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In the world's largest blackout, some 600 million Indians lost power Tuesday. It is the second major failure of the country's power grid this week. Exactly what caused these monumental power outages is still under investigation, but the blackouts are raising new questions about India's rising energy needs. In this series, GlobalPost looks at the nearly 150 dams planned for the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Together, the dams would fill India's energy gap. But they will also devastate dozens of indigenous tribal peoples, wipe out thousands of acres of breathtaking forest and destroy some of the world's best whitewater.
India's banking on 150 in Arunachal Pradesh to help fill its immense power needs. But the value of the land and cultures that will be lost is impossible to calculate.
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.
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.
“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.