President & Group Managing Director: Dr.Shelly Ahmed | Editor in Chief & Group CEO: M H Ahssan

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Special Report: Another 'Major Disaster' In The Making

By M H Ahssan, Ashok RaiWalchuk Minga & Kajol Singh

More than 150 hydel projects are being pushed in Arunachal Pradesh to claim the so-called first user right on the common rivers before China dams them. At risk are the life and livelihood of millions in northeast India.

Nijor naak kati xatinir jatra bhongo (cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face).” Near Gogamukh, a few activists milled around their young leader Keshoba Krishna Chatradhara as he explained the local opposition to the Lower Subansiri hydel project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.
As the discussion veered to the inevitable strategic angle, one of them could not resist the not so cryptic one-liner.

Most major rivers of Arunachal Pradesh descend from Tibet. But apart from Siang (which becomes Brahmhaputra in the Assam plains once Lohit and Dibang join it), the rest originate just across the international border and assume their mighty rain-fed avatars only downstream in Arunachal. Though Subansiri and Lohit have fairly large catchment areas in Tibet, experts feel it is not economically viable to tap these rivers inside China for their limited hydel potential so close to the sources.

In fact, the only Chinese dams in this region are coming up on the east-west flowing Yarlung Tsangpo (as Siang, the main channel of Brahmaputra, is called in Tibet) and its northern tributaries, such as the Kyi Chu and the Niyang. Yet, India’s biggest justification for pushing over 150 dams all across the eight river basins of Arunachal — at the cost of the safety and livelihood of millions — is the urgent need to pre-empt China’s hydel designs in the Himalayas.

In 2006, when India reiterated its commitment to the Siang hydel projects, countering China was the buzzword. Little changed till 2010 when the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh attended a crowded public consultation in Guwahati and “explained to the audience the strategic significance of some of these projects in Arunachal Pradesh”. Ramesh subsequently briefed the prime minister, admitting that his views were contested by activists from Arunachal who urged New Delhi not to make the state “a pawn in the race between India and China”.

The minutes of the December 2011 meeting of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) reveals that Ramesh’s successor Jayanthi Natarajan used the same argument — “the area is of strategic importance” — to justify the urgency to rollout the 1,750 MW Lower Demwe project in Arunachal’s Lohit district could not be delayed further. She eventually cleared the project in February 2012, overruling all seven independent members of the NBWL who opposed the move.

This February, Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth convened a meeting of the Committee of Secretaries (CoS) to take stock of Arunachal’s hydel projects. The focus yet again: the ninth report of the Inter-Ministerial Expert Group that listed 39 run-of- the-river (ROR) project sites in China on Yarlung Tsangpo and its tributaries.

On behalf of the CoS, Seth asked the Technical Expert Group (TEG) headed by the additional power secretary to prepare an action plan for establishing India’s first user right on the common rivers as soon as possible. The idea was to capitalise on the 1966 Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers, which was approved by the 1997 UN Convention on the Non-navigable Uses of International Watercourses.

Ironically, while China was among the three countries to vote against the UN Convention, India abstained. In any case, the Convention merely demands “equity, fairness and no significant harm” to downstream countries and has nothing in it to defend any first user right. Such an arrangement is possible only when countries have bilateral pacts such as the Indo-Pak Indus Treaty or the Indo- Bangla Ganges Treaty.

Unfortunately, India has little moral ground to push China on fair water sharing after consistently ignoring the pleas of downstream Bangladesh against unilateral diversion and extraction of water from 54 common rivers, including the heavily dammed Teesta.

