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Dams in Arunachal Pradesh: Between Development Debates and Strategic Dimensions

Dr Medha Bisht is Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi; and former Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar IDSA.Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 01, 2010

    The debate on dams in terms of inclusive development has occupied considerable national and international space over the last few decades. It was in 1951 that a United Nations Report, Measures on Economic Development for Underdeveloped Countries, underlined the need to expand the development paradigm and recognise the rights of the marginalised irrespective of caste, creed and colour. The Brandt and Palme Commissions of 1980 and 1983 further linked development goals to peace and security thus underlining the linkage between removal of poverty and comprehensive security. It was amidst these emerging discourses that the linkage between dams and development was first noticed when in 1984 Nicholson Hildyard and Edward Goldsmith framed the issue of dams in terms of rights based development. Linkage between rights and development was further established by the UN Declaration on Rights to Development in 1986, which stated that “people are entitled to participate in, contribute to and enjoy economic, social and political development in which all fundamental rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realised.” Thus participation in development processes was considered elementary as well as a necessary condition for inclusive development. Amartya Sen in his book Development as Freedom has further elaborated this concept by emphasising that material wellbeing measured in terms of Gross National Product is as much important as the freedom which people can exercise while making participatory development choices.

    The recent controversy in Arunachal Pradesh on the construction of dams voices some of these concerns. While the local tribes in Arunachal consider dams as an existential threat to their socio-cultural fabric, where development is divorcing them from their cultural heritage; organised protests in Assam stem from its lower riparian fears of being flooded due to manual tampering with the Brahmaputra waters. Environmentalists meanwhile have been raising the alarm since the dams would be built on a fragile ecological zone prone to frequent earthquakes. Increased sedimentation of rivers, they argue, can lead to loss of flora and fauna. The hydropower policy of Arunachal Pradesh however looks at the issue differently. The document states that, “the state provides ideal conditions for development of hydro power projects as most of the major river systems flow in North-South direction and ultimately drain into Brahmaputra. The small rivulets are perennial in nature and therefore provide an ideal condition for developing mini and micro hydel projects.”

    The urgency of dam building in Arunachal Pradesh on the part of the Indian government can also be gauged from the strategic importance that water rights have for states sharing transboundary rivers. Diversion of Brahmaputra by China has received much attention in the past few months. While the Chinese have been opaque about their intentions, the plausibility of China tapping Brahmaputra waters cannot be ignored especially given its regional impact on the downstream countries. In the absence of an overarching water regime to guide the behaviour of both parties, a unilateral move towards establishing water rights by either of the countries is a distinct possibility. The spate of dam building in Arunachal Pradesh therefore has to be situated in this broad context of establishing “prior use” on Brahmaputra waters.

    Meanwhile meeting the water security needs of a growing population has also convinced India to opt for dams as a feasible option. In 2001 the Indian government had vociferously criticised the report produced by the World Commission on Dams on the ground that it goes against its national water policy, which aims to create 200 billion cubic metres of storage capacity by the year 2025. Also, according to some estimates, the subcontinent can be water stretched by 2030 and water security and management would be a critical area of concern.

    Given these external and internal constraints, voices and the rationale of the anti-dam groups fail to influence the policy makers on dam-building in Arunachal Pradesh. The views of the Indian state and the civil society on dams have been so divergent that shaping a shared paradigm on the issue appears to be almost a tortuous ordeal. An analysis of the past record of the Indian government on dam building would provide some insights on the existing trust deficit between dam opponents and proponents. For instance, the Sardar Sarovar Project, which is one of the largest multipurpose projects in India, has been mired in controversy since its inception and it would be no exaggeration to state that a large number of people are still waiting for their due share.

    In Arunachal Pradesh the intention of the government is to build about a hundred dams with a total capacity of 56,000 MW. Apart from the micro hydel projects, mega projects would be built on the five major river basins of the state, namely Kameng River Basin, Subansiri River Basin, Siang River Basin, Dibang River Basin and Lohit River Basin. The projects built on the rivers are not only being considered as infrastructure, which would pay back in hydro dollars but are also estimated to contribute substantively to the state budget in the coming years. Though the process started way back in 2005, it has been impeded by various groups in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. While it cannot be denied that apprehensions over dam building are justified in their own right, engagement on the issue with an open mind could perhaps pave the way forward. As India completes a decade in the twenty-first century, and is acquiring the identity of a power of some reckoning, it needs to be conveyed that the Indian state is inclusive of the needs of the concerned and legitimate stakeholders. Arunachal Pradesh, being an integral part of India and being located in a sensitive border region, exercising a judicious mix of policy options in the state has become an imperative. These policy choices need to be explored and debated in order to create a middle path. In this struggle between dams, development and strategy in Arunachal Pradesh there are three policy options before the Indian government.

    Adopt a Gradualist Approach

    Building an enabling environment in Arunachal is a precondition for kick starting the process. In the initial phase, run of the river projects should be built in order to convince the locals that their culture would be respected and unnecessary tampering would be avoided. It should be explained that run of the river projects are environmental friendly and there is no alteration of downstream flows, since all diverted water is returned to the stream below the powerhouse. However, a guarded approach should nevertheless be undertaken with respect to the impact of the flow to the downstream areas.

