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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.


Part 1: How many dams can one state hold?

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.

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.

Back to the Dam Nation series landing page.