What further weakens India’s case against China is its routine clean chit to every other hydel project in the region, including the ones being implemented by Indian companies in Bhutan, without examining downstream impact. In Parliament, successive power ministers have made outlandish claims. Sample two:

• “There is no flood or erosion or siltation effect downstream of any executed or to be executed hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh or Bhutan. In fact, these projects have a flood or erosion moderation effect downstream.” — 15 December 2008

• “All the existing hydropower schemes in Bhutan are run-of-the-river types which has (sic) no impact on the quantum of flow downstream of the hydropower dam.” — 25 November 2011

While rushing dozens of dams to claim first user rights, India has also been trying to allay domestic fears by harping on the run-of-the-river (RoR) nature of the existing Chinese projects on common rivers. Reports from China have done their bit to encourage the doublespeak. For example, when China started work on the 510 MW Zangmu project in 2009, Xinhua claimed that the $1.2 billion project “can also be used for flood control and irrigation”, implying storage and diversion of water. But there is no ground evidence yet to question the standard Chinese assurance that none of its dams in Tibet will harm India’s downstream interests.

In such a mutually-accepted RoR regime (See box below), New Delhi’s real fear apparently is that China may anytime set in motion its dream project of building the world’s largest dam on the Great Bend of Yarlung Tsangpo to generate 38,000 MW of power and channel a massive quantity of water to its parched north-western provinces.

Even the February meeting of the CoS noted that a huge budget has been allocated for upgrading the Bome-Medog road, which passes through the remote Great Bend area. Given Medog’s sparse population, such massive expenditure on the road made India anxiously speculate if China is merely preparing for another series of RoR projects or reviving its mega water diversion plan.

Manmohan Singh’s 2008 Arunachal visit was the first by a prime minister in 12 years. What finally brought the Assam mp to Roing was the urgency to lay the foundation stone of the 3,000 MW Dibang project even before it received any statutory clearance. But not many shared his excitement at the unbridled hydel boom. “Jyada pishab mat karo, sarkar ek aur mou le ke aayegi (Don’t urinate a lot or the government will bring another MoU)” was the joke around town.

Some, in fact, blame the rush on Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To be fair, the Chinese plan to build the mother of all dams at the Tiger Leaping gorge on the Yarlung Tsangpo preceded the former NDA prime minister’s 2002 announcement that all major rivers of India would soon be linked. But the latter probably set the mood for neighbourly one-upmanship.

Already, in 2001, the Central Electricity Authority had ranked the hydroelectric potential of key Indian rivers and identified 168 potential large projects in the Brahmaputra basin, which could generate 63,300 MW. A month before his historic Beijing visit in June 2003, Vajpayee proudly launched the 50,000 MW national hydroelectric initiative, identifying 42 projects with installed capacity of 27,293 MW in Arunachal alone.

The Chinese response was an incursion into Arunachal on 26 June while still hosting Vajpayee. That probably egged on the Arunachal dream of floating in hydrodollars. According to the state’s Mega Hydro Power Policy 2005, Arunachal was implementing only two medium-sized hydel projects — the 405 MW Ranganadi and 600 MW Kameng — but by 2006, it had launched into an MoU signing spree with public and private sector companies.

The then chief minister Gegong Apang opened the floodgates of project allotment but corruption charges made him resign in April 2007. Significantly, the replacement was none other than Dorjee Khandu, Apang’s power minister. Since then, the power portfolio has remained with successive chief ministers.

In May 2007, Arunachal invited bids for 13 large hydel projects with a combined capacity of 7,920 MW in Dibang and Lohit valleys, triggering the first spate of mass protests in the state. An unfazed state government redrafted its hydel power policy in 2008 to facilitate a rush of MoUs for which companies paid “upfront premium” of Rs 1-6 lakh per MW capacity.

Between February 2006 and October 2010, Arunachal allotted 132 projects — 38 of these are above 100 MW — of a combined installed capacity of 40,140.5 MW. Around 120 of these projects involved private companies. Since then, at least another 15 MoUs have been signed.

Till December 2012, 17 of these projects had been given environmental clearance while another 70 got Terms of Reference or Stage I clearance. The combined generation capacity of these projects is nearly 40,000 MW. So far, only one project has been rejected, that too temporarily, when the ministry asked for the Kameng dam to be shifted away from the Pakke Tiger Reserve.

