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Dams In North-East: For Whom?

Posted on April 29, 2011 in Specials

By Devika Mittal:

Jawaharlal Nehru had dubbed Dams as the “temples of development”. Major Dam projects had been laid down by the father and the daughter and the mindless construction was to be continued ‘peacefully’ but then came Medha Patkar. Anti-dam movements have highlighted the social and environmental costs of dams which get sidelined in the ‘development’-obsessed plans. Almost all the dams have seen warnings by environmentalists and protests by the displaced, but we fell prey to the ‘disease of gigantism’. The Narmada Bachao Aandolan had been a phenomenal anti-dam movement as it had managed to get a spotlight and raised millions of eyebrows. But the Government didn’t even bat an eyelid; in fact, it now proposes mega dams in the North-East!

North-East has been declared to be the “future powerhouse of India”. Since 2001, the state government has signed 168 Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with private and public companies for building over 100 mega dams in the Brahmaputra basin. Even though in 2008, the then Union Minister for Power, Jairam Ramesh had warned against this “MoU virus”, these ‘development’ efforts have been going on incessantly. MoUs come with advance payment and this is what makes them irresistible. Large Hydroelectric projects need to go through several ‘environmental clearance’ procedure under the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) to evaluate their environmental and social impacts. The result is summarised in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. But Environmentalists have found that these reports have been inaccurate and misleading. For example, the EIA report for the Siyom project only lists out 5 bird species in the region which in reality has over 300 species!

In these EIC reports, the environmental aspect has been heavily underplayed. Environmentalists are shouting about its disastrous downstream impact – floods. The proposed dams are to be built on a fragile economic zone which is prone to earthquakes. Dam construction involves changing the course of the river i.e. playing with the nature which has always turned out to be disastrous. The increased sedimentation of the rivers will also lead to loss of the rich collection of flora and fauna, for which the North-east is known for.

If we talk about the social costs, well India does not know the concept of rehabilitation. It only knows how to displace people. In the North East, however, the Government talks about ‘small displacement’ – It is argued by the state that since North-east is hilly, the issue of land submergence is not very important. But the reality is that whatever is available as the arable land will be submerged. Submergence of land will also affect the practice of shifting cultivation (jhum), the dominant traditional way of land cultivation in the North-East. So the cultivators are badly hit. Where will they go?

The downstream impact of rivers will also result in the loss of their livelihood. When large dams block the flow of rivers, they also trap the sediments and nutrients required for agriculture in the downstream regions. It will also mean loss of fisheries and other livelihoods like driftwood collection, sand and gravel mining etc.

North-east is also the land of tribes and tribals. The entire Idu Mishmi tribe will be affected as 17 hydel projects will be planted in their region. Many other tribes face similar extinction. Sacred Lanscapes of the Buddhists will also be submerged. And where will the tribes be relocated? The land in the north-east has been customarily delineated between different tribal communities so there is no land! The Tribal population also fears being outnumbered by the migration of outside labourers.

And then of course, we are also talking about dams in Arunachal Pradesh… the target of the ‘red dragon’. This issue can only worsen the situation.

Kisan Mukti Sangram Samiti(KMSS), Narmada Bachao Aandolan, National Alliance for People’s Movement and AASU have launched protest movements in the recent years. Medha Patkar argues “Earlier, the Govt. divided people on the lines of caste and religion but now they are doing so in the name of development”. KMSS terms this “neo-colonialism”. It is estimated that hundreds and thousands of fishermen and farmers will lose their livelihood. Anti-dam protests by farmers and fishermen are a regular headline in the north-eastern papers.

School text books tell us the importance of hydroelectric plants for our ever-growing needs. But Dams have huge economic, environmental and social costs, which overshadow their proposed developmental motives. The solution, however, does not lie in banning them. Before proposing a dam, the environmental cost should be assessed. Also, India needs to learn about rehabilitation of lives and livelihood. Let’s not damn the dam issue, let’s try to realise Nehru’s dream.