Fighting Indiaï¿½s mega dams
by Tanmoy Sharma
March 09, 2012
Popular protests against the construction of a vast network of dams in
the Brahmaputra valley have gathered impressive momentum. Tanmoy
Sharma reports from Assam.
ï¿½The state government argues that mega dams are a must if India is to
prevent the diversion of the Yarlung Zangbo (the upper reaches of the
Brahmaputra) in Tibet.ï¿½
In demonstrations barely reported in the media, people in the north-
east Indian state of Assam have been fighting for several years
against a proposed gargantuan network of dams across the upper reaches
of its rivers in Arunachal Pradesh. But over the past few months,
protests have intensified over a project that threatens devastating
environmental and social impacts, and the anxiety and disquiet among
the downstream dwellers has left Assamï¿½s politics in a simmering state.
On the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, lush green tea gardens fill
up the north bank of the Brahmaputra River in Assamï¿½s Sonitpur
district. Driving further up the national highway towards the northern
towns of Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, one sees countless rivulets and
tributaries flowing down from the northern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
In recent years, in a drastic change of topography, the green
landscape has gradually given way to dried up rivers and sandy
floodplains ï¿½ thanks to massive sand deposition in the lower reaches
of these swirling rivers.
In the summer of 2011, sand deposition due to the changing course of
the Gai River alone buried farmlands amounting to thousands of
hectares. Jiadhol and Misamari, smaller rivers once known for causing
flash floods in Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts, have sanded up one
village after another. Meanwhile, in June 2008, the released load
waters from the dam in Ranganadi, another tributary flowing from
Arunachal-Himalaya caused heavy floods and engulfed an area containing
as many as 300,000 people.
These dramatic changes are the result of new river engineering
employed by the Indian central government in the myriad tributaries of
Arunachal Pradesh that converge to become the mighty Brahmaputra. The
dispossessed, displaced and distressed peasantry of these sleepy
villages along the national highway are now out on the streets day and
night, braving the winter cold. For they fear further devastation once
a dam under construction on the Lower Subansiri, the largest tributary
of the Brahmaputra, becomes operational. And at present they have the
crucial backing of a wide range of people ï¿½ from organisations and
parties to middle-class elites.
In fact, the long-enduring anti-dam movement in Assam, mainly geared
against the stateï¿½s Congress government and the National Hydroelectric
Power Corporation (NHPC), gained unprecedented momentum towards the
end of last year; so much so that it brought the construction work at
the project site in Gerukamukh to a complete halt on December 16,
2011. People in the state are now fighting together against a proposed
network of 168 mega dams across Arunachal Pradesh, one of the worldï¿½s
most seismically active regions. The project is thought to be Indiaï¿½s
largest ever hydropower adventure.
The anti-dam convulsion in the north-east Indian state of Assam,
especially the one against the Lower Subansiri project, has a decade-
long history. The project itself was envisaged by the Brahmaputra
Flood Control Commission in 1955 with a view to flood moderation and
irrigation. Finally the Brahmaputra Board transferred the project to
NHPC in 2000 without any decision regarding the scientific
As the riparian anxiety and the uncertainties about its social and
ecological impact grew, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) started
campaigning against the mega dams in 2002. At the same time, a few
other NGOs joined the rally and held protest marches. Finally, in
December 2006, a tripartite meeting was held involving the Assam
government, NHPC and AASU, after which a scientific expert committee
was set up to investigate the 2,000-megawatt project.
NHPC had begun the construction work at a furious pace without
carrying out a downstream impact study. So when the final
recommendations of the expert committee came out on June 2010, the
public mood grew panicky. The report stated: ï¿½The selected site for
the mega dam of the present dimension was not appropriate in such a
geologically and seismologically sensitive region. Therefore, it is
recommended not to construct the mega dam in the present site.ï¿½
But the oblivious Assam government took no stand in regard to
downstream anxieties. After a public hearing in the state capital of
Guwahati in September 2010, former environment minister Jairam Ramesh
wrote in his letter to the prime minister: ï¿½Personally, I believe some
of the concerns that were expressed cannot be dismissed lightlyï¿½Right
now the feeling in vocal sections of Assamï¿½s society particularly
appears to be that ï¿½mainland Indiaï¿½ is exploiting the north-east hydro-
electricity resources for its benefits, while the costs of this
exploitation will be borne by the people of north-east.ï¿½
Despite such directives, when a defiant NHPC continued the
construction of the Lower Subansiri Mega Dam, AASU allied with 26
ethnic organisations in 2010 to kick off a fully fledged agitation.
Akhil Gogoi, general secretary of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti
(KMSS), also appeared as a powerful player in the anti-dam disquiet.
Gogoi, an activist and peasant leader who shot to fame with his
crusade against corruption in the last five years, has been able to
successfully mobilise popular sentiments against the dams over past
year and a half.
On December 1, 2011, more than 3,000 activists led by AASU and KMSS
filled the Lakhimpur town to block the further movement of a large
vehicle carrying equipment towards the Subansiri dam site. One month
of full scale protests and an effective blockade against NHPC in
Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts have fired the Assamese public
imagination, and given birth to a regional movement. Barely reported
in the national or international media, the anti-dam unrest has
nevertheless attained such proportions that a tense state government
had to call the agitating groups to the negotiating table in January.
