Fighting India’s mega-dams

Popular protests against the construction of a vast network of dams in the Brahmaputra valley have gathered impressive momentum. Tanmoy Sharma reports from Assam.

In demonstrations barely reported in the media, people in the north-east Indian state of Assam have been fighting for several years against a proposed gargantuan network of dams across the upper reaches of its rivers in Arunachal Pradesh. But over the past few months, protests have intensified over a project that threatens devastating environmental and social impacts, and the anxiety and disquiet among the downstream dwellers has left Assam’s politics in a simmering state.

On the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, lush green tea gardens fill up the north bank of the Brahmaputra River in Assam’s Sonitpur district. Driving further up the national highway towards the northern towns of Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, one sees countless rivulets and tributaries flowing down from the northern state of Arunachal Pradesh. In recent years, in a drastic change of topography, the green landscape has gradually given way to dried up rivers and sandy floodplains – thanks to massive sand deposition in the lower reaches of these swirling rivers.

In the summer of 2011, sand deposition due to the changing course of the Gai River alone buried farmlands amounting to thousands of hectares. Jiadhol and Misamari, smaller rivers once known for causing flash floods in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts, have sanded up one village after another. Meanwhile, in June 2008, the released load waters from the dam in Ranganadi, another tributary flowing from Arunachal-Himalaya caused heavy floods and engulfed an area containing as many as 300,000 people.

These dramatic changes are the result of new river engineering employed by the Indian central government in the myriad tributaries of Arunachal Pradesh that converge to become the mighty Brahmaputra. The dispossessed, displaced and distressed peasantry of these sleepy villages along the national highway are now out on the streets day and night, braving the winter cold. For they fear further devastation once a dam under construction on the Lower Subansiri, the largest tributary of the Brahmaputra, becomes operational. And at present they have the crucial backing of a wide range of people – from organisations and parties to middle-class elites.

In fact, the long-enduring anti-dam movement in Assam, mainly geared against the state’s Congress government and the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC),  gained unprecedented momentum towards the end of last year; so much so that it brought the construction work at the project site in Gerukamukh to a complete halt on December 16, 2011. People in the state are now fighting together against a proposed network of 168 mega-dams across Arunachal Pradesh, one of the world’s most seismically active regions. The project is thought to be India’s largest ever hydropower adventure.

The anti-dam convulsion in the north-east Indian state of Assam, especially the one against the Lower Subansiri project, has a decade-long history. The project itself was envisaged by the Brahmaputra Flood Control Commission in 1955 with a view to flood moderation and irrigation. Finally the Brahmaputra Board transferred the project to NHPC in 2000 without any decision regarding the scientific investigations.

As the riparian anxiety and the uncertainties about its social and ecological impact grew, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) started campaigning against the mega-dams in 2002. At the same time, a few other NGOs joined the rally and held protest marches. Finally, in December 2006, a tripartite meeting was held involving the Assam government, NHPC and AASU, after which a scientific expert committee was set up to investigate the 2,000-megawatt project.

NHPC had begun the construction work at a furious pace without carrying out a downstream impact study. So when the final recommendations of the expert committee came out on June 2010, the public mood grew panicky. The report stated: “The selected site for the mega-dam of the present dimension was not appropriate in such a geologically and seismologically sensitive region. Therefore, it is recommended not to construct the mega-dam in the present site.”

But the oblivious Assam government took no stand in regard to downstream anxieties. After a public hearing in the state capital of Guwahati in September 2010, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh wrote in his letter to the prime minister: “Personally, I believe some of the concerns that were expressed cannot be dismissed lightly…Right now the feeling in vocal sections of Assam’s society particularly appears to be that ‘mainland India’ is exploiting the north-east hydro-electricity resources for its benefits, while the costs of this exploitation will be borne by the people of north-east.”

Despite such directives, when a defiant NHPC continued the construction of the Lower Subansiri Mega-Dam, AASU allied with 26 ethnic organisations in 2010 to kick off a fully fledged agitation. Akhil Gogoi, general secretary of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), also appeared as a powerful player in the anti-dam disquiet. Gogoi, an activist and peasant leader who shot to fame with his crusade against corruption in the last five years, has been able to successfully mobilise popular sentiments against the dams over past year and a half. 

On December 1, 2011, more than 3,000 activists led by AASU and KMSS filled the Lakhimpur town to block the further movement of a large vehicle carrying equipment towards the Subansiri dam site. One month of full scale protests and an effective blockade against NHPC in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts have fired the Assamese public imagination, and given birth to a regional movement. Barely reported in the national or international media, the anti-dam unrest has nevertheless attained such proportions that a tense state government had to call the agitating groups to the negotiating table in January. So far, though negotiations continue, no consensus has been reached.

