Assam's dam crisis

Protests against dams are snowballing into a political movement in Assam

By Arnab Pratim Dutta
Last Updated: Thursday 17 September 2015

Jairam RameshASSAM is on the brink of a movement, like the one that ended with the 1984 Assam Accord. This time the concern is not illegal immigrants but dams proposed upstream in Arunachal Pradesh.

In the past year and a half people in Assam have held a number of protests. The latest one was on September 10 when Union Minister of Environm ent and Forests Jairam Ramesh visited Guwahati to consult academics, activists and student and political leaders on large dams, particularly a mega hydel project under construction on the Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower Project is the biggest of the three dams under construction in Arunachal Pradesh.

The protest led by the two biggest pressure lobbies in the state—All Assam St udents Union (AASU) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity (KMSS)—signals no-holds-barred attempts in the future to stop Subansiri Lower. Asom Gana Pari shad (AGP), the main opposition party in the Congress-ruled Assam, has also joined the agitation.

At the heart of the protest and Ramesh’s visit is the impact on Ass am of the dams planned in Arunachal Prad esh. The state has signed 168 memoranda of understanding with private and public companies to develop hyd ropo wer (see ‘Electric rush’, Down To Earth, May 15, 2008). These projects are on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. “Aru nachal Pradesh is set to gain reve nue from these projects, but Assam will be the victim if anything goes wrong,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, adviser to AASU.

The Subansiri effect

Dams in Assam got politicised after work on Subansiri Lower began in 2005. Till then discussion regarding dams was limited to academics and a handful of ecological activists and lawyers. In 2004, the Supreme Court had allowed Subansiri Lower but banned more dams on the Subansiri because no one had assessed their cumulative impact downstream. The following year AASU led protests in Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts demanding an assessment of the impact of Subansiri Lower. The agitation led to a tripartite meeting between AASU, NHPC (the company building Subansiri Lower) and the Assam government in December 2006, said Bhat tacharya. At the meeting it was decided that a team of experts from Gauhati University, Dibrugarh University and IIT Guwahati, would assess the downstream impact.

Arunachal PradeshOn June 28, 2010, the team recommended lowering the height of the dam and making technical changes in its structure to increase river flow (see ‘Reduce Subansiri dam height: panel’, Down To Earth, July 31, 2010). “So far AASU has only demanded downstream study and equally emphasized that it is not per se against dams. Till the submission of the expert committee report it was yet to take a stand on whether it opposes big dams,” said Arupjyoti Saikia, professor at the department of humanities and social sciences, IIT Guwahati. But the organisation that claims to represent farmers and fishers in the state, KMSS, has made it clear it will not allow dams in Arunachal Pradesh.

Akhil Gogoi, its president, claims the support of nearly 500,000 fishers dependent on the Brahmaputra. He said his outfit will agitate peacefully but as a last resort would not hesitate to block roads leading to Arunachal Pradesh. Initially, concerns of downstream imp act did not evoke much response from political parties. On two occasions, in 2007 and 2008, the concerns were raised in the Assam Assembly but no party showed interest, said AGP MLA Girindra Kumar Baruah.

In July last year, the opposition forced the minister of power and industry, Pradyut Bordoloi, to re ply to a calling attention motion on Subansiri Lower. A debate on big dams ensued, with emph asis on Subansiri Lower. “The treasury benches joined to raise concerns about downstream impact,” said Membar Gogoi, Congress MLA from Teok. After the debate the Assembly decided to set up a multi-party panel to look into the impact of Suban siri Lo wer and Ranganadi hydel proj ect in Arunachal Pradesh. The committee, chaired by Membar Gogoi, submitted its report on July 17, 2010. “We have asked NHPC to stop work till it acts on the recommendations of the expert team (set up in 2006),” Membar Gogoi said.

The sudden surge of political interest in dams is because of two reasons: Assembly elections in 2011 and growing anti-dam agitation. Today about 40 organisations in districts downstream of the Subansiri reservoir are working against mega dams. “No political party wants be seen as a supporter of Subansiri Lower,” said a senior AGP worker.

