Tuesday, September 13, 2011
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Locals are protesting against hydel projects on the north eastern rivers fearing ecological and livelihood loss

North East India has long been ignored by policy makers who usually blame the difficult terrain for non-delivery of essential services. However, for last few years, both the bureaucrats as well as corporates are making a beeline to the region offering development. The reason is not hard to guess: north east has been identified as India’s ‘future powerhouse’ because of its large river basins and everybody wants a share in the pie. With at least 168 large hydroelectric projects, the region is facing a power boom but local communities are fiercely opposing the transformation in its river ecology which is threating their traditional livelihoods and resources.

However, the state governments are just concentrating on the amount of money that can be made by selling the power so generated to rest of the country. An extensive report by Neeraj Vagholikar and Partha J. Das and co-published by Kalpavriksh, Aaranyak and ActionAid India, points out how policy makers are twisting the rules to suit themselves and duping the indigenous people.

Though the Indian Constitution has offered certain degrees of autonomy to these indigenous communities regarding management of natural resources, on the ground there is little opportunity for them to participate in decisions related to large developmental projects. 

How it all began

In 2001, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) did a preliminary ranking study of the hydroelectric potential of various river basins in the country and Brahmaputra basin was given the highest marks and 168 projects with a total installed capacity of 63,328 MW were identified. The push for large hydropower projects in the Northeast was primarily a process driven by the Central government till the gradual liberalisation of hydropower policies allowed states to invite private players. 

By October 2010, the government of Arunachal Pradesh had already allotted 132 projects for a total installed capacity of 40,140.5 MW, with around 120 of these projects having an involvement of private players.Notably, all these agreements involved huge monetary advances from project developers without any public consultations, preparation of detailed project reports and receipt of mandatory clearances. It’s easy to comprehend how such a process can compromise the objectivity of subsequent clearances. The Central government granted clearances to these projects ignoring all these concerns. 

Bending rules

An environment impact assessment (EIA) is a report which details consequences of a project on the ecology. A project is given a go-ahead only after evaluation of its pros and cons. However, renowned naturalist Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury found that EIAs related to five large hydroelectric projects in Northeast were poor on wildlife aspects His introductory comments on all these reports say: “contains innumerable (instances of) incorrect data, unverified and superfluous statements, and above all reveals the casual approach,” referring to the power companies and EIA consultants. “It is shocking that mega hydel projects in the northeast are being granted clearances based on such reports. How can we decide the fate of some of the country’s most important wildlife habitats based on sub-standard impact assessment studies,” he asks.

Here’s a proof of the low-quality of these reports: the EIA for the 1,000 MW Siyom project lists five bird species in an area which has over 300 and even in this short list has one which is non-existent. Another EIA for the 600 MW Kameng project reclassifies carnivores such as the red panda, pangolins and porcupines as herbivores while the EIA for 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri lists 55 species of fish in a river which has at least 156.

The EIA for the Siyom project lists five bird species in an area which has over 300 and even in this short list has one which is non-existent. Another EIA for Kameng project reclassifies carnivores such as the red panda, pangolins and porcupines as herbivores while the EIA for Lower Subansiri lists 55 species of fish in a river which has at least 156.

In rare cases where additional rapid EIAs have been sought, they prove to be inadequate. In the Lower Subansiri project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) spent six days doing an additional study and then made surprising statements such as: “...The long and vast water body thus created by the reservoir will be happy haunt for aquatic creatures.”  ZSI experts seemed to have forgotten that native aquatic species, whose habitats are fast-flowing rivers, do not find the still waters of a reservoir a ‘happy haunt’! While species introduced for fisheries can definitely enjoy the reservoir, such introductions often prove to be detrimental to the native species.

In other cases Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) did ask for additional detailed studies, but they were mostly done after the clearance thus making the whole exercise futile and a formality. In fact, even the long-term viability of these projects is not known because there is little scientific data available on Brahmaputra river basin. 

