Dams as Damocles’s Sword : Assam’s Rural Masses in a State of Shock

October 27, 2010

An article by Prakash Mahanta, Asomiya Protidin, with a Foreword by Hiren Gohain.

Foreword by Hiren Gohain

In 1950 as the Great Earthquake was rocking Assam like a bear shaking a baby it comes upon with its paws, terrified people were transfixed by an unearthly noise, as though the the end of the world (Pralaya) had come.. It was an entire hill collapsing and crashing into the Lohit river and completely damming it up, drying up the river bed from that point downwards for three days. On the third day the pressure of accumulating water shattered the natural dam and thundered down in a mountaneous wave and swept everything in its path on both banks. Both population and communications were sparse in those days,and nobody knew exactly how many unfortunate victims lost their lives. In 1897, and again in 1950, two devastating earthquakes with the intensity of 8’6 on the Richter scale had caused immense upheavals in the landscape and destruction of human life and property over a huge area in Assam and what is now Arunachal Pradesh. People here think another such earthquake is round the corner.

Now the central power ministry has launched an ambitious plan to harness 60,000 Megawatts of electricity by building dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries in Arunachal Pradesh. 168 MOUs have already been signed, and most casual Environmental Assessment reports have been drawn up after perfunctory surveys. Apart from the terrible consequences of earthquakes on dams in this seismically active and geologically unstable area, the drastic changes in the flow regime brought about by dams are bound to decimate the sources of livelihood of lakhs of peasants on both banks of rivers,fishermen and people collecting driftwood and floating logs in the rainy season.

The severe reduction in normal volume of water in winter as the water is stored upstream in dams also puts an end to busy river traffic. Hence for nearly a decade people of the basin areas downstream and tribals in traditional home territories in Arunachal Pradesh have been deeply agitated over the matter. After 2008, as the unprecedented devastation caused by a much smaller dam built by NEEPCO on the Ranganadi river alerted everybody in the area, the agitations gained momentum and strength, and the Government of Assam and the NHPC were compelled to jointly commission an expert committee to enquire into the allegations. When the Expert Committee submitted a voluminous report it was rejected outright by NHPC without even a cursory reading. There was a Public hearing with Central Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh himself in the chair and at the end of the seminar he assured the assembled public including representatives of many of the anti-dam movements from the affected areas. The Minister assured the assembly he would inform the Prime Minister of the depth of public resentment against the dams under construction and in the pipeline. He further said he would recommend a halt to the programmes until a thorough study is made regarding the seismological and environmental sustainability of the projects. He appears to have kept his promise. The Prime Minister has convened a high-level meeting of an inter-ministerial group to examine the question on October 13.

But on the 8th of October a seminar of high-profile experts from Roorkee, IIT Gauhati Gauhati University as well as top technocrats of Assam government, Assam State Electricity Board, National Hydel Power Corporation(NHPC) and NEEPCO was hastily rigged up in Guwahati, and apparently some sort of a consensus was reached recommending construction of those high-risk dams and in tandem with it, environmental and other studies as well as appropriate steps to ensure security of lives and livelihood of the people. This is a self-contradictory recommendation as the risks from the projects overwhelm any proposals to obviate them. The seminar has obviously been banged up to send a certain message to the Prime Minister’s meeting.

Below we translate a report by Sri Prakash Mahanta of Asomiya Protidin on the
politics of dams. Sri Mahanta has been in the forefront among investigative journalists
who have exposed the various ramifications of the state-corporate conspiracy against the people.

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Article by Prakash Mahanta, Asomiya Protidin, October 2010

What is the secret of the furious politicking behind the dams?

Such big dams,once thought to be Aladin’s lamp for progress and prosperity, have caused massive damage to the environment and havoc in the life of millions of people all over the world,and advanced countries of the world are already searching for alternative sources of cheap and clean power. Even India which proposes to invest more than one lakh crores for tapping the hydel potential of the Northeast has decided to decommission three big dams in Chattisgarh. That makes it clear that whether in Assam or in any other state of North-east the Government of India is interested only in exploiting the natural resources of the region and not in protecting lives and livelihood of the people here.

Had it been otherwise before launching the ambitious project of harnessing the hydel potential of rivers in Arunachal Pradesh in the sub-montane region to the North of Assam they would have studied with some care how these mega projects might affect the geo-physical conditions,and how in turn those might have an adverse impact on communities on the banks and lower down,and whether these projects are sustainable at all. Not only were those essential tasks overlooked,the government ignored the opinion given with one voice by the mass organizations opposed to the dams,the experts of the state and the all-party House Committee deputed by the state legislature of Assam on the matter has been practically brushed aside and the plans to complete work on the projects are being executed with unseemly dash and hurry.

Harping on the familiar refrain that these 50,000 MW of energy are crucial for India’s development they have side-stepped the question: Development for whom?

And obscuring this vital question on the 8th October a so-called convention of experts, scientists and engineers and high-ranking officers of the NHPC and the state government was held at extraordinarily short notice at the Vivekananda Centre. In that so-called convention academicians known for their pronounced bias in favour of the Lower Subonsiri Dam like Dr Arup Sharma of IIT Guwahati and Dr D.K.Pal of Roorkee IIT and a few other selected experts were roped in to express support for the dam in a conspiratorial manner.

It is for the first time that the people of Assam have heard the name of the body convening the convention. Ex General Secretaries’ Forum of Post Graduate Students of Gauhati University. It appears that not all the former General Secretaries of Gauhati University PG Students’ Union are on this body,and many of those who are have no idea of the terrible impact the small Ranganadi hydel project is already having on the people of Dhemaji and Lakshimpur districts.

