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.

Image 1

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.

Image 5

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.

Image 2

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.

Image 4

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

Advertisements

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.

Ranganadi 2

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”.

One year on, closure on Tawang’s tragedy remains 

A year since the death of two men in the police firing in Tawang, a complete disclosure of events remains elusive. 

On May 2, 2016, protestors seeking the release of Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk and vocal opponent of large dams in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district, had gathered outside the police station where he was being held on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the 336-year old Tawang Monastery. 

A memorial that was built at the gates of the Tawang Monastery to remember the two killed in the police firing.

After learning that Gyatso’s bail appeal was turned down, the crowd got engaged in a scuffle broke with police and security personnel. During the scuffle, security forces fired shots which injured several people and claimed the lives of Nyima Wangdi (a young monk) and Tsering Tempa. 

The events of that day had left everyone shocked. Tawang, after all, is known more as a peaceful town and such a thing was rather unexpected. Following the deaths, the government did its best to pacify the situation by awarding ex-gratia payments to the family of the deceased and giving jobs to next of kin. It also paid for the medical expenses of the injured (although some feel that the amount paid does not cover all costs). One person, Tenzin Wangdi, who miraculously survived after a bullet was lodged in his head is reportedly suffering from trauma and has trouble sleeping. 

Recently, the Supreme Court sought responses from the Centre and the state government on a plea seeking an independent probe. While the state government had set up two inquiries to investigate the matter, only the report by the Jang ADC has been submitted while the state-level report that was to be prepared by current PWD commissioner, Hage Khoda, has not been submitted. 

After the incident, the government suspended Tawang district superintendent of police, Anto Alphonse (who has since been reinstated), and officer-in-charge of the Tawang police station, Lham Dhondup. 

Currently, seven security personnel are serving suspension including three Indian Reserve Battalion men and four from the Arunachal Pradesh Police. Sources also say that the West Kameng deputy superintendent of police is conducting the investigation. 

The ADC’s report has several varying accounts of the day as recorded by eyewitnesses and police. 

The report cites the police report which states that “after proper warnings, use of force was done by restrained firing. The firing was resorted to, as police force was very limited at the police station. Since the police station location is at hilly terrain, the injuries were at different parts of the body of the injured persons”. 

However, eyewitnesses cited in the ADC’s report maintain that it was after the police resorted to lathi-charge and firing that stones were pelted. 

The report also states that “the firing order was given verbally by the magistrate RD Thungon, EAC. It is further stated in the police report that the duty magistrate, RD Thungon, refused to give the firing order in writing after the incident”. 

However, Thungon said that “he did not know who opened the fire and also did not know who had ordered to open fire”. 

There are also some findings that shed more doubt than light on the events of the day. 

“The SP, Tawang’s report further states that the statement of the Platoon Commander SI Tage Tath of 3rd IRBN was contradictory in many ways as he stated in his statement before the SP, Tawang that as per the instructions of the SP he ordered that all their weapons be kept under lock in the district KOTE itself. This was done to avoid reckless handling of weapons by the IRBN personnel during the law and order problem. After the firing incident, despite of clear order from the SP, Tawang the Platoon Commander, 3rd IRBN failed to furnish individual count of missing or fired ammunitions from each of the police personnel deployed under him on that day,” the report states. 

The report also carries allegations of alarming behaviour by security personnel. 

EAC Lobsang Tsetan states that he had tried to stop one constable from firing at a civilian when “an IRBN sub-inspector, who was the platoon commander, intervened and asked the jawan to shoot at the deponent i.e. the magistrate instead”. 

The ADC’s report in its findings states that “the weapons were collected by 3rd IRBn personnel and civil police personnel in presence of the SP, Tawang”. 

It also states that “police personnel resorted to blank firing in a very reckless manner and without proper supervision and directions from any senior police officials” and that the firing was “completely reckless and indiscriminate”. 

The report also, however, partly holds the protestors responsible as well, stating “if the crowd had respected the rule of law, the unfortunate incident could have been avoided”. 

It also recommended that a thorough investigation should be made into the matter by an independent agency. 

