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Imphal, Manipur's capital, came to a grinding halt on August 28, with a strike being called. Imphal's people are habituated to bandhs, and most of them are successful. But this was a bandh with a difference -- more than 20 social and political organisations, representing the largest communities, ethnic groups and political interests. Almost unheard of, in a badly divided society.
Academics, politicians, students and civil society organisations united that day for one reason to demand that work on the proposed Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydel Project be stopped, convinced the project would deepen the cracks in Manipur's already fissured society because it would benefit some groups at the cost of others. They formed a joint front called the Action Committee against Tipaimukh Project (actip) to oppose the project.
It's not that Manipuris are not aware of the commitment the centre has to the project -- after all it has been in the pipeline for the best part of half a century. Despite that the widespread opposition to the dam shows no sign of abating, as the unprecedented unity of August 28 abundantly demonstrated.
nitin sethi explores the complex social and political matrix that comprises Manipur and examines the impact the proposed dam in Tipaimukh will have on the ethnic mosaic of the state.
The proposed 164-m-high dam will come up 500 m downstream of the confluence of the Barak and Tuivai rivers. Its reservoir will have a storage capacity of 15,900 million cubic m with a maximum depth of 1,725.5 m.
The project has a long history. According to the reworked detailed project report, a project on Barak was first thought of in 1954 when the government of Assam requested the Central Water and Power Commission for ways to manage floods in the river basin. The commission surveyed and rejected three sites by 1965 on two grounds. The sites were geologically unsafe and large-scale submergence of cultivable land made it economically unviable.
Then the North-Eastern Council intervened and discussed the project with the three states through which Barak flows -- Assam, Manipur and Mizoram. On its request, the Central Water Commission began investigations in 1977. In 1984, it identified a new site, where the river takes a 220 degree bend from southwest to a northerly direction flowing through a gorge. The stretch was 24 km downstream of Tipaimukh. The dam, it was then estimated, would cost Rs 1,078 crore. But the project was put in the cold storage because it did not have the requisite environmental and management plans, say observers.
Then the Brahmaputra Board jumped into the fray. It is a government body that was at that time meant to manage the Brahmaputra and Barak river basins. The board also carried out studies, revising the plan until the estimated cost went up to Rs 2,899 crore in 1995.
Yet, the project was nowhere near taking off. The Naga Women's Union says "People of Manipur began to take notice. In July 1995 environment minister Kamal Nath ensured resettlement issues would be taken care of and nothing would be done in haste. In 1999, Pranab Mukherjee, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, gave similar assurances."
In 1995, chief minister Rishang Keishing made a statement declaring that the state cabinet did not approve of the dam. In 1998, the Manipur assembly passed a resolution not to implement the project.
In 1999, the central government handed over the project to neepco, under circumstances which many social organisations allege are questionable. They claim that during a spell of president's rule, imposed in 2001, the governor approved the project.
Then in 2003, the Public Investments Board and the Central Electricity Authority cleared the project by which time its cost had been revised by neepco to Rs 5,163.86 crore.
The project is to be built primarily for flood control and power generation. Irrigation and other benefits will be spin-offs. Flood control will benefit some plain areas in Assam. Manipur and Mizoram, on the other hand, will bear the brunt of submergence. But they are to equally share, as the central government stipulates, 12 per cent of the power from the project, free of charge, while the rest will be taken by neepco and the centre.
The problem is that of the installed capacity of 1,500 mw, at any given time only 412 mw will be generated, usually in the monsoons when the river is in spate.
The plant load factor -- calculated at 28 per cent -- is also a worry, because it implies heavy losses due to inadequate utilisation. neepco believes the centre should help make the dam economically viable.
The leaders of the groups comprising actip and academics in Manipur believe that the unviable project design will also drive a wedge between communities that live in a state of unremitting conflict between themselves and with the state.