'Power'house or powerless: A debate on dams in Arunachal Pradesh

Water conflicts in Arunachal Pradesh have left power projects and people at opposite ends of the struggle. Understanding, and not merely suppressing people, will help resolve this conflict.
Potential powerhouse ( Source: Wikimedia) Potential powerhouse ( Source: Wikimedia)

Arunachal Pradesh, a state rich in water resources, has a huge potential for cheap and plentiful power. Isolated and one of the least developed states in the country, today it is viewed as the ‘powerhouse’ of the country.

While the Centre views this as an opportunity to bring in economic benefits and employment, for the Arunachali’s it is a matter of serious apprehension and conflict. 26 major tribal & ethnic groups whose life and identity are tied to the land in this region call this region their home. For them, these powerhouse projects are viewed as a threat that can not only alter the ecological and cultural landscape, but also uproot them leaving them both homeless and powerless.

The local people fear losing their rights over the land and natural resources, on which they have been traditionally dependent. The fact that only a small number of people will be displaced must be viewed from the perspective of the local population. Imagine the influx of nearly a lakh migrant workforce needed for these dams, and their effect on indigenous tribes like the Idu Mashmi, who are a mere 9350 in number to begin with.

Here, land demarcation is between traditional tribes, and resettlement of displaced people may lead to serious conflicts between such local tribal groups. In Arunachal, farming can only be carried out in the lowland areas, which if submerged, as in the case of the Lower Siang project, threaten both the lives and the livelihoods of the Adi people who practice wet rice cultivation there.

In Tawang district, a strategic area on the Chinese border, land is already over burdened with military presence. With 15 new dams planned here, the huge number of migrant workers needed for its construction and implementation will overwhelm the local populace. Also, this additional pressure on resources will have serious cultural and social impacts on the local indigenous population living here.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, which are a key document needed for such large scale environment clearance projects, too have serious flaws. The EIA for the Dibang project, for example, does not consider the impact of these dams to the downstream river islands or the several endangered species that live there.

The state government continues to overlook such concerns of the people. It has received substantial amount of advance payment from project executioners before the Dibang dam project received environmental clearance. In fact the foundation stone for the same project at Itanagar was laid even before the public hearing, which is an essential part of any large project clearance.

There has been a spate of Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) signed, where the state government has received upfront payment, even as the protests continue to grow. Paramilitary forces in the state are being mobilized to contain this growth.

Controversies remain unresolved as the government and people affected fail to find a middle ground. Hydropower is essential for the economic growth of the country; and the people in Arunachal Pradesh are not against development & economic progress, but against the loss of their identity and culture!

What is needed is to ensure transparency & accountability in all decisions, where all the stakeholders are a part of the decision making process. Listening and understanding these voices of concern and dissent, and not merely suppressing them, will help reconcile the conflict between the powerhouses of tomorrow and the people affected by them.

This post presents a submission received for the Sustainable Mountain Development Summit-III held at Kohima, Nagaland, from September 25-27, 2013. Download the original paper below.

 

 

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