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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 arunachal pradesh environment 2012 04 19
The confluence of the Ithun and Dibang Rivers, which is the site of a future massive dam in Arunachal Pradesh, India. (Scott Ligare/GlobalPost)

Part 2: The threat to the environment

Huge upfront payments make it easy for dam builders and the government to gloss over environmental regulations.

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.

Read Dam Nation Part 1: How many dams can one state hold?

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.

Read Dam Nation Part 3: Cultures in danger

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.”