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Lower Subansiri: a journey from despair to hope

- Decision to involve experts to resolve NHPC issue after tripartite talks offers ray of light

Guwahati, Dec. 26: The fourth addition to the list of must-have after roti, kapda aur makan is bijli.

And it was bijli (electricity) which dominated mind and media space in the Northeast to a large extent in 2013. Most of it, though, revolved around the stalled 2000MW Lower Subansiri project at Gerukamukh along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.

The Demwe, Siang (Arunachal), Khri, Umngot (Meghalaya), Tipaimukh (Manipur-Mizoram) and Palatana (Tripura) hydel projects, among others, did make an appearance now and then. But Lower Subansiri, stalled since 2011 December, stood out as much for the obduracy of the leading players in the protest saga as for the potential it holds for the region.

After nearly two years of brinkmanship, the unanimous decision to involve experts to resolve the NHPC issue after the December 6 tripartite talks has offered hope of more than a breakthrough.

Though no one expects an overnight miracle, the narrative has changed from despair to hope and from brinkmanship to engagement with the entry of the neutral voice (the experts). By the end of the year, belligerence made way for reason. There is an apparent urgency and a resolve, especially on part of the incumbent NHPC management, to push the issue towards a resolution.

This new mindset is evident from NHPC executive director Rakesh’s view on the downstream impact: “This is the first time we are facing such a situation. In other states, human settlements are far away from the dam site. Here it was close by. We had a provision for 10km protection but now we have extended it to 30km to allay concerns.”

This approach was sadly missing when the issue first erupted. Everybody from Delhi to Dispur appeared to be on an all-expenses-paid ego trip at the cost of the Northeast, which they believe to be India’s future powerhouse.

The region, however, faces a shortfall of nearly 226MW in 2013-14, according to a Central Electricity Authority report. The December 6 outcome has also sent out a huge message which seemed to have got lost. The Centre had been forced to take a relook at issues related to dams in the region over and above coming up with mitigation and appeasement measures for downstream areas, having upheld the argument of the protesters that pursuit of power cannot be at the expense of downstream impact.

It is now no longer about one NHPC. The resolution of the issue could impact the scores of other projects in the region. A vindicated Akhil Gogoi, a leading light of the anti-big dam movement, along with AASU and the AJYCP leadership, described 2013 as a year Assam hit back at the Centre and corporates.

To be fair to those opposed to big dams in the region, they had been stressing the involvement of experts from the outset. “2013 could be a watershed year in Assam’s history as it saw the revival of Assamese nationalism, mainly among the working and peasant classes, who have, through their sustained campaign, made the government take a relook at its policies towards our rights over water and land,” Akhil told The Telegraph.