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DAMS AND THE DAMNED

- Growth at what cost?

In September 2010, a large public meeting was held in Guwahati to discuss the impact of large hydroelectric projects in the Northeast. In attendance was Jairam Ramesh, then the minister of environment and forests in the government of India. Ramesh heard that the people of Assam were worried that the hundred and more dams being planned in Arunachal Pradesh would reduce water-flows, increase the chance of floods, and deplete fish stocks downstream. Representatives from Arunachal had their own concerns — the dams to be built in their state, they said, would displace local communities, submerge valuable forests, and be exposed to the risk of earthquakes. Activists told the minister that the Central government seemed set on making the people of Arunachal a pawn in the race between India and China.

After the meeting, the environment minister wrote to the prime minister that, in his view, “some of the concerns that were expressed [at the Guwahati meeting] cannot be dismissed lightly. They must be taken on board and every effort made to engage different sections of society in Assam particularly and in other Northeastern states as well. Right now the feeling … appears to be that “mainland India” is exploiting the Northeast hydel resources for its benefit, while the costs of this exploitation will be borne by the people of [the] Northeast”.

Jairam Ramesh’s judicious, sensible recommendations attracted hysterical condemnation from a New Delhi newspaper wedded to the doctrine of “growth at all costs”. The newspaper ran an editorial accusing India’s excellent and extremely well-qualified environment minister of “gadding about looking for more fashionable causes to sponsor”. It charged him with seeking to “destabilize an entire region’s development”.

A few days later, the newspaper ran another editorial demanding quick clearance of all dam projects in Arunachal Pradesh. It claimed the “environment ministry has been careless and unwise in its approach to the various relatively small (sic) projects that have been planned for Arunachal in an attempt to increase the region’s prosperity and integration into the rest of the economy”. Warming to the theme, the editorial insinuated that by keeping Arunachal “backward”, Ramesh was merely playing into the hands of the Chinese.

In fact, it was the dams, rather than their stoppage, that threatened to destabilize the region. Of all states in the Northeast, only Arunachal Pradesh has not yet had an insurgency, in part because of sensible policies designed by the anthropologist, Verrier Elwin, in the 1950s and 1960s, which protected tribal rights in land and forests and kept missionaries (of all faiths) out of the state. Ramesh’s own proposals made sound economic, social and political sense. The dams would largely benefit cities in the plains, while displacing local farmers, herders, and fisherfolk. Besides, the Eastern Himalaya have India’s richest reserves of biodiversity; they are also peculiarly earthquake-prone. Nature, as well as culture, mandated that proposals to build large dams be treated cautiously. Already there was growing popular discontent on the issue. Transparent public hearings were urgently called for, so that the people of Arunachal, rather than some excessively business-friendly newspaper in New Delhi, could decide for themselves what would best bring them “prosperity” and “integration”.

Two recent reports, by correspondents very knowledgeable about the Northeast, bear witness to the wisdom of Ramesh’s warnings. Writing in The Hindu last month, Sushanta Talukdar notes that “the Centre has identified the ecologically fragile [state of] Arunachal Pradesh as the powerhouse of the country”. One hundred and thirty-three dam projects have been allotted to the state so far, of which 125 are in the private sector. The annual report for 2011-12 of the ministry of power has proposed that 57,672 megawatts of power be generated in the Northeast, of which 46,977 are to be generated in Arunachal alone. The social and environmental dislocations this will cause had, the correspondent reported, led to deep resentment among the Arunachalis. Thus a group called Forum for Siang Dialogue was opposing dams on the hauntingly beautiful Siang River. “Student and youth organisations of the State,” wrote Talukdar, “have been alleging that public hearings were conducted without proper information to people and in the presence of the police and paramilitary forces.”

Also in May 2012, Mint newspaper carried an article by Sudeep Chakravarti on the dangers posed by unregulated dam-building in Arunachal Pradesh. A reporter who knows the region well, Chakravarti grimly observed that Arunachal “has imported the worst practices from mainland India in land allocation for projects, and misuse of the doctrine of eminent domain. A recent case: In mid-April, the government violently dispersed protesters who had gathered to dissent against the private sector-led 2,700 MW Lower Siang Hydro Electric Project. Worse will follow.” It has; a report in The Telegraph in early June noted that work on the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri Project has stalled completely owing to local opposition to its construction.

Twenty years ago, in our book, This Fissured Land, Madhav Gadgil and I pointed out that, unlike Europe and North America at a comparable stage of their industrialization, India did not have access to colonies, which she could conquer or settle. This should have entailed a more prudent, responsible, and efficient use of the country’s natural endowment. Tragically, since economic liberalization we have instead adopted a more profligate pattern of resource use. The new legal safeguards put in place in the 1980s as a consequence of the environmental movement have been ignored or abandoned. Programmes for water conservation, sustainable energy, and the like, have been shelved or relegated to the margins. There is an enchantment with American lifestyles, that is to say, with lifestyles that rest on a continuously increasing demand for natural resources. Values of simplicity and frugality, espoused by great Indians such as the Buddha and Gandhi, and once respected, though perhaps never willingly followed except by a minority, have now completely vanished. The ever louder clamour is for “Dil Mange More”.

To meet the needs of the corporate sector and the consuming classes, the government has encouraged a new scramble for resources in the tribal areas of central India and in the Northeast. These regions are on their way to becoming our “internal colonies”, as a wave of mining and hydroelectric schemes undermine local ecologies, and disrupt and displace local communities, creating widespread discontent. A state such as Odisha had virtually no Naxalites 15 years ago; however, as a consequence of the handing over of tribal lands to mining companies, left-wing insurgents now have a significant presence in half-a-dozen districts. Meanwhile, the rash of dam-building in the Northeast is provoking a further wave of discontent among the people of that likewise neglected, exploited, region.

Those wedded to the doctrine of “growth at all costs” have posited a false opposition between environment and development. In truth, there are multiple paths to increasing economic growth and/or decreasing poverty. The path of development currently being followed in India is short-sighted, destructive and socially polarizing. On the other hand, as experts such as the late A. K. N. Reddy (see www.amulya-reddy. org.in) and the Prayas Group (see www.prayaspune.org) have demonstrated, large dams are not the only or best way of meeting our energy needs. Far more appropriate to Indian conditions is a demand-side approach that uses less energy- intensive technologies and minimizes transmission losses. Smaller, run-of-the-river schemes can be economically viable, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive alternatives to mega-projects. That these alternatives are not taken more seriously is due only to the influence of the contractor-promoter-politician nexus on decision-making. It is a sign of how far-removed newspaper editors in New Delhi are from the rest of the country that, rather than expose these interests, they seek to endorse or apologize for them.