ARUNACHAL PRADESH, India — From the service road above the Lower Subansiri Dam, in northeast India, the river below looks deep and still, a dark forest green.
On the bank opposite, a mammoth conveyor carries silt and gravel from a quarry half a mile away. Upstream along the Subansiri River, brilliant red cranes tower over the 380-foot wall of concrete and steel — nearly completed — which unless construction can be halted will soon submerge some 8,500 acres of land.
When it's finished, the 2,000 megawatt (MW) Lower Subansiri project, being built by government-owned NHPC Ltd. near the town of North Lakhimpur on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, will be one of India's largest hydroelectric power plants. Including the Lower Subansiri, 150 dams — many of them massive projects of more than 1,000 MW of capacity — are planned for the Dibang, Siang, Siyom, and Lohit rivers.
Credit: Sanctuary Asia (adapted from map of Dept. of Hydropower, Government of Arunachal Pradesh). Click on the image for a larger version of the map.
For local residents and environmental activists, the Lower Subansiri is the first beachhead in the struggle against breakneck-pace development, which opponents say has been undertaken without full or sincere consideration of its consequences, and could wipe out thousands of acres of breathtaking forest, dozens of fascinating tribal cultures and some of the world's best whitewater for adventure tourism.
Power hunger runs deep
To be sure, India needs electricity. The country is already the world's fourth-largest electricity consumer, after the US, China and Russia. But last year, peak power demand topped 122,000 MW, resulting in a shortfall of some 12,000 MW, or nearly 10 percent, according to the Central Electricity Authority. Overall demand for energy over the year breached 860,000 gigawatt hours, resulting in a total gap of 73,000 GWh, or 8.5 percent.
And the situation promises to get worse, as the Ministry of Power projects a 56 percent increase in annual demand to 1.4 million GWh by the end of the next five- year planning period in March 2017 — requiring the addition of another 100,000 megawatts of generation capacity.
Some 300 million people in villages across the country still have no access to electricity at all. Factories are often forced to generate their own power. Residents of the country's showpiece metropolitan cities endure frequent “power cuts.” During the long, hot summer, excess demand forces electricity providers to resort to rolling blackouts, sometimes for six hours or longer.
In places like Roing — a small outpost in Arunachal's Dibang River Basin with the frontier character of a logging town — matters are even more uncertain. On a recent visit, spring rains knocked out transmission lines running from Assam, and at least one hotel was left without electricity for nearly a week and forced, like millions of businesses across the country, to run a diesel-powered generator from sundown to lights out around 9 p.m.
To meet these rising power needs, India plans to generate some 40,000 MW of electricity from 150 dams in Arunachal Pradesh, where 10 mighty rivers and many smaller tributaries flow out of the Himalayas to feed one of the most important waterways in India, the majestic Brahmaputra.
Government officials argue that the sale of electricity will allow the isolated state to “float in hydro dollars like the Arab countries are floating in petro dollars,” as the state power secretary wrote in 2005.
But opponents point out that more than 50,000 acres of forest will be submerged by the proposed dams, gutting India's wilderness and flooding its lungs. The area is home to hundreds of species of birds, plants and animals like the red panda — which is already classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And the displacement of local tribes from their ancestral lands and a massive influx of laborers — until now kept out by laws requiring an entry permit for people from elsewhere in India — will likely devastate entire tribes like the Idu Mishmi of the Dibang River Basin.
Read Dam Nation Part 2: The threat to the environment
This is not the India you may think you know. Downstream of the dam on the Lower Subansiri lies the familiar flood plain of the Brahmaputra River Basin and the fishing boats, tea plantations and rice paddies of Assam and West Bengal.
But upstream, Arunachal Pradesh is a wild, unfamiliar land, peopled with more than 20 indigenous tribal groups, the largest of which, the Nishi, numbers only around 300,000 people. Veteran kayakers classify the rushing rapids as some of the world's best and least explored whitewater. Dense evergreen forests meet alpine meadows and impenetrable jungles that are thick with orange trees, pineapple shrubs, kiwi creepers and the towering fronds of wild banana.
In contrast to India's thronging plains, fewer than 1.5 million people live here, and at around 40 people per square mile, they are distributed more sparsely than the farmers of Iowa.
Dams within reason
Arunachal's low population makes it an attractive prospect for dam builders — especially in a country where a single dam on the Narmada River in central India is projected to displace some 300,000 people and alter the lives of more than a million.
Moreover, state planners say that revenue generated from power projects can spur social and economic advancement in areas that today lack roads, hospitals, schools and industry — much as the Tennessee Valley Authority helped to modernize a poverty-stricken area of the US in the 1930s, though its dams were also controversial for the displacement of more than 15,000 families.
Read Dam Nation Part 3: Cultures in danger
“Our chief minister is a down to earth person, accountable to the grassroots people. I don't think he will proceed arbitrarily,” said Bamang, political secretary to Chief Minister Nabam Tuki. He agreed to speak to GlobalPost as a private citizen rather than a representative of the Congress Party or the government. “We have potential resources. We have to get benefit out of it. People's lifestyles and the economy have to grow.”
Bamang, a longtime anti-dam activist, is regarded as a sellout by more dogged opponents of the dams, because he joined the new government, formed in November. But Bamang said he joined the regime so that he'd have more say in how the state's rivers are treated, and he pointed out that Tuki has not signed any additional agreements with dam builders and soon after assuming office made a whistlestop tour of the state to meet with local stakeholders.
