With elections over, Dibang hydro project powers on in Arunachal Pradesh

Voters feel BJP has backtracked on poll promise of addressing their concerns about the impact of big dams

By Amarjyoti Borah
Published: Tuesday 11 November 2014

Dibang valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India (Photo credit: Sabita Devi)

The Modi government has done a U-turn on its pre-poll promise of looking into the environmental concerns surrounding dams in northeast India. In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the NDA had stated that it would respect the sentiments and issues raised by anti-dam groups.

On September 16, however, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for river valley and hydroelectric projects recommended that environmental clearance be given to the 3,000 MW Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh. Clearance from the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) came through on September 22.

The dam will be constructed by NHPC Limited. Once completed, it will be the largest hydropower project in India.

The process of clearance
  • January 31, 2008: Former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, lays the foundation stone of the project.
  • August 18, 2011: The Arunachal Pradesh government submits a proposal to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) (vide Letter FOR.10-44/Cons./2003/Vol-I/312-16) seeking diversion of 5,056.5 hectares of forest land.
  • July 12, 2013: The FAC turns down the proposal on the grounds that the project would have an irreparable and adverse impact on the general ecosystem. Almost 350,000 trees would have to be felled for the project. The FAC also says that the ecological, environmental and social costs of diversion of such a vast tract of forest land, which is a major source of livelihood for the tribal population of the state, would far outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project.
  • February 13, 2014: The state government submits a revised proposal (Letter No. FOR.10/Cor./2003/Vol-IV/287) to the MoEF, seeking diversion of 4,577.84 hectares of forest land.
  • September 22, 2014: The FAC clears the proposal.

“This will bring down the area of submergence by only 478.66 hectares. This is simply an eyewash, and will not make any difference to the extent of environmental damage that will be caused to the fragile region,” says Keshab Krishna Chatradhara, an anti-dam activist of the People’s Movement for Subansiri and Brahmaputra Valley.

Poll promises by the BJP

Civil society groups who have been associated with the movement say that Lakhimpur constituency is the worst affected by the construction of big dams. Other constituencies that have been affected include Tezpur and Dibrugarh in Assam and the Arunachal West constituency, won by BJP’s Kiren Rijiju, presently minister of state for home affairs at the Centre.

“Since 2001, it was always an issue. But by 2013-14, it had become a major impact issue. Since the BJP showed sympathy towards the anti-dam groups and said that they favour smaller dams, a huge portion of the voters who were against big dams voted in their favour,” says Nani Gopal Mahanta, professor of political science at Gauhati University in Assam.

Rajnath Singh at a protest rally near the construction site of the Lower Subansiri hydropower project (Photo credit: Amarjyoti Borah)

In a protest on November 17, 2010, the then BJP president and present Union home minister, Rajnath Singh, had staged a demonstration near the construction site of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri dam at Gerukamukh near the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. During the protest, Singh had demanded that the construction of the Lower Subansiri dam be stopped and had even vowed to raise the issue in parliament.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while speaking as the prime ministerial candidate at an election rally at Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh on February 22, had spoken about honouring the sentiments of the region against large dams. He had shared the people’s preference for smaller hydropower projects.

BJP MP from Lakhimpur in Assam and minister for sports and skill development (independent charge), Sarbananda Sonowal, also won by a huge margin, thanks to votes from those opposing big dams.

“People from the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha constituency have already witnessed the impact of the dams in some areas. One clear example is the 405 MW Ranganadi project which has caused flooding several times. With the BJP leadership favouring smaller dams, a lot of voters turned towards the BJP,” says Mahanta.

Flood waters enter homes in Lakhimpur (Assam) when water is released from the Ranganadi project (Photo credit: Amarjyoti Borah)

When approached by Down To Earth, Rijiju avoided questions on the issue, saying he was only “personally” opposed to big dams. Sonowal also did not comment on the issue but simply said that he would ensure the region is not affected by the dams. Anti-dam protests have been brewing in the region for over 13 years. They turned prominent in 2011 when repeated warnings to governments of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and the central government yielded no results. The groups launched an indefinite blockade at the construction site of the Lower Subansiri hydropower project.

“The BJP was quick to catch the anti-dam mood and cash on it, in addition to the already existing anti-dam wave,” says Mahanta. “The BJP’s poll manifesto speaks about energy requirement, so it is very unlikely that they will take the anti-dam issue seriously,” he adds, saying that the NDA regime’s policies will not be very different from that of the previous UPA government.

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