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Anti-dam activists had thought they had won when the Bharatiya Janata Party campaigned on an anti-big dam manifesto, but the new government of the same party continues supporting big dams, earning the ire of activists

Siang river in Pasighat

Siang river in Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh. The main stem of the Brahmaputra is called Siang in the state (Image by Chandan Kumar Duarah)

Locals in Arunachal Pradesh are resisting more dam building on Siang, the main stem of the Brahmaputra. In a meeting on “Policy Dialogue for Governance of the Brahmaputra River” held in Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, in November 2016, anti-dam leaders faced off against state government officials and some experts who favoured dam building on Siang.

Known as the Yarlung Zangbo in China, the Brahmaputra, enters Arunachal Pradesh near Gelling from where it is known as Siang. The total length of Siang River is 294 kilometres until it meets the Dibang and Lohit River at Sadia in Assam. Since Assam too is affected, civil society groups and individuals from that downstream state have been opposing the construction of big dams there as well. Their appeals to different authorities not to give environmental clearances for the dams being built in the four districts of Siang, East Siang, Upper Siang and West Siang of Arunachal have gone unheard.

“We will protect our land, and fight for it!”

The Siang People’s Forum (SPF) and Lower Siang Dam Affected Peoples’ Forum (LSDAPF), who have been spearheading the anti-mega dam movement in the Siang valley, had appealed to the previous central government, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and also to its chairperson, Sonia Gandhi. They have now appealed to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and in a memorandum to Prakash Javadekar, who was then the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), the SPF declared that the four districts would not compromise on their demand of scrapping all mega dams over the Siang river.

Nonetheless the big dams are still being built. While construction on some has been halted by the courts, others continue. Vijay Taram, an anti-dam activist with the Forum for Siang Dialogue, said, “We are not against small dams and dams on tributaries of Siang”, but “big dams will spoil our lives and livelihood. If completed they will flood all fertile agricultural lands, destroying the flora and fauna of entire Siang belt and displace thousands of people of Siang valley. Tribal men will lose their traditional hunting grounds as well as the link to their culture.”

“We got our land neither from British or Indians,” he said. “We owned it from the time of our forefathers. We will protect our land, and fight for it!”

Massive impact on ecology and livelihoods

Most residents of the Siang districts are from the indigenous communities Adi and Galo. Twenty-three of their villages are on the banks of the Siang river, and will be directly affected by the project. Rice is the staple food of Adi and Galo people and rice fields are situated along the banks of the Siang. The planned dams will submerge these fields, threatening the very survival of these tribes. Anti-dam movement leaders say that their right to free, prior and informed consent (as enshrined by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) is not only being ignored, but deliberately avoided.

A house belonging to Adi tribe in Pasighat

A house belonging to an Adi family in Pasighat (Image by Chandan Kumar Duarah)

The main dam being built across Siang will hold 10 billion cubic metres of water on completion. It will generate between 10,000 and 12,000 MW, making it the largest hydroelectric dam in India.

A report commissioned by the Central Water Commission noted, “Siang Lower HEP (2,700 MW), Siang Upper Stage II (3,750 MW) and Siang Upper Stage I (6,000 MW) are planned to cover almost the entire length of the Siang in India. 208.5 km of the river will be converted into one continuous reservoir as all three projects are planned back-to-back without any free flowing intermediate river stretch.”

Once the dams are built, the Siang basin will never be the same again. Studies by the Central Water Commission point out that the 44 dams planned within India will change the natural flow of the water in 29 rivers and streams. As of now, these rivers and streams stretch over 514 kilometres. Once the dams are built, all of it will be altered — 353 kilometres will turn into reservoirs, and close to 161 kilometres will be converted into tunnels.

This would inevitably change the basin’s 15,000 square kilometres of forest. The Siang basin is home to 11 different kinds of forests, 1,349 plant species and 1,197 animal and fish species. The official assessment of the dams’ cumulative impact predicts that much of this wildlife will migrate, some perhaps forever. Fish species too would find life more difficult once the natural flow of water changes.

Development, not dams

In three districts of Siang, not a single resident was informed about the dam plans. They still do not know how many dams are being planned in their region. They do not want dams, but they do want development of the area and a good market where they can sell their agricultural produce.

What they fear is the kind of flash floods they have seen earlier. The Siang flooded in June 2000, killing at least 30 people. More than 100 went missing.

David Gao, an anti-dam activist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Rajiv Gandhi University, says construction of this mega dam might lead to consequences which will harm the indigenous people. Unfortunately for the people, they do not know who to turn to for help. The position of the political parties has changed over time.

The changing promises of political parties

People of Siang were disheartened by the U-turn on the issue by the NDA after it came to power at the centre in 2014. Before the elections, now Prime Minister Narendra Modi had won the support of anti-dam activists after he stated at a rally in Pasighat that he would prefer smaller hydro power projects and honour the sentiments of the region’s people. But after the elections his government has cleared the construction of the 3,000 MW Dibang Hydro Electric Project in Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh.

A Member of the Local Assembly from the BJP, Ashok Singhal, who earlier led an anti-dam organisation, now supports dam-building on the Brahmaputra after winning elections in the Dhekiajuli constituency in Assam. “Dams are useful for Assam”, he said.

See: New Assam government vows to oppose big dams

Fighting at the public hearings

Public hearings over the dams have now become signs of contention. On April 16, 2016, police fired live rounds in the air and used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse activists who had sought to block access to the public hearing scheduled for April 17, 18 and 20. Two protestors were reportedly injured and several of them assaulted, beaten and humiliated. The hearing itself was cancelled the next day when people came out in the streets in hordes and anti-dam activists reportedly burnt the vehicles and site used for the public hearing in retaliation to intimidation from armed individuals deployed by Jaypee Arunachal Power Limited, which is building the dam.

Local opposition to the dam construction had already forced the state government and Jaypee Arunachal Power Limited to postpone public hearings three times in the past.

Two anti-dam activists flanked by a dam supporter, from left to right: Vijay Taram, Tomi Ete, and David Gao (Image by Chandan Kumar Duarah)

Two anti-dam activists flanked by a dam supporter, from left to right: Vijay Taram, Tomi Ete, and David Gao (Image by Chandan Kumar Duarah)

This does not mean that dams are without local supporters. Local government leaders and experts say that dams not only produce electricity but also help in regulation of flood. Tomi Ete, a retired Chief Secretary, who also served as the Commissioner of the Public Works Department and Public Health Department suggested that Arunachal Pradesh has limited resources for development and the protestors need to see what is possible for the next generation. Others have suggested that since China has built dams on the river in Tibet, India should do the same in a form of a “dam-building race”.

These arguments played out in the open during the November 2016 meeting in Itanagar, with those proposing to move forward with the dam being opposed by those who thought their cost – on livelihood and the ecology – was too high. As both groups remain steadfast, it is unsure of what will happen in the future, but it is unlikely that this conflict will go away.

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