Northeast ahoy!

Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has grand plans to illuminate the whole country by now harnessing hydropower from the northeast region. His logic: hydropower projects will usher in local development. But local communities find this logic alienating. There are widespread protests against new hydropower projects, and, in states like Manipur and Tripura, people even wish existing dams to be decommissioned

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has grand plans to illuminate the whole country by now harnessing hydropower from the northeast region. His logic: hydropower projects will usher in local development. But local communities find this logic alienating. There are widespread protests against new hydropower projects, and, in states like Manipur and Tripura, people even wish existing dams to be decommissioned.

Interestingly, protests revolve around a single issue: the right to information. Communities allege that despite the large number of projects on the anvil, governments have miserably failed to provide facts on how they will be impacted. The core issue is that of eminent domain: who decides what is of public interest? In India the government has the exclusive power to so decide, acquiring lands without much hindrance. Although in the northeast communities constitutionally hold ownership, state governments can invoke this dread power. Clearly, the fight is about who owns what.

A way out of this impasse could be a community-controlled rehabilitation policy. Judicial pronouncements on mega-projects such as Narmada and Tehri have made it amply clear that rehabilitation must be an integral part of the project plan; but in the northeast, implementing agencies have not been sensible to this issue. The protests have a very clear message: any development package for these ecologically rich states must take note of local needs and wishes.

This is where the prime minister's grand plan falters. He has forgotten about that old bogey of progress, Indian government style: make dams, unmake people. His plan originates from an assessment of the region's hydropower potential by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA). While the region ranks high on potential, the CEA doesn't mention the issue of land acquisition and the compensation package for local communities. Currently, there is no precedent on comprehensive dialogue with local communities about rehabilitation. Submergence of forest or land has been dealt with in isolation, not as an integral part of local livelihood and heritage. Add to this the constant refusal of government to part with the different impact assessment reports of the projects.

One understands why the communities are angry.

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