India: Adivasis fight mega-dams

A new “powerhouse” is emerging in the frontier state of Arunachal Pradesh, north-eastern India. Public and private companies have proposed 168 massive dams, to produce 57,000 megawatts of hydropower, in this strategically important region, which borders Myanmar in the east, Bhutan in the west and China in the north.

All of these dams are proposed for the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh and in Assam, the next state downstream. The Brahmaputra – known as the Yarlung Zangbo in Tibet, where it originates, and the Jamuna in Bangladesh – is one of the world’s largest rivers. Together with the Barak River, it ties together much of north-eastern India, a region known for its flora, fauna and cultural diversity.

The issue of big dams in north-east India is getting more complex every day. Resentment against the projects has already led to a series of agitations by civil society and Adivasi groups, mostly in Assam. The epicentre of the controversy now is the Lower Subansiri Dam, a 2,000 megawatt hydroelectric project being built by the state-owned National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC). The project is located in Gerukamukh on the lower reaches of the Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and is the largest dam in India now under construction.

But, since December 16 last year, work on the project has been almost at a standstill, thanks to opposition, led in Assam by a farmers’ organisation called Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) that campaigns for the rights of landless Adivasi. The protesters say the dam will affect the flow of water on the Brahmaputra, which will impact irrigation downstream, and increase the danger of sudden floods in an area that is already highly flood-prone. The protesters have clashed with the police many times. On one occasion, the police opened fire,injuring many protesters.

Dissent is also growing over the proposed 1,750-megawatt Demwe Lower Hydroelectric Project, positioned barely 800 metres from Parsuram Kund, a sacred Hindu site on the Lohit River in Arunachal Pradesh. Reports say the 13,000-crore rupee (US$2.6 billion) project will likely involve the felling of more than 43,000 trees and threaten endangered wildlife species including the Bengal Florican and the Ganges River Dolphin. The project will destroy forests that Mishmi tribes rely on for their traditional livelihood practices, such as jhum cultivation and involve the eviction of people from the Riverine islands of Lohit River and also from the settlements along the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.

Ethnic minority communities like the Lepchas of Sikkim and Idu Mishmis of Arunachal Pradesh have expressed apprehension about the multiple mega-dam projects on their native soil. But at the same time, some of the 20-odd major tribes in Arunachal Pradesh have supported the dams. Environmentalists say that the support is coming from tribes with a stake in the state’s ruling Congress party, while those who would be displaced by the dams are from smaller tribes, with fewer votes.

Raju Mimi, a young activist from the Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, explained how his community of around 12,000 has been protesting against construction of the 3,000-megawatt Dibang hydroelectric project in the Lower Dibang Valley: “The whole dam-building process has been going on without taking the people into confidence or their participation. Most of the local people are dependent on agriculture and are not ready for such big dam projects. They will be further marginalised culturally, economically and politically.” Mimi also said that powerful tribes have been promised money or other benefits from the projects and see them as a route to power and riches.

The NGO Forum for Siang Dialogue has been leading the movement against the 2,700-megawatt Lower Siang Dam in Arunachal Pradesh and a 10,000-megawatt dam on the Upper Siang. (The Yarlung Zangbo is called the Siang as it enters Arunachal Pradesh from China; it becomes the Brahmaputra further downstream.) The forum’s spokesperson Vijay Taram said: “In the belts inhabited by the Adi tribe [which has a population of over 150,000], 43 massive dams are coming up. We are on the verge of being annihilated by all these developmental activities. Our language, forest, rivers, culture, tradition and identity will perish.

“This land belonged to our forefathers and today we are being asked to vacate our land. The compensation offered is also meagre – just 1.5 lakh rupees [US$3,000] per hectare.” He added that their village elders have repeatedly pleaded for the Siang to be able to “flow of its free will”. The forum supports construction of small dams.

Developers point out that each hydro project was approved by the state and federal governments only after a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). Under the law, open consultations with affected people – called public hearings – are supposed to be integral to an EIA. Activists and local residents argue that these public hearings were not held in a transparent or inclusive manner.

There is little sign so far that either the state authorities or India's central government is going to agree with the opponents of the dams. But the opposition to dam-building continues to grow.

Apart from the committed supporters and opponents of the dams, public opinion in north-eastern India is veering in favour of a consensus based on scientific opinion. But both physical and social scientists are working in largely uncharted waters. There is an immediate need to study the hydrology, ecology and society of the entire Brahmaputra basin in far more detail than has been done to date.

Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Assam, north-east India. An earlier version of this story was first published on

Photo: Demonstration against Dams in Subansiri Valley. Credit: International Rivers


For more information, look out for MRG's State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 report (published 28 June).

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Date: 19/06/2012




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