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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.

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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