Newspaper: The Economic Times
Section: Policy
Date: 28th Aug’ 08
Page: 23

Dams of North-East raise crucial concerns
Krishna Sarma

IN 2000, a report commissioned by the World Commission on Dams found that “though dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms.” A document titled ‘India’s Nuclear Energy Programme and the 123 Agreement with United States’ posted inthe website of the Prime Minister’s Office echoes this conclusion and states “Hydro-power is clean but not always green because large dams can destroy our natural habitat and displace people.”

And yet, an alarming number of mega hydro projects are in various stages of development in Arunachal Pradesh without any comprehensive environmental impact assessments (EIAs). As of September 2007, Arunachal has signed 39 MOUs to generate 24,471 MW, with both public and private sector developers. The state is being heralded as the new ‘power house’ of India with a potential of 50,000 MW. It is noteworthy that 42 (with 27,293 MW capacity) out of the 162 projects under the PM’s 50,000 MW Hydroelectric Initiative 2003—which proposes to bring on line installed capacity of about 50,000 MW by 2017—are in that state.

It is a matter of great concern that multiple mega dams are being proposed to be built on each and every upper tributary of the river Brahmaputra. These tributaries originate in Tibet and flow through Arunachal and Assam to join the Brahmaputra. But EIAs are being done piecemeal in respect of each project without a holistic study of the entire basin.

Take the case of NEEPCO’s 405 MW run-of-river Ranganadi Project in Lower Subansiri District, which was commissioned in 2002. Since 1998, when work began on this dam, downstream flash floods caused by release of large quantities of water in the river without warning/inadequate warning has caused unbelievable upheavals in the Lakhimpur district of Assam. The most recent episode was in June, 2008 where 347 villages were submerged, 8 people lost their lives and 7525 cattle lives were lost. If a 68 m high dam can create such havoc, one can only imagine the aftermath of possible breaches, which may be caused by a 116 m high Lower Subansiri dam (anticipated to be commissioned in 2012) or the 288 m high dam on the Dibang.

Further, giving the thumbs-up to the North East Region together with Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim as “world’s most environmentally and socially benign sites for hydro power” as did a 2005 World Bank Report was quite off the mark. The thought of fewer Project Affected Families (PAFs) may sound attractive, but one cannot lose sight of the fact that the region is home to many ethnic tribes with distinct identities. These tribes are dependent on land, forests and rivers for their sustenance.

Second, the region is a biodiversity hotspot with rare, endemic flora and fauna. The Lower Subansiri Project will submerge huge areas of reserve forests and a wildlife sanctuary in both the states and will impinge upon an important elephant corridor. The EIA report glosses over these facts—no biotic survey was done. Third, the entire region is ecologically fragile with high seismic activity.

This piece is not a treatise against dam building or hydro power. Rather, it is an appeal for a vision of environmentally sustainable Dams that supports economic and social progress. The following issues need consideration from policymakers: (1) Comprehensive sectoral environmental assessment and basin development must be undertaken in its entirity and site selection must focus on identifying better dams; (2) Where large dams are the only viable option, they should be supported. However, if small hydro projects (SHPs) offer better solutions, they should be favoured; (3) Environment clearance should be comprehensive and mean more than legal compliance. Contentious issues must be investigated in advance of any commitment to the project; (4) Independent power producers (IPPs) look for commercial viability and it is essential that the social and environmental impacts are controlled, alleviated or mitigated in order to secure the bankability and financial closure of a project. and (4) finally, a word on the Rehabilitation & Resettlement Policy (R&R).

Projects should recognise entitlements, sustain livelihoods and share benefits. Adverse impact on PAF needs to be assessed in a participatory and transparent manner. Eeither the government or a third party should take responsibility of EIA studies and the resulting mitigation/resettlement plans before the IPP gets involved. A portion of the project cost should be earmarked for this purpose.

(The author is managing partner, Corporate Law Group, a New Delhi-based law firm and also the standing counsels for Assam in the Supreme Court)