Over the past several months, protests against big dams in northeast India have been a regular feature in the headlines. What initially started as student’s movement against big dams in the state of Arunachal Pradesh has now snowballed into becoming a major election issue for next year’s election in the state of Assam.
Spearheading the anti-dam protest in Assam is the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a peasant movement which has declared that political parties supporting the construction of mega- dams in Assam would be voted out. Giving a call of “final warning” to central government, KMSS sent a petition signed by more than 110,000 people to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, demanding a complete moratorium on all government clearances to mega-dams in the Northeast.
In Arunachal Pradesh, the state government has signed 168 memoranda of understanding with private and public companies for big dams in the mountainous region. Alarms are being raised in the state of Assam over the dams’ downstream impacts. A detailed study on the downstream impacts of 2000 MW Lower Subansiri Dam by an expert group of faculty from three Indian universities has recommended that no mega-dams should be built in tectonically unstable northeastern India.
The Arunachal government, however, chose to downplay these concerns, saying the downstream impacts are exaggerated. It strongly lobbied for speedy clearances of all hydro projects in the state by writing to concerned ministries, ignoring suggestions by India’s environment minister that the Prime Minister stop all dam construction work in the region until an assessment to survey the dams’ impacts was completed. Several Arunachal parliamentarians have gone so far as to label people opposing the dams as “anti-nationals.”
Agitated by this response, protesters in Assam burnt effigies of Arunachal state’s Chief Minister. Two student groups have issued a call for joint resistance against the dams.
Aware of the growing public opinion against big dams, the Assam government has been taking a posture expressing concern over wanton building of dams in Arunachal Pradesh. The credibility of such statements remains to be time tested.
In one “U-turn” development, the environment minister has been accused of contradicting his own earlier statement calling for a halt on mega-dams in the region. In an October 14 letter to the Prime Minister on the Lower Siang project, he writes that it should go forward because of its strategic importance. The Lower Siang Project would be built on the Siang River, which flows from China into Arunachal Pradesh. The Adi Students Union, which has been fighting this project, says it is not demoralized by the sudden change of tone from the of Environment Minister, and vows to continue its fight.