Dam Projects ~ The Bigger Picture

By Prasenjit Biswas

dam in arunachalThe recent protests over the National Hydel Power Corporation-run project in Gerukamukh, officially known as the Lower Subansiri Dam Project, highlighted the sordid portrayal of impending human disaster.

Following the report of the three-member expert committee appointed by the Assam government about the possible environmental impact of the Subanbsiri project, intellectuals, students, peasants and conscientious sections of Assamese society are up in arms against the ongoing construction at the Gerukamukh site.

In fact,  work has left much of North Lakhimpur’s paddy fields covered with downstream sand, rendering these uncultivable.

This sorry situation, at the very initial stage of construction, has only substantiated the possibility of a massive artificial change in the carrying capacity of the Brahmaputra’s tributaries that could affect cultivation, livelihood and aquatic life. The popular opinion is reflected in mobilisations by Akhil Gogoi, a firebrand youth leader – he is of peasant stock — who has become a darling of the people of Assam in recent times.

Sensing the mood, Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi did some damage control by suggesting his government “will not allow any dam at the cost of lives of people”. The state Assembly also held a day-long discussion on the construction of an astounding 168 big river dams in Arunachal Pradesh. During the discussion, Congress leaders pointed out how the main Opposition party, the Asom Gana Parishad, had, during the NDA regime, helped make the Brahmaputra Board a defunct organisation.

The AGP government had in fact handed over responsibility of construction of the lower Subsansiri dam to the NHPC, which it is now criticising. Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sharma also pointed it out that the BJP, another Opposition party in Assam, had a dual standard as it supported the Narmada dam and demanded more dams in Uttarakhand.

In the Brahmaputra’s case, the BJP even supported a river inter-linking project during the Atal Behari Vajpayee regime, he said. Congress legislators even pointed out the dual role of the CPI(M), as Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar supported the construction of the Tipaimukh dam on the Barak river.

The Congress strategy of pointing out the double standards of parties like the AGP, CPI(M) and BJP served to silence the Opposition on big river dams, effectively robbing the combined Opposition of any electoral gain it hoped to achieve through anti-dam propaganda.

To add a further twist, Tarun Gogoi proposed that the Northeast Water Development Authority would concentrate on flood and erosion control, a greater share of electricity and royalty from the proposed Subansiri dam, a good compensation package and the setting up of another expert panel to study the environmental impact of the lower Subansiri dam.

Such proposals were aimed at dampening the growing public opinion against big river dams.

During the Assembly debate, the only legislator who made a clear mark was Bhuban Pegu, providing the necessary theoretical back-up to his opposition to big river dams. Outside the house, were voices like Ranoj Pegu and Akhil Gogoi, who justifiably highlighted the disastrous effect of the dams being constructed in Arunachal Pradesh.

One very important point raised by these activists was that there was no informed prior consent from the tribes and communities living upstream and downstream of the Subansiri river. These people had plied their agricultural trade for some centuries but they were seemingly ignored when it was decided to construct a dam.

To compound matters, there was no proper study of the geotectonic and seismic conditions that could affect such construction as much of the Northeast region is located in the sensitive zones IV and V of earthquake faultlines.

The Kopili dam that releases water to Nagaon district has already played havoc with farmers. In fact, Ranoj Pegu pointed out that as per the current estimate, the lower Subansiri dam would release very little water during the day but in the evening would discharge some 3,000 cubic metres every day, resulting in doom for the river basin and flooding the plains. The impact could disrupt the intricate socio-cultural linkages of indigenous communities.

The debate on stopping the construction of big dams in Arunachal Pradesh is partly responsible for the Assam government’s proposal to redesign the lower Subansiri dam so that it not only generates electricity but also helps control flooding and augments the riverine environment.

Such a moderated proposal only legitimises the construction that has already begun in Gerukamukh where the effect of cutting away hills and mining is evidenced in terms of the thick desertification of cultivable land in the northern side of the Brahmaputra.

The proposal for redesigning, therefore, may only reduce the height and the size of the reservoir, work on which is already in progress.

Moreover, the proposal does not include downstream impact assessment covering the entire course of the river, and informed public opinion is certainly not on the agenda. Substituting one panel of experts with another because the first went against the dam construction at Gerukamukh comes across, instead, as a sop for construction agencies.

Apart from lower Subansiri, the people of Assam are concerned about the future once Arunachal Pradesh goes ahead with constructing all its 168 dams. This concern will grow with each passing day and become the most important electoral issue in Assam’s ensuing Assembly elections.

The writer is an associate professor of philosophy at Nehu, Shillong

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