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Environmental and social movements in India and Colombia

Who needs a dam? Popular views on hydropower production in Northeast India

, by MENON Manju

Anyone who knows that India has built over 4000 dams since Independence in 1947 would imagine that the debate on large dams has either died or has been resolved through changes in policy, law and practice. But, the situation is farthest from this. The debate on large dams has shifted both geographically and thematically with time.

The early years after independence saw major dam building activity for irrigation in the central and peninsular parts of the country. During the period from the 60s to the 80s, dam building for irrigation was entirely tied to the government’s mission to attain food security.

As more and more land needed to be brought under staple crops, greater amounts of water needed to be impounded behind these concrete structures, submerging large swathes of productive land- an ironic deal. To what extent the construction of irrigation projects helped to increase food productivity is a much contested issue. But, there has been no lack of consensus that this caused large scale innundation of villages, farm lands, tribal settlements, grazing pastures, burial sites, etc. The projects also dried up the river downstream of the impoundment affecting fish and river ecology and forced numerous changes in the way human communities interacted with rivers. However, the human impact that each project had was profound. Each project left behind a legacy of human suffering due to displacement of large numbers of people. Studies by several activists and scholars place the number of people displaced by dams at anywhere between 16 to 38 million.

Following the slump in dam building in the 90s due to their impacts, this sector has received a major impetus from the schemes to tap hydropower in the himalayan region. Dam building has been revivied by a new discourse on climate friendly, renewable energy production with lease human costs. Many of the new sites for hydropower production are in the northeastern mountain states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, and in the himalayan states of Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh.

A whole range of reasons are offered to elucidate the benefits of constructing dams for hydropower in the Northeast. Besides the ‘costs’ due to displacement being low, the production of power in these states would allow them the monetary gains such as a signing amount depending upon the wattage of the project to be installed in the state. Once the project is built, the state can also reap the profits from the sale of upto 12% of the power produced by each project. The proponents of large dams that include the politicians and bureaucrats at the Centre and State, planners, builders and EIA consultants paint a win-win picture: exploiting the country’s largest perennial water system to produce cheap, plentiful power for the nation, economic benefits through power export for the states, employment generation, the end of insurgency (that is tied to poverty), flood control and a small ‘displacement’ of local communities directly by the project.

However, the various actors from the dam making network ie the power companies, the EIA consultants, the officials of the government at the state and central levels, have hardly been able to convince them of the list of benefits that will follow the project. The local communities have, from their end, either directly or through their formal cultural institutions, students groups and customary decision making bodies expressed several fears and in many cases an outright rejection of projects. Some of the concerns of communities in Arunachal Pradesh are arranged thematically in the following paragraphs. These are notes of concern that are unique to the region and emerge as a result of its geography, history, cultural and natural diversity. By raising concerns at various public forums and through petitions and letters, the communities of Northeast India have renewed the debate on large dam impacts and also opened up the path for new possibilities of development that will be more suited to its reality.


The documents for dam projects state that there will be a small impact on people as each of these projects involves displacing very small numbers of families. However what is not considered at all is that although the number of families that may be directly displaced by submergence may be few, the number of families that will be ‘affected’ by the project in the areas downstream of the dam and in surrounding areas will be high. These groups of people are not even assessed and identified as ‘project affected persons’ by the project reports. Eg: in Lower Subansiri, although the project identified people from two villages on the left bank to be ‘affected’, it was brought to the attention of officials during the public hearing that 12 villages and lands on the right bank were also going to be submerged due to the project.

Raising fears about the cumulative displacement of tribal communities by the large number of proposed projects in Arunachal, local groups say, “We are very concerned that should so many of the dam projects that are identified and planned be implemented, the future of the people of our state will be identical as the displaced Chakma and Hajong tribal communities of the Chittagong Hill Tracts.”

The biodiversity richness of the submergence areas is grossly underestimated in the project studies. Eg, the biodiversity assessment for Lower Subansiri project was done at three sites, all close to community settlements, located in the long submergence of over 70 kms. The under assessment of species diversity is evident from the fact that the EIA report listed 13 species of birds when the area boasts of over 200; only 10 species of mammals have been listed in the submergence area and 20 in Tale Valley Sanctuary, even though naturalists have recorded over 50 in the region

The project reports also state that large parts of the submergence areas are degraded forests with marginal biodiversity value. However, these are in fact regenerating jhum fallows with secondary forest growth of varying ages (depending upon the jhum cycle of the area). They are rich in agrobiodiversity and sustain the lives of local communities. Vast areas of community jhum lands are to be submerged by proposed projects and the consequences of this on the livelihood and food security of local communities are not assessed since these lands are identified as degraded forests which the state can afford to submerge.

