Explainer | The Controversy Surrounding Dibang Dam, India's Largest Hydropower Project

The Wire delves into the specifics of the ambitious multi-purpose project, the purported aim behind it as well as the controversy that has been associated with it.

New Delhi: On July 18, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, gave the go-ahead to the Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh. Pegged at a capacity to yield 2,880 megawatts, the project is going to be India’s largest hydropower venture. When completed, it would reach the elevation of a staggering 278 metres – also making it the world’s tallest concrete gravity dam.

The CCEA approval to the project has at once triggered disapprovals and concerns in several circles in Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring Assam.

The Wire delves into the specifics of the ambitious multi-purpose project, its purported aim as well as the controversy surrounding it – which has led to a series of protests by the local population and several in Assam for over 11 years.

What is the Dibang Multipurpose Dam?

The hydropower project would come up in Arunachal’s Lower Dibang Valley at an estimated cost of Rs 28,080.35 crore. Arunachal’s Dibang Valley, home to the minuscule Idu Mishmi tribe, borders Tibet and China. The Idu Mishmis, who comprise about 1.3% of the state’s population, were in the news last year when the Gujarat government invited some members of the tribe to participate in the annual Madhavpur Mela, linking the tribe to Lord Krishna’s wife Rukmini.

The foundation stone for the project was laid by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the state capital Itanagar on January 31, 2008. The actual project site is in Dibang Valley’s Munli village, located about 43 kms from the district headquarters Roing.

As mentioned earlier, the government would be able to harvest 2,880 megawatts from the project that would dam River Dibang along with a small river named Ashu Pani. River Dibang, also known as Sikang by the Adi tribe and Talon by the Idu, is one of the principal rivers that flows by the Mishmi hills of Arunachal. By merging the waters of Dibang and Lohit, the Brahmaputra enters Assam and thereafter flows into Bangladesh before joining the Bay of Bengal.

Aside from generating electricity, the project is termed ‘multi-purpose’ also because it would be a storage-based hydro-electric venture, envisaged to be key in controlling floods caused by the overflow of monsoon waters of the Brahmaputra in Assam.

Though Singh inaugurated it in 2008, the project – assigned to the public sector unit National Hydropower Corporation (NHPC) – didn’t see any progress owing to the massive opposition from the local tribal population over their displacement, deforestation and loss of community land besides causing concern in international circles over its huge environment cost in a biodiversity-rich Himalayan zone.

The delay was also because the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) rejected it in July 2013, and again in April 2014, taking note of a slew of discrepancies in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports and the state government’s proposals – which are explained below.

Also read | What Use Is Dredging the Brahmaputra?

Centre’s July 18 announcement, however, underlines that the government is finally moving ahead with the project. As per the government’s statement issued to the media in New Delhi, the completion of the project would take nine years. The stipulated time-frame also indicates that the cost of Rs 28,080.35 crore, as per June 2018 price level, would likely escalate.

What did the CCEA approve on July 18?

The CCEA approved Rs 1,600 crore as pre-investment expenditure for the project. Union minister and senior BJP leader Prakash Javdekar, briefing reporters in New Delhi on July 18 about the CCEA decision, said that the amount would be spent to pay compensation to the displaced persons, compensatory afforestation and construction of roads and bridges to access the project site.

Prakash Javadekar. Photo: PTI

What is the Centre’s argument behind the approval?

Primarily, there are three components in this regard. One, it would enable Arunachal Pradesh to get uninterrupted electricity besides the ability to make a modest profit by selling a certain amount of electricity to other states or private concerns. This may help the border state to be less dependent on central funds.

The government’s July 18 statement said that Arunachal would be given 13.46 mega units for free, which is 12% of the power generated from the project. Besides, the local population, through the local area development fund (LADF), would be given 1% of the power for free, which would come out to about 112 MU.

“The total value of the benefit to Arunachal Pradesh from free power and contribution to LADF will be Rs 26,785 crore over the project life of 40 years,” it said.

The second reason behind the central push for the project is its ability to store huge volumes of waters. It is being proposed as a possible apparatus for annual flood control in Assam and parts of Arunachal.

