by T Navajyoti, World War 4 Report

In Northeast India, which has faced decades of unrest, energy has emerged as a critical issue for the region’s popular movements. The state of Assam particularly has witnessed a series of sustained demonstrations against large river dams, with farmers’ associations, student organizations and civil society groups campaigning tirelessly. But lobbying for big dams is also going on in full pace.

The recent hunger strike by the popular anti-dam activist Akhil Gogoi in Guwahati, Assam’s major city, won much public support. The Indian government’s plans to build some 150 large dams on tributaries of the Brahmaputra River in Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Assam on the north. The tributaries flow down from the Himalayan foothills of Arunachal Pradesh into the plains of the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam. The government hopes to generate 60,000 mega-watts from these dams—a dramatic increase over the 1,700 mega-watts now generated. But Assam’s farmers fear the downstream impacts.

The protesters argue that the geo-seismic situation, and the fragile state of the eastern Himalayas’ erosion-prone mountains and silt-laden rivers should be taken into consideration before approval of these mega-hydroelectric projects. Akhil Gogoi— general secretary of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity (KMSS) peasants’ organization, and a close comrade of Anna Hazare, the social activist who held a hunger strike against corruption in Delhi last year—started his indefinite hunger strike on May 19 at Lakhidhar Bora Kshetra, the central government building in Guwahati, demanding the immediate halt in construction of all mega-dams. Gogoi was transferred by the authorities to Gawahati Medical College Hospital on May 25 as his health condition deteriorated. He maintained his fast in the hospital bed till May 28 but finally broke his fast following the request of Anna Hazare. Speaking to Gogol by phone in the hospital, Hazare argued that his health was more important than his martyrdom for the anti-dam movement across the country.

Another leading Team Anna member, Arvind Kejriwal, addressed a huge public rally in the city, where he slammed both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh governments for what he called an anti-people attitude, caving to the big dam lobbies to exploit the region’s hydroelectricity potential without accountability. He also condemned the Delhi government for its insensitive approach to the livelihood of millions of indigenous people in the country.

Kejriwal clarified that he is not against river dams. But the projects must not be at the cost of the local people and ecology of any region. The government must not impose such projects without peoples’ participation and consent. Kejriwal received support from National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM). In a statement issued with 20 other local organizations, NAPM hailed “Akhil’s brave struggle for life with dignity and against unjust destructive capitalist development thrust upon people against their will.”

The statement said “NAPM supports all demands raised by KMSS including in halting the construction of all mega dams till an agreement is formalised with the people living in the downstream, releasing all the detained activists unconditionally and also allowing the protesters to pursue their democratic agitations.”

However, addressing a seminar on May 25 in the State capital, T Norbu Thongdok, parliamentary secretary to Arunachal Pradesh Public Works Department, argued that “the dams for producing hydro-power are constructed using best of scientific technologies to maximise power production and minimise its hypothetical negative impacts that is being spread throughout the State and neighboring Assam.”

Delivering his inaugural address in the seminar, organised by Indian Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in association with Arunachal Pradesh Energy Development Agency (APEDA) and North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited (NEEPCO), the parliamentary secretary also stressed the criticality of energy for the sustainable growth of the nation.

The bureaucrat-turned-politician Thongdok stated that “power is the most important contributing factor of a developed state, so…we should explore all possible avenues to produce power. Since the deposits of fossil fuels are depleting alarmingly, we must conserve energy by making optimum use of it for the future of our nation.” He asserted that harnessing solar, hydro and wind energy is the best option for clean, cheap power.

The seminar emphasised that Arunachal should be energy-efficient by producing adequate power through multiple ways. However, a few speakers also advocated for preserving the state’s natural bio-diversity.

In Assam, KMSS with a number of peasant groups, ethnic organizations and student associations are engaged in a prolonged protest campaign to prevent the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation from carrying construction materials to the 2,000-megawatt Subansiri hydro-electric project site at Lakhimpur on the Assam-Arunachal border, the first of the planned dams. The protests have been ongoing in the area since December 26, 2011.

KMSS claims that the indigenous people of the region must have the right to use of its natural resources, including the rivers. It charges that the government seeks to exploit these resources for the selfish interests of big companies—without any consultations with the people.

Assam’s chief minister Traun Gogoi insists that work on dams will go on irrespective of protests. He even ruled out any
dialogue with Akhil Gogoi during his hunger strike, terming it “anti-development.”

There is no denying of the fact that the ongoing resistance to large river dams has turned into a popular movement in Assam. The activists and their sympathizers are unanimous in their views that the proposed mega hydro-electricity projects in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh would leave a devastating impact on the region, as well as in Bangladesh. They charge that several large hydropower projects were granted “green clearance” without any prior downstream impact assessment by the environment ministry in New Delhi.


From our Daily Report:

Hydro-hubris threatens peace efforts on India-Burma borderlands
World War 4 Report, April 27, 2012

Arunachal Pradesh: pawn in the new Great Game
World War 4 Report, Oct. 17, 2009

Bangladesh Rifles mutiny militarizes India border
World War 4 Report, Feb. 28, 2011

See also:

by Nathan Einbinder, Environment News Service
World War 4 Report, December 2008

Converging Conflicts in Northeast India
by Nava Thakuria, World War 4 Report
World War 4 Report, April 2009

Special to World War 4 Report, June. 20, 2012
Reprinting permissible with attribution