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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.
Huge upfront payments make it easy for dam builders and the government to gloss over environmental regulations.
The might of money
Rich as it is in natural beauty and resources, Arunachal runs on the dole. And in the hydropower boom, the sudden addition of private funds to the usual flow has given “the mammaries of the welfare state” the force of a firehose, to use novelist Upamanyu Chatterjee's phrase.
Between 2005 and 2009, for instance, the state government took in around $200 million in fees and so-called upfront payments for allotting dam projects to developers, according to the state Department of Hydro Power Development. In two of those years, receipts for upfront payments amounted to 10 percent of the state's entire budget for expenditures on public programs.
Click on the image for a larger version of the map.
It's not possible to draw a direct correlation, but over the same period, the personal assets of the average serving member of parliament from the state more than tripled, according to mandatory asset declaration forms analyzed by the Association for Democratic Reforms. The declared wealth of then-Chief Minister Khandu, for instance, rose from around $930,000 in 2004 to around $4.8 million in 2009.
In a letter to the prime minister, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleged that many of these deals included kickbacks for local politicians — a common phenomenon in India — and called for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into the allotment of contracts.
An official from the state Department of Hydro Power Development declined to meet with GlobalPost and did not respond to questions sent by email. But the BJP's allegations against their arch rivals in the Congress were never substantiated by an official investigation and no charges were filed.
Environmental activists, however, say that it doesn't really matter. Even if the upfront payments were accepted and processed legitimately, the very practice of accepting such large sums of money in advance has subverted the environmental impact assessment procedures needed to obtain clearances from the environment ministry.
Read more: Old problems plague new India
“The public hearing comes under stage 11, almost at the final stage [of the environmental impact assessment],” said Bamang, who agreed to talk to GlobalPost in his private capacity as an activist, rather than a representative of the Congress party or the government.
“Almost 50 percent of the money has been invested, so it is too late for the public to participate. Before that there is no space anywhere to participate. So itself the [environmental impact assessment] is difficult for us,” he added.
A tragedy of errors
Government regulations require that environmental impact assessments be conducted by accredited outside agencies. But these consultants are selected and paid by the developers of the proposed project, so it stands to reason that a reputation for rejection would soon put them out of business.
No need to worry on that score, according to experts like Sagar Dhara, who conducted such assessments for 15 years before he set up an environmental NGO called Cerana, in Hyderabad.
In a study of eight impact assessments for coal-fired power projects in the state of Andhra Pradesh, for example, Dhara found consultants made egregious errors like ignoring the cumulative effects of many power plants and using air quality models not validated in India, according to India's Business Today magazine.
Yet when they screw up, the juggernaut just keeps rolling.
“There is no independent oversight or accountability mechanism for unacceptable [environmental impact assessments],” representatives of the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People and similar organizations wrote in a letter challenging a World Bank decision to end its 30-year moratorium on financing for Indian dam projects.
Accountability may be especially problematic in isolated, sparsely populated Arunachal Pradesh.
For example, the organizations argue in the letter that in 2004, power company NHPC tried to push through an assessment for the Middle Siang Hydroelectric Project without providing the executive summary of the document to area residents in the local language — a mandatory condition. Moreover, the assessment neglected to include the impact of items like the construction of access roads, and it did not consider the downstream impact of the project.
Locals succeeded in blocking that effort, but NHPC was free to try again, and again, and again, grinding down resistance.
Similarly, Assam-based naturalist Anwaruddin Choudhury found serious shortcomings in assessments for the Kameng, Lower Subansiri, Middle Siang, Tipaimukh and Dibang hydroelectric projects, according to a report by activist Neeraj Vagholikar.
For example, the assessment for the 1,000 MW Siyom project listed only five bird species in an area with more than 300, and one of those five does not exist, Vagholikar writes. The assessment for the 600 MW Kameng project incorrectly identified animals like the red panda, pangolin and porcupine as herbivores.
And the assessment for the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project listed only 55 species of fish in a river that has at least 156. It also reported an area called “the Arctic” in the Eastern Himalayas — perhaps an example of cutting and pasting from another study, which is reportedly a common feature of many assessment reports.
Perhaps most dramatically, no agency has so far undertaken a study of the cumulative impact of dams on all these tributaries of the Brahmaputra on communities downstream in Assam and West Bengal — though India's Central Electricity Authority has reportedly agreed to conduct one, now that several of the projects are well underway.
Too little, too late? Probably.
A major issue is that officials responsible for safeguarding the environment appear to be prioritizing financial and developmental goals.
In February, India's Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan cleared the Lower Demwe Project on the Lohit River despite strong objections from a majority of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife and an assessment report replete with errors, according to the India-based news and commentary site, FirstPost.com.
B.S. Sajawan, the state-level bureaucrat responsible for Arunachal Pradesh's forests and environment, disputed several of the wildlife board's objections, according to the minutes of a December meeting. He argued that the state's rich biodiversity could not be protected “by alienating people,” and pointed out that as a cleaner alternative to coal-fired power plants the use of hydropower would mitigate economic development's “adverse impact on birds, animals and the biodiversity in general.”