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Mega Dams in North East India

C. Lalremruata
Zo Indigenous Forum

The region:
Northeast India, consisting of the seven sister states of Assam, ArunachalPradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and plus Sikkim, is known for its biological and cultural diversity and the unique Brahmaputra and Barak river systems. While the eight states are indeed collectively referred together as the ‘Northeast’, there is substantial diversity within the region even as far as political and socio-economic issues are concerned, both historically and in contemporary times.

This region represents an important part of the Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspot and is home to important wildlife species; Himalaya and Indo-Burma are among the 25 global biodiversity hotspots recognized currently. It is an area which is still poorly documented and in recent years biologists have discovered new species and extended known ranges of existing ones in the region. It also has a high level of endemism (plant and animal species found nowhere else). The region is home to a diversity of indigenous communities, with a substantial portion of the population dependent on natural resource-based livelihoods. This diversity of communities comes with unique socio-cultural, agro-ecological and land-holding systems (such as different forms of community control over forests in various parts of the region).

Powerhouse of India:In 2001, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) did a preliminary ranking study of the hydroelectric potential of various river basins in the country and Brahmaputra basin was given the highest marks and 168 projects with a total installed capacity of 63,328 MW were identified. The push for large hydropower projects in the Northeast was primarily a process driven by the Central government till the gradual liberalisation of hydropower policies allowed states to invite private players.




No of Scheme
Installed capacity (MW)
No of Scheme
No of schemes (MW)
Installed capacity
No of Schemes
total schemes
total installed capacity
Arunachal Pradesh
[The above table has been culled from Annual Report 2011-12 of Ministry of Power]
Source: The Hindu, Guwahati, June 2, 2012
The country’s ‘future powerhouse’ has been proactively used for the region since the Northeast Business Summit in Mumbai in July 2002. The 50,000 MW Hydro initiative launched by the Ministry of Power in 2003 also has a major focus on the Northeast. The ‘Pasighat Proclamation on Power’ adopted in January 2007 at the North East Council’s Sectoral Summit on the Power Sector identifies the region’s hydropower potential as one of the priority areas to contribute to the country’s energy security. Among the north eastern states Arunachal Pradesh is considered to be the richest in hydroelectric power potential.

Bending rulesThe World Commission on Dams has a guidelines for construction of mega hydro projects, which includes comprehensive and participative assessments of water and energy needs and options for meeting these needs, developers held legally accountable to negotiated agreements with affected communities, free, prior  and informed consent of indigenous communities, full access to relevant project information, feasibility studies to include sensitivity analyses of potential cost and time overruns and shortfalls in production, agreement at the design stage of participative monitoring and adaptive management procedures to be followed through project lifetime.

Large hydroelectric projects need to pass through mandatory ‘environmental clearance’ procedures, administered by the MoEF, to evaluate their viability on environmental and social grounds. If the project is inside or within 10 km radius of wildlife protected areas it needs ‘forest clearance’ from MoEF and approval from the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). A key feature of the environmental clearance process is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, which is a critical document aiding the decision-making. It is important to note that this is the only study under current clearance mechanisms to include a mandatory component on social impact assessment. What about the quality of these EIA reports for dams in NortheastIndia? Let us, for example, look at certain biodiversity aspects of the EIA reports. Dr. AnwaruddinChoudhury, renowned naturalist from Northeast India, has examined EIA reports of at least five large hydroelectric projects – Kameng, Lower Subansiri, Middle Siang, Tipaimukh, and Dibang – and finds them all poor on wildlife aspects. A common feature of his introductory comments is: “contains innumerable (instances of) incorrect data, unverified and superfluous statements, and above all reveals the casual approach,” referring to the power companies and EIA consultants. “It is shocking that mega hydel projects in the northeast are being granted clearances based on such reports. How can we decide the fate of some of the country’s most important wildlife habitats based on sub-standard impact assessment studies,” he added.

For a proof of the low-quality of these reports: the EIA for the 1,000 MW Siyom project lists five bird species in an area which has over 300 and even in this short list has one which is non-existent. Another EIA for the 600 MW Kameng project reclassifies carnivores such as the red panda, pangolins and porcupines as herbivores while the EIA for 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri lists 55 species of fish in a river which has at least 156.

There is lack of a holistic impact assessment ascertaining the impacts on ecology, wildlife, flora and fauna, other risk factor such as dam break analysis, seismic impacts, and impact of reduced flow based on the four seasons and in both upstream and downstream portion etc; the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Report has not assessed the impact of the project on the indigenous tribal population, their displacement from their natural habitat and social, economic, cultural impact.

