot where two tectonic plates of the terrestrial globe are at present pressing against each other. If the weight of massive dams destabilises the plates, the resultant earthquakes will not only bring down the dams in a heap of ruins but would also unleash a deluge on the plains resulting in a calamity of un-precedented magnitude.Arunachal Pradesh ImpactSo much for Assam; the problems persist in the case of Arunachal Pradesh too. Testifying before an Independent People’s Tribunal composed of three members, Subhram Rajkhowa of the Law Faculty, Gauhati University, Nandini Oza who has specialised in writing on dam-related issuesand Sripad Dharmadhikary, re-searcher on dams and water resources, various citizens’ bodies and representa-tives of the numerous indigenous commu-nities of Arunachal Pradesh,andstudents’ bodies like the Idu-Mishmi and the Tagin students’ associations revealed horrific accounts of deception and oppression of indigenous people by the government and the dam authorities.For example, communities numbering a few thousand were forcibly evicted from their traditional homeland to make room for the big projects without prior consulta-tion and sufficient notice. The relocation not only deprived those communities of their familiar environment with arable land, parts of river rich in fish-stock, forests they resorted to for fuel and building material, but placed them in situations of imminent danger, as the new areas be-longed traditionally to other tribal com-munities. The changes in patterns of water-flow in rivers were also likely to affect their traditional livelihood patterns adversely. The massive influx of lakhs of alien workers to the project sites was not only likely to distort the demographic patterns of the state but posed grave danger to the traditional culture of the tribal communities. Already there are reports of women of the resident communities being rendered destitute by the projects, and forced into prostitution. The massive deforestation is not only affecting the ecosystem but increasing the incidence of destructive landslides causing frequent loss of lives. Unaccustomed and unprece-dented floods are causing great damage to habitations and settlements in the hills because of thoughtless interference with natural water-courses. It has been charged that at no stage were the indigenous people consulted and their wishes ascertained. Preparations were carried on behindtheir back and they came to know about their own fate only when work started at break neck speed on the sites. As for the local bureaucracy and political elite it was alleged by the witnesses that they were either intimidated or heavily bribed to silence their opposition. Such is the callous-ness of the dam authorities that in order to reduce costs of relief and rehabilitation they showed the number of affected people in each case as less than 250, the minimum required by central legislation to merit relief. Though the people have opposed the projects tooth and nail, their submis-sions and memoranda have borne little fruit, and they have even been debarred from farcical “public hearings”.The rivers of Arunachal Pradesh flow through mountaneous and elevated re-gions swiftly descending from a height of several thousand feet to the level flood-plains of Assam. The decline in the gradient of the channels within a relatively short distance explains the swiftness of the currents as rivers descend to the plains. As long as there was sufficient forest cover, the volume of water coming downstream remained within predictable limits by and large. But degradation of forests owing to extensive tree-felling and now the ravages of dam-building, rule out absorption of excess precipitation by forests (of the threeproposed dams on the Subansiri, the one in Lower Subansiri will rise to a height of 116 metres, the highest in the country, and submerge an area of 33.50 square kilometres). For reasons mentioned above, the quantity of silt carried downstream has also increased manifold in recent decades. (The Subansiri carries 9,000 tonnes of silt per day during the rainy season.)Scientists as well as social activists at the meeting expressed their outrage at the fact that while it is mandatory nowadays to carry out an Environmental Impact
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW july 26, 200821Assessment (EIA) before starting work on such projects, the dam authorities like the NHPC andNEEPCO commissioned suchEIA surveys when the work was well under way and in one instance when it was near-ing completion. This is an extremely seri-ous violation of law and of the human rights of the indigenous people of both the states. Further, it appears that in order to get favourable reports, these authorities ordered such surveys to be limited to a distance of 7 km downstream, whereas adverse consequences of dam-building were observed as far as 100 km downstream.In the name of compensating the people for their losses, huge sums of money were ceremonially handed over to some MLAs and