Durpai, Arunachal Pradesh: In this tribal village three hours from state capital Itanagar, the lights illogically go down with the sun. A lucky evening brings electricity for a little while. But for the most part, families of the Nyishi tribe spend evenings around the kitchen fire in stilt and bamboo homes, stoking wood burning under a charred pot.
Less than 10km away, power utility NHPC Ltd’s colony glows even through the rain and rises with the mountains—complete with accommodation for 3,000 employees, a school, a hospital, a bank and a recreation hall where children dance to Bollywood numbers every evening. They have come to build the Rs6,400 crore dam on the Subansiri river, which will provide 2,000MW of electricity.
While their work will bring light to nearby Durpai and countless other villages across India, the 118ft dam will also submerge the land on which the Nyishis subsist. Takhi Yigiyor, the village president said, “We eat what we grow in the jungles. Mostly rice.” Explaining the reliance on so-called slash-and-burn cultivation, he adds, “We don’t buy anything. We don’t sell anything. This land provides for us.”
With no power, a family spends its evenings around the kitchen fire in stilt and bamboo huts, in Durpai village, Arunachal Pradesh
Here, at one end of India, mountains cloaked in deep, dense forests plunge into yawning river gorges. In these forests, the state has protected local tribes, about 120 in all, from prying outsiders by restricting access to these jungles. Even Indians need a permit to enter. Shielded from the world, these tribes have survived and kept their traditions and culture alive. But they have not prospered.
Now, with the country hungry for fuel to sustain an 8% growth rate and booming cities regularly facing power crises, the natural bounty of Arunachal Pradesh holds an unexplored promise: hydropower.
There are seven river basins, where 104 dams will generate 55,556MW in a decade. If dam building proceeds as planned, beyond sustaining the country, it will also transform Arunachal from a protected state to the powerhouse of the nation. The state alone will earn Rs8,700 crore annually by selling power to its north-eastern sisters.
For the rest of India facing an acute power shortage—the country needs 70,000MW to meet its current demand—the untapped power potential here is the godsend for millions sweltering in power cuts in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi.
But while the government has welcomed the investment, the local people say they believe dam development is not in their interest. They believe their forests, livelihoods and culture will be destroyed by the coming of the outsiders.
As in industrializing areas across the country, India’s vision for this state and itself rests on buy-in. In Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China, the issue is more acute, due to decades of geographic and cultural isolation.
Two months ago, a politician threatened to go to China for development assistance if the Centre did not deliver. It was widely regarded as a gimmick, but it underscored villagers’ awareness that they suddenly matter a whole lot to an India they haven’t always embraced.
Two of the government’s biggest hydropower projects—the 2,000MW Lower Subansiri project in southern Arunachal and the 3,000MW Dibang Valley project in the north-eastern part—have run into trouble with locals, social scientists, environmentalists and power experts. All believe they are being rushed and a better pace is needed to ensure sustainable,equitable development.
Their concerns are as varied as the group: locals do not believe they will benefit from the dams, and don’t see the need for them; while social scientists raise alarm about a compensation crisis because no land records exist in the state.
They also say the inflow of outsiders coming to work at project sites will transform the demographics in the state. The environmentalists allege the government is not following procedures and norms. Lastly, power analysts say that even if all these dams are built, bringing the power they generate to mainland India may not even be possible.
“Arunachal does not need all this power. Dams are going to destroy the area and not bring any development to the local people here. It is being done suddenly, without involving the locals, who will lose their land and livelihood. They don’t even have an education or degree to find a job,” said Tome Mikrow, general secretary of All Idu Mishmi Students Union, leading the opposition to the Dibang Valley project in northern Arunachal Pradesh. “The project is being done because the mainland needs these resources. What is the sudden rush?”
When Arunachal Pradesh officially became a part of India in 1965, controlled by the ministry of home affairs instead of the ministry of external affairs, it had no roads and just two primary schools.
“We inherited nothing. No roads, buildings, schools, or health institutions,” said Prashant Lokhande, commissioner of the western district of Lohit and secretary to J.J. Singh, the new governor of the state and former chief of army.
Forty years and Rs20,000 crore in Central funds later, little has changed. The state’s infrastructure, although better than before, lags national averages: road density is just 21km per 100 sq. km—one-third of the national average, there is one university with 16 colleges and there are 14 hospitals for more than one million people.
Locals said they want and need the roads and airports the prime minister has promised. “We are not against development. The prime minister’s package is good. We only don’t want big dams,” said Mickrow. “Development’s time has come.”
Two months ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs10,000 crore package that will bring six airports to the state that has none now and an 1,840km long four-lane inter-state highway. Motorists have to now go south to Assam to reach any point in Arunachal Pradesh.
“What should be a five-, six-hour drive sometimes takes 10 hours or more,” said P. Tako, a cab driver in Itanagar, who ferries tourists for a living.
In response, government officials believe the people do not understand how important these projects are. “These will put Arunachal Pradesh on the national map. The revenue from this will bring opportunities they have not thought of,” said Lokhande, who has lived in the state for six years.
So far, the government has tried to woo locals with promise of jobs, free water and electricity, hospitals and schools.
Fear of the unknown
The bigger fear is how sudden development will transform lives, said Jarjum Ete, former chairperson at Arunachal Pradesh state commission for women. “They are facing the most important question in their history—what do we preserve and what do we develop? They want the government to share the vision of how this transformation will happen. They want someone to talk to them and tell them what role they will play in a new economy that is coming.”
And yet as the lights of the colony remaking their landscape remind nightly, locals are not sure of the role they will play in the Arunachal Pradesh being built.
“Can you imagine any of us working in the dam offices there? Have you seen their colony? Economic development has to start from our village. We want to bring the change that is good for us,” said T. Kena, 28, a villager at Durpai, who has a political science degree from Itanagar University.
Sitting on the twig and bamboo floored home of his gaonboro, or tribal chieftain, Kena said he feels little will change for the better after the dam.
“Look at our home,” he said, pointing to the dusty squirrel tails, tiger jaws, deer antlers and hornbill beaks hanging on the walls. “A dam can change all this? But the government has decided to do it and there is nothing we can do.”
Instead of allying fears and talking to the people, “the political leaders have chosen to go to posh hotels in Delhi, strike deals and make money without involving the civil society, social scientists and community leaders”, alleged Tana Showren, a professor of political history at Itanagar University.
Last year, the government signed about 65 memorandums of understanding for new dams in the state with public and private players such as NHPC, North Eastern Electric Power Corp. Ltd, the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group and developer Jaiprakash Associates Ltd.
“When you do this recklessly without involving civil society, you will alienate the people you claim to work for,” Showren said. “Of course, people have started protesting.”
The scepticism comes from experience. “When we were displaced from our houses because of the Ranganadi dam, we were promised jobs, a school, electricity and water,” said Taba Tayo, tribal chief of Potin village near Itanagar. Ranganadi sits two hours from Assam and saw a dam built nine years ago. Like other parts of the country, people displaced were moved to this new village, Potin, 8km from their previous home.
Today, the once-new houses made from bamboo and cane are corroded. The money promised for repairs has not come. Tired of waiting for infrastructure, villagers built their own school and road, but say they are still waiting for the promised water to gush from taps. Only five members of his village got jobs.
“Big politicians came and told us the dam will bring us jobs and development. Show me where is the development?” Tayo asked, standing at the abyss where his village ends and the valley begins.
This is the first in a series of articles on Arunachal Pradesh. Part 2 will focus on who really owns the land for the projects in the absence of land records.