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In Arunachal's Dibang Valley, Chasing Hydropower Projects Could End in Disaster

Through financial compensation & forceful coercion, authorities have been able to quieten dissenting voices.

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Climate Change
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For the past 15 years, successive central and state governments have touted Arunachal Pradesh to become the country’s “powerhouse”, with various estimates about the state’s hydropower generating capacity being reported as being between 58,000 megawatts (MW) to 25,962 MW.

While very little of that potential has been realised so far, there has been no let-down on part of governments to pursue that potential.

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Hydropower Projects Not Used at Full Capacity

Even though the entire state’s peak power demand during the summer months is around 200 MW, the state currently has three mega dams with installed capacities to produce over 600 MW of power. None of these hydropower projects — the Ranganadi, Pare, and Kameng — currently produce at full capacity.

The dated power transmission network of the state, coupled with the heavy annual monsoon rains and landslide-prone mountainous terrain, means that they are constantly damaged, disrupting the electricity supply to towns and villages. While efforts are being made to upgrade the transmission network in the state, it continues to be an uphill task.

Despite these pressing challenges, the push to build more dams across the state’s five major river basins remains. Successive governments have rightfully argued that production of electricity can help generate funds for a state devoid of revenue sources through its sale to the regional and national power grids.

Over the years, state governments have entered into agreements with private and public sector companies to build dams across Arunachal Pradesh. At one point, the state had signed memorandums of agreement with various power developers to build over 160 hydropower projects.

Upcoming Hydropower Projects Raise Environmental Concern

In recent years, state governments have scrapped the agreements for a few of the projects for failing to even begin preliminary work on them. Authorities blame obstructions in obtaining environmental and forest clearances from the Centre for the delays, along with local opposition to several of the projects. From the mid-aughts to the mid-2010s, concerns raised by environmentalists and activists in some parts of the state had impacted the government’s plans.

In May 2016, attempts to curb protests led on by a number of factors including opposition to plans for Tawang Stage 1 (600 MW) and Stage 2 (800 MW) projects reached a head and led to the deaths of two people, including a Buddhist monk, in Tawang near the sensitive Sino-India border.

In Tawang district, there were plans to build 11 hydropower projects with installed capacity of over 2,000 MW. Owing to litigation and the intervention of the National Green Tribunal, that number has fallen with the green court scrapping the 780 MW Nyamjang Chu project.

Elsewhere, in the Siang belt, opposition from the Adi and Galo people have been successful in thwarting plans to build at least 28 mega projects on the Siang river and its tributaries.

Through the use of financial compensation and forceful coercion, authorities have been able to quieten dissenting voices. However, those voices never quite remained shut and a steady stream of opposing noises kept streaming out.

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Authorities Open Fire to Curb Protests in Dibang

In the Dibang river basin, however, things were quite different.

For the Dibang Valley and Lower Dibang Valley districts, agreements for 14 mega hydropower projects have been signed. This is also the area where opposition to the government’s projects had been the loudest.

Considering that two of the single biggest hydropower projects — the 3,097 MW Etalin project and the 3,000 MW Dibang Multipurpose Project (DMP) — are to be built in these two districts, it is of little surprise that the indigenous Idu-Mishmi and Adi people of the area directly affected by them would feel the need to raise their voices.

From 2007 to 2011, protests at public hearings and road blockades led by the masses opposing government plans to build these mega dams had become commonplace.
Through financial compensation & forceful coercion, authorities have been able to quieten dissenting voices.

Anti-dam graffiti on a road. 

Twitter/@TheRiseofDibang

Those protests, however, stepped on the path of death in October 2011 when, under the pretext of controlling possible communal riots, the Lower Dibang Valley district administration ordered security forces to enter a Durga Puja pandal in the district headquarters of Roing and began firing, resulting in nine people being injured.

Additionally, a number of residents who had long opposed government plans to build mega hydropower projects in the district were also labelled as Maoists and had to go to court to clear their names.

The incident left almost everyone scarred. The actions of the authorities worked well to curb the many dissenting voices.

Until recently, the voices of dissent had remained silent. A shift began to take place when the central government gave the green light to the Dibang Multipurpose Project and the Etalin project between 2019 and 2022.

The go-ahead for the Etalin project in particular drew sharp criticism from noted conservationists from across the country this year.

And while protests on the ground in the Dibang belt had died down, voices of opposition have slowly begun to gain traction in recent years. A collective of voices came together to form the Dibang Resistance consisting of artists, researchers, and veteran activists from Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

Cutting across community lines and working in tandem with the state chapter of the Fridays For Future as well as other activists in Arunachal Pradesh, the Dibang Resistance has been attempting to raise awareness about the environmental damages that the two major hydropower projects — the DMP and Etalin — could have on the ecology of the larger Dibang Valley.

The Dibang Resistance group ended up gaining notoriety in February this year when one of its leaders was questioned and accused of being a conspirator in the defacing of a state-sponsored art project that commemorated the journey of Arunachal Pradesh's inclusion into the Indian nation.

Although opposition to the DMP and Etalin projects have found a voice in the online space, the resistance on the ground has not risen to the same levels as it was at before 2012.

Through financial compensation & forceful coercion, authorities have been able to quieten dissenting voices.

CItizens protesting against dams.

Twitter/@TheRiseofDibang

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Opposition Against Project Has Not Yet Died Down

However, there is hope for the optimists.

In July, the central government's Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) opened up to concerns raised by affected communities on the ground at a public meeting to “examine the content of all the representations made against the proposed” Etalin Hydro Electric Project.

Members of the Adi and Idi-Mishmi communities, as well as scientific experts working in the Dibang Valley, raised their concerns about the environmental, social, and procedural impact that the Etalin project could have with the FAC.

Village-level workers, including panchayat leaders (former and present), say that opposition to the dams is mostly restricted in the online space and that, since those immediately affected by the projects have agreed to the financial compensation offered by the authorities, there aren’t too many dissenting voices left on the ground.

But with the rise of younger voices opposing government plans to build large dams, those voices have been growing louder.

(Ranju Dodum is a journalist who writes about North East India.)

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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