Lax policies cause of concern for conservation

For over a decade, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been working with communities in West Kameng and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh to preserve forest resources and make them self-reliant. While considerable amount of success has been achieved, without proper policies in place, successes will mean little in the long-run. 

WWF-India began its work in Thembang in West Kameng in 2004 with the introduction of Community Conserved Areas (CCA) which comprises of a village-level management committee that is given the responsibility to conserve natural resources and address local livelihood means. 

Among its goals is to engage villagers in collective dialogue and decision-making relating to conserving natural resources found in the forests of the area including wildlife. After their initial success, the WWF replicated its model in Zemithang in neighbouring Tawang district in 2007. 

Zemithang has an important role to play in conservation as it is one of the two remaining wintering sites of the black-necked crane in the state- the other being Sangti Valley. Earlier, the birds were reported to have been sighted at Ziro Valley in Lower Subansiri district too but have since stopped coming after a few of them died when they got entangled in electrical wires. 

The riverbed of Nyamjang Chhu that is the wintering site of the black-necked crane.

Kamal Medhi, the Western Arunachal Landscape co-ordinator for the WWF who has been working in the region for years, informed that there were 21 sightings of the birds from last November to March this year- a significant improvement from the past. 

The WWF’s work has also led to increased awareness amongst the people, Medhi said, and that people these days inform the WWF officials whenever they see the birds which come to the dry riverbed of the Nyamjang Chhu. The birds are of special importance to the Buddhist Monpa tribe who consider the black-necked crane sacred. 

And while game hunting in the area has never been a major issue, Medhi informed that the musk deer, called laa-va locally, is hunted for its bile which is used extensively in Chinese traditional medicine. Reportedly, the animal is hunted and its bile extracted before making its way to China through Nepal. 

Medhi said that the hunting of the deer is not an issue amongst the seven villages in the Zemithang area that are part of the WWF’s CCA but that there is a threat from villages outside of the area. 

“Villages in Zemithang have served notices to the other offending villages to curb the problem,” he said. 

There are also economic benefits that villagers are slowly beginning to witness from conserving forest resources. 

Recently, the Pangchen CCA Management Committee (comprising of Lakhar, Lumpo and Muchat villages) began manufacturing incense sticks that are used extensively by most Buddhist tribes of the state. It’s an initiative that could become an alternative to a widely used product that is currently brought in from the North Bengal area. 

Other challenges however, remain. 

The WWF currently has 1,200 square km of land under the CCA model including villages in Thembang, Zemithang and Manlaphu (which was inducted last year). But that figure is relatively small compared to the work that needs to be done. 

“We are saving a small portion of forests through the CCA model,” Medhi informed and that around 30,000 square km of land is still officially designated as Unclassed State Forests. 

“The government should come up with policies to give the management of forests to the local communities, whether in the form of CCAs or any other model,” he said. 

Aside from the lack of a clear policy on the tribal people’s rights and use of forest resources, at the policy level the issue gets more complicated due to the region’s proximity to the sensitive international border it shares with China. 

Foreigners are not permitted to enter Zemithang, even with special permits, which can affect the tourism of the area. 

Although homestays have sprung up, the place has been unable to attract foreign tourists due to travel restrictions. Recently, a group of environment enthusiasts from Bhutan who had wanted to visit the area for the black-necked crane were given a hard time due to the existing laws. 

Ironic, considering that traders and pilgrims who belong to the same Monpa community but live across the border in Bhutan regularly venture into the region with ease, as theIndian armed forces personnel are not aware of the subtle differences in the traditional attires of the cousin communities. 

Monks boycott Independence Day, question idea of freedom

This August 15, when India was celebrating its 70th Independence Day, Buddhist monks and nuns in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh were questioning the very idea of freedom.

