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Cutting Corners For Development

The controversy over building big dams in the Northeast continues to rage. Should power generation to ensure faster development override environmental and safety concerns in a region seismically active and ecologically fragile? Take the Subansiri dam, for instance. If completed, NHPC’s 2,000 MW project will be power starved India’s largest hydel project till date. But a big question mark has come up whether the project should at all go ahead. There are legitimate suspicions that the mega dam project at Gerukamukh in Lakhimpur began in 2005 without proper study of its potential environmental impact. Widespread public protests have erupted, spearheaded by the KMSS and AASU with almost 30 organisations joining hands. As a result, the project slated for completion by 2014, has been bogged down since December 2011. Several rounds of discussions between the stakeholders along with participation by experts have yielded no results. In its latest bid to end the impasse, the Centre called a two–day meeting with experts and agitating groups in New Delhi on January 10. But the KMSS has now voiced serious misgivings about the intentions of the Centre.

Slamming the Central Government for its version of the gist of the meeting as shown in the ‘record note of discussion’ released afterwards, the KMSS has pointed out that its advocacy of small dams as an altertive model, along with other notes of dissent sent earlier were not incorporated in the record note. Neither have the apprehensions and stands taken by other agitating groups found any mention in this note. Accusing the Centre of trying to obfuscate the entire issue, the KMSS has argued that ensuring flood control measures, lowering the dam height, fixing the power quota for Assam from the Subansiri project at 533 MW were not the sticking points as shown in the record note. Rather the real issue is whether the Government should at all allow the NHPC to go ahead in building a massive dam on a brittle sandstone base in a seismically vulnerable area. Ignoring this literally life and death issue, the Centre’s note has created the impression that the eight–member experts panel will seek to find solutions, rather than go into the central question of whether the Subansiri dam should be built or not. So is the Centre trying to present the Subansiri project as a fait accompli, merely because the public sector unit NHPC has already sunk more than Rs. 6,600 crore in it and completed more than half the work?

The speed with which the rendra Modi government is giving environmental clearances to a host of projects, has created the impression that it is willing to cut corners in a headlong dash towards development. In this context, let us recall the Centre’s decision in 2013 to scrap the Vedanta’s plan to mine Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills for bauxite. Vedanta needed the bauxite to feed its huge alumi refinery at Lanjigarh in Kalahandi district, but the Niyamgiri Hills are home to a backward tribe who worship the mountain–top as the seat of their god. At the intervention of the Supreme Court, the Odisha government sought the opinions of gram sabhas in the area, who voted unimously against mining in the hills. After receiving their opinion, the Centre rejected the mining plan. The Rs 52,000 crore Posco steel project in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district has also been mired in controversy for a decade due to stiff local opposition over compensation and environmental concerns. In Tamil du, the Peoples Movement Against Nuclear Energy is leading mass protests against the Kundankulam nuclear plant, fearing a Fukushima–like disaster at the coast ravaged by the tsumi in 2004. The lakhs of people living downstream to the Subansiri project have legitimate concerns about their safety, if another devastating quake like the ones in 1897 or 1950, visits this region once again. Their lives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of development.

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Ankur Kalita

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