By Bala Sai:
One might recollect that in early 2014, Modi started his election campaign from the North East. Amid the torrents of populist rhetoric he rolled out in his well-attended rallies there, one might also recollect his effort to empathize with the concerns of the people over large dam projects, going so far as to assure them that it was his responsibility to make sure such ecologically damaging activities are not permitted.
He said, in a February 2014 speech in Arunachal Pradesh,“I know that the people of the state are against the building of big dams, and I do understand their sentiments. We can still tap those potentials with proper scientific technology and small dams, besides using solar energy to supplement them.”
In retrospect, perhaps Modi was merely an actor reading from a script, auditioning for the role of Prime Minister. Or perhaps it was a joke that we didn’t get. Because, come September, in a move clearly mocking the people of the state for falling for all that pre-election gibberish, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, under the PMO’s insightful guidance, has given the go-ahead to building India’s biggest ever dam right there, in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Dibang dam, once built, will stand at an imposing height of 278m (making it the world’s tallest concrete gravity dam), and will generate 3000 MW of electricity, most of which will be chopped neatly into chunks and packed off to tackle power needs in neighboring states. An estimated 3.24 million trees will be felled to make way for this monstrosity, and once completed, it will submerge more than 4300 hectares (10,586 acres) of forest land, home to many exotic species of flora and fauna, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Moreover, the construction entails large scale mining to the tune of 193 lakh cubic meters of boulder, which comes armed with its own laundry list of environmental and safety hazards.
It was under these grounds that the project was rejected twice before. As recently as in August 2014, the Forest Advisory Committee had concluded that the “ecological and social costs of destroying a vast tract of forest land which is a major source of livelihood for the state’s tribal population would far outweigh the benefit likely to accrue from the project.” Amazingly, less than a month later, the exact same project has been approved unanimously, all its hazards magically evaporating, presumably after a rap on the knuckles from the PMO.
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project has been widely ridiculed for its lack of any environmental impact assessment whatsoever. The document lists various species of wildlife which don’t even exist in the area, misspells some others and promptly turns blind to its own statements, concluding that there are no major species worth bothering about in the general vicinity of the region. It then goes on to appallingly claim that the project only affects a net total of 301 people, thereby suggesting that the vast hordes of protesters staring right at their faces simply don’t exist.
There isn’t any concrete analysis of the potentially massive environmental damages that would be caused downstream in Assam (particularly in the Dibru-Saikhova national park), or about the changes in climate patterns and seismic effects inevitably brought about by such huge dams. Earlier fears of loss of fisheries, agricultural lands, weakening of the river bed due to mining leading to increased vulnerability to flooding and the fatal impact on the tribal cultures remain unaddressed.
All this comes at a time when the international community is just realizing the dangers of big dams and the damages they cause to the overall environment. In fact, the World Commission On Dams has recently stated that large dams only have marginal economic value, given the losses caused due to damages and the high costs of maintenance.
The tribal population and NGOs have come together voicing their concerns over the construction of the dam. Ever since the inaugural stone was laid in 2008, regular protests have been taking place. Each public hearing has been disrupted by local gatherings. On 5th October 2011, ten people lost their lives to police firing. The UN Committee on Racial Discrimination and Dibang Dam, a joint campaign organised by North East Dialogue Forum, People’s Platform Secretariate, Village Women Coordinating Committee, People’s Action for Development, Social Action Committee etc has termed “The Dibang Dam Project” in Arunachal Pradesh as a “Racial Discriminatory project to the people in North East”.
The Dibang dam is not an isolated case. The Modi government, on the pretense of development, has been approving projects left, right and centre, with scant regard for the environment, completely at odds with the gradual, inclusive, sustainable development that was promised before the elections. In a dramatic U-turn too daring even by Indian driving standards, the Modi government, within mere weeks in power, managed to achieve extraordinary new levels of contempt for the environment.
It appears as if the Minister of State for Environment Forest and Climate Change Mr. Prakash Javedekar was expressly chosen for the job for his unflinching passion for signing documents, given the fervor with which he cleared most of the 298 development projects which were pending environmental clearances, and all that within a month of assuming office.
Mr. Modi’s efforts to clean up the Ganga does very little to hide the environmental damage his policies are poised to inflict in the long run. Already, it has been decided to water down the Forest Rights and Forest Conservation Acts, Industrial Bans and the National Green Tribunal Act. Clearance procedure for dam and irrigation projects and pollution classification have all been dangerously simplified. The government has made its intentions clear by refusing to appoint the authorized number of independent members to the National Wildlife Board. Cleaning up the Ganga might appease the Gods, but not the future generations, which will face the brunt of such reckless development.
Modi is a magician. Also, he is a shrewd businessman. It is well known that he deals in illusions and is an expert in pulling massive PR stunts. He structured his entire election campaign on promises of development.
Today, he continues doing the same, enchanting cameras with his Swacch Bharath Campaign and Ganga cleaning operations, while in the background, silently causing irreparable damages to our natural resources through his development initiatives.
Armed with a mandate more powerful than anything we have witnessed in the past few decades, and an increasingly centralized, no-frills government structure, Modi has given himself the power to play God. But does merely having the power give him the right?