Mistaken classifications

The mega-projects in Northeast are being sold with the notion that because of low population density there is little displacement as compared to other parts of the country. The fact that it’s difficult to make an area habitable or cultivable in such a difficult terrain is lost to the authorities. Azing Pertin of the Siang Peoples Forum in Arunachal Pradesh confirms this: “Since our state is hilly, there is very little land where permanent cultivation is possible. Virtually all our available arable lands will be submerged by the 2700 MW Lower Siang project in the affected area in the Siang Valley. The magnitude of impact has to be understood keeping this context in mind. It is misleading to argue that the land being lost is a small percentage of the total area of the district or state and wrong to assume that the project is benign.”

Since our state is hilly, there is very little land where permanent cultivation is possible. Virtually all our available arable lands will be submerged by the 2700 MW Lower Siang project in the affected area in the Siang Valley. The magnitude of impact has to be understood keeping this context in mind. It is wrong to assume that the project is benign, says Azing Pertin of the Siang Peoples Forum in Arunachal Pradesh.

The impacts of dams on resources under common use (e.g. pasture lands), vital to livelihoods of local communities, is also a major missing link in impact assessment of projects. Shifting agriculture (jhum) is a dominant traditional land use in the hills of Northeast India and plays a critical role in the livelihoods of people, maintaining agricultural biodiversity and providing food security. Increasing pressures on land have resulted in the shortening of jhum cycles (the length of the fallow period between two cropping phases), thus impacting the ecological viability of this farming system. The submergence of land by hydel projects will further shorten the jhum cycle and enhance the pressure on the surrounding areas, thus affecting the environment and the livelihoods of jhum-dependent communities.

Another fact that has been ignored is that states such as Arunachal Pradesh have small populations of culturally sensitive indigenous communities. Comparing their magnitude of displacement with displacement in other parts of the country would be a mistake. “The ‘small displacement’ argument to sell these projects as being benign needs to be confronted. The entire population of the Idu Mishmi tribe is around 9,500 and at least 17 large hydel projects have been planned in our home, the Dibang Valley in Arunachal. As per this faulty argument, little social impact will be indicated even if our entire population were supposedly displaced,” says Dr Mite Lingi, chairman of the Idu Indigenous Peoples Council.

The entire population of the Idu Mishmi tribe is around 9,500 and at least 17 large hydel projects have been planned in our home, the Dibang Valley in Arunachal. As per this faulty argument, little social impact will be indicated even if our entire population were supposedly displaced, says Dr Mite Lingi, chairman of the Idu Indigenous Peoples Council.

Besides the livelihood concerns, local indigenous communities are also worried about the impact on their cultural and ethnic traditions. In 2007-09, indigenous communities participated in an over-900- day satyagraha in Sikkim to highlight the impact of hydel projects on Dzongu, the holy land and reserve of the Lepcha tribe. The Buddhist monk community also joined in since a sacred landscape stands to be desecrated.

Influx of migrant labourers is another major concern of the inhabitants here. Dr Mite Lingi, chairman of the Idu Indigenous Peoples Council, explains: “We have been given constitutional and legal protection, particularly with respect to our land rights and restricted entry of outsiders. These projects are going to require both skilled and unskilled labour which Arunachal Pradesh cannot provide. Around 17 large projects in the Dibang Valley will bring in outside labour, upwards of 1,50,000 people, for long periods, as these are long gestation projects. We are concerned about the demographic changes and other socio-cultural impacts associated with this. Such development policies are in glaring contradiction to the constitutional and legal protection we have been given.”

Dissent flows downstream

An issue of heated current debate in the Northeast is the downstream impacts of dams, often a lacuna in the broader popular discourse on the impacts of dams in the country, which is primarily influenced by upstream submergence and displacement. When large dams block the flow of a river, they also trap sediments and nutrients vital for fertilising downstream plains.

In Assam, there have been repeated incidents of dam-induced floods across the state from upstream projects like 405 MW Ranganadi in Arunachal Pradesh in recent years. Downstream impact concerns include loss of fisheries; changes in wetland ecology in the flood plains; impacts on agriculture on the riverine islands and tracts; impacts on various other livelihoods like driftwood collection, sand and gravel mining due to blockage of rivers by dams; increased flood vulnerability due to massive boulder extraction from river beds for dam construction and sudden water releases from reservoirs in the monsoons; dam safety and associated risks in this geologically fragile and earthquake-prone region.