Social and ecological impacts at landscape level

Shifting agriculture (jhum) is a dominant traditional landuse in the hills of Northeast India and plays a critical role in the livelihoods of people as well as in maintaining agro- biodiversity. Increasing pressures on land have resulted in the shortening of jhum cycles (the length of the fallow period between two cropping phases), thus impacting the ecological viability of this farming system. The submergence of land by hydroprojects will enhance the pressure on the surrounding areas by shortening the jhum cycle, thus affecting the environment and the livelihoods of jhum dependent communities. These impacts have not been assessed or accounted for in EIA studies. For example, the EIA report for the Lower Subansiri project while talking of jhum land coming in the submergence zone, has no mention about the impact of the submergence on jhum cycles in the surrounding landscape, as well as the accompanying social and ecological impacts of the same.

Secondly, each project comes with its set of ‘conservation offsets’. Conversion of community accessed forests to Reserved Forests, creation of protected areas, and imposing afforestation and other measures in the jhum lands in the catchment area of the project are some examples of these. Though some of these conditions may be necessary to compensate for the loss of biodiversity and also ensure project viability, many of these conditions of project clearance will lead to reduced access of forest and land resources to local communities well beyond the submergence zone, including through changing ownership or classification of land/forests. However in the existing planning and decision making process the social and ecological impacts of these conditions are not assessed and they do not reflect in the decision making on the viability of the project. Eg; the Kameng project was cleared on one of the conditions that jhum cultivation will be replaced by settled cultivation in a huge area of 36,830 ha. in a phased manner in consultation with the state government. This is despite having specifically mentioned in the reports that the possibility of settled cultivation in the area is limited.

In a memorandum to the Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister in 2004, civil society groups observed, “The issue of land rights, loss of jhum cultivation areas and loss of customarily owned forest lands are to be seriously examined by the Government of Arunachal Pradesh and the Ministry of Environment and Forests before clearance is given to the Middle Siang HEP. The authority of the Gaon Burras with regard to traditional rights and land related jurisdictions have been completely sidelined, and this is a matter of very grave and long-standing future consequences if this is recognized as a precedent that will undermine the traditional institutions and practices of Arunachal Pradesh.”

Environmental risks

The Northeast is a geologically fragile area and is seismically active. This is known to all the communities who live here due to events in the past. The last two major earthquakes in the region (1897 and 1950) caused landslides on the hill slopes including the blockage of river courses, flash floods due to sudden bursting of landslide-induced temporary dams, raising of riverbeds due to heavy siltation, fissuring and sand venting, subsidence or elevation of existing river and lake bottoms and margins and creation of new water bodies and waterfalls due to faulting. After the 1950 earthquake, extensive landslides blocked the Subansiri and the bursting of this natural dam after several days caused devastating floods downstream. A large amount of sediment generated by the landslides was brought downstream, raising the riverbed considerably. The Subansiri and several of its tributaries changed their course at several places, forming new channels. These landslide dams can have serious impacts on human-made dams, both upstream and downstream, during their existence and after their breakage. This can be a serious environmental risk for proposed hydropower dams in the region and also magnify hazards for downstream communities. Breakage of a landslide dam upstream of a hydropower dam can increase the downstream flood by additional release of reservoir waters to protect the dam structure.

Labour and employment

Hydropower projects are long gestation projects where labour is brought into the region from other areas by contractors in large numbers. The presence of large numbers of people in the local area for a prolonged period of time can impact the demographic profile of the local area and also affect community health and culture. A clear example of the impacts of developmental projects on the demographic profile is demonstrated in Sikkim, where labour brought in for work stay on after completion of the project. In the case of the Teesta V hydel project of NHPC in Sikkim, one of the conditions of environmental clearance is that all labourers brought into Sikkim for the project should be given work permits only after being checked thoroughly and treated for diseases. Despite this, the highest number of Sexually Transmitted Diseases in the entire state is reported from the dam site area. The affected people include both labourers and local people.

Although one of the significant projected benefits of the proposed projects is employment generation for local people, the experience from past projects indicates that very few locals are employed in the skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled categories. This is mainly because the local people are said to be lacking in the capacities necessary to be working in this sector. Many groups have stated that the state could benefit from ensuring that skill building and training of local people through is undertaken prior to implementation of viable projects so that employment opportunities offered by the projects can be maximised by the people of Arunachal.

One the most consistent suggestions offered by different communities who fear the impacts of the projects has been to stagger the pace of hydropower development in the state. A cautious approach of carefully observing the impacts of the projects that have already been taken up and are operational would help to undertake new projects in a more efficient manner. It is clear from the responses of people at public forums such as the Public Hearings held for the project that they do not see development as always harmful or negative. They are open to the experience of development through hydropower but there are several views on how such a development should be approached. Detailed and accurate data collection processes, elaborate discussions with communities well before the implementation of projects and careful assessment of impacts of existing projects are key conditions to development according to them. Despite such well thought out and clear suggestions for the undertaking of projects, the state and central government has viewed these communities as opposers, anti national and anti development. If the government fails to engage with these communities in ways that are respectful to their ways of thinking, it will lose a very valuable opportunity to demonstrate that participatory development is possible.

This article is available in French: Un barrage pour qui ? Points de vue sur la production hydroélectrique dans le nord-est de l’Inde

Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: manjumenon1975(@)


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