Congress dodgy, AGP aggressive

But the state government is in a bind. On the one hand, elections dictate it respect the popular sentiment. On the other hand, it cannot go against the Congress-led government at the Centre which wants dams. Although the Assam power minister presided over the 2006 meeting between AASU and NHPC that led to the setting up of the expert group, the state government refuses to acknowledge the group’s report as official, said a po wer department official. The government has only now, after se eing the AGPled opposition, decided to opp ose dams in Arunachal Pradesh till dow nstream concerns are addressed, he added.

SAMUJJAL BHATTACHARYAAGP sees votes in opposing big dams. Baruah believes the dams will become a big issue in elections, especially in the districts immediately downstream of Subansiri Lower, including Lakhimpur and Dhemaji. In January this year, the party held consultations in Guwahati to understand downstream effects. According to witnesses, former chief minister and AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta sat for two days listening to activists and academics. “First, it was difficult to explain party leaders the downstream worries, but after two days they were co nvinced the issue could get them votes,” said an academic who was part of the consultations. AGP has followed up the talks with a rally near Subansiri Lower at Gerukamukh in Lakhimpur in September.

The Assam government is catching up. In August while addressing the power ministers of the north-eastern states in Shillong, Bordoloi expressed anguish over wanton building of dams. According to sources close to the minister, a day before the meeting Bordoloi was tutored by the expert group that had recommended lowering the Subansiri dam’s height. Bordoloi, who is also the spokesperson for the state Congress, has since become more vociferous in his critique. Recently, writing in a national weekly, Bordoloi criticised the Arunachal Pradesh government for signing contracts with fly-by-night operators for building dams without a comprehensive assessment of the fallouts.

According to sources in the power ministry, the Assam government is trying to implement the report of the interministerial group on hydropower in north-eastern states. The report, published in February this year, recommended sub-basin level studies for the Subansiri and Dibang rivers by the Cen tral Water Commission. Neeraj Vagho likar of Kalpavriksh Environ mental Act ion Group in Pune, who is working on dams in the Northeast, said sub-basin level studies are mere academic exercises because the group’s report state’s clearance of projects on these rivers will not be held up till the studies are completed.

Even as Ramesh left Guwahati with the promise of assessing cumulative downstream impact before clearing dams, a storm is brewing on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Tezpur. A barge with turbines for the Subansiri Lower is stationed at Jahaj Ghat. It cannot be taken to the dam because KMSS and AASU have threatened an agitation. Tu laram Gogoi, president of the Lakhim pur unit of AASU, said people are on standby. They will hold sit-in on the highway linking Te zpur to Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh if the state administration or NHPC tries to move the turbines before the recommendations of the expert group are followed.

Reduce Subansiri dam height: panel
Reservoir of dams
AGP wants freeze on hydel projects

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  • Indian nation was never in

    Indian nation was never in favor of the interest of people of Assam. Center always neglect development of this state.It is reflected in the scenario of big HE projects which will be built in Arunachal Pradesh at the cost of lives of millions of residents in the downstream of river Subanshiri.These short of big dams will destroy agricultural land & biodiversity of the region.Interest of central govt. is to provide enormous power to northern India.To fulfill the power requirement in north India it can sacrifice northeast India.Unfortunately this is the center's policy since independence.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply

    Academicians of Assam IIT and Universities are under-estimating the ecological,economic and Environmental Disasters waiting in the wings to the misfortune of not only Assam but also to all other states in India.The planning of 168 projects,mostly in Arunachal pradesh,for Hydro=power generation is fraught with great
    danger to the life,culture and even survival of Assam .
    The Union Governmental organisations are packed with mostly non-experts and power brokers with the result that even the planning commission members have become indifferent to developmental problems by opting for wrong methods of development in preference to the right methods that will be based on strong scientrific and economic foundations that promote environmental sustainability.
    Most of the decision-makers in several crucuail ministries like Environment,Power,water Resources,Central water commission,Tribal Affairs are not genuine experts as defined by Section.45 of the Indian Evidence Act,1872.Because of vested interests,the Governments at the state and central levels are most often designating non-experts as experts with the result that even the Courts are often blindly believing in them with the result that judgements given are sometimes not serving public and national interests and they may be reviewed when NGO's,Experienced Scientists and technical experts and other institutions of standing point out the glaring inherent mistakes ,if any.
    In the case of these Big Dams in India,whether it is Polavaram dam in Andhra pradesh,Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala,Tehri dam in Uttaranchal,Narmada Dams in Gujarat and Madhya pradesh or Medium and Major Dams for Hydro-power in Arunachal pradesh,Nepaland in other parts of Himalayan Mountains,proper Environmental Impact Analysis Reports,Disaster Management,Risk and Dam=Break Analysis,Environmental management plans are prepared and plaxced before the public as per rules and regulatrions and the Union ministries are simplying condoning these grave mistakes which compromise with the future of the nation at very great cost.No body is accountable in the system and hence as envisaged by Mrs.Indira Gandhi,all responsible citizensincluding the intellectuals must protect the environment under Art.51A[g] of the indian constitution.
    Assam Dams issue must be treated as a National Problem

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Assam Dams aregoing to burst

    Assam Dams aregoing to burst and cause economic losses worth several lakhs of crores of rupees to the Indian nation besides killing lakhs of people of Assam,located on the margins of Brahmaputra river and its several tributaries. Dr.T.Shivaji Rao recently gave talk on this problem and felt that intellectuals are miserably failing in creating awareness on these large construction of dams in Assam region where major earth quakes are waiting in the wings and these Major dams become man-made disaters.we need not blame China for tapping Brahmaputra water by dams for power generation in the Tibet region as we are planning more disasters in the form of Hydro-power plants in Arunachal pradesh which is under the influence of the rich contractors who hail from ouside the North Eastern states.The following web site gives details of Earth quakes in Assam region and their impact on the dams there under construction can be visualised as posing great risksto the life and culture of Assam.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • preventing assam dams

    preventing assam dams becoming man-made disasters. During his recent talk on Modifying killer Assam Dams into Safer projects,Prof.T.shivaji Rao,an eminent environmental expert suggested some modifications based upon his interactions with the proponents of tehri dam as a Member of the Environmental Appraisal Committee of the Union ministry of Environment during 1990's.When he questioned the project engineers about alternatives to Tehri in case the Tehri dam is not approved due to its high seismicity,the proponents presented 4 to 5 Run-of-thwe-River Schemes on Bhgirathi river which do not cause serious disasters in case of a Dam-Break due to Maximum Credible accidents due to earthquakes,flsah floods or construction defects or human failures. In the case of Assam dams,Prof.Shivaji rao suggested that first of all,it is essential to determine if there are areas with hidden faults that getting activated and determine the possibility of disastrous earthquakes as per the procedures followed in Eart-quake prone zones in Western using aeroplane -mounted magnetometer surveys for predicting catastrophic earthquakes . We must take timely action to reduce the storages in such risky reservoirs to prevent Dam-burst scenarios waiting in the wings.Some dams may be closed down depending upon their risk potential and for this purpose the combined impacts of all risky dams must be considered to work out a strategy to save the lives of lakhs of people in Assam and Gawahati from becoming victims of a man-made disaster in the high seismic zone of the Himalayan belt.The Academicians of the Assam Universities and the IIT have to take the responsibility to study these problems and create awareness on these man-made issues of life and death as responsible citizens under Art.51A[g] of the constitution of india.The delaying tacticts of the political leadres must not be tolerated any more. Dr.K.Suresh Kumar,Ph.D., Department of Environmental studies, Gitam University,visakhapatnam

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • There can be many options for

    There can be many options for power such as wind and solar,
    Why should the govt. implement the projects without first
    Studying the impacts on the lower regions.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
  • It is really very sorry to

    It is really very sorry to say that the political parties for thier personal intentions compromise with the lifes of the millions. It is a time for the people of assam to awaken from thier sleep and come forward to protect thier own future.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply
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    Kisha Vidal

    Posted by: Anonymous | 9 years ago | Reply