Such desperate rush has triggered angry protests in Assam where people fear drastic flow fluctuation between trickling rivers and floods will threaten their livelihood and lives. In the sparsely populated, fragile mountains, the Arunachali tribes fear that so many dams will further unsettle this high-seismic zone and the influx of lakhs of construction workers will destroy their cultural identity.

Nobody, mind you, in Arunachal is against hydel projects. The success of micro-hydels in the state’s remote Anjaw district that became power-surplus in 2011 backs the claim that Arunachal does not need mega projects to meet its power demands. “Arunachal’s peak hour demand is within 130 MW and it will not go up fast because, ecologically, this area is fit for only certain types of development that don’t consume excessive power. But for some reason, big dams are being thrust upon us,” says Syndulum Ngadong, an anti-big dam activist, at Tezu, the headquarters of Lohit district.

That reason, ostensibly, is India’s strategic interest. It has allowed everybody — from the state government to the MLAs — to make a fast buck and triggered speculative bidding by firms with no experience or interest in building dams (See box below). It has also empowered the authorities to bulldoze the laws of the land.

The Lower Demwe project, for example, will change the water flow inside Assam’s Dibru-Saikhowa National Park but no clearance was sought from the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden under Section 35(6) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act. Its submergence area will reach within 50 metres of the Kamlang sanctuary although a 10-km ring around a Protected Area is considered ecologically sensitive. Natarajan used her veto power to clear the project.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports of almost all these projects are faulty to the extent of reading ridiculous. For example, the ELA for the Lower Subansiri mentioned only 55 of the 127 fish species in the river and left out the Gangetic dolphin, India’s national aquatic animal.

With more than 150 projects coming up on just eight river basins, Cumulative Impact Assessments (CIA), say experts, is a must. Though CIAs have been commissioned in some of the river basins recently, clearance of individual hydropower projects has been delinked from the results of such studies, rendering the whole exercise meaningless.

P Abraham, former Union power secretary and the chairperson of the EAC that examined the Demwe Lower project for the scoping clearance, was a director on the board of PTC India Ltd, one of the project’s co-promoters. His report delinked the environmental clearance of the Demwe Lower and Upper projects from the results of the Lohit river basin study that examined the cumulative impact of all the projects coming up on the river. He had to step down eventually but his reports were never scrutinised for bias by the environment ministry.

Similarly, for all 13 projects coming up in the Tawang basin, the Forest Advisory Committee of the environment ministry recommended a cumulative study last September. Within four months, Natarajan cleared Tawang I and II, exempting both from the CAI.

AT Pongging village by the Siang near Pasighat in the East Siang district, Ote Panyang, one of the headmen, surveys the fertile cropland that stretches all the way down to the river. “All these fields and our entire village will be gone. Even those forests where our yaks graze will be submerged,” he points uphill to indicate how far the water will rise. “They want us to take their money and move. Why don’t they realise that nowhere else in this state, money will buy us such land?” says his neighbour Kangong Taying who owns six hectares of paddy fields.

Last year, the 2,700 MW Lower Siang project was put on hold after residents of Pongging and 20 other project-affected villages clashed with the police and staff of Jaypee Arunachal Power Ltd. This May, the government went right ahead and allotted the 3,750 MW Upper Siang Stage II project to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation and the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) for an upfront payment of Rs 225 crore.

“These dams cannot be imposed on us. Our traditional Kebang (council of Adi tribe elders) decides on all issues of community land and water rights,” explains Vijay Taram, convenor of Forum for Siang Dialogue. “Nobody asked the Kebang’s opinion before launching these projects.”

With less than 3 percent of its land fit for agriculture, Arunachal is India’s most sparsely cultivated state. Of the few patches of fertile alluvial fields, the most prized are the lower banks of the Siang where 51.51 sq km will be drowned by the Lower Siang project. One of the touted USPs of these hydel projects in Arunachal is their relatively small socio-economic impact. Since the state’s population density of 17 per sq km is the lowest in India, very few people will be displaced.

