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Outlook Online

Issue Dated February 7, 2000


six mega-projects in the northeast burst the bubble that eco-awareness is growing in india

By Nitin A. Gokhale

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The proposed location of te dam: back to square one

Even as resistance grows to large dams worldwide, at least six big multipurpose projects are being planned in the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, a forerunner to these dams in Lohit district of the state was conceived exactly 30 years ago - much before Narmada Sagar became a big issue in the country. The original proposal was to construct a single 257-metre-high rock-fill dam near Gerukamukh on the Assam-Arunachal border. The amended proposal is to construct at least six dams. It is, of course, a misnomer to say that the Subansiri-Dihang dam is one huge project. Actually, there would be six multipurpose dams, on the rivers Dihang and Subansiri, put together in the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh (see table)

Dihang and Subansiri rivers originate in China. They enter India in the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh and finally merge into the Brahmaputra. In fact, experts say that most of the water that flows into the Brahmaputra is contributed by these two tributaries. The original idea was therefore to dam these two rivers in order to control the Brahmaputra’s floods that ravage large parts of Assam during the monsoons.

But in the 1980s, the proposal was stiffly opposed by the then Arunachal Pradesh government, headed by Gegong Apang, as the chief minister was less than willing to let villages in his constituencies get submerged. Under the original proposal, the town of Daporijo and 13 villages with an area of 193 sq km were to be consumed by the rising waters. The population of these human settlements was about 8,000 people. And yet, because Apang was all-powerful in the state, he kept opposing the project.

Apang’s ouster from power after 19 years of continuous rule in 1999, combined with a modification in the original proposal, has now led to a revival of interest in the project. In the 1970s, when the Dihang and Subansiri dams were first conceived, the preliminary investigations were handled by the Brahmaputra Flood Control Commission. In 1982, the job was handed over to the newly-formed Brahmaputra Board, which completed the study in a year. Offices were built and infrastructure put up at Gerukamukh on the Assam-Arunachal border to implement the project but once the protests from Arunachal became stronger, everything was abandoned and the buildings and machinery were left to rust because for a decade-and-a-half since then, no decision was taken until last year.

Power minister P.R. Kumaramangalam in fact announced in Guwahati last December that the survey work on what’s supposed to be the world’s largest hydroelectric power project, with a generation capacity of 21,000 MW, had begun. A detailed project report for the first of the three dams on the Subansiri is expected to be over by March.

Says V.K. Kaundinya, Brahmaputra Board secretary: "Under the new proposals, the locations of the dams have been chosen with such care that there will be no submergence of important towns." Earlier, for instance, the district headquarter of Daporijo was under threat of submergence but now with the new site having been chosen upstream, near a village called Menga, the threat has vanished.

Brahmaputra Board officials feel that these two projects together will not only be able to meet the power needs of the Northeast but the country can also export power to neighbouring countries. "The entire project could take up to 15 years to be completed but once it’s through, even the Eastern Power Grid could be fed from here," a top Brahmaputra Board official told Outlook. Moreover, the benefits of flood control in areas downstream, mainly in Assam, are immense, these officials say. Kaundinya, for instance, reveals: "Both in the Subansiri and Brahmaputra basins, flood moderation will be substantial."

Though there’ve been a few voices of protest from Assam- and Arunachal-based environmental groups, the big guns of the anti-dam movement are yet to take up the issue in right earnest. Says Tadi Taloh, a Pasighat-based environment activist: "There is hardly any awareness about the big names who are against the dams, none has bothered to make an issue out of this."

But that’s not quite true. Environmentalist and editor of eco-affairs magazine Sanctuary, Bittu Sahgal, knows of the proposed dams. When contacted in Mumbai, he told Outlook: "Yes, I’m aware of the big dams that are coming up. It’s a pity that the decision-makers think that bigger the project, bigger are the returns. They do it without going into the dangers of ecological havoc that such projects will cause in verdant territories like Arunachal. Also, has anyone considered that the Northeast is a high-seismic zone? A concerted effort is surely needed to stop these projects."

Some in Guwahati say virgin forest with timber worth crores of rupees would be destroyed when the construction of these dams begins in right earnest. Many experts also fear that the Northeast being a highly earthquake-prone zone, chances of high-intensity quakes after these dams come up increase manifold.

Curiously, though, there are groups which actually want the multipurpose projects to come up. Says Arun Sarma, Rajya Sabha MP belonging to the ruling Asom Gana Parishad: "The implementation of these projects with foreign investment would not only bring revolutionary socio-economic changes in the Northeast but will also be able to meet the power shortage in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, UP and MP. The hydro power generated by these projects would be the cheapest in the country." Sarma estimates the cost of construction of three dams on Subansiri to be in the region of Rs 14,000 crore. The Subansiri Dam Project Action Committee estimates that nearly 35,000 people will get employment in these projects. "The projects would increase economic activity and will also develop local energy-intensive industries," it says.

Both sides thus have their arguments and counter-arguments. In the months and years to come, the debate over the efficacy or otherwise of building big dams would be joined in right earnest even as the government prepares to go ahead with the huge projects.

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