Thirdly, it is also being counted in some media reports as a reactionary measure by the India government against the Chinese’s damming of the Brahmaputra at its source in Tibet. By building a dam on Dibang, India is likely creating grounds for its user rights in the river system.

The project is being proposed as a possible apparatus for annual flood control in Assam and parts of Arunachal. Photo: Reuters/Anuwar Hazarika

Why are locals opposing the project in Arunachal?

There were several reasons for public protests between 2008 and 2013. One, the project would displace several members of the Idu Mishmi tribe from their community land, which includes both rice fields and forest land that provide them with a source of livelihood.

As per the environment ministry’s clearance report sent to NHPC in May 2015, the total land requirement for the project is 5,349 hectares. “Out of which, 4,577.84 hectares is un-classified state forest, 701.30 hectares is community land without forest cover and 70 hectares is land with wet rice cultivation,” the report states.

The total area that would go under the water is 3,546 hectares – of which only 1,176 hectares is the river bed. “The total catchment area of the project is 11,276 square kms.”

On July 18, Tongam Rina, the editor of The Arunachal Times, the state’s popular English daily, adequately capped the issue in a tweet in response to the Centre’s decision:

Gikko Linggi, the president of Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, the principal body that represents the tribe, told The Wire, “It would directly affect at least 2,000 of our people.”

Besides the submergence of the rice fields and loss of land in community use, 3.5 lakh trees would have to be felled to get the project going. Though minister Javadekar spoke of compensatory afforestation, mandatory as per the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, there is not much free land to ensure that.

Twice the project had been refused forest clearance by the FAC of the ministry for related reasons. In its 2013 report, the FAC noted that the fallout of the project on such a rich biodiversity zone would be such that regaining it “may be very difficult through any type of mitigation measure.”

Also read | Activists Continue to Protest Dam Being Built on Brahmaputra

In April 2014, in spite of a lot of pressure on it, particularly from the Cabinet Committee on Investment, the FAC once again refused to grant clearance. This after Arunachal Pradesh re-submitted its proposal by bringing down the height of the proposed dam by ten metres and coverage of forestland from 5,057 hectares to 4,578 hectares – which would mean cutting down 3. 24 lakh trees.

The compliance to the settlement of the rights of the tribal population, a must for such projects as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006, was also ignored by the state government. FAC had also pointed out that there was no clarification on the non-suitability of the land identified for compensatory afforestation.

Besides, it underlined that the proposed site is a prime habitat for animals such as hoolock gibbon, elephants, Mishmi Takin, clouded and snow leopard, fishing cat and mithun among other species. The project site is also close to Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary.

Between 2008 and early 2013, the local population was on the streets against it. They highlighted that the EIA reports and the detailed project report (DPR) had multiple discrepancies.

Upper Dibang Valley District, Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: goldentakin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In 2011, angry locals, mobilised by civil society groups and student bodies, resorted to a massive protest and blocked a public hearing organised by the government. Police resorted to firing, injuring many. Finally, towards the end of 2013, two public hearings could be conducted in the Lower Dibang and Dibang Valley where the public reportedly agreed to the project.

How could the project finally get the MoEFCC approval?

In September 2014, the FAC bowed to the government’s pressure, particularly by the power ministry, and cleared the project by overlooking these issues.

Claiming to be giving an “objective” glance to the project, the FAC, in September 2014, said that a ten-metre reduction of the dam’s height would be most suitable as the tariff surge due to the changes would be minimal. There would be 160 hectares of forest land diversion against every megawatt to be generated by the project. Lowering the height of the dam by ten metres would lead to a tariff hike of only two paise.

Dissecting the contention, a Down to Earth report stated in 2014:

“First, installed capacity is not a basis to judge the performance of an energy project. The objective criteria to judge this is energy generation. From this perspective, the highest energy generation per hectare of forestland diversion takes place when the height of the dam is reduced by 40 m and not by 10 m.”

