PASIGHAT, Arunachal Pradesh — From the middle of a hanging bamboo bridge over the Siang River, the distant village of Pongging is barely visible. A light rain has been falling all morning, shrouding the village in mist.
One day soon, Pongging won't be visible for a very different reason. The Lower Siang hydroelectric project, one of the many controversial dam projects planned for Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India, will submerge the village along with vast lands belonging to the Adi, one of the largest of the state's roughly 20 indigenous tribes.
Despite the fact that the planned dam would annihilate his village, Tone Daying, an affable young schoolteacher, says his people hardly get a say in the decision-making process.
“These are our ancestral lands, so they have a very high emotional value for us,” he explains. “But my village does not have a large population, so our opinion does not matter in these decisions," which ultimately belong to the government.
Daying's is a simple statement, and it neatly encapsulates the debate over the proposed construction of more than 150 dams in the state of Arunachal Pradesh.
These aren't your average dams, as far as India is concerned. Elsewhere in the country, dams have become controversial for displacing huge numbers of people and not properly compensating them for their land or providing adequate resettlement facilities.
By contrast, Arunachal Pradesh is sparsely populated, and many in Pongging will actually be well compensated for the loss of their homes, at least judging by the usual standards of dam builders in Asia.
The controversy in Arunachal Pradesh, then, is more about the potential loss of dwindling forests and rare tribal cultures — it's following a different storyline, and a confusing one.
Many say that dam builders and government officials have used this confusion to their advantage, trampling environmental regulations and opposition from local activists.
“The government of India says that Arunachal Pradesh will be the powerhouse of India, producing 50,000 MW,” says Vijay Taram, a lawyer and spokesman for the Forum of Siang Dialogue. “But no government is concerned about how much forest we are going to lose for producing this power.”
A new paradigm
The issues confronting policy makers, dam builders and anti-dam activists here are different from those posed by previous Indian projects like the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in Gujarat. Resistance to those projects has drawn international attention — and support from celebrities like author Arundhati Roy and Bollywood actor Amir Khan – because they would displace hundreds of thousands of poor villagers who have little power to negotiate on their own behalf. Because of the numbers of people involved, adequate resettlement packages are too costly for developers to concede without a fight.
The contrast is sharp in Arunachal Pradesh. Though they are small in numbers, the state's more than 20 indigenous tribes have not been beaten down by more powerful groups, the way that other tribal people and low-caste Hindus of the plains have been.
Historically, first the British and then independent India protected Arunachal's tribes from domination. Even today, non-tribals are barred from owning land, and Indians from other regions and foreigners alike require a special permit to travel even for limited periods in the state — so it's not possible for dam proponents to crush local resistance with imported goons.
So, too, community solidarity (within, though not across, tribes) and cultural practices like the Adi's traditional court system, called kebang, makes Arunachal's people tough negotiators.
But not strong enough to stop projects altogether.
“The communities are very small here,” said Tongam Rina, editor of the Arunachal Times, a leading local daily. “It's very easy for [a developer] to say, 'We're going to give you 2 crores [$400,000] each. Please keep that other patch of area. Relocate.'"
One reason is that today's projects are so attractive is that they promise huge profits. In the past, dam projects were the purview of state-owned companies like NHPC Ltd., formerly National Hydroelectric Power Corp., or NEEPCO, the North Eastern Electric Power Corp. But now a new national policy allows private power producers to sell electricity directly to factories and consumers, from which they can earn a larger profit, instead of the state electricity boards.
“Earlier, dam and hydro developers, particularly NEEPCO and NHPC, the first developers to enter the state, never ever consulted our community,” said Anthony Bamang, an anti-dam activist who recently joined the government, much to the dismay of many of his former activist cronies.
“Now [dam builders] are talking with us. So we also got some opportunity,” he said.
Many activists characterize Bamang as a sellout. But the "opportunities" that he's talking about include the most lucrative compensation packages that India has ever seen, according to one national anti-dam activist.
For those who will lose titled land from the Lower Siang dam, there's enough money to overcome the reservations of all but the most diehard environmentalists. For people who lose access to traditional lands held collectively, the state government adopted its own resettlement policy, more generous than the national rules on resettlement.
The huge profits at stake for private firms means there's plenty left over for government coffers.
“To build a dam in Arunachal Pradesh, all you need is money,” said Taram, the spokesman for Forum of Siang Dialogue. “You don't need any experience. You don't need any expertise. All you do is float a company, and pay the so-called upfront money to the state government, and you get a contract.”
The might of money
Rich as it is in natural beauty and resources, Arunachal runs on the dole. And in the hydropower boom, the sudden addition of private funds to the usual flow has given “the mammaries of the welfare state” the force of a firehose, to use novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee's phrase.
Between 2005 and 2009, for instance, the state government took in around $200 million in fees and so-called upfront payments for allotting dam projects to developers, according to the state Department of Hydro Power Development. In two of those years, receipts for upfront payments amounted to 10 percent of the state's entire budget for expenditures on public programs.
Click on the image for a larger version of the map.