MPs of affected areas, and that was the last the people heard about the money.DeceptionAll in all, this appears to be a case of deli-berate and wilful deception and malfea-sance on enormous scale against the small and scattered tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and the rural people of Assam, reminiscent of the worst excesses of the colonial regimes. Indeed it is almost like a govern-ment waging war against its own people.All this is being carried on under the flamboyant banner of development. At present the total demand for electricity in the whole of Assam comes to about 800 MW, and that of Arunachal a mere fraction of even that, whereas the projected output from those dams will exceed 20,000MW. It follows that it is not concern for develop-ment of this backward region but eagerness to meet the insatiable hunger for power for industrialised states further west that drives the furious pace of the dam-building. Corporate houses like Reliance,GMR and D S Constructions are also in the race to make a fast buck by investing in these projects on a public-privatepartnership (PPP) basis. Indeed, Bamang Anthony of Arunachal Citizens’ Rights, anNGO, as-serts: “The government is auctioning off Arunachal Pradesh without the consent of its people. Our land and water rights are being transferred to large companies to generate hydro-dollars for the elite.” Of course the infrastructural costs will be borne by the public partner in the PPP.The scenario has lifted a corner of the veil that covers the functioning of Indian democracy. Using the fiction of “represent-ative government”, numerous indigenous communities are being cheated out of their rights, and hosannahs to the “rule of law” cover up flagrant and widespread violation of law and human rights by government agencies, including the most basic right to life. The driving force behind these scamsis the sheer lust for lucre. Corporate interests seem to have hijacked the state. Likewise there seems to have been a degradation of the role of science since scientists have agreed to conduct EIA surveys after work on dams has already made considerable progress. Some scientists have knowingly or unknowingly doctored their findings to suit the demands of their paymasters. This degeneration of science in the service of a corporate state isseenatits disgraceful worst when some scientists join the chorus of government functionaries claiming dams would help control floods.At a function, where a so-called “Vision Statement on the North-East” was re-leased a few days after the meeting in Gu-wahati the prime minister professed that big dams might not be the answer to the problems of the north-east. If so, is he going to scrap them or at least put the projects on hold? There appears to be little chance of that. It is one of those routine state-ments from government circles to apply balm to the pain of a distressed people. And what about the radical democratic opposition parties? They too have joined the band-wagon of progress. Is the banner of “civil society” to be held up by assorted NGOs alone? Did Hegel have such an idea in his mind when he used that term?Breaches in Narmada Commandhimanshu upadhyayaOn June 11, 2008, eight villages (Sujatpura, Todmalpura, Bavjipura, Narsinhpur, Nani Kadi, Balasan, Kaswa and Shedadi) in Kadi tehsil of Mehsana district were flooded following a 30-metre long breach in the Narmda maincanal. Nearly 2,100 families were forced to shift to safer places after 2,000 acres of farmland was submerged. The water that gushed from the breached canal caused heavy waterlogging in the affected area.1 The administration had disbursed Rs 40,000 cash and Rs 6,10,000 as compensation for houses damaged in Sujatpura, while the survey of fields to assess damages was going on at the time of writing this.2 While the government announced a high-powered technical probe to investigate the entire stretch of the Narmada main canal, the opposition Congress made allegations of corruption and demanded a Central Bureau of Investiga-tion probe. Two English newspapers did raise questions on a recent inspection of the main canal in May and asked why the earlier canal breaches were ignored.3 The Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar stated that the breach exposed the manner in which work on the Narmada dam was being done, at the cost of quality and safety.4 There are also indications that a meeting of the environment subgroup of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) took a serious view of this while reviewing the environment compliance report (ECR) submitted by the Gujarat government.5 In 2004, this author had argued that adequate attention needs to be paid to Despite a number of breaches in the Narmada main canal over the years, command area ecological concerns are simply not being paid enough attention by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam. Himanshu Upadhyaya ( is with Intercultural Resources, New Delhi.

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