The trouble with dams

Dams are not just about rivers and harnessing their power. As tribals, we are inextricably  tied to the land and what happens to it. By damaging the land, we damage ourselves.

Places that offer such ethereal landscapes still exist for now.

Places that offer such ethereal landscapes still exist for now.

From the introduction of the railways in the state more than 160 years after the first train rolled out from Mumbai to Thane to grand plans of building the Trans-Arunachal Highway, Arunachal Pradesh in India’s remote north-eastern region today sits at the cusp of imminent socio-economic change.

Home to a  myriad group of tribes speaking various Tibeto-Burman languages and tracing their origins from separate sources, Arunachal Pradesh is an anthropologist’s dream destination. From Buddhist tribes to practitioners of animist faiths across the length and breadth of the state and to followers of new gods, the state is changing as we speak.

With growing changes to the socio-economic landscape of the state, come changes in the aspirations of people and what they want to achieve with their lives. Good education and an honest job that pays the bills are no longer enough as people begin to dream big and look beyond the mundane to secure their dreams. Agriculture that sustained families for generations are no longer seen as lucrative means of income-generation as newer opportunities await for this primarily tribal state. The government of the day too is daring people to dream big and now a variety of loans for small and medium size businesses have become more accessible for a wider demographic. Despite what lays ahead, the path to prosperity is still a long way out.

Known for the rich treasure trove of natural resources, India is looking towards the state to harness all that Arunachal has to offer. With just two popularly elected members of parliament for a population of fewer than 15 lakhs, the state lacks any real political weightage in New Delhi’s power circles. Ironically, it is through power that the state is trying to gain more power.

Various studies and reports have extensively written that the state has a hydropower capacity of over 50,000 megawatts which is around 40 percent of India’s power generation capacity. For any industry to grow and bring about economic changes, it seems obvious that the state should try to tap into this large capacity. After all, almost all industry requires energy to sustain itself in order to ultimately sustain the economy.

For example, the varied climatic conditions across the state throughout the year make it an ideal place to cultivate a variety of agricultural and horticultural products which can be kept in cold storage and exported. However, cold storages require a large amount of electricity and hence the popular belief that hydropower should be harnessed to power industry.

At the outset and on the surface, it appears like a win-win situation for all. However, if you scratch the surface, or rather dive deep, the situation becomes complicated.

Before the approval of any major infrastructure project, it is required by law that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report is prepared which would assess the effect a project can have on the surrounding area’s ecology. Needless to say, the pro-project, ultra-capitalist hydropower lobby is much more financially powerful than any pro-environment NGO, giving it greater clout to not only influence policy decisions but also tilt EIA reports in their favour.

Example: The EIA study of the 225 megawatts Talong Londa Hydro Project states that “The state is blessed with major rivers which have significant hydropower potential, such as Subansiri, Siang, Kameng, Lohit, Dibang, Tirap and many tributaries such as Kamla, Ranganadi (Panyor), Dikrong and Tawang Chhu.”

The keyword in that above line is ‘blessed’. An EIA report is, for all meanings and purposes, meant to be a scientific document based on empirical data and should be devoid of romantic language. A simple line stating how several major river basins are present in the state should suffice. As trivial as this observation may appear, the fact is that it sets the tone in the minds of readers that damming these rivers is a logical and foregone conclusion.

Let us stick with the Talong project as an example of the impact it will have on the Kameng River.

The Kameng River is about 264 kilometres, originating from the glacial Himalayan lake and flows down to the neighbouring state of Assam where it is known as the Bhareli/Jia Bhoreli before eventually joining the Brahmaputra River. In East Kameng district, where a large part of the river and its tributaries flow, live the Nyishi people. They have fished and harvested on these rivers for centuries.

The Kameng River

The Kameng River.

The Talong project will be built 20 km upstream of Seppa town, the district headquarter, with three units of 75 megawatts each, and will result in a Full Reservoir Level (FRL) of 488 metres. An FRL is the highest reservoir level that can be maintained without spillway discharge or without passing water downstream, i.e. in case of heavy rainfall the water level at the reservoir may increase leading to flooding of surrounding areas. But that is speculative and so let me avoid such a conclusion. Let me stick to a basic fact.

