By asking the Centre to constitute an expert panel to study the adverse impacts the Lower Subansiri Hydro Electric Power Project (LSHEP) can have on downstream areas, the tiol Green Tribul has provided an opportunity for serious rethink over the issue. It remains to be seen how the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change goes about the matter, considering the push by successive governments both at New Delhi and Dispur to promote large dams as the only viable means for generating hydro-power on commercial scale. The NGT’s Kolkata bench wants the expert panel to make an in-depth study of geology, hydrology, environment, bio-diversity, seismicity and all other aspects related to the project that may affect human safety, bio-diversity and aquatic resources in downstream areas. Importantly, the 3-member panel, including an expert from the Northeast, will have to thoroughly go into reports by earlier expert panels and talk to stakeholders. Will this new panel give due weightage to contrary opinions put on record by experts of earlier panels? Can we expect this time a sincere engagement with stakeholders who staunchly oppose the project in its present form? On earlier such occasions, the impression that came through strongly was of efforts to somehow ‘mage’ dissenting expert opinions on the feasibility of building large dams in an area known for high seismicity, its peculiar geological structure and the Brahmaputra’s hydrology, the vulnerability of a large riverine populace of primarily indigenous stock. When the much smaller Rangadi run-of-the-river project (of 405 MW capacity with a 68m tall dam) in Aruchal can cause havoc downstream year after year during the flood season, what would be the 2,000 MW LSHEP’s impact? Once the concrete dam of 116m height comes up at Gerukamukh, how many people will be actually displaced by the reservoir created, and how will they be compensated? The official figure trotted out is that an area of around 40 sq kms will be submerged and 38 families will be displaced, but these have been greeted with wide scepticism. There are also questions about how the lean season flows from the dam will be maged, the prospect of floods (and erosion) in winter as well as impact on agricultural and economic activities in October-March period.
In neighbouring Aruchal Pradesh, the gung-ho sentiment over mega hydel projects seems to be noticeably absent of late. Before last year, the State government had signed over 150 MOUs to develop hydropower through large dams, with several private entities getting the nod over PSUs like NHPC. But the crippling lack of infrastructure, rising local protests fuelled by environmental concerns and some of the private entities themselves suffering losses — these and other factors are acting as dampeners to the Centre’s vision of generating at least 60,000 MW from the mountain State. One massive project is the proposed 10,000-MW dam on the Siang river. Opposing the project for the catastrophic impact it could have on the ecology and way of life in Siang valley, the indigenous farmers forum SIFF has made a valid point that no amount of compensation can suffice when arable land is so scarce in such rugged terrain, and that dam builders fail to appreciate the myriad ways in which tribal people use their lands and draw sustence from forests and rivers. Since last year, the thinking in Itagar appears to be veering towards the desirability of developing small hydel projects up to 100 MW, despite the clout of the big dam lobby. This indicates a sober reassessment about Aruchal Pradesh taking the fast road to development by expediting small projects to generate sufficient power, rather than grand visions of being a large-scale power exporter (and harming itself over the long term). There is a likelihood that the NITI Aayog will promote such small projects under the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE). Such developments ought to change the discourse in Assam too over mega dams. The efficiency and economy of such projects must be measured against public safety and involvement of stakeholders. It is true that the country is chronically power starved. Arguments are made that even if India does not build hydel projects in its Northeast corner, Chi surely will on the upper reaches, and thereby cement its claim on these rivers. But across the world, more so in advanced countries, the trend is shifting towards power projects that are more cost-effective and environmentally sustaible, offering decentralized power solutions and building on strengths already existing on ground. Make no mistake, it will pay well to be ‘smart’ when it comes to power in the 21st century.