WhatsApp Image 2016-08-15 at 12.10.13
In the past, the Dungyur Mani Square in Tawang’s old bazaar has acted as a venue for street performances held during the Tawang Festival in the town that is just 37 km from the Sino-India border. On Independence Day, a large contingent of Buddhist monks and nuns along with members of the civilian population came out in protest against the government’s decision to reinstate the superintendent of police, Anto Alphonse, who was suspended following police firing on May 2 in Tawang, which had claimed the lives of two protestors demanding the release of monk-activist Lobsang Gyatso.
Gyatso, a Buddhist monk from the Monpa tribe, has been leading protests against the government’s plans to build large dams in Tawang district. He also serves as the general secretary of the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), an organisation that has a strong support base of monks and nuns apart from villagers. He had been arrested and kept in police custody from April 28 till May 2 when protestors gathered outside the police station and demanded his release. Soon after, Alphonse and other officials were suspended by the state government due to the mishandling of the protests. However, Alphonse has since been reinstated as an SP by the state government.
On August 15, members of the SMRF and other civil society bodies, including 302 Action Committee, All Tawang Youth Association, All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union, All Tawang District Students Union, held up banners questioning the relevancy of Independence Day celebrations.
Wearing black ribbons around their foreheads, the demonstrators held up placards that said ‘No justice, no rest’.
Gyatso informed that businesses voluntarily kept their shops closed and stayed away from official celebrations in the town.
“We also feel there is no freedom in the state and appeal to the central government to look into the matter seriously and take necessary action before it’s too late,” he said from Tawang.
The SMRF had earlier on August 8 written to the government demanding that Alphonse be suspended since the final report into the May 2 incident has not been released.
While the state government had set up two inquires to investigate the matter, one of which has been submitted, they have not been made public yet.
Gyatso said that about a thousand people had showed up in what was a “symbolic” protest. He also said that “the said members and people of Tawang are going (to) submit a memorandum to the United Nations to save our lives”.
While the protest was held in the bazaar square, the district administration held a prabhat pheri/Jashn-e-Azadi Run (Freedom Run). At the general parade ground, the local legislator Tsering Tashi, said that the incidents of May 2 were unfortunate and that “everyone should resort to dialogue for sorting out differences” and that “efforts should be made to rule out any communication gap”.
He also said that hydropower projects in the district would not be pursued without the consent of the people. He was reiterating what he and Lumla MLA Jambey Tashi had told members of the SMRF during a meeting on August 13. Gyatso, who did not attend that meeting, said the government is making “only empty promises”.
Regardless of the outcome of planned dialogues, one banner hanging from the dungyur mani (a stone structure with prayer wheels inside) captured the essence of the protest by the monks: “When there is no freedom, why celebrate Independence Day.”


This story first appeared in The Citizen.

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.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

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. )

Buddha’s warriors: Monks take on the powerful

Standing at the entrance of the watch tower on the southern gate of the Tawang Monastery, Tashi Norbu, dressed in the traditional maroon-hued robe, explains how in the past one monk would stand guard and be on the lookout for Bhutanese or Mongolian forces while another would rest the barrel of the gun through a small opening on the wall, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. While the enemy is no longer foreign forces, the monks of the 336-year old monastery now face adversities of a different kind.
Ever since the events of May 2, the usually peaceful town of Tawang has been gripped by news of violence. Several monks from the historic Tibetan Buddhist monastery, second in size only to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, located in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang town in India’s Northeast have been actively involved in their opposition to plans of building 11 dams in the district (two have been dropped recently). Leading the protest in Tawang have been Buddhist monks who are known more for their peaceful chants than loud protests. Their concerns and opposition to the dams however, have been met with mixed reactions.

image

A young monk peers out the watchtower.

At the inter-state check gate in Bhalukpong in West Kameng district, a young tax and excise security personnel from Tawang says that monks should stick to monastic activities. A similar view is stated by a prominent businessman in Tawang town as well. Such views are an echo of what many politicians from the region and across the state have said in the past too. Norbu and other monks though, disagree with such a point of view.
“This is not the first time monks have defended the region,” he says, visibly worked up. He says that monks from the monastery were fending off Mongol and Bhutanese forces ever since it was established more than 300 years ago with their guns called menda from their watchtowers called kochung.

image

Norbu, the passionate one.