So far, though negotiations continue, no consensus has been reached.
After leading a weighty blockade, which turned aggressive at times,
for more than a month, KMSS general secretary Akhil Gogoi travelled to
Assam's capital city of Guwahati for the first round of talks in
January 2012. Speaking after the dialogue, Gogoi said: ï¿½Although we
appreciate governmentï¿½s wish to hold talks, there was no indication
that they were ready to draw the project to a halt. In fact,
experiences from all other anti-dam movements across the country tell
us that the centre will use this as a strategy to calm the protests
and delay the process.ï¿½
But Gogoi believes that its huge peasant participation makes the
protest a sustainable movement. Although downstream impact remains a
major concern, there are other key issues as well that have fuelled
profound resentment in the public debates. The left-progressive
faction within the movement has focused primarily on the issue of
rights to resources. Corporatisation of water resources by central
government, they argue, through framing ï¿½imposed lawsï¿½ such as the
National Water Policy is a clear violation of the stateï¿½s
constitutional right over water. ï¿½If this is not neo-colonial
exploitation, what is?ï¿½ asked a heated Gogoi.
Dubbing their struggle as an ï¿½anti-imperialistï¿½ fight, KMSS has
already vowed to resume and intensify the on-street resistance
movement. On a slightly different note, AASU maintains their
inclination to pursue a non-radical democratic approach. In an
interview, Samujjal Bhattacharya, adviser to AASU, said: ï¿½We believe
in a peaceful resolution of the issue through talks.ï¿½
Calling each of the mega dams a hydro-bomb, Bhattacharya said: ï¿½We are
not against development. But if development comes at the cost of the
life, security and civilisation of the people of Assam, no way would
it be allowed.ï¿½ AASU attributes the project to a biased profit-making
motive of the centre, where Assamï¿½s water resources may serve the
national interest without addressing the decades-long problems of its
people. Calamitous floods and erosion create havoc every year in
Assam, only to go unaddressed by the government.
Assamï¿½s regional politics has always been framed by perceptions of the
central governmentï¿½s political injustice and economic exploitation.
What Assam will ï¿½get in returnï¿½ is a central theme in the mega-dams
debate as well. The total power generation of the proposed 168 mega
dams in Arunachal Pradesh would be around 75,000 megawatts, much of
which will be driven out of the region. Call it a cruel joke: Assam,
despite having equal rights over the inter-state rivers, will receive
only 50 megawatts as a royalty, 25 megawatts from the Lower Subansiri
Project and 25 megawatts from the Kameng project. ï¿½Such simple
arithmetic explains why anti-Delhi sentiments arise in this region,ï¿½
AASU views this campaign not only as an issue in Assam, but part of a
wider pan-north-eastern struggle. For that matter, their movement does
not limit itself to Lakhimpur and Dhemaji districts, but also
encompasses the environmental concerns of other projects such as the
Tipaimukh dam on the Barak River in Manipur, or the Kurichu dam in
The state government, however, argues that mega dams are a must if
India is to prevent the diversion and damming of the Yarlung Zangbo
(the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra in Tibet). If China were to
proceed with this upstream scheme ï¿½ including the worldï¿½s largest
hydropower project ï¿½ New Delhi would have to go to the International
Court of Justice to show the beneficial use of the river in India.
ï¿½But the people of the north-east will become a pawn in the race
between Beijing and New Delhi,ï¿½ Bhattacharya argued. ï¿½Assamï¿½s power
need is at the maximum 1,100 megawatts which is attained from stateï¿½s
own production and buying electricity from other projects. If we are
to be granted first user rights of the Brahmaputra by showing its
beneficial use, we have suggested some multipurpose micro-projects
which will both generate electricity for Assam and contain floods and
erosion,ï¿½ the AASU leader added.
In the first week of the New Year, a mega dam broke apart near the
Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, leaving 13,000 people homeless. Such
earth-shattering accidents have ushered in a new era of
decommissioning. As recently as September 30, 2011, Myanmar's
President Thein Sein surprised many by stopping the construction of
the US$3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric project in Kachin state. A
recent report of the World Register of Dams (WRD) suggests all the
capitalist economies in the world, including the United States, have
hugely reduced the construction of mega dams.
In fact, the Indian government itself has of late shown greater
alertness on the issue of river dams across mainland India. The
government has passed strictures on a whole slew of projects from
Uttarakhandï¿½s Loharinag Pala (on social and religious grounds) to the
Polavaram dam in Andhra Pradesh (on grounds that mandatory public
hearings were not held).
Whether such national standards apply to the peripheral north-east
remains the elusive question. The anti-dam movement in the Brahmaputra
valley, a local commentator wrote, has already surpassed the
celebrated Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in terms of numerical
strength. The social impact in Indian environmental struggles, be it
the NBA or the Chipko Movement, largely remains confined to the
affected areas and NGO circles.
In Assam, the movement has attracted the support of all Assamese civil
society. In a region where politics is premised on the metaphorical
poetics of a river as the lifeline of a nation, the anti-dam
mobilisation is here to stay. The dams, without doubt, could turn the
downstream valleys into a desert. But if they collapsed, an
apocalyptic flood could swallow all in its path.
Tanmoy Sharma is a freelance commentator and a university activist
based in New Delhi.
This article was first published on openDemocracy and is reproduced
here with permission.
Homepage image by International Rivers
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