It is well-known that dams lead to submergence of surrounding areas which results in displacement of human populations. The Talong project’s EIA report states clearly that “damming of river Kameng near village Pachi will result in creation of 400 hectares of submergence area”.

While a hectare as a unit is used often in such scenarios, I feel it is important to actually present a visual image of how large it is.

To use a sporting analogy, most sports fields are one hectare in size. Picture an international standard football pitch which is 100 metres in length and about 50 metres in width. Double the width and you have a perfect square football pitch of 100 by 100 metres which is equal to one hectare.

Now, think of an area that will encompass 400 such altered football pitches and you get an extent of the area that will be submerged by this one project alone.

In the Kameng river basin,  46 hydropower projects have been planned which, needless to say, will lead to submergence of many more football fields. In East Kameng district alone, there are 22 projects planned for construction and yet awareness about the effects of dams amongst people living along the Kamen river basin remains basic, to say the least especially when compared to the Siang basin where massive projects of over 6000 megawatts have been planned for construction.

The reason I bring this to notice is not to talk about football fields. I highlight this point because of who we are and our relation to the land.

Regardless of where we grow up or where we work, as tribal people we draw our identity from the land that we belong to. Our traditions, our culture, our daily habits are influenced by the land. If we practice shifting cultivation, it is because it is the land that we live in, compels us to do so. If we fear the flowering of the bamboo, it is because the land has shown us time and again that famine will follow when it happens.

The land and the people are not separate. We are one and what we do to the land, we do to ourselves.

For tribal people, the link between them and the land is intrinsic.

For tribal people, like the Nyishis, the link between them and the land is intrinsic.

A version of this essay first appeared on ‘Laapi’ magazine which was published to mark the 37th foundation day of the East Kameng Social Welfare and Cultural Organisation on 24 October 2015. To learn more about their work, visit http://www.ekswco.com/

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5 thoughts on “The trouble with dams

  1. Range,
    Dam/ damming is a serious issue…. ur article on kameng river dams are wonderful. Why don’t u send this article on dam to some national and international journals on conservations of river basin or forest or environment…..

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  2. Great piece Ranju, you flag a lot of the issues. Just two comments: at one point you mention how the development of hydropower in Arunachal is seen as an opportunity and precondition for the growth of industry, including the agricultural sector (i.e. for export). This is true, but what should not escape the picture is that the hydropower potential which the state (and the companies) are planning to exploit would exceed the demand of the state by far. Only a fraction of the proposed 150+ projects would be needed to electrify an emerging Arunachal industry, right? So the demand that drives this development goes far beyond the borders of Arunachal, for which reason, in my opinion, the debate becomes legitimate, how much of their land and resources Arunachalis want to sell (or be dispossessed of) for the benefit of economic profit and growth elsewhere. Second thing: I was really intrigued by the opening line of your article (“Dams are not just about rivers and harnessing their power. As tribals, we are inextricably tied to the land and what happens to it. By damaging the land, we damage ourselves.”) But when you get to the point the article finishes. Since you are mentioning anthropologists in the beginning, and since you are from the area and know what more is damaged than land, if dams are built, it would be great if you could write a follow-up piece on that and dig deeper into that question. Thanks!

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    • Hey Amelie, thank you so much first for reading the article. You suggestions are certainly something I should look into. I admit it doesn’t quite scratch the surface (or dive deep) as much as it should have. A follow up does sound like a plan.

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  3. the topic of dam construction in the NE is a serious issue. i had read some articles long time back on some of the issues in Arunachal Pradesh. what i find curious about your post is the reference to the connection between the people and the land. it makes me curious about how it works out. i also read the ‘who am i?’ page of your blog which says you like to tell stories. hope to read stories that tell us about the land-people connect sometime 🙂 i love stories

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