Business News/ Politics / Policy/  India firms up its strategy on Brahmaputra water diversion

New Delhi: India and China have been engaged in a dispute over the diversion of the Brahmaputra river, which originates in Tibet. Even while India is still exploring a diplomatic option, it has initiated an action plan that would give it user rights. In the first of a three-part series,Mint chronicles the government efforts to accelerate hydroelectric projects in Arunachal Pradesh, a key element of the multi-pronged strategy.

Even as India seems to be playing down the potential problems associated with China’s plans to divert river waters that flow into the Brahmaputra, it is simultaneously working on a detailed strategy involving several key government departments—racing to pre-empt Chinese threats.

According to documents reviewed by Mint, a technical expert group (TEG) entrusted with devising India’s game plan has made a slew of recommendations, including expeditiously allotting at least one major hydropower project each in strategically located Subansiri, Lohit and Siang basins in Arunachal Pradesh as close to the international border as possible in order to establish ‘existing user rights’.

The TEG was set up by a committee of secretaries (CoS) on the Brahmaputra water diversion issue to address the concerns emerging from the actions of the Chinese. In addition, signalling the government’s growing concern, an inter-ministerial expert group (IMEG) was simultaneously set up to monitor and collate information on the sensitive issue that has major strategic ramifications for India.

The multi-pronged strategy includes completion of regional environment impact studies and biodiversity studies; resolving the issues of possible submergence of habitations and towns by hydropower projects and allotment of projects to central public sector units such as NHPC Ltd and SJVN Ltd. There is also a focus on developing meteorological and hydrological data banks.

India and China have sparred intermittently over hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh, which borders China and has the highest potential for hydropower generation in India.

With China planning to divert waters from rivers that flow into the Brahmaputra to the arid zones of Xinjiang and Gansu, India is worried about the slow pace of work on hydropower projects awarded in Arunachal Pradesh.

Any delay in executing these projects, particularly on rivers originating in China, will affect India’s strategy of establishing a prior-use claim. Under international law, a country’s right over natural resources it shares with other nations becomes stronger if is already putting these resources to use.

This comes in the backdrop of recent agreements over sharing flood data, signed during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to China last month.

Apart from the CoS, the government created a ministerial group headed by finance minister P. Chidambaram on developing the north-eastern region of the country.

The CoS comprises the secretaries and chiefs in the ministries and departments of home, power, cabinet secretariat, intelligence bureau, National Technical Research Organization, defence, foreign affairs, economic affairs, space, water resources, Planning Commission, environment and forests, chairman of joint intelligence committee and chief secretaries of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

“Regular meetings are now being held and we are working to implement the recommendations. The seriousness of the issue has been grasped and we are on the job. However, a lot of time has been lost," said a senior Indian government official aware of the government’s strategy, requesting anonymity.

The three major rivers of Arunachal Pradesh that originate in China are Siang, Subansiri and Lohit. Of the Brahmaputra’s 2,880km-length, 1,625km is in Tibet, 918km in India, and 337km in Bangladesh. To speed up work on these projects, the TEG has recommended declaring them ‘National Projects’, hastening technical concurrence—including approvals from the ministries of defence and home affairs—and development of the road infrastructure in the region.

Another move involves the possible re-allocation of the 1,800 megawatts (MW) Subansiri Upper project, currently with KSK Energy Ventures Ltd, to a state-owned firm—which would give the government greater control over its execution.

Measures are also planned to speed up a study of the strategic river basins of Siang, Subansiri and Lohit and the construction of transmission links for the evacuation of power to other parts of India.

India’s anxiety stems from the fact that out of Arunachal Pradesh’s estimated potential of unleashing 50,064MW of power, less than 1%, or 405MW, has been harnessed so far. This is in spite of the fact that 94 projects with a combined capacity of 41,502.5MW have been allotted across eight river basins—all in Arunachal Pradesh—of Kameng, Subansiri, Tawang, Siang, Dibang, Lohit, Dikrong and Tirap.