The large dams’ juggernaut promises to be the biggest ‘development’ intervention in this ecologically and geologically fragile, seismically active and culturally sensitive region in the coming days.

Mistaken classificationsThe mega-projects in Northeast are being sold with the notion that because of low population density there is little displacement as compared to other parts of the country. The fact that it is difficult to make an area habitable or cultivable in such a difficult terrain.

The impacts of dams on resources under common use (e.g. pasture lands), vital to livelihoods of local communities, is also a major missing link in impact assessment of projects. Shifting agriculture (jhum) is a dominant traditional land use in the hills of Northeast India and plays a critical role in the livelihoods of people, maintaining agricultural biodiversity and providing food security. Increasing pressures on land have resulted in the shortening of jhum cycles (the length of the fallow period between two cropping phases), thus impacting the ecological viability of this farming system. The submergence of land by hydel projects will further shorten the jhum cycle and enhance the pressure on the surrounding areas, thus affecting the environment and the livelihoods of jhum-dependent communities.

Another fact that has been ignored is the states have small populations of culturally sensitive indigenous communities. Comparing their magnitude of displacement with displacement in other parts of the country would be a mistake. “The ‘small displacement’ argument to sell these projects as being benign needs to be confronted.  For instance, the entire population of the Idu Mishmi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh is around 9,500 and at least 17 large hydel projects have been planned in their area.

Dams and Indigenous People in NE India
The government and proponents of large dams in the Northeast paint a win-win picture: exploiting the country's largest perennial water system to produce plentiful power for the nation, economic benefits to states through power export to other parts of the country, flood control and small displacement of local communities. The North-eastern region has been identified as India's 'future powerhouse' and 168 large dams of a cumulative capacity of 63,328 MW are planned.

The government sometimes use false information in the construction of dams, for example for the construction of Lower Subansiri  (2000Mw) in Arunachal Pradesh the government says that it will effect only 31 families, but according to Walter Fernandes they will be no less than 700 families, also they said that it will cover only 70 SqKms upstream, but expert says that it will cover at least 3436 ha of forest land and wildlife habitat area.

Free, Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) of the indigenous groups has not been implemented and even implemented their voices has sometimes not been heard and ignored. There are numerous cases of violation of indigenous peoples rights with clear cut violation of their community rights over their land and resources. The UN  Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) adopted in 2007 clearly outlined that all indigenous peoples have the right to control, manage and develop their land, territories and resources for their survival and for their ancestors. However, the continued onslaught by dam developers only constitutes a violation of indigenous peoples' right to develop and determine their rights to define their developmental priorities and needs in accordance to their wishes and aspiration to ensure their survival, sustenance of their ecosystem and its wise use.

The violation of the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), again outlined in the UNDRIP is further testified by non provision of project related documents, such as the Detailed Project Report, the Environment Impact Assessment and the Environment Management Plan. Also often, there is absence of environment Impact Assessment Report to determine the nature and extent of the impacts of the projects. In all the projects studied, the project developer has failed to conduct any satisfactory consultation with the people in affected villages and the people been not been informed of the adverse impacts of the project.

There is very little reference to progressive guidelines that respect the rights of indigenous peoples and other progressive principles concerning mega dams and protection of their land and resources which they depend for their physical and spiritual survival.

The huge number of big and small dams has the potential to damage the rich biodiversity and eco-system of the state considered to be one of the global biodiversity hotspots, result in huge displacement of people in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, increase the risks of flash floods and environmental disasters in a particularly active seismic zone, and induce conditions for further conflict situations in the region. Many of these effects have already been seen, with some projects almost near completion, and the damage done in the past five years is starkly noticeable in the state. The huge inflow of big hydroelectricity projects have in a way destabilized many of the tribal societies in the region, affecting traditional community responses to floods and making them more vulnerable to the varied extremities of nature.

  1. The fears of the tribal and their concern about land, territory, natural resources and the safety and survival of culture should be adequately addressed.
  2. The effected communities must be engage and compensation packages must be drawn up by those responsive to the cultural and social mores of the people.
  3. Public hearings should be on the monitored by a group of indigenous representatives, and the process of bidding by private companies should be made transparent.
  4. As we are in the 21stcentury world, instead of destroying the indigenous land, forest. community etc.the alternate source of energy like wind, solar should be used.

  • Damming the Northeast – Subir Bhaumik
  • The Hindu, Guwahati Edition, June 2, 2012
  • Dams In North-East: For Whom? - Devika Mittal.
  • Hydroelectricity projects on the north eastern rivers are inviting protests by local communities who want development but not at the cost of livelihood and environment -  GOI Monitor.
  • The Ecologist Asia, January March 2003
  • Damming Northeast India - By NeerajVagholikar & Partha J. Das
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