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/

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