The Northeast's power burden

The centrality of the Northeast to India's ambitious national electrification plan cannot be overstated, since the region will be required to generate about 60 per cent of the total power produced through some 45 mega hydroelectricity projects. In the process, vast swathes of the area's dense forests will be submerged

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Tuesday 30 September 2003

on august 30, while inaugurating a hydropower project at Omkareswar in Madhya Pradesh, Prime Minister (pm) Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared that every village in the country would be electrified by 2007 and every house illuminated by 2012. The announcement -- intended to project a bright future -- plunged the northeastern states into gloom. For, it would bring a fresh wave of environmental devastation to the region.

The centrality of the northeast (ne) to the ambitious national electrification plan cannot be overstated, since the region will be required to generate about 60 per cent of the total power produced through some 45 mega hydroelectricity projects. In the process, vast swathes of the area's dense forests will be submerged. Environmentalists and local communities have, however, questioned the theory of building more dams. "The proposed projects will not benefit the region on the power front because its electricity requirements are limited. The development argument appears weak because the ne remains backward despite several ongoing projects," contends Debabrata Roy Laifungbam, director of Imphal-based Centre for Organisation Research and Education (core), which is spearheading the area's anti-dam movement. A paper authored by D C Goswami and Partha J Das of Gauhati University states that the additional hydropower generation planned for the area by 2020 is more than three times its projected peak demand.

Past imperfect
The history of hydroelectricity projects in the ne and the ecological damage associated with them have left local people sceptical about the new plan. "The social and environmental costs of earlier projects are much higher than the benefits obtained from them. And the brunt of such schemes is generally borne by the poorest sections that are dependent on the natural resources around them," opines Anaspasia Pinpo of core.

For instance, the Gumti project submerged over 4600 ha of land and displaced more than 3000 families in the mid-1970s. It has generated just 5 mw of power though its installed capacity is 15 mw. Another case in point is the 108-mw hydroelectric project on Manipur's Loktak lake -- a 25,000-year-old natural waterbody, which is host to the world's only natural floating national park. The barrage has reduced the outflow of silt, causing the lake to shrink from 495 square kilometres (sq km) in 1971 to 289 sq km in 1990.

"Unless remedial measures are taken, the reservoir will reach dead storage level much before the official estimate of 160 years," laments Ramananda Wangkheirakpam, a local activist. Even as the Manipur government talked about decommissioning the project at a meeting in February 2002, the state's power minister, Phungzathang Tonsing, was non-committal when asked to comment on the issue.

Not only is the ne one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, it lies in a seismically active belt too. The Tipaimukh project is located on a fault line. The area can experience earthquakes of the magnitude of 7 on the Richter scale. Despite such factors, no projections have been made about the effect of siting so many projects in a relatively small area.

The Subansiri and Dehang hydel power projects will be executed on nearly 28,000 ha of wildlife-stocked forestland. The submergence area of the former includes substantial portions of forests that lie in the contiguous states of Assam and ap. The Union ministry of environment and forests initially gave site clearances for the same, but withdrew permission later.

In campaign mode
The largely hush-hush approach of officials has heightened the local people's apprehensions about such projects. It has also fuelled protest movements in the region along the lines of crusades in other parts of the country (see box: Mixed signals). "It is just impossible to know what these projects would do to us," points out Laifungbam.

The information flow regarding Tipaimukh is not so much as a trickle, prompting 40 people's organisations in Manipur to unite under a common platform called the Citizens' Concern for Dams and Development (ccdd). Tonsing, however, parrots the Union government's standpoint: "The dam will be a key tool for economic development. The fear of environmental damage is unfounded."

The ccdd has joined hands with a dozen community groups from other states to demand a fresh assessment of all existing projects. The purpose of the exercise is to halt those ventures that have become an environmental and economic burden for the region. The people see the development of mini and micro-hydel projects as the most suitable option. "Grid power is very expensive and cannot be taken to remote places," avers Thakkar, adding: "This makes small projects the best bet."

About 900 mini and micro-hydel projects have been identified in the region, which the Union ministry of non-conventional energy sources will be implementing. Astoundingly, though the Union government has a policy on small hydropower projects in hill states like those in the ne, only 3 per cent of this potential source has been tapped.

With inputs from Kushal P S Yadav

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