The proposed Tipaimukh High Dam would dam the Barak River 500 meters downstream from the confluence of its tributary the Tuivai River in Manipur State. More than half of the 900-kilometre-long Barak falls within India; its lower half drains Bangladesh. The Barak system is the second largest drainage system in Northeast India. The entire riverine ecosystem of the Barak River Basin supports an endemic agrarian civilization thriving on biodiversity-based agro-ecological systems that have profound local and global significance.
The 163-meter-high Tipaimukh Dam will permanently submerge more than 275 sq km of land. The project is expected to have firm power generation of 412 MW. Almost none of its power will be sent to the state where the dam will be built.
There is no complete study that focuses on geo-tectonic problems or biodiversity and environment, health, socio-economic and hydrological impacts of the project. The absence of meaningful consultation with the indigenous peoples contradicts the keystone strategic priority developed by the World Commission on Dams, that no dam should be built without the demonstrable acceptance of the affected people, and without the free, prior, informed consent.
History of Resistance
Communities from Manipur have resisted Tipaimukh High Dam for more than 15 years. Resistance began because the people of Manipur had seen the devastating impact of Loktak Hydroelectric Project. This project has been the single biggest reason why local people question the new project. Any person who is aware of Loktak will tell you how it has submerged large tracts of agricultural lands; ousted large number of farmers from their livelihood without compensation, thus reducing self-sufficiency in rice production, and devastated a fragile wetland ecosystem. This has further made Manipur more economically dependent on mainland India, which is just the opposite of the promises made when the project was conceived. The people of Manipur are now fully aware that Manipur gets little electricity from the project.
The struggle against Tipaimukh is not restricted to Manipur state, but is also in Bangladesh too, where the immediate impact of the dam will be felt. The dam could also impact watersheds and ecosystems in northern Burma.
In addition, we are now waking up to the fact that two other dams in the area, Mapithel and Khuga dams, also deceived the people with promises that have not yielded any result. Now we see how wrong decisions made in the past can create havoc for our future.
Tipaimukh was not conceived and designed for the people of Manipur, or for that matter for the people of India’s northeast region. It was initially designed to control floods in lower Assam, and then to generate electricity for the Indian state-owned utility NEEPCO for sale outside the region. For all these years the dam builders have not informed or consulted the people, especially those who will be directly impacted. The dam is not based on local requirements, but is imposed from above, to serve unknown economic interests. An issue of consent is a must when they want to bring in a project of such magnitude that will submerge villages, fertile agricultural land, forests, and not even meet local needs. Local organizations have also proposed alternatives, including smaller, less destructive dams.
Flawed Resettlement Plan
If constructed, the dam will have negative impacts on 9,126 sq km in the state of Manipur alone. A large number of indigenous communities, mostly belonging to the Zeliangrong and Hmar peoples, will be permanently displaced and deprived of their livelihood. One should be aware that these affected areas are almost half of the present size of Manipur. A small state like Manipur cannot afford to bargain away an area of this size for a tiny bit of electricity. We must look for alternative source of energy where it has least impact on land. We have already had 60,000 hectares of agricultural land submerged due to Ithai Dam alone. For our food security we cannot afford to lose any more land.
If one looks closely at the project’s proposed resettlement and rehabilitation plan, it is clear that they have not taken into account intergenerational concerns. For example, rice fields cannot be compensated at today’s market price only, as it is done by NEEPCO. For we all know that a plot of land has benefited both the generation in the past and will serve our future and cannot be assessed for the present market value only. Such shortsighted compensation will only create impoverishment and hardship for those displaced. A more important issue is the close link of indigenous peoples to their land, water, forest and their culture. Any sizeable loss of land is loss of the community itself.
As known elsewhere, dams have created or accentuated ethnic conflict. Here, too, there are already divisions along ethnic lines that can have longterm implications for all peoples. In an already fractured place such as this, it is imperative that the state does not allow projects that widen the ethnic divide. In addition, conflict with other states and also with Bangladesh as a result of the dam cannot be ruled out and will need to be addressed before agreeing to the project.
We are also aware that the construction of large dams brings in laborers from outside the region. We are witness to that the fact that outsiders have come to work for Loktak hydro project and other dams, and that these workers have stayed after the work is done, putting pressure on local communities and natural resources. A massive project like Tipaimukh will bring in more than 30,000 workers from outside and it is certain that these outsiders will cause issues for local people.
The site selected for Tipaimukh project is one of the most seismically active in the entire world, recording at least two major earthquakes of 8+ on the Richter scale during the past 50 years. The proposed dam site falls on an active fault line. Several large earthquakes have been recorded near the Tipaimukh site.
The people who have fought the dam have used all democratic means possible to seek the government of India to stop the dam. Memorandums and letters by the score, rallies, sit-in protests, blockades, strikes, press releases, meetings, leaflets, and email campaigns have all been used. Five public hearings conducted by the government have been boycotted. But these all went into the dustbin of the government. One wonders what it would take for the government to listen to the people, and stop the dam. We must insist that Tipaimukh is not an answer to the energy crisis that we presently face. If the government is sincere enough to solve this crisis then it must right away say no to this destructive project, and initiate a people-inclusive dialogue on energy.
The author is chairman of Citizens Concerned for Dams and Development, in Manipur, India.