After leading a weighty blockade, which turned aggressive at times, for more than a month, KMSS general secretary Akhil Gogoi travelled to Assam’s capital city of Guwahati for the first round of talks in January 2012. Speaking after the dialogue, Gogoi said: “Although we appreciate government’s wish to hold talks, there was no indication that they were ready to draw the project to a halt. In fact, experiences from all other anti-dam movements across the country tell us that the centre will use this as a strategy to calm the protests and delay the process.”

But Gogoi believes that its huge peasant participation makes the protest a sustainable movement. Although downstream impact remains a major concern, there are other key issues as well that have fuelled profound resentment in the public debates. The left-progressive faction within the movement has focused primarily on the issue of rights to resources. Corporatisation of water resources by central government, they argue, through framing “imposed laws” such as the National Water Policy is a clear violation of the state’s constitutional right over water. “If this is not neo-colonial exploitation, what is?” asked a heated Gogoi.

Dubbing their struggle as an “anti-imperialist” fight, KMSS has already vowed to resume and intensify the on-street resistance movement. On a slightly different note, AASU maintains their inclination to pursue a non-radical democratic approach. In an interview, Samujjal Bhattacharya, adviser to AASU, said: “We believe in a peaceful resolution of the issue through talks.”

Calling each of the mega-dams a hydro-bomb, Bhattacharya said: “We are not against development. But if development comes at the cost of the life, security and civilisation of the people of Assam, no way would it be allowed.” AASU attributes the project to a biased profit-making motive of the centre, where Assam’s water resources may serve the national interest without addressing the decades-long problems of its people. Calamitous floods and erosion create havoc every year in Assam, only to go unaddressed by the government.

Assam’s regional politics has always been framed by perceptions of the central government’s political injustice and economic exploitation. What Assam will “get in return” is a central theme in the mega-dams debate as well. The total power generation of the proposed 168 mega-dams in Arunachal Pradesh would be around 75,000 megawatts, much of which will be driven out of the region. Call it a cruel joke: Assam, despite having equal rights over the inter-state rivers, will receive only 50 megawatts as a royalty, 25 megawatts from the Lower Subansiri Project and 25 megawatts from the Kameng project. “Such simple arithmetic explains why anti-Delhi sentiments arise in this region,” Bhattacharya remarked.

AASU views this campaign not only as an issue in Assam, but part of a wider pan-north-eastern struggle. For that matter, their movement does not limit itself to Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts, but also encompasses the environmental concerns of other projects such as the Tipaimukh dam on the Barak River in Manipur, or the Kurichu dam in Bhutan.

The state government, however, argues that mega-dams are a must if India is to prevent the diversion and damming of the Yarlung Zangbo (the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet). If China were to proceed with this upstream scheme – including the world’s largest hydropower project – New Delhi would have to go to the International Court of Justice to show the beneficial use of the river in India.

“But the people of the north-east will become a pawn in the race between Beijing and New Delhi,” Bhattacharya argued. “Assam’s power need is at the maximum 1,100 megawatts which is attained from state’s own production and buying electricity from other projects. If we are to be granted first user rights of the Brahmaputra by showing its beneficial use, we have suggested some multipurpose micro-projects which will both generate electricity for Assam and contain floods and erosion,” the AASU leader added.

In the first week of the New Year, a mega-dam broke apart near the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, leaving 13,000 people homeless. Such earth-shattering accidents have ushered in a new era of decommissioning. As recently as September 30, 2011, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein surprised many by stopping the construction of the US$3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric project in Kachin state. A recent report of the World Register of Dams (WRD) suggests all the capitalist economies in the world, including the United States, have hugely reduced the construction of mega-dams.

In fact, the Indian government itself has of late shown greater alertness on the issue of river dams across mainland India. The government has passed strictures on a whole slew of projects from Uttarakhand’s Loharinag Pala (on social and religious grounds) to the Polavaram dam in Andhra Pradesh (on grounds that mandatory public hearings were not held).

Whether such national standards apply to the peripheral north-east remains the elusive question. The anti-dam movement in the Brahmaputra valley, a local commentator wrote, has already surpassed the celebrated Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in terms of numerical strength. The social impact in Indian environmental struggles, be it the NBA or the Chipko Movement, largely remains confined to the affected areas and NGO circles.

In Assam, the movement has attracted the support of all Assamese civil society. In a region where politics is premised on the metaphorical poetics of a river as the lifeline of a nation, the anti-dam mobilisation is here to stay. The dams, without doubt, could turn the downstream valleys into a desert. But if they collapsed, an apocalyptic flood could swallow all in its path.

Tanmoy Sharma is a freelance commentator and a university activist based in New Delhi.

This article was first published on openDemocracy and is reproduced here with permission. 

Homepage image by International Rivers shows protests against the Lower Subansiri Dam in Assam, north-east India.