Part 3: Cultures in danger

Digaru Mishmi children. Anjaw district, Arunachal Pradesh, India.</p>

Digaru Mishmi children. Anjaw district, Arunachal Pradesh, India.

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.

Jaiprakash Associates Ltd., a private company that is part of the $3 billion Jaypee Group, expects an influx of about 8,000 outsiders, including laborers and their families, for its 2,700 MW Lower Siang Hydroelectric Project alone. And that's just one of many dam projects proposed for the area.

Read Dam Nation Part 4: Adventure alternative

Critics like Padung argue that company-commissioned impact assessments have underestimated the number of workers they will require, ignoring the natural turnover among migrant laborers. Moreover, they say, because projects like these take years — in some cases, decades — to complete, the major ones are likely to overlap.

“I agree to development, but not at the cost of my people being washed away,” said Vijay Taram, a lawyer and spokesman for an anti-dam group called the Forum of Siang Dialogue. He also has been labeled a Maoist and put under surveillance by the Intelligence Bureau, he said.

The pro-dam view

Both the state government and the dam builders say that the more than 150 hydroelectric power projects planned for Arunachal Pradesh will benefit local communities.

Along with free electricity, the state will receive a steady flow of revenue that it can use to build badly needed roads, schools and hospitals, government officials say.

The companies have promised contracts to locally owned firms and employment for local people, too. In Roing, for instance, NHPC is sponsoring an upgrade of the local government-run Industrial Training Institute (ITI), which could train locals in the vocational skills needed to work in dam-related industries.

Meanwhile, project developers promise to provide infrastructure and services in villages built especially for the people displaced by the dams — not to mention perks like nature parks, playgrounds, gardens, and other recreation facilities near project areas.

“Hydro projects are a boon to the society and the population in and around the projects,” a statement on NHPC's website reads. “With enhanced employment opportunities, increased earnings, enriched life style and improved standard of living, the people in these localities experience an economic and social upliftment.”

That has not been the experience of villagers displaced by India's many past dam projects, including people affected by the Indira Sagar Project in Madhya Pradesh, the Chamera I and Chamera II projects in Himachal Pradesh or the Loktak project in Manipur, according to the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

In 2004, for instance, some 200,000 people displaced by the Indira Sagar Project were forced to move without the resettlement packages required by law. While many threw themselves on the mercy of relatives or rented rooms in neighboring towns, a few hundred of the poorest families moved into a resettlement colony ambitiously named “New Harsud” where there was “no water, no sewage system, no shelter, no school, no hospital,” according to a contemporary report by India's Outlook magazine.

Similarly, in Arunachal Pradesh itself, the state's first large dam, the Ranganadi Hydroelectric Project built by NEEPCO on a tributary of the Subansiri River, continues to generate complaints.

In 2008, an investigation by India's Down to Earth magazine found that displaced residents promised schools, a 20-bed hospital, free electricity and jobs and contracts when the dam was commissioned in 2002 were still waiting for the approach road to be built to their new village some six years later. Only six people had been given jobs, some claimed the free electricity had never materialized, and though a school had been built there were no teachers. Many had already given up and moved on.

Today, too, people living downstream of the Ranganadi dam are migrating to the state capital of Itanagar because of the disruption to their lives caused by the occasional release of massive quantities of water from the dam, according to Tongam Rina, editor of the Arunachal Times. In the winter, the area goes completely dry as the dam taps all the water for generating power — wreaking havoc on the farms below. During the summer rains, the unscheduled and sudden release of surplus water has killed livestock.

“They live in fear. That used to be a huge picnic spot earlier. But now after 4 o'clock no one will stay there because they never know when they will release the water from the dam,” said Rina.

Read more: Old problems plague new India

That's not the only evidence that suggests dam planners are completely out of touch with the residents their projects affect.

Consider the tone of this passage from the social impact study conducted for NHPC's Dibang Multipurpose Project, in which supposed experts claim that the 5,800 laborers who the Idu Mishmi tribal leaders fear will scatter their people and destroy their culture will actually be a boon.

“Such a mixture of population has its own advantages and disadvantages,” argues the study. “The advantages include exchange of ideas and cultures between various groups of people which would not have been possible otherwise. Due to longer residence of this population in one place, a new culture, having a distinct socio-economic similarity would develop which will have its own entity. Work opportunities will drastically improve in this area.”

There is no mention of any disadvantages.

But even if NHPC and other dam builders are sincere, and they do deliver on their promises, there appears to have been little effort to understand the sociological impact of this “enriched life style.”

“Isn't it irony that they talk of our benefit without asking us?” said Lingi. “You impose something on someone and say this is for your good. That is like admonishing a kid.”

Consider the social impact study for the Lower Siang project.

“Most of the houses are kaccha [raw], made up of bamboo, cane, leaves of straw and wood and are raised about two feet above the ground on the wooden posts,” observe the authors, before noting that most residents do not “avail the electricity” and lack access to education and health care and concluding “that quality of life in the region is not satisfactory.”

Schools and hospitals are, of course, a good thing — if they ever materialize. But the thrust seems designed to push people to adopt the lifestyles of the plains and drive them into cities rather than to improve their lives.

Scoffed at here, the locally made bamboo homes are cheaper, more environmentally friendly and better suited to the climate than the concrete houses of the city. So much so that the vast majority of homes built along the highways in the most “developed” part of the state, in some of its wealthiest towns and villages, are still made of cane and bamboo.

“You go to any village and ask anybody, 'I'll give you a home in the town, you go there.'” said Taram. “He will say no. They are very much content there. He is happy with his life, living in the jungle in a thatch house. He will not be happy here living enclosed in concrete.”

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