Two years since submergence, villagers still fighting for rights

Driving up from Manipur’s capital Imphal to Ukhrul district towards the site of the Mapithel dam, a magnificent view of a reservoir with the lush green Mapithel range in the background opens up. While for visitors the view offers an opportunity to take photographs and appreciate the scenic beauty of the place, locals aren’t too excited by it.

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Construction of the 7.5-megawatt dam began in 1989 and stands 66 metres high and 1034 metres long; enormous by any standards and even larger considering the considerably smaller size of the installed capacity of the dam in comparison to many of the dams planned for construction in India’s Northeast. Part of what was originally called the Thoubal River Valley Multipurpose Project, the dam is built on the Thoubal river (called the Yangwui Kong by the local Tangkhul tribe), the project was undertaken by the state government’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD) and is intended to generate electricity, provide irrigation routes and drinking water for Imphal.

Goals that have not been achieved and what some say will not be even in the next five years.

“This was meant to be a multipurpose project but they started filling concrete even before the completion of the dam. And the power station has not been built either,” informed Jiten Yumnam, an Imphal-based rights activist who has been working with residents of the five villages that were affected by the project.

The details of the project and the struggles of the people who lost their homes have been well documented. So has the state government’s arrogance when construction began and the apathy that it has shown after villages were submerged and people displaced.

Dominic Kashung, chairman of the Mapithel Dam Affected Villages Organisation (MDAVO), says that the construction of the dam was done without free and prior consent and that surveys were conducted in secret.

A vibrant middle-aged bespectacled man, the anger and frustration are clear when Dominic speaks. Smacking his lips, he says that the villagers were divided by the government right from the time that construction began in 1989.

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Dominic Kashung (standing) is currently leading the fight against the completion of the multipurpose project.

“We had protested, even burnt some of the machineries,” he says, adding that “some of the leaders were hypnotized by politicians”.

At the height of the resistance, villagers had to at times hide in the nearby jungles as security forces came cracking down on protestors, informed Dominic.

He says that visitors often speak of the scenic beauty of the place but that residents lead a difficult life. He also says that there has been pressure on the forests too.

Driving up to Ramrei from where people have to take rickety boats to reach Chadong, several small sawmills running along the road in the village of Riha greet commuters.

Since the flooding and submergence of their paddy fields, villagers have had to take to logging to make ends meet but that too is slowly taking a toll on the forest resources.

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Sights like these have become common ever since the villagers lost their paddy fields and their main source of income after the submergence.

The protest by the villagers has sustained since the inception and the project itself is embroiled in lacunas including construction work that carried on for decades without the grant of appropriate clearances. In fact, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forest only granted environment clearance for the project in 2001.

Several cases ensued in the Manipur High Court and various committees were formed, reformed and agreements signed. Currently, a case on the matter is pending before the National Green Tribunal.

Although the villagers have been fighting for their rights in the courtrooms, there appears to be little hope for fair rehabilitation.

Another prominent voice in the resistance, Honreikhui Kashung, says that in the courts, everyone is a victim.

“Both sides present their arguments as the aggrieved party,” he says.

Dominic, a lawyer himself, says that his practice has suffered since the protests began. He says that they are not asking for anything outside of the Indian Constitution and simply want their basic amenities of schools and hospitals provided to them.

When flooding of the villages began in January 2015, the paddy fields began to get submerged followed by people’s homes and schools including the United Christian Academy at Riha which was started in 2003 by Honreikhui and his friends.

A haunting image that serves as a reminder of the devastation is the Cross on the spire of the church in Chadong that rises above the waters of the reservoir, standing defiantly.

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The cross that bears testimony to the sufferings of the people.

Honreikhui says that these are reminders of their protests.

“The submergence of our schools and churches are a sign of our protest. We were told to take away our valuables but we refused.”


 

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen

Ranganadi: Where the fish don’t swim and a legend sank

“The legend of Rikam Pada and Rinyam Yame has its roots in this place. The tawlin– a chair shaped stone –was where Rinyam Yame sat and weaved her clothes,” says Lishi Baka before adding, “That stone was submerged after the dam was built”.
The NEEPCO’s Ranganadi Hydro Electrical Project (RHEP) on the Ranganadi/Panyor river with an installed capacity of 405 megawatts near Potin in Lower Subansiri district is the only functional mega hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh. Despite plans to build over 160 hydropower projects of different scales, logistical hurdles, delays in procuring clearances and concerns over their environmental impacts from local indigenous populations have meant that most are yet to get off the ground.
However, at least two more projects- 600MW Kameng project and 110MW Pare project- (both built by NEEPCO) will be commissioned by the end of this year. NEEPCO authorities say that the two projects are run-of-the-river dams which have a lesser impact on the environment as opposed to storage dams which require a reservoir.
The Ranganadi dam too is touted to be a run-of-the-river dam. For the layman, however, one look at the dam makes it clear that it is anything but.
Commissioned in the year 2001, the project is supposed to generate 1509 mega units of power annually. The project’s senior manager, S Sharma, informed that the 1509 mega units is the “desired production” and that the actual figure varies from anything between 10 mega units a day to 1 mega unit. He also informed that the desired production unit was met once in 2004. Its impact on the ecology, however, has been more severe.
At the time when the project was signed in 1990, environmental laws did not address the need for dams to ensure that a minimum amount of water is released regularly to maintain the environmental flow ‘required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems’. This has led to the drying up of the downstream of the river, severely affecting both marine and human lives.

