Whose river is it anyway - Political economy of hydropower in the Eastern Himalayas - A paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly

This paper highlights the various debates that have emerged in India the context of the highly controversial issue of large dams being built on the rivers of the eastern Himalayas

This paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly, highlights the various debates that have emerged in India the context of the highly controversial issue of large dams being built on the rivers of the eastern Himalayas, the recent campaigns by the people from the North East who have been resisting the construction of such megadams like the lower Subansiri hydropower project, and the response of the government to these protests.

The paper argues that the dominant concerns that have been voiced in these debates  are highly politically motivated and biased, and are based on the consideration for economic gains of a selected few at the cost of irreparable damage to the rivers, the environment as well as to the people in the area who would be denied the gains incurred through these projects. That these dams will be exclusively hydropower and not multipurpose dams, and that there will be a great unevenness in the distribution of potential gains and losses and of vulnerability to risks, accounts for a serious legitimacy deficit in India’s ambitious hydropower development plans in the region.

However, the discourses that have been found to dominate India's development plans have been that of the need to deal with the power deficit in the country by harnessing rivers in the eastern Himalayas for hydropower development and the tremendous gains that the project will yield. The involvement of private players in the project have also further led to the fear that the tremendous gains involved out of harnessing rivers could lead to the rivers being viewed as commodities, as properties to be aggressively exploited for gains without consideration of the surrounding environment and the rights of the people who would be affected and displaced.

The paper warns that multiple factors will determine how the politics of hydropower in the eastern Himalayas will play out. For example, the arguments about ecological impact and threats to downstream livelihoods will have to contend with competing arguments about the tradeoffs necessary for promoting India’s development. In today’s India, these arguments have a chance of winning mass appeal in the north-east, especially among the urban middle classes who are relatively insulated from the impact of the enclosure of the water commons and are eager to embrace the possibility of leaving the conditions of “economic backwardness” and “insurgencies” behind. Moreover, the dam protesters will also have to contend with the coercive apparatus of the state as well, adds the paper.

The paper argues that in spite of the efforts of the riverine people to resist the strategies of the powerful elites to turn rivers to free fuel for hydropower plants without regard for the effect this will have on the riverine systems and the ecology, it seems unlikely that the protests will stop the construction of the Lower Subansiri Dam, or unravel India’s plan to achieve a great leap forward in hydropower.

In this environment of arguments and counter arguments, there is a high chance that the hydropower projects will go ahead, probably without consideration to the risks and adverse effects that such projects can have on the environment and the people. However, once such steps are undertaken for short terms gains, the changes produced and its effects could be irreversible and it would then be futile to bemoan the stupidity of the decision tomorrow, once the catastrophe has already happened, warns the paper.
 
A copy of the paper can be downloaded from below:

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