Norbu, who is also the president of the Save Mon Region Federation that has been leading protests against dams in the district says hectares of land has already been taken away from villagers for highway construction but people have not been compensated and neither have the roads been built.
“We are not asking for ‘azadi(freedom)’,” he says in reference to calls for independence from India made in some other states before adding that they just want justice.
Recently, accusations were made against the SMRF general secretary, Lobsang Gyatso, that he was being funded by the Chinese. It’s an accusation that has him upset.
“How can I be working for the Chinese when the Chinese have wronged our spiritual leader (Dalai Lama) so much,” he asks.
Lobsang has been in the forefront of the protests since late 2011 and it was his arrest on April 28 on charges of allegedly defaming the abbot of the monastery that led to protests outside the police station by his supporters who were seeking his release on May 2. On that day, two people were shot dead and several others, including some security personnel were injured. While two inquires are currently underway, the monks are calling for a CBI inquiry instead of state government constituted inquires.

image

Lobsang Gyatso.

Pema Gyatso, a 35-year old monk, says “we haven’t had proper roads since 1962. We need development and schools not hydropower”.
Lobsang is clear in his stance that the SMRF is not against smaller projects but is opposed to larger dams that will lead to loss of large areas of farming land.
Reportedly, there are over 20 mini and micro dams in the district, most of which are either not functioning or breakdown often. 
The monks appear to be fighting not just power developers or their alleged nexus with politicians but stand against corruption.
Pema says that prime land has been given away to the army and worries about what people will grow if the remaining cultivable land is given away to power developers. In fact, in Tawang town and its peripheral areas large swathes of land are used by the army and SSB. All along the way to Tawang too, various Army battalions have garrisons and camps in plush land. 200km below at Tenga Valley in West Kameng district is almost entirely a military town with few civilian residences.
In Tawang, the monks complain of politicians from every level being hand-in-gloves with power companies for their personal benefit.
Norbu says that politicians are building hotels and homes for themselves while doing little for the people.
Speaking of their decision to openly fight powerful politicians, Lobsang says that as monks they are viewed as messengers of gods and that “if we compromise on the hydropower issue, how can people have faith in the religion we preach”.
But it is Norbu who puts it in the most eloquent manner defending their actions.
Explaining how villagers routinely donate food and other amenities to the monks, Norbu says “humlog basti wala se tax khake tatti karke bethega kya? (Should we just accept food from villagers and shit it out?)”.

Lobsang Gyatso: The man behind the monk in the middle of a dam controversy

For the first eight years of his life, Lobsang Gyatso was a student at a government school in Tawang. The next year, he was more than 3000km away at the Sera Je Monastery in Bylakuppe, Karnataka studying the Buddha’s teachings. On April 28 this year, he found himself in prison.
Located near the Sino-India border, Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Last month, 18 people had died in two separate landslides caused by heavy showers that had been pouring for two weeks.
Just as residents were settling into their daily routine, trouble began brewing after an audio clip surfaced where Gyatso, an ordained monk, is heard telling the abbot of the historical Tawang Monastery to stay out of hydropower issues in the Mon region comprising of Tawang and West Kameng districts, spread over an area of 9,527 square km.
Following a meeting of panchayat leaders from Tawang on April 28, an FIR was filed against Gyatso for allegedly defaming the abbot, Guru Tulku Rinpoche. Gyatso claims in the audio clip that the abbot is from Bhutan and does not understand the sentiments of the region. He was promptly arrested and kept in police custody until May 2 when his followers gathered outside the police station where he was held, demanding his release. What was supposed to be a simple protest turned tragic when police began firing to disperse the crowd. At the end, two men –  one a young monk and the other a newly-wed – had died.
While the details of the events that led to the firing remain murky, as official word from the district has been difficult to acquire owing to communication lapses, the incident has thrust into the limelight the issue of hydropower development in the state and the man who was arrested. Who is Lobsang Gyatso?
The son of an ex-army man from the village of Namet, Gyatso was born in his aunt’s hut in Tawang town, around 7km away. Having spent his early years getting a formal education at the government school in Tawang, he was sent to Bylakuppe near Mysore to the Sera Je Monastery in 1988. He returned to Tawang 15 years later in 2003 and joined the Jamyang Choekhorling Monastery. In 2011, an aircraft tragedy would end up acting as a catalyst for Gyatso to begin his activism.
On April 19 that year, a Pawan Hans-operated Mil Mi-17 helicopter crashed near Tawang, killing 17 of 23 passengers and crew members. According to Gyatso, the state mechanism was unprepared to conduct effective rescue operations.
“I got into an argument with the former chief minister, late Dorjee Khandu, at the time of the rescue operations,” he said over the phone and informed that that’s when he started working on social issues and left the monastery where he serving his second stint as administrative secretary.
“I thought it would be best to leave the gompa (monastery) to focus on social work,” he said.

