Project blunders alienate locals, activists—but work goes on

Project blunders alienate locals, activists—but work goes on
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First Published: Tue, May 20 2008. 10 30 AM IST
Updated: Wed, May 21 2008. 06 13 PM IST
Arunachal Pradesh: The site of the biggest hydroelectric project executed in Arunachal Pradesh happens to sit on the fringe of the Tale Valley Sanctuary, one the top biodiversity spots in Asia where endangered species such as the tiger, clouded leopard, marbled cat, golden mahseer and river dolphins thrive.
To protect them as the Rs6,400 crore Lower Subansiri hydel project was built, the Supreme Court ordered NHPC Ltd not to dump dredged river silt into the riverbed. It asked the state government not to build any more dams on this river.
Four years later, on an afternoon earlier this month, an NHPC worker proudly points to the dumps of muck on a dry riverbed and says, “These are man-made mountains. We have diverted the course of the river to make this dam.”
Silt dredged from the riverbed, to reach the foundation rock on which the dam will be built, has been dumped straight into the riverbed.
Meanwhile, NHPC’s website announces the launch of two new projects–the 1,600MW Middle Subansiri and the 2,000MW Upper Subansiri on the same river where the apex court has imposed a condition: No more dams. Officials say they are “confident” that the Supreme Court will change its decision on the issue.
NHPC chief executive S.K. Garg did not return a call for comment. Shashank Bhatnagar, general manager and geologist in charge of the Dibang Valley project 500km away, said it has to proceed.
“Look, local sentiments can never be compensated, but we have to rise above that and think of the national good,” he said. “We are a government of India undertaking.”
This hard-to-access state should have been the perfect development story: the country needs more power to meet demand and since Arunachal can generate the power by damming its rivers, it does.
But the government’s blunders in execution have alienated locals, environmentalists and social activists, who accuse power companies such as NHPC of deliberately undermining the environment by conducting shoddy environment impact assessments (EIA), violating court orders to protect wildlife and ignoring state concerns.
These groups accuse the government of mortgaging their land by taking advances for projects that have not received environmental clearance. Already, it might be too late.
On a recent visit here, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone for the Dibang Valley dam project. It has yet to conduct required public hearings.
Damning procedure
“It is as if these forests and the wildlife here do not count. When you say EIA was badly done, their response is: but we are bringing power here,” said Neeraj Vagholikar, an environment expert at the Pune non-profit Kalpavriksh, which has been following environmental clearances at the Lower Subansiri project. “An EIA is the most important document in the project process, especially in an ecologically fragile area like this one. If you do not want to do it properly, do away with the pretence.”
Consultants hired by NHPC did the first environmental assessment of this project in 2002. Normally, the ministry of environment and forests would have cleared it, but because 42 sanctuary acres would be submerged to make way for the dam, the Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL) also had to be notified, said Vagholikar.
This committee visited the project site in 2002 and discovered that EIA was sloppy: it listed just 13 species of birds in an area that has more than 200; it lists 55 species of fish in a place where there are at least 135; it did not mention the elephant corridor just below the dam site and also neglected the downstream aspect, which studies the impact of change in course on floods, fish and human activities down the river.
IBWL refused to approve the project based on the report, demanding more studies in the entire region since a larger area would be affected. The ministry complied. It asked the Zoological Survey of India and the Botanical Survey of India to do additional studies. “But both these organizations confined their study only to the 42 hectares of the sanctuary, not the whole contiguous area that has equally rich biodiversity,” said Vagholikar.
In May 2003, IBWL once again refused to clear the project because even the additional reports “did not meet the committee recommendations and were poor in quality”, said Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia, a Mumbai-based magazine. He was on the wildlife committee and involved with the decision to file an application in the Supreme Court, asking it to intervene.
The application detailed how then environment minister T.R. Baalu threatened to dissolve the committee. “He said it in an open meeting that if we did not give clearance now, it would be cleared by a reconstituted committee,” Sahgal said. Baalu, now the shipping minister, did not return calls for comment.
“We saw that set procedures were being violated and political considerations were dominating ecological considerations,” said Sahgal, explaining why the committee chose to go to court.
The application said that the team had given clearance only under pressure, and had imposed two conditions before giving it: no more dams above this one could be built on this river and no silt would be dumped in the riverbed. Essentially, the Supreme Court sides with the committee in its verdict in April 2004.
The government of Arunachal Pradesh and NHPC accepted the conditions without any protest and work began at Subansiri. Ten months later, the state government wrote its first of three letters asking NHPC to stop work, because it had filed an application in the Supreme Court to “vacate/modify its order of April 2004” since it was not possible for the government to comply any more. If the Subansiri river could be dammed at 17 places to produce 11,000MW of power, the projects will bring in Rs80,000 crore of investment.
Environmentalists allege that the government waited until the project started before going back to the Supreme Court, saying it was unreasonable to give up 11,000MW of power potential on the river.
The government maintains that the state needs the money and development—and India needs the power. Prashant Lokhande, personal secretary to the governor and commissioner of the western district of Lohit, said, “There is a potential here for 80,000MW of power. We have gone for run of the river projects that will generate less power, but are more eco-friendly. No one is talking about that.”
Dam people
A similar scenario played out at the Dibang Valley project 500km away. NHPC, previously known as the National Hydro Power Corp., is also building this dam, which will be India’s largest when constructed. During his recent visit to the state in January, Singh laid the foundation stone for it.
He jumped the gun: an important part of the environmental clearance is the public hearings—a process during which locals raise concerns and issues regarding the project. It was not complete. Now, locals boycott the hearings as a sham because the government “has already made its intentions clear and is not interested in what we have to say”, said Tome Mickrow, a member of the All Idu Mishmi Student Union. “But you cannot ignore our issues. They are existential questions for us.”
The dam, which will generate 3,000MW of power, will submerge 5,000 acres of forest land and displace about 700 people. “It does not seem much of displacement, but it is,” said Mickrow, whose organization fears the dam will transform the demographics of the area where his tribe, the Idu Mishmis, live.
There are just 10,000 Idu Mishmis left in the region that has been their traditional home. “And the government has planned 13 dams here. They will bring in about 80,000 labourers from outside to work on these... I don’t even need to explain what will happen to our culture and traditions,” Mickrow said.
When a project is conceived, the company has to hold two public hearings during which a presentation is made to the people. They ask questions, raise concerns and the company has to address those concerns. At Dibang, the first public hearing was held on 29 January. Two days later, “the day the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone, without completing the public hearings”. The second hearing, which was to be held at the site of the project, was never held.
“What is the rush to put the foundation stone?” Mickrow asked. “After that, we boycotted the hearings in March. These procedures are a farce.”
Last week, Mint reported that the state government was taking advances from companies such as NHPC for projects that have not received environmental clearances.
“Last June, they took a Rs225 crore advance for the Dibang Valley project and two projects in Tawang. None had received any environment clearances at the time,” said Anthony Bamang, an activist who runs a human rights group in state capital Itanagar.
But while locals debate the morality of the government taking advances on unapproved projects, companies such as NHPC say local uprisings are bound to happen. Says NHPC’s Bhatnagar, “We need many clearances before starting any project. There are topographical, geological, geophysical surveys done and a detailed project report is put together. The report on the Dibang project has seven volumes that look at everything.” However, he declined Mint’s request to share the report, which is supposed to be a public document, because “it is intellectual property of the NHPC”.
This is the third in a series of articles on Arunachal Pradesh. Part 4 will focus on the challenges of moving surplus power from the north-east to the rest of India.
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First Published: Tue, May 20 2008. 10 30 AM IST