Deluge of dams without any impact assessment

Published: Tuesday 31 July 2007

that the non-confrontational Lepchas are on an indefinite hunger strike against dams in north Sikkim shows how much of a threat they perceive these projects to be. The surge of support from across the north east again brings to fore the vexed issue of big dams in this socio-politically complex region. In 2001, the Brahmaputra river system in the northeast was identified as having the "potential to be India's future powerhouse". Since then, plans for over 160 large hydel dams with a cumulative installed capacity of 63,328 mw have cropped up. At least 48 of these dams, which are subject to much protest, are at an advanced stage of planning or clearance. Proponents of the projects say the projects would generate employment, bring in revenue for the states through power exports and aid flood control. Besides, there would be little direct displacement of local communities. But the northeast's geological characteristics, its complex array of armed conflicts for political autonomy, and the history of large dams, as such, don't make for such pat solutions.

The Brahmaputra river system, of which the Teesta river basin is a part, is a biodiversity hotspot. It is home to over a hundred tribal communities, a large percentage of which are dependent on traditional natural resource-based livelihoods.The river system's glacial origins, location in a highly seismic zone, high sedimentation rate and its link with the ecology of the wetlands challenges the conventional wisdom of dam building. But environmental impact assessment reports rarely look into downstream impacts. Surprisingly, no study has been done so far on the cumulative impact of so many dams on the river system. Projects like the Lower Subansiri on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border for instance, could have serious impact on the habitat of endangered species. There are a host of legal and environmental violations as well.

What's needed urgently is a basin-wide understanding of the rivers' ecology and of the indigenous communities that depend on them, as well as people's participation in the decision making process. So far, the state has failed its people on all these counts.

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