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Although touted as a run-of-the-river project, the impact of the dam is clearly visible as the downstream side has completely dried up.

Villagers from the area say that they have not seen fishes like the noka, tangar, ngurap, and ngoh that were once abundantly found for years now.
“Instead we have to buy them from markets in the plains of Assam,” one local resident said, highlighting the fact that the livelihood of humans is as much dependent on aquatic life as theirs on humans.
Environmental and cultural concerns aside, there is also a sense of betrayal amongst the people of the area.
The project, reportedly, was built without signing a memorandum of understanding and was commissioned on the basis of a meeting held on August 28, 1990, between NEEPCO and the then chief minister, Gegong Apang.
The discovery of this information led residents from affected villages to form the RHEP MoU Demand Committee, demanding, well, a MoU.
The committee’s secretary, Tao Tana, said that the minutes of the meeting held in 1990 had to be taken “forcefully”. He also raised doubts over NEEPCO’s recent claims that 179 local people were recruited for the project.
There are 257 affected families and at least two villages and their paddy fields have been submerged due to the project.
“We were first moved from Popu village to Rub and then to Chun on the downstream side,” says Baka, who is also the anchal samiti member from Potin where 27 families were ultimately relocated. The villagers also claim that there was no rehabilitation by NEEPCO although the public sector unit claims that it “developed Potin”. Villagers scoff at such claims, saying that NEEPCO used substandard material to build the houses for the displaced families.
Villagers also say that the streams on the hilltops of Potin are beginning to dry up. This, most likely, is caused by the seepage due to the 10 km tunnel that runs underneath their village.
Asked if the tunnel has caused any damages to their homes, Tana says, “Since we are poor we have not been able to build big houses, so the damages too have been minimal”.

Awaiting closure and reports’ disclosure in Tawang

Seated on a bed that doubles up as a sofa in the visitors’ room of the Tawang Monastery, Leki Wangchuk speaks calmly, belying any pain he feels remembering his now deceased brother, Tsering Tempa, who was shot dead by security forces more than a month ago.

Two months ago on May 2, residents of the predominantly quiet Buddhist town of Tawang in Aruanchal Pradesh in India’s Northeast woke up tense. Four days earlier on April 28, Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and vocal opponent of the government’s plans to build large dams in the district was arrested on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery, also known as the Galden Namgey Lhatse- celestial paradise in a clear night. That day, the skies were clear but a cloud of tragedy was lurking on the horizon.

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Leki Wangchuk (background) looks on as Lobsang Gyatso narrates the events of May 2.

PRELUDE

Gyatso has been leading protests against plans to build 13 dams in Tawang district, using the platform of the Save Mon Region Federation, an organisation that has a strong support base of monks and nuns apart from villagers

He is also the general secretary of the organisation and an ordained monk who studied at the Sera Je Monastery in Bylakuppe near Mysore in Karnataka in southern India. A few years after his return, Gyatso began raising concerns about the environmental impacts of the many hydropower projects planned for Tawang district.

As India looks ahead to become a global force, harnessing the country’s water resources figure highly in the government’s plans especially as it looks to compete against its neighbour China with which it already shares a rocky relationship. What’s more, India has plans to build over 160 hydropower projects in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a state that China already lays claim to as its own, with the Tawang region being particularly contentious.

On April 26, Gyatso was arrested for leading villagers from Gongkhar, the site for the 6 megawatt Mukto Shakangchu project, opposing the reconstruction of a spillway which they claimed had broken because of substandard work. He was arrested based on a complaint filed by the security officer of a local legislator for disruption of peace. He was later let out on bail the same day.

However, he was arrested again on April 28 for allegedly insulting the abbot of the Tawang Monastery by questioning his nationality and telling him to stay out of matters relating to the hydropower issue. The basis for the arrest was an audio clip that Gyatso and his supporters say was recorded in 2012 when his anti-large dam protests began but was used by his detractors as fodder for their attack on him.

