The Curious Case of Dams in India



In April-May 2020, Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh was gearing up for a verdict on India’s largest multi-purpose hydro power project – a 3,097-MW Etalin hydroelectric project in the Valley district in one of the most biodiverse Himalayan zones in the state - when it turned out that it required diverting nearly 1170 hectares of forest in the bio-diverse region, so the project has now been delayed for 6 years by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). 

The proposal sparked a lot of discussions in small circles globally regarding its many salient aspects and what it could mean. Unfortunately, most Indians were not even aware of this development. What was this project really about? Let’s see in depth.


The Proposed Plan


The project - a joint venture of the EHEPCL, Jindal Power Ltd (74%) and the Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Ltd (26%), a state government undertaking – was situated 12 km from the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, and was expected to cost around ₨ 29,000-crore. 

The EHEPCL planned to develop a combination of two run-of-the-river projects involving the construction of concrete gravity dams on the Tangon and Dri tributaries of the Dibang. The multi-purpose nature of the projects stemmed from the various functions it was meant to perform. In addition to generating electricity, it was to be a storage-based hydro-electric venture, partaking in controlling floods caused by the overflow of monsoon waters of the Brahmaputra in Assam.


Background


The foundation stone for the project was laid by former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in the state capital Itanagar on January 31, 2008. The project got delayed initially due to opposition from the local tribes over loss of community land, deforestation and the international resistance to the project due to its heavy environmental cost. 

Post the initial spate of opposition, the project got further delayed because the FAC rejected it twice in 2013 and 2014, as it wasn’t satisfied with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports. Finally, the FAC approved the project based off the field study conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), which claimed that the hydropower project would not affect the tigers in the area and recommended a plan to prevent loss of animals and birds there, and the development of butterfly and reptile parks, nest boxes and habitat restoration among other rehabilitation ideas. 

Additionally, an FAC report recommended the Hydroelectric Project be allowed with a condition that the developer deposits money for wildlife conservation in the area. But these developments came to a standstill when the FAC again made a U-turn on its approval and decided to shelve it again.


The Conflict


Despite repeated assurances from the stakeholders about the viability of the project, there was a spate of controversy amongst activists and wildlife conservationists about the loss of biodiversity in the valley, the displacement of the locals and the environmental impacts of the dams. 

The WII study documented 413 plant, 159 butterfly, 113 spider, 14 amphibian, 31 reptile, 230 bird and 21 mammalian species within the project area, all at a risk. Also, the need for the forest site meant that lots of trees will be felled. 

Based off the findings of the FAC sub-committee, the current estimate of the number of trees to be felled was found to be around 3 lakhs. While no tiger presence has been detected at the site through camera trapping, tigers have been found around the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, a few kilometers away and there’s no guaranteeing if they would stay there for the entirety of the project.


Change of Tune


Dismissing the concerns about the environmental implications of the project and claiming that it has the support of the local populace, the FAC sub-committee’s report read - “…it has remarkably favorable geological conditions for the region” just a few weeks before it was found to be unviable. Maybe conflict avoidance was always on the cards or perhaps the FAC decided that this is the only way to preserve the biodiversity – a promise of development and inactivity to keep the ‘activist types’ in check.


Hydel Projects – A Brief History 


Interestingly enough, this opposition to a hydel project is not something new. Post-independence, India has invested heavily on mega dams that were meant to increase the agricultural production, when the First Five Year Plan (1951-1955) allocated 29% of the total budget to irrigation. 

The Bhakra Nangal Project, the Damodar River Valley Project, Hirakud Dam and the Nagarjunasagar Project were amongst the first projects to be sanctioned after independence, and even today, continue to be some of the largest and highest in the world. PM Nehru proclaimed these big dams as the temples of modern India and people considered them to be a source of pride and admiration.

All this crushed the tiny voices of opposition from those adversely affected by these undertakings. But these voices grew louder, particularly after the proposed Silent Valley Dam in Kerela was successfully scrapped. Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden, remarked at the shift in people’s perception about these voices and an emergence of a new trend in India since the 1980s. ‘Issues like population displacement, deforestation, water logging, down–stream water shortages, siltation and salinization became key points of contention in the agendas of these protests,’ he writes.


Conclusion


Of course, the whole argument could conversely be pegged to be one between the Luddites and the innovators. Or “The Greater Good (of generating and providing electricity for people who need it)” vs the environmental cost it comes at. Or maybe, the instant gratification of electrification across the nation (packaged as the quintessential good life) vs the aftermath of climate chaos. You decide.


Written by - Shivansh Shandilya

Edited by - Arnav Mehra




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