There appears to be more to Monday’s police firing incident at Tawang than meets the eye, in a region which has been witnessing continuing protests against mega dams. Questions are being raised as to whether the policemen were unduly trigger-happy as barely a couple of hundred supporters of a lama had gathered outside the Tawang police station to demand his release. Did the police issue a warning to protesters to disperse, and if they had, should they not have used rubber bullets first? The firing left two persons dead and several injured, prompting chief minister Kalikho Pul to order a probe into the incident. Earlier, lama Lobsang Gyatso had been taken into custody following a complaint filed by the local zilla parishad chairman — over an audio clip in which Gyatso had purportedly cast aspersions on the tiolity of Guru Tulku Rinpoche, the abbot of Tawang mostery. In the clip, Gyatso is also alleged to have warned the abbot ‘not to meddle’ in matters related to hydro-electric projects in Tawang, as the abbot had supposedly refused to permit lamas in his mostery from taking part in anti-dam protests. Supporters of lama Gyatso, also the leader of the ‘Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF)’, are alleging a deep conspiracy to discredit him for his unyielding anti-dam activism. The SMRF has been agitating against as many as 13 dams coming up in Tawang district, with students associations, environmental and civil society groups and Buddhist lamas in large numbers joining the protests. The agitation notched up a significant win last month when the tiol Green Tribul suspended its clearance to the 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu project in Tawang, which will now have to re-conduct environmental impact studies and public hearings.
Gyatso supporters now allege that this was the trigger which made local authorities, backed by powerful politicians — dig up the audio clip of a speech the lama had made at a public meeting in 2012, and thereby attempt to il him with charges of hurting religious feelings, promoting enmity and crimil intimidation. Anti-dam groups in Tawang have been fiercely opposing the 13 hydel projects proposed for the district, pointing to the region’s fragile ecosystem and seismic vulnerability, as well as lack of transparency in the manner project developers get necessary clearances from the government. In its petition to the Green Tribul, the SMRF argued that the Nyamjang Chhu project developer failed to disclose while securing environmental clearance that the project site is located close to the wintering habitat of black-necked cranes. For the Buddhist Monpa tribe inhabiting Tawang, it is a sacred bird, believed to embody the sixth Dalai Lama who hailed from the district. This has parallels to the Supreme Court in 2013 upholding the ban order against Vedanti on mining the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha for bauxite. This landmark ruling had made headlines, as 12 villages of the local Dongria Kondh tribe had unimously voted against the proposal to mine the hill they considered home to their deity Niyam Raja. The apex court order was widely welcomed as a come-uppance rap on mega developers and high-and-mighty government joining up to ride roughshod over local sentiment and interests.
Interestingly, the SMRF has raised another allegation that the Aruchal government, in its unseemly haste to lay out the red carpet to mega hydel projects — has allowed around 25 small and mini hydro-power projects in Tawang to languish in benign neglect, plunging the district into an entirely avoidable power crisis. Meanwhile, other anti-dam activists have alleged that environmental clearances have been issued to several hydel projects despite protests, after developers in cahoots with local politicians and officials, rushed through public hearings in hush-hush manner or falsely claimed getting no-objection certificates from local village bodies. In particular, much misgivings have been voiced over the 2,880 MW Dibang multi-purpose project, the largest hydroelectric project to be undertaken in the country, for which clearance came through in May last year in the teeth of stiff public opposition. The 278 meter tall concrete dam will submerge a forest area stretching 45.77 sq km in Lower Dibang Valley district, a major part of which is community-owned. Over the past few years, the Aruchal Pradesh government has signed over 100 MoUs for hydel projects in the state. It is feared that of the 160-odd hydel projects proposed for Aruchal to generate its estimated potential of 50,328 MW, many will have irreversible impact not only on the state’s fragile mountain ecology, but also downstream impact in Assam as well. The rendra Modi government has made no secret of its determition to fast track the hydro-power route to meet the country’s burgeoning power needs. But after the disaster wrought on Uttarakhand’s hydro-power infrastructure by the calamitous floods of 2013, no government can afford to cut corners and play fast and loose with the people’s safety.