Certain powerful interests appear to be pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Otherwise the convention would not have given prominence to Roorkee experts who had prepared reports on the Lower Subonsiri project without careful and rigorous study of the geo-physical conditions and geological history of the region. The convention should have given much greater importance to the expert committee that the NHPC and the government had been forced to form following the hue and cry all over the state on revelation of the grave dangers to the population of the state that has lately dawned on the people. Experts on whom the peoples’ movements of the affected region relied have also been kept out. Only three out of the eight-member expert committee formed by the NHPC and the government were invited.,considering them more amenable to persuasion. Actually those three were not involved in the work of the committee on geo-physical and seismological aspects of the project. The presence of such experts would have prevented the emergence of a false consensus.

People in various parts of Assam have already had very bitter experience of the so-called ‘benefits’ of hydel-power dams from Ranganadi, Kurishu(in border region between Assam and Bhutan), Kopili,and Karbi-Langpi projects. Hence they are unlikely to be persuaded by such a rigged consensus. And the world-wide resistance against such dams as well as the decade-long struggle of the downstream people against such dams in Assam cannot be over-ruled by such false consensus artificially created. The Prime Minister himself had laid the foundation of the Tipaimukh dam and NHPC had started work on war-footing on it. But as a result of concerted resistance from the people of the Barak valley of Bangladesh the project had to be scrapped. Why was no attempt made then to convince the popular opposition through the services of Roorkee experts?

NHPC had announced after the tumultuous popular agitation against the LSHP Dam that they would accept the findings of the study group formed with members from IIT Guwahati, Gauhati University and Gauhati University. Now that the study group or expert committee has submitted its voluminous report following painstaking if partial study (partial because of time limitation),the NHPC has chosen to reject it and continue with the construction of the controversial dam and rope in more pliable experts.

Bypassing the report of the Legislature committee it appealed to Delhi,and Jairam Ramesh the Environment and Forest Minister attended a public hearing in the ITA cultural complex. He realized the intensity of the public opposition to these projects as voiced by leaders of anti-dam mass organizations,impartial scientists, and concerned citizens. In his report to the Prime Minister submitted on September 16 he made three points:

(1) Elaborate and rigorous study of the geo-physical conditions and potential adverse impact on the life of the people in the river basins and elsewhere of all the hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh should be carried out, pending which all construction work on them should be stopped;

(2)A review committee should be formed to study the undesirable impact of the Kurishu,Karbi-Langpi and Kopilee and Ranganadi dams and devise measures to offset it.

(3)The Prime Minister himself should take a decision on the Lower Subansiri Project keeping in view the apprehensions of the people and opinion of experts.

Ramesh’s report to the P.M. not only gave recognition and legitimacy to the decade-long public opposition to the dams but also for the first time seemed to offer some hope of reassuring the people of Assam that appropriate action would be taken. But the Big Dam lobby and the Power ministry are reported to be exerting pressure on the Prime Minister to scuttle the recommendations. Ultimately the interest of the Big Dam lobby,i.e. corporate houses interested in power generation and distribution, seems to be prevailing over the genuine views of science,public opinion and welfare of the people. But such a conspiratorial conclave organized in desperate hurry,cannot overturn the popular democratic consensus in Assam and the momentum of a 10-year old popular movement. Delhi too must understand it. Nobody is saying that dams are not necessary for development. But the circumstances outlined above assuredly negate the decision to implement the projects in question.

1 Comment »

One Response to “Dams as Damocles’s Sword : Assam’s Rural Masses in a State of Shock”

  1. P.Subhashini Says:
    November 8th, 2010 at 12:50

    Assam People have a right to life and the fisher folk also have a right to livelihood which would be in jeopardy if all the proposed dams in Arunachal pradesh are constructed.Why is this mass-csale murder of people is permitted by intellectuals of Assam who have been educted at public expense and who have a duty to safeguard public interests just like the old patriots used to fight for freedom from the clutches of the British Rule.
    Prof.T.Shivaji Rao of Gitam university has put up several articles on Development without destruction.One of the articles relates to how the so-called experts cheated the Union Government and the Courts on the safety of Tehri Dam which was rejected for several reasons like extreme floods and catastrophic seismic accelerations expected in Himalayan regions which lead to collapse of these Big Dams during their life times.So look before you leap is an ancient proverb but to-day’s business lobby mesmerise some of the academicians to put their thumb impressions on the tailor-made reports on the safety of these dams that are bound to burst and cauve havoc to lives of people yet to become cvoters in this democratic country where people have to realise that Eternal Vigilance is the price you have to pay for Democracy.Mrs.Indira Gandhi also realised that before the contractor s and engineers lobby who want to make the maximum profit withibn minimum time at any cost,the Heads of states and the bureaucrats are forced to bend their heads with the result that the progeny will have to suffer and we cannot be silent spectators at this naked rape of Nature.see the following web sites for more details on safety of dams:
    http://tshivajirao.blogspot.com/2008/05/tehri-dam-is-time-bomb-act-even-now-to.html
    http://www.gitam.edu/cos/env/tehri/tehridam.html
    http://books.google.co.in/books?id=IbQFbq3_wCsC&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91&dq=T.Shivaji+Rao,Tehri+Dam&source=bl&ots=8I7jfsOSgn&sig=-A51BxgX6aahZpsZoiNL_INQeF4&hl=en&ei=yijYTPziA8q3cMrbpdQL&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&sqi=2&ved=0CEsQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=T.Shivaji%20Rao%2CTehri%20Dam&f=false
    Mrs.P.Subhashini.Visakhapatnam

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