Queries emailed to KSK Energy on 10 November remained unanswered, but a second government official who also didn’t wish to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the issue identified the strategic projects as Siang Upper stage one (6,000MW); Siang Upper stage two (3,750MW); Oju (1,800MW); Naba (1,000MW); Kalai one (1,352MW); and Kalai two (1,200MW) in the critical Siang, Subansiri and Lohit basins.

“These projects are close to India’s border with China," the official said.

The ministries of water resources and power have already expressed their reservations on Beijing’s ambitious water diversion scheme, into which it is pouring $62 billion. China is building 36 projects on rivers that lie upstream of the Brahmaputra.

Commenting on India’s plans, Alka Acharya, director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies and editor of China Report, said, “Well, one hopes. The kinds of sentiments and expectations that have been stoked have heightened the sense of uncertainty. With the spotlight on the issue, the Indian government will be putting much more effort and focus on the issue. The need for these efforts is gaining traction. The success of such efforts will depend upon the extent to which the Indian government is able to bring in partners from the Northeast."

Arguing along the similar lines, Umesh Narayan Panjiar, chairman, Bihar Electricity Regulatory Commission and former secretary, ministry of water resources, said, “It is never too late. However, to expedite the projects one has to convince the Arunachal Pradesh government and make sure that the people affected by the project are taken care of. Another big bottleneck is the infrastructure in the north-eastern part of the country. We have to construct strong roads to carry large equipment."

The Central Water Commission (CWC) has been asked to conduct the studies for the Subansiri sub-basin and Siang sub-basin in consultation with the Central Electricity Authority (CEA)—India’s apex power sector planning body—and ministry of environment and forests (MoEF). After completing these two studies, the CWC will carry out studies in the other basins.

Also, it has been decided that for accelerating the projects, MoEF will not deny clearances to the projects located in the three strategic basins of Siang, Subansiri and Lohit in the absence of basin-wise environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies. Cumulative EIA studies of Siang, Subansiri, Lohit, Dibang and Tawang are set to be completed shortly.

Land acquisition problems and delays in securing government clearances have delayed hydropower development in the country. Hydroelectric projects with a capacity to generate 16,754MW of power—enough to meet the demands of states such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab—are awaiting environmental clearances, even though they have been cleared by CEA.

“The water debates have also brought focus to the issue. The debate has also become more pronounced within China from the point of view of pollution, environment concerns and the need for water. Within India it has been put under the security perspective. This has heightened the issue. This has also become an important agenda with the coming together of other issues such as development of India’s Northeast and India’s Look East policy," added Acharya, who has authored China and India: Politics of Incremental Engagement.

The development of infrastructure in the Northeast is also key to India’s so-called Look East policy—a focus on South-East Asia. There have also been an increase in Chinese military incursions into the Northeast.

Given the quantum of capacity being planned in the region, India plans to commission power transmission links for the evacuation of power to other parts of India in sync with the projects. The first set of projects, Pare (110MW), is set to be commissioned by 2015, followed by lower Subansiri (2,000MW) and Kameng (600MW) by 2017.

Transmitting electricity through Chicken’s Neck, a 22km strip in West Bengal that tenuously connects the Northeast with the rest of the country, has been a major constraint for the transmission of power from the region. The government is also planning to strengthen the intra-state transmission and distribution system in Arunachal Pradesh.

The planned commissioning of the projects comes against the backdrop of the central government stepping up efforts to develop infrastructure in a region that has often complained of being neglected.

Utpal Bhaskar
"Utpal Bhaskar leads Mint's policy and economy coverage. He is part of Mint’s launch team, which he joined as a staff writer in 2006. Widely cited by authors and think-tanks, he has reported extensively on the intersection of India’s policy, polity and corporate space.
Catch all the Politics News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.
More Less
Updated: 20 Nov 2013, 11:38 PM IST
Recommended For You
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My Reads Watchlist Feedback Redeem a Gift Card Logout