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#1158, 20 September 2003
Dam it! Why Big Dams in India’s Northeast Will Not Bring Prosperity

On 30 August Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee assured that by 2007 every village in the country would be electrified and by 2012 every house illuminated. However, gloom descended over the eight northeastern states following this announcement. For this region it means a fresh wave of environmental devastation: the northeastern states would have to build some 45 big hydroelectricity projects and submerge vast areas of its still dense forests to produce about 60 per cent of the power required to implement this decision.

Even before the news could reach the northeast, the tribal communities who will be displaced by the new dams were on streets intensifying their opposition to hydroelectricity projects. Besides asking for fresh cost-benefit analyses of all projects, communities are demanding decommissioning of at least two major hydropower projects in Manipur and Tripura. Tribal communities have been opposing the existing and ongoing hydroelectricity projects in all the northeast states. At present, there are 55 projects at various stages of execution.

The Prime Minister’s promise is a part of his ambitious "Mission 2012, Power for All" initiative launched in May this year. Under this initiative 50,000 MW of hydroelectric power would be produced in 16 states. The northeastern region has been identified as a major contributor to this plan.  Of the 162 hydroelectric schemes planned, 42 major schemes are located in Arunachal Pradesh alone. According to Central Electricity Authority (CEA), the state on its own has the potential of producing 49,000 MW of hydroelectricity, just 1000 MW short of the Prime Minister’s target. Altogether, 68 projects will be located in the northeast under this programme.

However, environmentalist and local communities are contesting the very idea of having more dams. “The proposed projects would not benefit the North East region as far as power is concerned. Also despite the presence of many projects the region remains backward,” says Anaspasia Pinpo, director of Imphal-based Centre for Organisation Research and Education (CORE).. The region’s peak demand of power at the end of the Ninth Plan was 1809 MW. The planned addition to hydropower generation in NE is 19,098 MW by 2020, which is more than three times the projected peak demand of power in 2020 (5700 MW), according to a paper by DC Goswami and Partha J Das of Department of Environmental Sciences, Gauhati University.

The history of hydroelectricity projects and the trail of ecological devastation wrought by them are the major reasons why local communities have opposed the current initiative. “The social and environmental costs of past projects are much more than the benefits from them. These costs are going to be heavy and mostly paid by the poorest dependent on the natural resources around them,” says Pinpo. For example, the Gumti project in Tripura submerged over 4634 ha of land and displaced over three thousand families in the mid-1970s. The project has not generated more than 5 MW though its installed capacity is 15 MW annually.

As one of the world’s bio-diversity hotspots and most seismically active areas, the northeast has not had very pleasant experiences with big dams. Both in the Subansiri and Tipaimukh projects, comprehensive environmental assessments were not conducted.. Similarly, no projections have been made on the cumulative effect of so many projects concentrated in a relatively small area. On the other hand, project officials have not disclosed their own assessments reports to the local people terming these as classified documents. Most protest movements are centred on this issue of the lack of information.. “It is just impossible to know what the project would do to our lives,” says Ramanand Wangkheirakpam, an activist and research scholar in Jawaharlal University who has studied the impact of big projects on livelihood in Manipur.

Civil society and community groups in the northeastern states have come together to demand review of all the existing projects. These groups are demanding decommissioning of projects which have become environmental and economic burdens for the region. The 108 MW Loktak hydroelectricity project on a 25,000 years old natural lake host of the only floating national park in the world, is a primary target. The barrage built on it has reduced outflow of silt in the lake. This has caused heavy siltation and shrunk Loktak from 495 sq.. kms.. in 1971 to just 289 sq. kms.. in 1990.

The protests in the northeast revolve around local livelihood security. Forests and lands are the two crutches of economy in the northeast. The prime minister must take note of this dissent if he really wants the region to prosper economically. The local people have the right to decide what development model they wish to adopt.

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