    Many in developing countries argue that eggs need to be broken to make an omelette, but if eggs are broken on the back of the poor one is just reaffirming the status quo. Therefore the development equation should be balanced by the benefits which the locals would get due from the projects. The benefits accrued from generation of electricity and free delivery of power, as per the state’s hydro-power policy, should be conveyed to the people. Also the benefits of electricity to the coming generations should be highlighted and the costs and benefits of development should be communicated. Engagement with tribal leaders is a must and local interlocutors need to be identified by the government. The focal point of compensation schemes being responsive to the cultural and social mores of the people of Arunachal Pradesh should be kept in mind. Unfortunately a gradual approach towards dam building has not been adopted. According to a featured article published in Outlook ( November 2009) , “Over 30 MoUs of the 103 power projects were signed in the five months preceding the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.”

    Encourage Multi-Stakeholder Participation and Transparent Bidding for Medium and Large Dams

    Prior Informed Consent of indigenous groups was an underlining theme in various presentations across regions in the deliberations which were undertaken during the World Commission on Dams. Though the process at the outset might appear discouraging and arduous, informed consent can provide a platform for engaging in dialogue. Attempts towards public hearings have been made in Arunachal Pradesh, though they have failed. Perhaps some introspection should be done on the reasons behind their failure.

    As there are many opposing parties and associated vested interests with the issue of dam building, multi-stakeholder participation should be encouraged. Such multi-stakeholder dialogues could include the concerned environmentalists, civil-society representatives of lower riparian Assam, engineers, private companies, representatives of state and central government and existing informal groups working on human rights and other issues. Multi-stakeholder dialogue is an integral process in shaping a shared consensus on issues and can lead to integrative outcomes. However, effective leadership by the government to sustain the process is important and representatives should be chosen on the basis of the credibility they have at the state level. It should be made clear that medium sized projects would only be constructed after the environmental impact assessment is undertaken. Public hearings should be monitored by a group of representatives and the process of bidding by private companies should be made transparent. The fears of the tribals that migrant labourers would encroach into their culture and disturb the demographics of the state should be adequately addressed. It should also be conveyed clearly that projects would only be constructed once detailed project reports are undertaken and social and environmental costs would be included in the overall assessment of the project. Only a sustained dialogue on the aforementioned issues can be the key towards generating assurance and credibility in the long run. The ecological equation of the impact of dams on Assam as a lower riparian, the increase of siltation and apprehensions about dams being built on a highly seismic zone should be addressed appropriately. Many studies have already pointed out the ecological damage that large dams can impose on the region. Before taking any hasty action, the government should dispel such uncertainties. Such action could prove useful while countering Chinese claims and intentions on Brahmaputra.

    Explore Diplomatic Channels to Engage China

    Engaging China on water issues is in the long term interest of India as well as that of the region. Tampering with Brahmaputra water flows, either by India or China, would have an inevitable impact on total water flowing into Bangladesh. Thus Bangladesh in near future could emerge as a legitimate stakeholder on water issues. A multilateral engagement on water issues would thus have to be explored in the near future. The absence of such an approach could lead to misleading perceptions and increase the water anxieties of down stream countries. A potential way of dealing with the water issue is to engage Bangladesh and send strong signals to China on the concerns of lower riparians. Bangladesh has already started voicing concerns on its water security needs and has been seeking support for a regional multilateral understanding on water issues for quite some time now. India could revisit its regional water policy by exploring norms that govern the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin. This would mean that India engages Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan too in order to generate a consensus on water cooperation. Nepal and Bhutan are landlocked countries and navigational facilities via the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers, respectively, into the Bay of Bengal could increase incentives for these countries to cooperate. This multilateral consensual approach could raise China’s unilateral stakes towards transboundary rivers. Navigation is adversely affected by decreasing water flows and increasing sedimentation. Large dam and water diversion activities in China can potentially affect such possibilities of cooperation.

    Moreover bilateral engagement with China on sharing of Brahmaputra waters could be difficult for India as China is an upper riparian country where a unilateral move attracts it more than a cooperative one. India’s multilateral engagement with other neighbours can therefore provide an antidote to this behaviour. India’s current policy option of establishing prior use on Brahmaputra waters could provide short term gains. However if projects are not carried out in a well thought, transparent manner, keeping its ecological impacts in mind, disaster is definitely in the offing.

    Considering these overarching concerns, dams in Arunachal Pradesh need to be debated and a consensual approach forged. Dam building in Arunachal Pradesh should not be perceived as an insurmountable irritant, but rather as a sign of a vibrant Indian democracy. The process however for managing such discrepancies is important as it is in this ‘in between space’ that disagreements can either be transformed into cooperation or confrontation. Often, latent grievances stemming from non-participatory processes provide fodder for insurgencies. This should be kept in mind as Arunachal Pradesh is a sensitive border state located in a conflict prone region.