Chi is single-mindedly going ahead in harnessing the rivers on Tibet, chief among which is the Yarlung Tsangpo that flows down to Assam as its lifeline, the Brahmaputra. It has now operatiolised the 1.5 billion dollar Zam (Zangmu) hydropower station over the Brahmaputra, with all six of the station’s units plugged into the Chinese power grid. Zam is the world’s highest-altitude hydropower station and the largest of its kind, and will produce 2.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. According to its builder Chi Gezhouba group, the project will go a long way to meet power-starved central Tibet’s needs and help jump-start its development. Part of the electricity generated will also be transmitted to the neighbouring Qinghai province, so Tibet is not the sole focus as Beijing would like New Delhi to believe. In fact, the first unit began operations last November itself when the matter grabbed headlines again. There were earlier reports that Chi was building as many as seven dams on the main channel of the Brahmaputra, apart from Zangmu. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi now says that the move by Chi to operatiolise the Zam hydro-power station will cause ‘irreparable damage’ to Assam. Giving the issue some political spin, he has lambasted Prime Minister rendra Modi for not urgently taking up the matter with the Chinese leadership during his visit to that country in May this year. If Gogoi is to be believed, the NDA government’s casual approach led to a ‘diplomatic failure at the highest level’, allowing Beijing to go ahead with its dam construction plan.
It is true that the issue of Chinese dams on the Brahmaputra did not figure high in Prime Minister Modi’ agenda during his Chi visit. It was also reflected in the Exterl Affairs Ministry’s disinclition to push the dam issue strongly, and thereby jeopardise other areas in which New Delhi was keen to engage Beijing. The two neighbouring giants went on to ink 24 pacts to cooperate over a wide spectrum of subjects like trade negotiations, skill development, mines and minerals, space and climate change. Prime Minister Modi did speak candidly about Chi holding back in improving bilateral relations, and there were some complaints about the 48 billion dollars trade deficit favouring Chi. But the issue of harnessing the Brahmaputra while adequately addressing the concerns of riparian states was noticeably soft-pedalled by the Indian side. So the Chinese side repeated its bland assurances that the dams being built over the Brahmaputra are ‘run-of-the-river’ projects not designed to hold water, so there is no possibility of affecting downstream flows or suddenly releasing water to cause flood havoc in the lower reaches in India.
Even if the Chinese contention is true, there is no way Indian hydrological experts can verifying this by going over to Tibet. Beijing continues to hold the trump card on this matter, which was evident when PM Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh visited Chi in 2013. The Indian side did raise concerns about the dams on Brahmaputra and possible water diversion. But what was the takeaway then? The two countries signed an MOU on ‘strengthening cooperation on trans-border rivers’ — under which the Chinese side merely agreed to share hydrological data on Brahmaputra flow from May to October instead of June to October stipulated in previous agreements. India and Chi were nowhere near to signing any treaty on sharing their common river waters during either Manmohan Singh’s visit or rendra Modi’s visit. This unequal position is unlikely to change in the near future, unless India pushes for its rights as a riparian state under intertiol law as proactively as Bangladesh has long been doing. There is also the problem that while New Delhi looks at its relations with Beijing from the ‘tiol’ point of view with primary emphasis on increasing bilateral trade, a ‘regiol’ issue concerning states bordering Chi is likely to be soft-pedalled. If New Delhi does not speak up boldly about the Brahmaputra, Aruchal and Assam as NE stakeholders will suffer. After all, the dams built by Chi on the Mekong river in its upper reaches have widely been considered to have had a disastrous effect on the lower riparian countries.