‘Most dam proponents don’t have an address to reach out’

After 10 years, Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu axes 22 hydro projects but local communities say this might have been done to further help the dam proponents

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Tuesday 17 September 2019
The East Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Arunachal Pradesh government recently scrapped 22 hydropower projects, a decade after chasing what is popularly known now as the ‘hydro dream’.

Chief Minister Pema Khandu announced the decision on September 13, 2019, at Dikshi in West Kameng district.

Four days after the news broke out, instilling hope among numerous communities protesting these projects, it turns out that the government’s reasons behind the decision are not exactly altruistic.

More than the concern for the local ecology and community, the axe has fallen on the projects because the government couldn’t even reach out to their proponents.

Down To Earth spoke to a number of senior officials handling the state’s hydropower development projects. Originally, the proposed projects were supposed to get all environment-related clearances within 18 months of signing Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with the state government.

However, it emerged that most of the proponents of the 22 projects did not seek any clearance for close to a decade after the MoUs.

 “You will be surprised to know many of them do not have persons to respond to the notices,” a senior official from the department, said.

“Their phone numbers and email addresses are non-responding (sic). They were allotted projects 10 years back and they could not make the Detailed Project Reports yet. They could not get the environment study done; they could not deposit Net Present Value and Compensatory Afforestation fees.  There is nothing at the project site,” he added.

In the official order for scrapping the projects, the government cited inordinate delays in seeking environmental and forest clearance, failure to implement compensatory afforestation and lack of initiative to complete the project.

These projects were supposed to generate 3,800 megawatt (MW) of power.

Besides the 22 projects that have been scrapped, the government has also issued show cause notices to 46 other projects for delay in clearances and progress in project development.

Father and son

Incidentally, a major boost to hydropower in Arunachal Pradesh came with Dorjee Khandu, the former Chief Minister and father of present chief minister Khandu. Dorjee had first become chief minister in 2007, replacing Gegong Apang.

On October 25, 2009, he became chief minister for a second time. It was during Khandu Senior’s reign that a total of 233 MoUs were signed with various state-owned as well as privately owned hydroelectric power companies.

Along with the MoUs, companies were also asked to pay an upfront premium to the state government. Nabam Tuki, the leader of opposition stated in the Arunachal Pradesh assembly that Rs 1,495.6 crore was paid as upfront money and processing fees from MoUs signed with 159 companies for projects with power generation capacities of 47,000 MW.

Dorjee, a Congress politician belonging to the Monpa community of Tawang, however died in a tragic helicopter accident in 2011. His son, Pema, who faced a candidate for the first time in his political career in Mukto constituency, was elected with an overwhelming majority on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket.

As soon as the Pema Khandu government came to power earlier this year, Tuki was arrested in a corruption-related case.

For 28 different communities living in 25 districts, the government promised jobs and infrastructure around these proposed hydropower projects. However, for several communities such as the Adis in the Upper Siang district, mega dams proposed on the Siang river, a major tributary of the Brahmaputra, are a huge threat.

Adi elders organised protests and held community vigils at various times against hydroelectric power stating that it would completely disrupt the agrarian economy.

‘It is a ploy’

According to the Arunachal Hydropower Department, the termination and show cause notices to the projects were necessary. 

But even as the government has issued these notices, farmers’ organisations such as the Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum (SIFF) is not ready to believe the statements made by the chief minister.

“Khandu said the same thing earlier too. That his government had issued termination notices. That they won’t let any dams happen without peoples’ consent. But there is absolutely no clarity on which dams are being terminated and which ones are coming up,” Tasik Pangkam, secretary of SIFF, said.

The organisation filed a Public Interest Litigation before the Gauhati High Court demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation or any competent authority to investigate ‘the expenditure on the non-refundable upfront premiums received in crores from the 233 MoUs’ besides demanding scrapping all mega dam projects in Siang.

With the case still pending before Gauhati High Court, SIFF and many other organisations feel that their land and resources have been used unscrupulously to make quick gains from the market. Pangkam pointed out that the scrapping of these projects after 10 years was absurd when the MoUs stipulated a time of 18 months for the project developer to secure various clearances.

“The last hearing took place on August 8, 2017. The court said proposed projects have to be evaluated on the basis of all the impacts they would have on our society. Scrapping them now after 10 years indicates that some elements used these MoUs to leverage their value in the market and later, they just waited for the termination notices to come,” said Pangkam.

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