Public protests against the construction of dams in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh have been going on for some years now. However, on May 2, things took a deadly turn, with two protesters losing their lives in police firing and 10 others reportedly seriously injured. By mid-afternoon, prohibitory orders under Section 144 were clamped on Tawang town and the army was called in to stage a flag march.
Home to the Monpa community, Tawang is the last Indian district bordering China, a quaint, serene 2085 square km patch that had experienced a threat to the life and property of its residents in 1962 when the Chinese army came trooping in. Since 2011, Tawang, which otherwise attracts attention for being an important seat of Tibetan Buddhism, has been witness to public protests against the state government’s decision to set up multiple dams across the district. The protests are being driven by environmental and religious concerns, and by the sheer inability of the hydel projects to generate promised results.
Reportedly, 13 of the over 150 hydel projects planned by the state since 2005 are in Tawang. To stall this spree of dam construction, people from the Monpa community joined hands with local Buddhist monks in 2011 to form the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF).
On April 7, the SMRF saw its first significant achievement. In response to its petition filed in 2012, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) suspended the environment clearance granted by the Union environment ministry for the Rs. 6,400 crore Nyamjang Chhu hydropower project in Tawang’s Zemingthang area. The NGT noted that the project – promoted by the Noida-based steel conglomerate LNJ Bhilwara Group – did not consider its impact on the habitat of the endangered black-necked crane, which is endemic to the region. The bird is rated “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of endangered species and is listed in schedule 1 of the Wildlife (Prohibition) Act 1972.
Speaking to The Wire from Tawang, SMRF general secretary Lama Lobsang Gyatso said, “The NGT’s decision to suspend work on the project has led those with vested interest in the state to suddenly look at us as a powerful enemy.” This past week, Gyatso was arrested twice for reasons he said are “linked to not only the NGT decision but also our plan to take legal recourse for other hydel projects.”
The death of two protestors in front of the Tawang police station were triggered by agitators protesting his arrest. Out on bail, Gyatso relates here the sequence of events that led to the police firing.
What happened on May 2?
I was in the lock-up of the Tawang police station since my re-arrest on April 28. On May 2, I was to be produced at the court of the district magistrate for hearing on my bail application. Since morning, a large number of villagers and lamas assembled in front of the police station seeking my release. I was taken to the court for the hearing and was denied bail. I was brought back to the station from the back door, bypassing the crowd. Many villagers and lamas have already been angry at the biased attitude of the district administration towards me. While I was kept in the lock-up, a local leader, Lobsang Youten, who was arrested on my complaint, was granted bail the same evening even though the charges against him were serious.
On knowing about the denial of bail to me, the crowd began moving towards the police station. They were then fired upon with live bullets. No tear gas and no rubber bullets were used. One of the deceased was hit on the forehead. Among the dead, a woman is yet to be identified. The other deceased was a class seven student of the Tawang monastery, Lama Nima Wangde.
As per the latest reports, eight of our supporters have been severely injured, some of whom have been admitted in the army hospital in Tenga Valley.
So how are you out of police lock-up now?
After the firing, the district administration suddenly decided to grant me bail.
How many times were you arrested last week and why?
I was first arrested on April 26, based on an FIR lodged by the security officer of Mukto MLA and former state minister Pema Khandu for allegedly disrupting peace by leading a group of people from the Gongkhar village where the six-megawatt Mukto Shakangchu hydel project is coming up. I was let out on bail the same day.
On April 28, I was re-arrested. The zilla parishad chairman, Jambey Tsering, invited the public to a panchayat development committee meeting in Tawang. Instead of talking about panchayat work, local political leaders used the platform to provoke people against me. As planned, a 2012 audio clip was soon circulated on social media. The clip showed me asking Guru Rincpoche, the abbot of the revered Tawang monastery, to stay away from the hydropower politics of the district since he was an outsider. I made that comment during an SMRF rally in 2012 when the abbot had allegedly asked the lamas to stay away from the anti-dam protests. I commented then that since he was from Bhutan he would not be able to identify with the local issues and therefore should stay away from it. Some local leaders referred to that old clip in the meeting to accuse me of hurting people’s sentiments and defaming the abbot.
Subsequently, an FIR was lodged against me at the Twang police station by the zilla parishad chairman. Since a local leader, Youten, also threatened publicly to kill me in that meeting, I lodged an FIR against him and sought police protection. While both of us were arrested based on the FIRs, Youten was granted bail the same evening, while I was not.
Local media quotes sources in your organisation as saying your arrests were politically motivated.
Yes, the motive was very clear. The SMRF is preparing to file a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court against the Mukto Shakangchu hydel project. Even though over 90 crore rupees were officially spent by the state government on the project, most of what was constructed has been washed away by the river waters within three-and-a-half months of completion of work for use of sub-standard material. I don’t want to name anyone here but those who minted money from the project are now certainly afraid of us. They want to intimidate us this way.
Do these arrests anything to do with the recent decision of the NGT to suspend the environment clearance of the Nyamjang Chhu project in response to the SMRF’s appeal?
Of course, it is linked to my arrests. Many would have made a tidy sum had this project become a reality. The NGT has asked for fresh impact assessment studies, public hearings for local people, etc. The earlier assessment report hid the fact that the project planned in Zemingthang is also the wintering habitat of the black-necked crane, a bird considered sacred by the Monpas. We connect it with the sixth Dalai Lama who was from Tawang. He wrote poems on the bird. Apart from local sentiments, the bird has been labeled endangered by law. The Bombay Natural History Society selected Zemingthang as an important bird area for this reason.
After the NGT verdict, those with vested interest are suddenly afraid of us because we have also been supporting the villagers in recording their objections to the other hydel projects in the district.
Apart from stating environment and religious reasons, the SMRF has also been raising the futility of these mini and micro dams in solving the power supply problem of the district.
While work on 13 hydel projects in Tawang is currently going on, the government has planned a total of 28 mini and micro dams in the district. Even though the power requirement of the district is 6.5 megawatts, if all these mini and micro projects produce electricity as shown on paper, it would be more than 20 megawatts. However, even after many of these projects have been declared completed, they have failed to produce electricity, so much so that there are long hours of power cut even in sub-zero temperatures in Tawang. So it is clear to the local people now that while somebody powerful is making money on these projects, they have not only been unable to provide electricity but are also degrading the environment they live in.
After the firing that led to the deaths, Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju suggested to the district deputy commissioner to immediately form a high level peace committee to bring normalcy in the district. Did you or any representative of your organisation take part in it?
We were informed about the peace committee by the deputy commissioner’s office. Though it was meant to take place at 6 p.m. on May 2, our representatives kept waiting for the others to arrive at the venue till 7.30 pm but no one came.