It's not possible to draw a direct correlation, but over the same period, the personal assets of the average serving member of parliament from the state more than tripled, according to mandatory asset declaration forms analyzed by the Association for Democratic Reforms. The declared wealth of then-Chief Minister Khandu, for instance, rose from around $930,000 in 2004 to around $4.8 million in 2009.
In a letter to the prime minister, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleged that many of these deals included kickbacks for local politicians — a common phenomenon in India — and called for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the allotment of contracts.
An official from the state Department of Hydro Power Development declined to meet with GlobalPost and did not respond to questions sent by email. But the BJP's allegations against their arch rivals in the Congress were never substantiated by an official investigation and no charges were filed.
Environmental activists, however, say that it doesn't really matter. Even if the upfront payments were accepted and processed legitimately, the very practice of accepting such large sums of money in advance has subverted the environmental impact assessment procedures needed to obtain clearances from the environment ministry.
Read more: Old problems plague new India
“The public hearing comes under stage 11, almost at the final stage [of the environmental impact assessment],” said Bamang, who agreed to talk to GlobalPost in his private capacity as an activist, rather than a representative of the Congress party or the government.
“Almost 50 percent of the money has been invested, so it is too late for the public to participate. Before that there is no space anywhere to participate. So itself the [environmental impact assessment] is difficult for us,” he added.
A tragedy of errors
Government regulations require that environmental impact assessments be conducted by accredited outside agencies. But these consultants are selected and paid by the developers of the proposed project, so it stands to reason that a reputation for rejection would soon put them out of business.
No need to worry on that score, according to experts like Sagar Dhara, who conducted such assessments for 15 years before he set up an environmental NGO called Cerana, in Hyderabad.
In a study of eight impact assessments for coal-fired power projects in the state of Andhra Pradesh, for example, Dhara found consultants made egregious errors like ignoring the cumulative effects of many power plants and using air quality models not validated in India, according to India's Business Today magazine.
Yet when they screw up, the juggernaut just keeps rolling.
“There is no independent oversight or accountability mechanism for unacceptable [environmental impact assessments],” representatives of the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People and similar organizations wrote in a letter challenging a World Bank decision to end its 30-year moratorium on financing for Indian dam projects.
Accountability may be especially problematic in isolated, sparsely populated Arunachal Pradesh.
For example, the organizations argue in the letter that in 2004, power company NHPC tried to push through an assessment for the Middle Siang Hydroelectric Project without providing the executive summary of the document to area residents in the local language — a mandatory condition. Moreover, the assessment neglected to include the impact of items like the construction of access roads, and it did not consider the downstream impact of the project.
Locals succeeded in blocking that effort, but NHPC was free to try again, and again, and again, grinding down resistance.
Similarly, Assam-based naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury found serious shortcomings in assessments for the Kameng, Lower Subansiri, Middle Siang, Tipaimukh and Dibang hydroelectric projects, according to a report by activist Neeraj Vagholikar.
For example, the assessment for the 1,000 MW Siyom project listed only five bird species in an area with more than 300, and one of those five does not exist, Vagholikar writes. The assessment for the 600 MW Kameng project incorrectly identified animals like the red panda, pangolin and porcupine as herbivores.
And the assessment for the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project listed only 55 species of fish in a river that has at least 156. It also reported an area called “the Arctic” in the Eastern Himalayas — perhaps an example of cutting and pasting from another study, which is reportedly a common feature of many assessment reports.
Perhaps most dramatically, no agency has so far undertaken a study of the cumulative impact of dams on all these tributaries of the Brahmaputra on communities downstream in Assam and West Bengal — though India's Central Electricity Authority has reportedly agreed to conduct one, now that several of the projects are well underway.
Too little, too late? Probably.
A major issue is that officials responsible for safeguarding the environment appear to be prioritizing financial and developmental goals.
In February, India's Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan cleared the Lower Demwe Project on the Lohit River despite strong objections from a majority of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife and an assessment report replete with errors, according to the India-based news and commentary site, FirstPost.com.
B.S. Sajawan, the state-level bureaucrat responsible for Arunachal Pradesh's forests and environment, disputed several of the wildlife board's objections, according to the minutes of a December meeting. He argued that the state's rich biodiversity could not be protected “by alienating people,” and pointed out that as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired power plants the use of hydropower would mitigate economic development's “adverse impact on birds, animals and the biodiversity in general.”
“Can we look beyond animal and plant biodiversity and think of people who are as much a part of the same biodiversity?” Sajawan said. “The people in Arunachal Pradesh are getting increasingly frustrated at the delay in clearance of developmental projects on the ground of environment, forest and wildlife clearances.”
Even before hearing Sajawan's arguments, Environment Minister Natarajan had opened the December meeting by saying that “already a sizable investment of scientific, technical and financial inputs had gone into the project."
And though she promised to review the wildlife board's objections, her closing admonition was that “the matter could not be delayed any further.”
In other words, as more and more money was spent on upfront payments, engineering and impact studies, environmental clearance began to look like a foregone conclusion.
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