image

The son of an ex-army man, the monk has been leading the charge against large dams in the ecologically sensitive area.

Gyatso said that during the Kalachakra ceremony in Bodh Gaya, Bihar in 2012, some fellow monks advised him to divert attention to social issues in the Mon region. Back home, together with some friends and like-minded people, Gyatso formed the Save Mon Committee, which was later renamed as Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF). In April of that year, the committee organised a rally against plans to construct mega hydropower projects in the region.
Currently, there are 37 projects planned for construction in Tawang and West Kameng districts with total installed capacity of 5254.30 mega watts.
Gyatso has been extremely vocal in his opposition to such plans. In fact, it was SMRF which had filed a petition in the National Green Tribunal in 2012 against the Bhilwara Group’s 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu Hydroelectric Project in Zemithang which led to the suspension of its environmental clearance in April this year.
It was argued that the project would disrupt the habitat of the black-necked cranes which flock to the area from November to February. For the Buddhist people of the region, the bird is held in high regard and even considered as an embodiment of the sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso who was born in Tawang in the 17th century.
His supporters claim that the tribunal’s decision and his growing popularity resulted in some politicians from the area viewing him as a threat. Gyatso himself admits to the claim.
“They do view me as a political threat,” he said and that he had even considered contesting the election in 2014 until his friends convinced him otherwise.
Now, he says, he is not interested in politics.
“Elections have become expensive in Tawang. You need at least ten crores to run elections nowadays,” he said and that “it’s better to work for society instead”.
Not everyone is impressed by the monk’s activism, which has drawn mix responses. While some of his followers refer to him with the moniker ‘Anna’ Lama (monk), an homage to activist Anna Hazare, his detractors refer to him as ‘Anda’ (egg) Lama.
Currently out on bail, Gyatso said the May 2 incident has left him saddened. Tsering Tempa was recently married and the other casualty, Nima Wangdi, was a monk.
Eight people were injured during the police firing, one of whom is currently in medical care at Shillong, Meghalaya.
“Police had fired around 200 to 300 rounds indiscriminately,” he said and that he is surprised that the casualty list is not higher.
Considered a “bright student” during his time at school, Gyatso stands firm in his resolve against plans to build dams that can adversely affect the fragile eco-system of the place.
“Politicians do not care what happens to the land of the poor people because they have their own houses at Gurgaon and Noida,” he adds.

 

A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160505/jsp/northeast/story_83873.jsp#.VysgRYR97IU

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 on 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 is 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 to 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 in length, originating from the glacial Himalayan lakes 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 headquarters, 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 the 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 Kameng 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 indigenous 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/

Route to roads- Can dams bring development in an area neglected for years?

It is late November and the harvest season has arrived in Arunachal Pradesh. Tajir Tali, the headmaster of the government middle school in Parong village of East Siang district, has taken time out from work to tend to his golden-hued paddy field on a hill slope.

As he and the women from his family go about harvesting paddy to last them the year, the Siang flows steadily in the gorge below. While environmentalists and NGOs raise concerns over plans to construct over 40 dams on the Siang, Tali appears unaffected. In fact, he says he is looking forward to it because he has “never seen a dam before”.

Flowing parallel to the eastern Himalayas, the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India through the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh before merging with the Brahmaputra in the plains of Assam below. On its 294-km journey through Arunachal Pradesh, the river is known as the Siang. Along its banks are lush green hills teeming with wildlife, living alongside members of the Adi and Galo tribes.