Even at 40 metres, the project would be unviable, simply because neighbouring Bhutan sells power to India at Rs 2 per unit while the Dibang project would be able to sell it at Rs 5.64 per unit. The news report said:

“Dibang Multipurpose Project could have been rejected on pure economic basis. And if we add the ecological concerns—diverting huge forestland in a highly bio-diverse area, impact on tribal community, and impact on a wildlife sanctuary and a national park – then no cost-benefit analysis can justify this project.”

On what basis was the project was approved by the NGT?

Guwahati-based educationist and an IIT graduate, Pradip Kumar Bhuyan challenged the MoEF&CC’s environmental clearance (EC) granted to the project at the NGT. On November 15, 2018, the NGT upheld the EC. The order said, “Multiple individual experts, expert bodies and institutions have expressed their opinion after undertaking detailed scientific and technical studies (since 2004) which we find difficult to brush aside.”

NGT said that the concerns about environmental sustainability raised by the appellant “would put the project proponent, the state government and the EF&CC ministry on guard to ensure that the recommendations made by the experts are scrupulously followed.”

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Importantly, even though the CCEA cleared the project on July 18, it is yet to get stage-two forest clearance. The Wire has written to MoE&CC secretary C.K. Mishra seeking clarification on the issue and is awaiting a response. It would be added to this report if and when it is received.

How has the community taken the CCEA decision?

Community spokesperson Gikko Linggi expressed concern, particularly about the rate of compensation for displacement and land acquisition to the local population. On March 5, prior to the crucial assembly elections, the state government announced a compensation to the affected people under Section 11 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894.

However, soon after the polls were over, the NHPC chose to challenge the state government order at the Gauhati high court. In a petition filed on May 1, the NHPC reportedly claimed that 1732.45 hectares of land “is a part of Un-classed State Forest (USF) area that does not belong to any individual as it is not a private land”.

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Linggi said, “The high court gave a stay to the NHPC, thus creating a roadblock for the people to get adequate compensation. On getting to know about the petition, our people (Dibang Multipurpose Project Affected Area Committee – DMPAAC) have filed a counter-petition. Aside from disagreeing to the state government’s decision, we feel that the NHPC is also trying to avoid paying us compensation even under the Land Settlement Act 2015 (LARR) by wrapping the entire matter within the span of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, which doesn’t mention anything about giving compensation to the affected people.”

He said the DMPAAC has also written a letter to the NHPC demanding that all work related to it, including the issuing of e-tender etc., should be stopped before the high court settles the matter. They also said it would yet again lead to mass public protests.

Speaking to local reporters, DMPAAC president Athupi Melo said, “We are already just a handful of people and if more such big shot companies come to Arunachal with more projects, we will all be thrown out of our own land, stripped off all rights of claim, in the name of USF.” Linggi added, “Not ours but a large number of land of USF in the state are under the claims of ownership by community and clans. This area too is community land.”

Why are civil society groups in Assam concerned about the project?

Soon after the news about the CCEA approval reached Guwahati, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader and anti-dam activist Akhil Gogoi addressed a press meet.

Denouncing the decision, he reportedly asked, “What will happen to the people living in downstream areas if the water is released from the 278-metre dam, forget about what will happen if the dam breaks?” He also expressed concern over the fate of the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park bordering Arunachal. It is considered the largest Salix swamped forest in the Northeast.

File photo of Akhil Gogoi. Credit: PTI

File photo of Akhil Gogoi right). Photo: PTI

The All Assam Students Union (AASU) too condemned it for not discussing the project with the people of Assam even though it directly concerns them.

Aside from Assam, the downstream areas of Arunachal like Sirang have also expressed their objection to the project and have demanded that the EIA reports take them into account too and state the need for their compensation in case the dam breaks.

Were any measures taken by the government to mitigate concerns while giving a go-ahead to the project?

The government’s press statement said the CCEA also approved the proposal for the Dam Safety Bill, 2019, in parliament. This Bill would address safety measures for surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of all specified dams across the country.

A National Committee on Dam Safety will also be instituted to develop dam safety policies and recommend essential regulations. The minister told reporters that the Bill will also have provisions for a ‘National Dam Safety Authority’, a regulatory body to implement the safety policy. Every state will set up a ‘Dam Safety Organisation’ which will be operated by the officers on field duty.