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The Dibang Valley - home to a minuscule population of the last 8,500 Idu Mishmi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh - is located in one of the last true biodiversity hotspots of Asia in the Eastern Himalayas. This mesmerising yet fragile ecosystem of the valley is drained by the Dibang River, an important tributary of the Brahmaputra. However, this region is subjected to the controversial 3000MW Dibang Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project - the largest capacity hydro project in the country with a cost of Rs. 25,347 crores. With 17 other major hydel projects to be charted around the region, the ecological and social impacts will run deep and long.

The young mountain system of the Himalayas has an indelible impact on the whole of South Asia, and one of the key aspects to the Indian landmass is the perennial rivers, which are mostly snow fed. The rivers in their upper course, due to the topography, can thus be subjected to building of dams, but often at great costs – environmentally, socially and financially. This is true for the tributaries of the Brahmaputra in the Eastern Himalayas, especially for the state of Arunachal Pradesh. 

Dibang Dam Project
Image source: indiawaterportal.org

According to the estimates of the Central Electricity Authority, North-east India could generate as much as 58,971 megawatts of hydropower. Arunachal Pradesh alone has the hydropower potential of about 50,328 megawatts – the highest in the country.

The government of Arunachal Pradesh has signed about 132 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) as of 2012 with potential developers, out of which, 120 MoUs have been signed with private developers. Additionally, upfront premiums have been received by the state government even before the environment clearances have been taken, thus reducing Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) to a farce. Furthermore, the construction for Dibang Dam in the Dibang valley has been initiated and is expected to provide up to 3,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power and on completion, the dam is expected to be 945 feet tall, making it the tallest dam in the world. 

This action has led to a huge public outcry in Arunachal Pradesh, with civil society actively advocating against the MoUs signed. There is not an iota of doubt on the dividends that the hydroelectric power will generate or how it will help cut down carbon footprints, as well as reduce the cost of power.

But the pertinent question to pose is at what cost? 

Dibang Dam Project
Image source: sandrp.wordpress.com

The social impacts will be on the entire population of the Idu Mishmis and their way of life, their culture and their rights. Like most tribes in the country, they will soon face massive displacement with minimum rehabilitation settlement programmes. The Dibang Dam threatens an entire ecosystem by threatening the very existence of these fragile communities, who have a very congruent relationship with the biodiversity that surrounds them.

Keeping in mind the downstream effects, which include those on fisheries, agricultural lands and wetlands, this project will affect thousands of livelihoods. The dam will also increase the vulnerability of the region to flash floods and will put many villages in danger and will cause huge loss of lives and property not only in Arunachal Pradesh but also in Assam. The downstream region of Assam has been very vocal on the subject, especially in relation to the dam, which is going to be built in the Lower Subansiri District in Arunachal Pradesh. There has been constant protest in Assam led by All Assam students Union (AASU) and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), turning the issue into a key issue in the state elections of 2011.

The ecological impacts will be unimaginable. As one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Dibang Dam will be located just 11km from the Mehoa Wildlife Sactuary and will see more than 4000 hectares of undisturbed grassland and tropical forest habitat being cleared out. This will result in the loss of precious flora and fauna; endanger rare and protected species such as tigers, clouded leopards, the Himalayan black bears, snow leopards; and will adversely affect the aquatic life of fish and their breeding and migration cycles. Also, the extraction of sand and boulders will have huge adverse effects on the river habitat as bank stability, water quality and flow will deteriorate and increase the vulnerability of the region to erosion and landslides. 

Dibang Dam Project
Image source: indiaopines.com

Another very unshakable fact is that the whole of the North-east region resides in an extremely high seismic zone, adding more threats not only to the upper course of the river, but also to the lower course of the Assam plains, as there lies the danger of flooding. This region has a history of several seismic activities like the Great Assam earthquake in 1950 and 1987 with a magnitude of 8.6 and 7.1 respectively. If an earthquake were to hit the region, this would risk many villages and vast areas of forests downstream of catastrophic submergence.

So why is it being done?

The energy requirements of the North-east is modestly low, partly  due to  the lower levels of industrialisation, and the whole of the North-east consumes less than 1% of the total industrial usage of the country. The major power generation is primarily structured for the transmission arrangements that would take electricity from power generation facilities to the national power grid and supply it to distant regions, where the power could be used. This is being done in spite of the exceptionally high power losses that are experienced during transmission, with the transmission loss for the North-eastern region being higher than the national transmission loss rates. 

Therefore the idea of development has shifted the disproportionately high cost on the extremely vulnerable tribes and endemic species of Arunachal Pradesh and other parts of the region, where the entire sustenance of people is derived from the environment. The issue of dams has often been complex as there are severe trade-offs for clean energy that is required. Even the World Commission of Dams has also taken note of the disproportionate cost that certain populations shoulder for clean energy. 

Dibang Dam Project
Image source: A dam in Arunachal Pradesh/theguardian.com

The solution to energy deficiency lies not in building huge dams but in small dams, as there is a global consensus among experts that large dams are not environmentally sustainable. Mini hydel projects below 25 MW are not only sustainable, but are also a vital strategy against transmission losses. Small dams need to be built with the commensurate needs of the immediate vicinity first and foremost, and then perhaps the transmission of the power could be pondered upon.  The abysmally low rates of rural electrification of North-east states are the case in point and it is far below the national average of rural electrification. Owing to the high seismicity, adequate care should be taken that these dams are not storage dams but rather run-off river dams, wherein the former poses a grave risk of flooding downstream, as the latter relatively does not disturb the volume of river flow. However, the answer solely does not lie in the technocratic solutions, as state governments should reach out at a personal level to all the communities and the potential victims, who will be affected by the construction of the dam.  

The whole country has witnessed many travesties of justice meted out to whole tribes when it comes to the issue of rehabilitation. And the story of the Idu Mishmi tribe should not be yet another tragedy waiting to happen in the name of progress, as they wage an on-going war for survival all by themselves.

Phurpa Tsering is a Project Coordinator at Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI)

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