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Tipaimukh Dam: The forgotten challenges

By David Buhril
Chairman, SIPHRO

The proposed Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydro Electric Project wades deeper into controversy than before as the State actor, particularly the Government of Manipur, doggedly flexes militarisation approach to pursue the project. While voices of rejection were raised from diverse indigenous peoples’ organizations, and even armed groups, the dam builders as well as the project continue to miss the people’s pulse. The ongoing controversies with the proposed project certainly establish the need for the dam builders to review not only of the leviathan project but more importantly to review the existing policy on indigenous peoples. The few, flawed and restrictive consultation that was pushed through in the name of “public hearing” by representatives of the State actor severely exempted the indigenous people. As a result, the reports or recommendations that usually enhance the pursuit of the dam builders obviously failed to incorporate the indigenous people’s perspectives. While various ambiguities remains unexplained the project is imagined without gaining public acceptance. As vague languages about the project were spelled out, the dam builders resort to “development” as the password for winning the indigenous people’s confidence to allow their ancestral land, forest and resources to be submerged and uproot them from their peaceful existence.

The State as well as the dam builders’ policy on the indigenous peoples remains incompatible to the survival prospect of the same who were expected to sacrifice their land. It is evident that if the project is imposed on the indigenous peoples and their land it will result in violation not only of their rights, but also of their survival chances. While the obligatory process of “free, prior and informed consent” evades the people who would be affected, the State and the dam builders did not prepare the ground where participation must also be “active, free and meaningful”. Decisions relating to the rights and interests of the indigenous peoples are taken without their informed consent. The supposed “consultation” or “public hearing” were merely “ceremonial contacts” that will never generate the desired legitimacy from the indigenous peoples. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, the indigenous peoples felt that they were left out and excluded from all the required democratic process that ought to consider their consent. This has negated their belief of the principles of equality before law and equal protection of the law. The indigenous people’s experiences under the Government of Manipur further affirm this reality time and time again. The failure to identify the indigenous peoples who will be affected by the project still remains a hurdle. Secondly, there is no recognition of the survival and cultural uniqueness of the indigenous peoples in the proposed project area.

This severely undermines the value that land and forest have for the indigenous peoples. As a result, the “compensation” measures that have become a tool failed to secure the consent of the people who will be severely affected. Not only that, the indigenous peoples were left out again in the race for compensation. There is already a visible growing resentment as few acclaimed “representatives” colludes with bureaucrats and politicians to seal a larger share of the compensation in the name of the people who will be affected. This has created stark social division in the proposed project area as well as in other areas that will be impacted. A handful of compensation seekers who wanted the dam because of the money composed the pro-Tipaimukh dam group.

Thirdly, there is no “culturally appropriate development plan based on full consideration of the options preferred by the indigenous peoples.” While the indigenous peoples wanted the State and the dam builders to recognise and protect their rights to own, develop, control and use their land and resources, the State or the dam builders could not draw any lines to safeguard their interests. Failing to subscribe to and digressing from the overblown “development” project, the indigenous peoples believe that the supposed “development” path that is expected to be ushered by the project will only hamper their livelihood system and survival prospect. The indigenous people opine that the project will create social catastrophe after their land is submerged and the people uprooted, and displaced. Fourthly, the absence of transparency has severely undermined the interest of the indigenous people in whose land the dam is proposed. This has barred the indigenous communities from the decision making processes.

Fifthly, the proposed project fails to recognise ownership of indigenous peoples land rights. The project is seen as an attempt to push them out of their land and reduce the customary tenurial rights of indigenous peoples to land and other resources by merely according them user rights. This amounts to negation of the indigenous people’s rights over land that are owned and used by them in conformity with customary laws since time immemorial. As land is central to the existence of indigenous peoples, the land question that is surfacing with the proposed project threatens the indigenous communities and their survival prospect. The State as well as the dam builders ought to prioritised the sustainability of the indigenous people’s culture, livelihood system and their active participation in decisions that will affect them.

Sixthly, despite the threat of negative adverse impacts the project would have, the indigenous communities are not aware of any clear pre-conditions for the Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydro Electric Project’s approval. The project that is absent of any social assessment process, therefore, is seen as imposed and undemocratic.

Seventhly, with the denial and discrimination of the rights of indigenous people it has become a necessity for the State actors as well as the dam builders to incorporate an assessment of the legal status of the indigenous peoples as reflected in the Country’s constitution and legislation. Besides, the indigenous peoples should be able to obtain access to and effectively use the legal system to defend their rights. However, and despite that, it is important to note that the indigenous communities’ social and economic status limits their capacity to defend their interests. For the same purpose, the State as well as the dam builders must start by doing its homework to deliver and acquire “free and prior informed consent” of the indigenous communities. Moreover, in recognition of the right to information, all the documents relating to the project should be made public. The absence of this has been exempting the threatened people from the project that will, otherwise, cause social turbulence.

Eightly, the adverse social impact of the Tipaimukh Multipurpose HEP, whether short term or cumulative, have been seriously under-estimated. More importantly, with the proposed dam to be situated in Manipur, the Government of Manipur, which is often considered to be running a “failed State” and further militarised, should question the development effectiveness that the proposed Tipaimukh dam would have under its initiative. When any project – small, medium or big- that was undertaken by the Government of Manipur severely stagnates in if not corruption then in all sorts of inefficiencies, the proposed Tipaimukh HEP also stand on the same ground.

Performance problems, in terms of cost over-running, project delays, absence of political will and accountability, and security imbroglio severely often plagued the Government of Manipur’s efforts. In looking at the future of the Tipaimukh HEP, it is necessary to learn from Manipur Governments’ past by reviewing the success or failure of the many projects that it had taken up.

If we look at Tipaimukh constituency’s reality today, the Government of Manipur failed to maintain the only national highway, NH 150 that passes through Tipaimukh. There is not even a bridge to connect the highway between Mizoram and Manipur; no concerned Government officials were stationed in Tipaimukh; no health centres, public distribution system is absent, no government-run school and institutions and no civil administration. Moreover, the constituency is currently battling with food-shortage and epidemic deaths. If these people are further robbed of their land and rights by the proposed project, their present state of deprivation would certainly deteriorate to further deny them of their citizenship rights.

Moreover, the question of security with the project cannot be underestimated in a place where various armed groups are taking vantage of the vacuum left behind by the collapse of civil administration. The cost of security should be look at against the interest of “development”. Besides that, the indigenous peoples will pay heavy price for the “security” presence. If the proposed Tipaimukh dam cannot be imagined without the presence of security forces, the social acceptability and consensus of the leviathan project should be seriously considered.

If dam builders, in their blind pursuit for profit making, fail to understand the indigenous people’s interests and perspective, the proposed project would merely enhance militarisation in the already militarised State to further induce social conflict. The indigenous people cannot be isolated from the proposed project in any of the processes. In the end, the dam builders would merely leave behind social crisis, which will heavily toll the indigenous peoples who comprised of the biggest stakeholders. The rights and risks approach should be used to identify legitimate stakeholders in all the processes. It is high time that the dam builders, who are merely translating the dam in terms of monetary profit, overcome their profit syndrome for all purposes. Otherwise, the rights of the indigenous peoples and the inevitable voluntary and involuntary risks would wholly negate the prospect of real development. At the same time, human rights should also constitute the fundamental framework within which human development must be pursued.

If the “dominant” dam builders fail to understand the indigenous peoples perspectives, it would only result in creating ripples of protracted social crisis that will never be compensable. The dam builders should be morally responsible and not leave behind layers of problems in the already fractured State of Manipur that fails to come to term with itself.

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