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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 3: Cultures in danger

150 dams proposed in Arunachal Pradesh could devastate the state's vibrant indigenous cultures.

ROING, Arunachal Pradesh — Not long ago, the tribal denizens of this northeast Indian state cautioned their drinking buddies: “Don't piss too hard, or the government will come along to set up a hydropower project.”

With state legislators inking pacts with developers faster than once a month, and accepting millions of dollars in upfront payments, the joke hit home. Developers, planners and politicians view Arunachal Pradesh as an ideal site for hydroelectric power projects, due to its 10 major river basins and the state's sparse population.

But even though the more than 150 dams proposed for the state won't displace hundreds of thousands of people, the cost to local communities promises to be devastating.

The area is home to 20 indigenous tribal groups, the largest of which, the Nishi, numbers only around 300,000 people. Because of their small size, entire tribal groups, clustered together by some commonalities of language and culture, could be wiped out as a result of these proposed dams. Already, some of the 80-odd sub-tribes, which each have their own unique customs and number as few as 10,000 people, are fading away.

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

“This whole area is mine,” said Mite Lingi, chairman of an Idu Mishmi tribal organization called the Idu Indigenous People's Council. “This mountain, this river, this land. Suddenly you come and start talking all these legal points. If that doesn't anger you, what would?”

Those “legal points” are reminiscent of the treaties that relegated America's native peoples to reservations or the doctrine of terra nullius — land owned by no one — through which the British Crown usurped most of a continent from the indigenous Australians.

Since prior to India's independence from Britain in 1947, Arunachal's indigenous tribes have been protected from mass migration from other parts of India by laws that require a special permit to enter the state and prohibit outsiders from settling here. But there were no such protections from the forces of the state itself, which turned over millions of acres of tribal land to the forest department for logging and conservation.

Once outsiders are allowed in, past experience with refugees from Bangladesh and illegal migrants from Nepal shows, they are difficult to expel. And because the indigenous tribes are tiny, the influx of laborers threatens to wipe them out or devastate their communities forever – just as the cultures of the native peoples of America, Australia, Canada and other nations were devastated by the appropriation of their traditional lands in the name of development.

Vulnerable peoples

A dozen-odd large dams, including the majority state-owned National Hydroelectric Power Corporation's (NHPC) Dibang Multipurpose Project, are slated for the Dibang River Basin, home to the endangered Idu Mishmi tribe.

The government and local supporters argue that these projects will benefit the nation by providing a cheap, clean and renewable source of electricity, and benefit local residents by moderating the effects of floods and providing the state with free power and millions of dollars in revenue for the construction of roads, schools and hospitals.

But opponents argue that the drive for progress is colored by a 19th century-style ethnocentric desire to "civilize the savages." They say planners have underestimated the social impact of the displacement of local communities and an influx of laborers from outside the state.

“Our population is near about 13,000,” said Tone Mickrow, general secretary of the All Idu Mishmi Students Union (AIMSU), another tribal organization. “Once these dams come up, the employees of one single company will be larger than our entire community.”

Because of their small population, the Idu Mishmi tribe faces perhaps the gravest risk from the dams planned for their traditional lands. Fighting for their community's survival, tribal organizations took to the streets 11 times between 2007 and 2011 to prevent NHPC from holding a mandatory public hearing for its 3,000 megawatt dam, dubbed the Dibang Multipurpose Project.

Read Dam Nation Part 2: The threat to the environment

Activists like Mickrow and Lingi say that the government labeled them Maoists — associating them with a simmering civil war underway across eastern India that the prime minister has repeatedly called the greatest threat to India's security — and subjected them to police harassment in retaliation.

In one incident that has heightened tensions, eight young men and a young woman suffered gunshot wounds when police in Roing opened fire on a group of high school and college students after a fight broke out during the celebration of the Durga Puja festival in October. The local government administration insisted that the violence was unrelated to the dam controversy and claimed that the crowd attacked the police. But dam opponents aren't convinced.

The largest town in the Lower Dibang Valley, Roing was until recently the epicenter of the struggle to block the dams in this area.

“We feel that they were trying to send the message that they can do anything,” said Raju Mimi, an activist-journalist who writes for the Arunachal Times.

Such demonstrations of state power, together with NHPC's increasingly lucrative offers for local residents, have crushed the Idu Mishmi's once absolute opposition to the Dibang Multipurpose Project. Now, representatives like Lingi and Mickrow – who hold elected positions in various tribal organizations, but have only scorn for the area's local legislators – have resigned themselves.

Instead of opposing the project altogether, they now demand a share of the dam's revenue for the local community, rather than only for the state.

“It is as though we grew tired of ourselves,” said Lingi. “We kept on postponing the public hearing. It's a record in India in fact. After that we also couldn't think out a further strategy.”

Fear of annihilation

The state's larger tribes also fear that displacement and the influx of laborers will devastate their people.

Though their population is more than 10 times that of the Idu Mishmi, for instance, some members of the 150,000-strong Adi tribe fear that laborers brought in to work on the many Siang River Basin dams will erode the community's political power and gradually strip the Adi of their cultural identity.

“If you build a dam here, the whole Pongging area, the Komkar area, Minyong belt and the Galo belt will be completely annihilated,” said Igul Padung, an academic based in the East Siang District headquarters of Pasighat.

“They will all become downtrodden people, without land, without their home, without their culture, without their identity,” he said.