The Raneghat bridge near Pasighat.

The Raneghat bridge near Pasighat.

Of late, concerns have been raised that a way of life that has sustained itself for centuries may be lost forever if plans to bring about modern infrastructure development materialise. But in many villages, people voiced support for the dams as well as for the possible losses.

Located 138km north from the East Siang district headquarters of Pasighat, Parong is one of the several villages along the river where residents do not face the immediate threat of displacement from the proposed hydropower plants.

Over the last few years, several anti-large dam organisations have taken shape, but many villagers not living along the banks of the Siang appear unaffected by larger environmental concerns. What villagers like Tali are worried about is the slow pace of development of their area. And they believe that if hydropower plants are set up, development will follow.

As Tali speaks of how he “wants to see dams”, a young villager sporting a cowboy hat makes his way to the paddy field. He introduces himself as Elung Tapak and is angry that the size of the road running through the village has remained narrow since Independence.

“How will the army carry large ammunition if the Chinese attack again?” he asks, referring to the 1962 Chinese aggression, when PLA forces had occupied most parts of the state for nearly a month. Another villager, Tamat Pabia, a friend of Tali’s, says he has “heard that the Chinese have built helipads on the “other side”.

While all three villagers want dams to be set up because they feel hydropower projects will bring development to the area, there were other concerns raised.

Tapak feared that the dams may wash away large swathes of land below on the foothills of the village and Pabia said the water channels from the upper reaches of the surrounding hills have been drying steadily over the last few decades. However, such are the immediate needs of the people that across villages they are willing to lose land, even villagers whose agricultural fields would be submerged by the dams.

Like most places in Arunachal Pradesh, families and neighbours help each other out at the fields.

Like most places in Arunachal Pradesh, families and neighbours help each other out at the fields.

Up north in the village of Peging Bote, sitting inside a Mizo Presbyterian missionary’s home, Opang Tali, a recently converted Christian from the village, says he is not concerned about land submergence that the dams will bring because it’s not his land. What of his fellow tribesmen who will lose their ancestral land? “We can sympathise with them,” he says.

Down south on the way to Pasighat, Talik Taki, a resident of Sissen village, is so desperate for proper road connectivity that he is ready to forego parts of his agricultural land.

Earlier this year, the village of 20 homes made headlines after voters refused to participate in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections to voice their anger over the absence of a motorable road to the village. Apart from crossing a rickety bamboo hanging bridge over the Siang and walking up a 1.5-km footpath, the only other way to reach Sissen is by walking on a centuries-old link trail cutting across eight villages of the Nugong Banggo area. It is on this village trail that Australian event manager Melina Mellino recently organised a three-day 100-km hike called Run Siang.

The hike gathered professional and amateur athletes from India and abroad running back and forth across six villages for three days from November 26 to 28. Villagers were told beforehand to ensure that the runners were given a warm reception with food and water to replenish themselves. At Sissen, Taki and other villagers welcomed them with roasted sweet potatoes, oranges and grounded flat-rice cakes. While they extended their hospitality, even performing an impromptu welcome song and dance called the ponung, the villagers said they did not understand why these people were running so much.

Melina Mellino and Vince Radford from Australia organised a 100-km run across six villages.

Melina Mellino and Vince Radford from Australia organised a 100-km run across six villages.

Chewing on some of the roasted sweet potatoes on the return hike, Melina said she was taken aback by the beauty of the place when she and her partner Vince Radford first visited the area in December last year. “It’s such a beautiful place so we started thinking of ways to bring people in to see it,” she said.

The event website that was created explains that “the area is spectacular and unique and without attention, awareness and education, it will be lost”.

This sense of what may be lost is felt by Taki as well; he has to walk 6km to reach his paddy fields.

He says the financial compensation for his land can never replace the loss. But in the same breath, he says that perhaps his village will finally get a road once the dams are built “because the government will build it for the power company and then maybe we can use it too”.

In the original story published in December 2014, the distance from Pasighat to Parong was erroneously mentioned as being 38km instead of 138km. Link to the story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1141206/jsp/frontpage/story_2367.jsp#.VexSa_mqqkp