In Assam, there have been repeated incidents of dam-induced floods across the state from upstream projects like 405 MW Ranganadi in Arunachal Pradesh in recent years. Downstream impact concerns include loss of livelihood, increased flood vulnerability, dam safety and associated risks in this geologically fragile and earthquake-prone region.

One of the key issues which have come up is the drastic daily variation in river flows which will take place after these dams are commissioned, particularly in winter. For instance, the average winter (lean season) flow in the Subansiri river in its natural state is approximately 400 cubic metres per second (cumecs). Both the ecology of the downstream areas and people’s use of the riverine tracts in winter is adapted to this ‘lean’ but relatively uniform flow of water.

After the commissioning of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project, flows in the Subansiri river in winter will fluctuate drastically on a daily basis from 6 cumecs for around 20 hours (when water is being stored behind the dam) to 2,560 cumecs for around 4 hours when the water is released for power generation at the time of peak power demand in the evening hours. Thus the river will be starved for 20 hours and then flooded for 4 hours with flows fluctuating between 2 per cent and 600 per cent of normal flows on a daily basis.

The flow will cause a ‘winter flood’ drowning on a daily basis of drier riverine tracts used both by people and wildlife throughout the season. The downstream livelihoods and activities likely to be impacted by this unnatural flow fluctuation in the Eastern Himalayan rivers include fishing, flood-recession agriculture (e.g. mustard), river transportation and livestock rearing in grasslands for dairy-based livelihoods. But downstream communities are yet to be officially acknowledged as project-affected persons due to upstream dams.

Flow fluctuations in rivers such as Lohit, Dibang, Siang and Subansiri will seriously impact breeding grounds of critically endangered grassland birds, foraging areas of the endangered wild water buffalo, habitat of the endangered ganges river dolphin and important national parks such as Dibru-Saikhowa and Kaziranga. Assam has seen massive protests against a spate of mega dams planned upstream in Arunachal Pradesh. A major focus of conflict has been the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project, under construction on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Downstream agitations by local movements and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) led to the setting up of an interdisciplinary expert committee11 to study the downstream impacts of the project. Both the expert committee and a panel set up later by the Assam Legislative Assembly recommended against construction of the dam in its present dimension.

Flow fluctuations in rivers will seriously impact breeding grounds of critically endangered grassland birds, foraging areas of the endangered wild water buffalo, habitat of the endangered ganges river dolphin and important national parks

However, the Central government has been in denial of a basic fact of nature: that a river flows downstream. This is evident from the terms of reference (ToR) for environment impact assessment (EIA) studies granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) for at least 50 large hydroelectric projects in Arunachal Pradesh from September 2006 to August 2010. The ‘baseline data’ is restricted to only 10 km downstream of the project and the actual ‘impact prediction’ has been asked to be restricted to an even shorter distance downstream --- only between the dam and powerhouse. There is only one aspect which is mandatory to be studied beyond 10 km downstream in all cases which is the ‘dam break analysis’ that predicts the effects of flooding downstream, in case the dam actually breaks.

However, as described earlier, dam-break is not the only downstream risk a dam poses. Unfortunately, most detailed downstream studies are only prescribed as post-clearance studies as has been done in the environmental clearance granted to the 1,500 MW Tipaimukh Multipurpose project in October 2008 and to the 1,750 MW Demwe Lower project on the Lohit river in February 2010.

This clearly indicates that the clearance processes are just being treated as a formality. It was only recently that the MoEF for the first time prescribed partial downstream impact studies for a few projects before grant of clearance (e.g. 3,000 MW Dibang Multipurpose project and 2,700 Lower Siang). But the ToRs in these cases, too, do not ask for comprehensive downstream studies, which should have been the case.

Currently, massive protests by Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity (KMSS) and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) led to blockage of waterways preventing movement of the barges carrying turbines for the construction of NHPC hydel project at Lower Subansiri. The struggle is still on but the fact that local communities are up in arms against such flawed model of development holds hope of a better future.

Read the original report 

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