“Our state is hilly and forested. Government and security establishments occupy much of the plains. Further loss of plain land to dam projects will leave nothing for farming. Land use restrictions will apply in the catchment area of the reservoir, posing livelihood challenges and putting more pressure on the remaining forests,” explains Tone Mikrow, who led the anti-dam movement in neighbouring Lower Dibang Valley district where the tribes are more worried about cultural invasion and dam-induced landslips and earthquakes.

“The Idu-Mishmi is the main tribe here and our entire population is only about 12,000. These projects will bring at least 10,000 labourers from outside. Imagine the impact of such influx on us. This, when the Indian Constitution protects our cultural identity and the Idu- Mishmi language has been identified by Unesco as part of its Endangered Languages Programme,” argues Dr Mite Lingi at Roing, the district headquarters of Lower Dibang Valley.

A number of Arunachal’s 26 major and more than a hundred smaller tribes face this impending crisis of identity. In a letter to the deputy commissioner, residents of six affected villages of Anjaw district pleaded that they were “completely dependent on natural resources for livelihood” and would face destitution when the proposed Hutong-II dam submerged their land. They revere the mountains, water bodies and land as their guarding spirits — Buroo-Shyuto-Temik-Kangam — and have refused to leave the land where generations of their forefathers are buried.

Seismic activity and heavy rainfall trigger frequent landslides and earthquakes across Arunachal. With the onset of monsoon, several parts of the state became inaccessible last week. Earlier in February, a massive landslide killed three near Pasighat. “Every monsoon, the 200-km stretch of the NH-52 between Tezu to Walong suffers landslips at different points, cutting off the entire Anjaw district for months together. With so many dams coming up, we now fear the worst,” says Syndulum at Tezu.

But apart from the Adis in Siang valley, most project-affected tribes here are too poor to refuse the compensation money. Clans are already fighting over ownership of the land to be acquired for the Lower Demwe project. Sensing the inevitability of the hydel projects, the more educated in the communities are now demanding 5 percent of the power revenue, instead of the standard 2 percent, for local development.

The small numbers of affected people have made it easier for private promoters to win them over with doles. “While public opinion is still divided over the Lower Dibang dam, very few are against the 3,800 mw Upper Dibang project coming up at Etalin. The Jindal Group has smartly built goodwill by employing or giving business to a handful of the project-affected,” says Raju Mimi, a journalist-activist based in Roing.

What eventually softened the opposition to the Dibang projects, however, was the Maoist card, says Mimi. “Suddenly, we heard that Maoists were opposing the dams. We have insurgency issues here but had never heard of any Maoist. Many feared that the government might use the Maoist excuse to apply the (Armed Forces) Special Powers Act. This broke the resistance.”

Today, cultural and safety concerns apart, many in Arunachal are not against these hydel projects as long as prime land is not submerged. Not much has changed since they opposed multi-purpose projects that drown large areas when the Assam Accord (1985) demanded dams upstream as a safeguard against floods.

My father fought for the (Subansiri) dam and today I’m fighting against it,” Chatradhara smiles at the office of the People’s Movement for Subansiri Brahmaputra Valley in Assam’s Gogamukh. “But the focus of the project has shifted from flood control to power generation. While flood control projects have large areas behind dams to absorb a sudden spurt in river levels, power projects always maintain high headwaters. So when a flash flood occurs, they cannot hold the water and have to open the gates.”

Manmade disasters in downstream areas are not just a theoretical possibility in this region. In 2007, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi raised the issue with the external affairs ministry after release of water from Bhutan’s Kurishu dam without any warning led to a “catastrophic flood” that devastated lower Assam in just seven hours. Sudden releases from Kurishu have been causing floods of varying intensity every monsoon since.