Gyatso says that the powerful politicians of the area acted vindictively because the Save Mon Region Federation had managed to win a favourable verdict from India’s National Green Tribunal when it suspended the environmental clearance given earlier to the 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu hydropower project in the district.

After he was arrested, for what his some feel was trumped up charges, his supporters waited four days until demanding his release from the police station that has two small cells.

A TRAGEDY UNFOLDS

On that morning, Gyatso was to attend court for a bail hearing. His supporters, mostly fellow monks and nuns, had begun gathering outside the police station where he was held. When his bail plea was turned down, the police took him inside the station again, this time from a different entrance. This agitated the protestors, and as per some claims, began pelting stones at the police station. In reaction, the police and men of the Indian Reserve Battalion began firing their guns in an attempt to disperse the crowd.

Apart from some police and security personnel sustaining minor injuries during the firing, at least six civilians were seriously injured and two people were killed. One a former monk the other still donning in his monk robes.

31-year old Tsering Tempa, who had recently got married after giving up his monk vows a few years back, was shot in the head. Nyima Wangdi was still a young monk of 21 years when he was killed in the police firing.

Portraits of Nyima Wangdi (left) and Tsering Tempa stand high on a shelf in Lobsang Gyatso’s house

Portraits of Nyima Wangdi (left) and Tsering Tempa stand high on a shelf in Lobsang Gyatso’s house.

While the state government had set up two inquires to investigate the matter, the exact events of the day remain murky. Varying accounts from different people blame the protestors for turning violent while Gyatso and others smell a larger political conspiracy to derail the anti-dam movement in the district.

Investigations and inquires on the matter are underway but amongst the protestors and monks, the mood is not one of positivity.

DOUBTING THOMASES

Several organisations such as the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union have called for a CBI inquiry into the matter instead of state-government constituted committees. In fact, the influential students’ body has said it will file a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a central inquiry. This distrust of state government constituted inquiries stems from the fact that they have never been able to truly provide closure to victims in the past. What could further fuel this feeling is the revelation that apart from the Tawang district superintendent of police Anto Alphonse and officer-in-charge of the Tawang police station Lham Dhondup, none of the other higher-ranked officials have been suspended even though an official statement from the government had claimed otherwise.

Broken windows of the police station where authorities claim protestors pelted stones

Broken windows of the police station where authorities claim protestors pelted stones.

Soon after the incident on May 4, an official statement from the office of the deputy chief minister of the state, Kameng Dolo, said that Tawang deputy commissioner Duly Kamduk and Dhondup were suspended, along with Alphonse. In reality though, only Alphonse and Dhondup are serving a suspension while Kamduk has been transferred to Itanagar and deputy superintendent of police Pem Norbu Thongdok has been transferred to Namsai.

While complaints had been filed against the protestors for attacking the police station, an FIR against the police for the murder of the two young men was only filed after the issue was raised with the present deputy commissioner and superintendent of police by visiting human rights activists on May 19, a full 17 days after the incident.

It was only on June 13 that five police constables and one sub-inspector were suspended for the police’s failure to “follow all the standard operating procedures for using firearms in dispersal of the unlawful mob”, again as per an official statement.

Another revelation that can heighten suspicion about the impartiality of the state-government formed committees is the fact that a report of the incident written by Alphonse has not been made public.

CONCEALMENT? 

Sources have confirmed that a report on the day’s incident written by Alphonse was submitted on May 6, the contents of which remain a mystery. In fact, it is unclear as to whether the former SP had submitted the report before or after his sacking. While the police and administration have provided a section of the media with copies of the police complaints and FIRs related to the matter, the report by Alphonse is currently under lock-and-key at the deputy commissioner’s office in Tawang.

Aside from the government’s refusal to disclose complete details, what is adding to the confusion is rumours of the police itself damaging some of the vehicles in the police station premises to falsify the nature of the protest on that fateful day.

Hearsay aside, a number of officials and civilians from Tawang town have spoken about the police and security personnel’s inadequate training and preparedness to deal with such scenarios.

Several eyewitness accounts claim that tear gas was fired initially but the shells allegedly fell beyond the proximity of the protestors. At least one shell reportedly fell in front of a nearby shop while another found its way to a farmland.

There are also shocking claims that have been made (in private) by officials from the district administration themselves narrating how some security men behaved in a reckless and callous manner, even to the point of training their guns at some junior officials who tried to restrain them from shooting at the public.

The four-week deadline of the inquiry committees to submit their reports are long up and are yet to be made public.

In fact, the report compiled by the district administration was already submitted to the state chief secretary on May 19 but details have not been disclosed yet. There is no official word yet as to when the report from the other committee will be submitted.

Until such a time, Tempa’s young widow Sonam in Jangda village and Wangdi’s family in Bongleng will have to wait for some form of closure.

(This article was first published in The Citizen on July 10, 2016. )