No one here denies that some dams should be built to harness the estimated 50,000 MW hydropower potential of Arunachal Pradesh — which borders Bhutan and Burma, and China considers part of South Tibet.
But opponents of the huge volume of proposed projects say that the state and central governments have made grave miscalculations in the interest of doing the most good for the greatest number of people.
Demonstrators from Assam have been blocking nearby National Highway 52 off and on for months, demanding a review of NHPC's Lower Subansiri project, for example. Similarly, in Roing, protesters from the Idu Mishmi tribe have blocked a public hearing for NHPC's Dibang Multipurpose project 11 different times — preventing the company from satisfying a mandatory condition needed to obtain environmental clearance. And people of the Adi tribe have also blocked roads, stymied public hearings and staged general strikes to fight dams on the Siang.
“There are some 27 to 29 projects proposed on the tributaries of the Siang River alone. These projects are more than enough for our power needs and for income generation also,” said Azing Pertin of the Siang Peoples' Forum, an NGO formed to fight for the rights of indigenous people who live along the Siang. “On these tributaries, let them come up. We also need power, our government needs revenue. But why do we need them on this big river, [the Siang], to speed up the bad effects?”
Read Dam Nation Part 4: Adventure alternative
Activists from outside Arunachal Pradesh say that the biggest impact could be felt downstream — in states further along the Brahmaputra, which have little or no say whatsoever in the decision-making process due to India's federal structure. That has allowed planners to underestimate or ignore the effects on farmers, fishermen and wildlife in the neighboring state of Assam.
Moreover, no one has gauged the cumulative impact of these and many other dams in the Himalayas of Bhutan, China, Nepal and other states of northeast India on the agriculture and ecology of the region.
Critics say a gold rush mentality is behind the breakneck pace to sign agreements.
And in accepting some $300 million in administration fees and upfront payments from dam builders before undertaking environmental and social impact studies, dam opponents say that successive Arunachal state governments have run roughshod over local opposition and effectively turned these mandatory measures into a rubber stamp.
“Environmental clearance is a very big sham here,” said Pertin. “Only at the public hearing do the people have any direct decision-making power.”
Beyond Arunchal Pradesh
It's a battle that's being fought across the country. This year India's position fell to a dismal 125 out of 132 countries on Yale's Environmental Performance Index — which ranks countries based on indicators across environmental public health and ecosystem vitality. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and others have characterized its environmental protection woes as a struggle between the prosperity of industrialization and the poverty of conservation.
In February, for instance, Singh prevailed on the Ministry of Environment to open up a quarter of the forest land it had previously declared a “no-go area” for mining and industrial projects after a group of industrialists led by Tata Group chairman Ratan Tata — whose interests are tied to mining and electricity generation through Tata Steel and Tata Power — argued that environmental regulations were slowing economic progress.
Statistics tabulated by the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE) tell a different tale. Over the past 30 years, only 6 percent of proposed industrial projects were blocked on environmental grounds. And about a quarter of the total forest land devoted to industrial projects since 1981 was allotted between 2007 and 2011, during which more than 8,000 projects were granted environmental clearance.
Meanwhile, though official statistics maintain, beyond all reason, that India's forest cover has actually increased since 1987 despite development and massive population growth, the reality is that the so-called forests are mostly single-species timber plantations, according to environmental writer Jay Mazoomdar. Even worse, in many cases, state governments tapped “compensatory afforestation” funds to plant them.
Read more: Old problems plague new India
Like the hydropower projects proposed for Arunachal Pradesh, the vast majority of these projects lie in the territories of India's many indigenous tribes — whose traditional hunting and gathering ranges were appropriated by the British and never fully restored to them after India won its independence in 1947.
“If you look at resource exploitation all over the country, fortunately or unfortunately we have the key to all these resources — the tribal people,” explained Tongam Rina, editor of the Arunachal Times, a leading local daily based in the state capital of Itanagar.
“It's not that Arunachal is targeted because of our location or who we are, but generally India targets its marginalized sections. It's always been like that, and it always will be,” she said.
Still, other Arunachal Pradesh political leaders, themselves tribal people, favor exploiting the state's natural resources for profit and economic development. They are still smarting from the impact of a Supreme Court ban on logging in 1996 and resentful of central government patronizing — though central government funds account for virtually the entire state economy.
And some, like former Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu, a popular politician who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2011, have argued that holding their forests hostage because the rest of India and more developed Western countries have plundered their own lands is no different from appropriating them for material gain.
The late Arunachal Pradesh chief minister has a point, of course. But what's at stake is irreplaceable.
Even creative thinkers who suggest that India should adopt a system, like the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism, to compensate Arunachal for protecting and nurturing its forests and indigenous cultures, must admit the value of the area’s resources is impossible to calculate.
During a week spent rumbling up and down the state's mountain roads and highways in a jeep to investigate protest movements that the prime minister's office might characterize as “slowing development,” only three foreign tourists were seen, and not a single postcard stand or restaurant hawking the Lonely Planet's ubiquitous banana pancakes.
Fewer than 20,000 outsiders have visited the state since the government relaxed restrictions on foreign tourists in 2008. A consultancy report from a few years ago noted the presence of only 36 hotels and “none of any star category.”
Soon enough, Arunachal Pradesh may be altered beyond recognition. But on a recent Monday morning at the Lower Subansiri project work site, the only sound was the warble of birds and the distant whine of a 100cc motorbike. It was almost silent.
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