Even in the lean winter season, drastic daily flow fluctuation caused by hydel projects affects fishing, flood-recession agriculture, navigation and livestock rearing besides destroying the riverine and wetland ecology. For example, the Lower Subansiri project will hold back water for about 20 hours before releasing the load for maximum power generation during the peak demand hours in the evening. As a result, downstream flows in winter will fluctuate daily from 6 cubic metres per second (cumecs) to 2,560 cumecs.

This means the rivers will trickle for 20 hours before swelling with monsoonlike surges, every day. The 2,700 MW Lower Siang project, for example, will cause a daily water level fluctuation of more than 13 feet in January, severely affecting downstream areas including the Daying Ering wildlife sanctuary. With so many dams following the same daily routine on the Brahmaputra and all its major tributaries, the people, livestock and wildlife in the entire basin are at risk.

“Fish that breed in shallow waters or hibernate along the shorelines are very vulnerable to such flow fluctuations. These daily floods will also affect groundnesting birds, amphibians and even mammals — Bengal Floricans to tigers — that use the chapories (riverine islands). Dolphins, on the other hand, will not survive the dry hours,” says North Lakhimpurbased biologist Lakhi Prasad Hazarika.

When the Ranganadi hydel project was commissioned, large quantities of water released in the river without any warning took people by surprise. Many cattle, and unconfirmed reports claim one villager too, were swept away. Amid protests, the NEEPCO issued a circular in June 2006: “The gates of Ranganadi diversion dam may require opening from time to time… the corporation will not take any responsibility for any loss of life of human, pet animals and property damage…”

With lives, livelihood will also come under threat. If the experience of Ranganadi and Subansiri is anything to go by, these projects will cause loss of fisheries, driftwood collection, sand and gravel mining, farming and grazing on riverine islands. Rajinder Chauhan from Noa Ali village near Gogamukh complains that sand collecting has taken a big hit as the Subansiri now brings more silt than sand. Dayashankar from Natun Sonapur says he spends twice as much time to catch barely half the quantity of fish he used to net before the dam came up.

And yet, no hydel project is required to assess its downstream impact beyond 10 km or the distance from dam to powerhouse. The 1,750 MW Demwe Lower project on the Lohit river, for example, was granted environmental clearance in February 2010 ignoring downstream concerns. When a post-clearance downstream impact study was conducted, its recommendations were summarily ignored.

Following mass protests against the Subansiri project in Assam, the government agreed to a downstream study by experts from IIT Guwahati, Dibrugarh University and Guwahati University, only to launch an ad campaign against the panel’s report that found the dam unviable on geological grounds alone. A subsequent study ordered by the Planning Commission also raised the same concerns. Yet, the authorities are in no mood to give up on the ill-conceived project.

But the public mood in Assam is equally adamant. “How will they take construction material to Arunachal? From cement to turbines, we will allow nothing to pass through Assam,” warns Akhil Gogoi, whose Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti is at the forefront of the Subansiri blockade that has halted project work since 2011.

Perhaps sensing the shape of resistance to emerge in Assam, the Arunachal government has already asked the Centre to convince Bhutan to allow construction of a road along its foothills to connect West Bengal’s Alipurduar to Nechipu in Arunachal’s West Kameng district.

In this rush to pre-empt China, India is choking the entire indigenous support system of the Brahmaputra, the lifeline of the Northeast. The Subansiri, Lohit, Dibang and Kameng contribute more water to the mighty river than the Siang does. Unlike the Siang, these rivers are not likely to be tapped inside China. In this perceived race between the two Asian superpowers to control the Himalayan resources, the vulnerable hill tribes and millions living downstream will pay the price.

“Whether this flurry of dams materialises first in Tibet or in Arunachal, the future of the majority of people in this region — that includes Bangladesh — will be doomed,” warns Dr DC Goswami, chairman of the panel set up by the Assam government to assess the threats from Chinese dams. “Should we try to thrash out an ecologically and economically viable water sharing agreement or rush to destroy our own rivers before China can?”
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