The Dibang Multipurpose Project (DMP) proposed on the Dibang river in Arunachal Pradesh by NHPC Ltd (National Hydro Power Corporation), is slated to be India’s highest dam. A concrete gravity dam that will resist the pressure of impounding water through its own weight, its capacity is 3000 megawatts (MW). The dam is a hydropower-cum-flood moderation scheme to be set up in Munli, which is situated about 43km from Roing.
The river Dibang is locally known as Talon by the Idu Mishmi tribe - a small tribe that primarily depends on agriculture and animal rearing - who inhabit the two adjoining districts of Dibang Valley and Lower Dibang Valley. The Idu Mishmis and other locals are strongly against this project fearing the loss of their livelihood, damage to their land and threats to their traditional way of life.
The Idu Mishmis' reasons for opposing the Dibang dam
A committee constituted by the Planning Commission (Dr. C.D. Thatte & Dr. M.S. Reddy) on the 2000MW Subansiri Lower Project had expressed serious concern about the geological strength of the rock at the foundation of the dam. (The Subansiri project is being built along the Subansiri river in Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal by NHPC Ltd). This report had indicated that the designs finalized by the NHPC do not meet the earthquake parameters to be adopted in the design of the dam for all large dams proposed in seismic zone III, IV or V where this region falls.
Two serious points of concern were raised in this context. First, NHPC ignored the technical suggestions of the Expert Committee for change in seismic design parameter for Subansiri dam, and second, in the process NHPC may have under-designed the dam for the seismic hazards of the region. The local community is worried that NHPC might repeat similar mistakes with the Dibang project as well.
The project will submerge 4009 hectares of land and push the river water back up by 43 km upstream. It is also set to acquire 5827.8 hectares of land out of which 5056.50 hectares are a community forest area or Unclassified State Forest (USF). About 43 villages consisting of 859 families from Idu Mishmi tribe are directly affected by the dam due to this land submergence and other construction-related activities.
- Changes to the local demographics
A large project such as this requires plenty of labour. The influx of labourers and other related migrant population will cause an imbalance to the demographics of the area because of the size of the Idu Mishmi tribe. As per the 2001 census, the population of the Idu Mishmi tribe is only around 12,000. The Dibang project alone requires 5800 labourers, which is more than half of the global Idu Mishmi population. In fact, the labour requirement might be a gross underestimate since a smaller project (the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri project being developed by NHPC Ltd) itself has a workforce of 15,500 people.
- Threat to endangered birds
The Dibang river is dotted with several river islands, which is home to several bird species and has been identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA). It is a potential Ramsar site, which means that it meets all the requirements to be declared a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. In addition to this, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has said that the Dibang riverine tracts in the plains near the foothills should be declared a Bengal Florican National Park because it supports the population of this very rare and threatened bustard species from the Indian Subcontinent.
- Loss of community rights over land due to Compensatory Afforestation
As per the 1980 Forest Conservation Act, double the area of any forest land being taken for a project such as this must be compensated to the local people. The total forest land required for the DMP project is 5056.50 hectares, so compensatory afforestation of 10, 113 hectares has to be done. To do this, more community controlled land (mostly Unclassified State Forests) will be acquired. In Arunachal, the local tribal communities have ownership over these Unclassified State Forests. Therefore, compensatory afforestation will involve further acquisition of land rights from people. Considering the losses, an appeal was made to the concerned authority for absolute transparency in land acquisition for any compensatory afforestation process.
- Loss of grazing land for Mithuns
Mithun (Bos Frontalis), a semi domesticated free-range bovine species, is an important component of the livestock production system of Arunachal Pradesh. It is primarily reared for meat and is highly preferred among the tribal people as a ceremonial animal. It also plays an important role in the economic, social and cultural life of the Mishmi people. The possession of Mithun is the traditional measure of a family's wealth. Marriages are not fixed until the bridegroom's family gives at least one Mithun to the bride's household.
Mithun requires a specific natural habitat consisting of sufficiently dense wooded forests, gentle slopes, water-sources and must be away from human settlement. It flourishes and thrives well in areas that afford to it abundant fodder and cool and wet environmental conditions. The submergence of vast forest areas post construction of the dam will severely affect the habitat of the Mithun. Several affected people’s organization were up in arms because there has been no study on the impact on the natural habitat of Mithun and loss of its grazing land due to construction of dam.
- Land use restriction in catchment area and no compensatory benefits
A catchment area is defined as the area of land bounded by watersheds draining into a river, basin, or reservoir. The direct catchment area for the project is 59,811.88 hectares, out of which 10, 281.64 hectares is degraded forest/abandoned jhum and 3851.64 hectares is agriculture/current jhum/habitation. Shifting agriculture (jhum) or the slash and burn cultivation is a dominant traditional land use in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh. A notable feature of this system of farming is the rotation of fields, known as jhum cycle. The jhum cycle refers to the period of rest allowed to jhum land for recoupment of fertility. A long period of rest allows the forest to recuperate and the soil to regain its fertility. The submergence of land by dams will lessen the land available for cultivation. This increasing pressure on the land will result in the shortening of the jhum cycles, thus impacting the ecological viability of this farming system. This will also increase the pressure on the surrounding areas, thus affecting the environment and the livelihoods of jhum dependent communities over a much larger landscape.
In addition to the submergence, land use restrictions will also apply in the catchment area of the reservoir as per mandatory norms to reduce the siltation to increase the life of the reservoir under the Catchment Area Treatment (CAT) plan. Therefore the CAT plan will restrict people and impact their livelihood and habitation. About five villages will be affected due to partial submergence of their lands, which in future may lead to degradation of land resulting in displacement.
Need for cumulative impact study on Dibang river basin
17 large dams with hydro power generating capacity ranging from 20 MW to 4500 MW including the Dibang project have been planned in the basin. No cumulative impact assessment has been done so far.
In the meeting held on December 26th, 2012, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley & Hydroelectric projects had examined two projects - 3097 MW Etalin project and the 86 MW Ithun-I project in the Dibang basin for scoping. The Committee issued a Terms of Reference (TOR) for preparation of an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the proposed projects.
Concerns were voiced that no cumulative impact assessment of the 17 large hydroelectric projects and ancillary activities proposed in the Dibang valley has been asked for. This was despite several projects in Dibang Valley being considered for scoping by the Committee and the Ministry of Environments and Forests. It was mentioned that river basin studies were made mandatory for other major river basins in Arunachal such as Lohit, Siang and Subansiri but not for the Dibang river basin - the entire geographical area drained by Dibang River and its tributaries. As per EIA notification 2006, it is mandatory to examine cumulative impact issues while examining projects for scoping/appraisal.
Demands of the local people
- The people have demanded all documents related to dam design and safety to be made public in light of the Planning Commission raising serious objections about another major NHPC project in the Eastern Himalayas (Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh). They also demanded that all documents related to dam design safety to be peer-reviewed by an independent group of scientists.
- All affected parties, either by land displacement or other issues, were to be compensated.
- Studies to determine the impact of boulder removal were to be carried out since there is no mention of such studies being conducted.
Due to the peoples' opposition, public hearings have been scheduled and cancelled 14 times. Finally, two hearings took place in two different locations. The first was at Roing, district headquarters of Lower Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh on March 11, 2013 and the second, in New Anaya in the neighbouring district of Dibang Valley on March 13, 2013. The minutes of the public hearing are available here