Residents of the district headquarters and 20 villages in Upper Siang speculate over the prospect of India’s largest dam coming up in their neighbourhood
Itanagar: Komkar, a village in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, could easily be an idyllic setting for a rustic Himalayan retreat. Situated on a small plain above Siang river surrounded by terraced rice fields and orange orchards, Komkar is home to about 500 families belonging to the Adi community of the state. These days, however, people are wary of any vehicle coming from outside Arunachal Pradesh.
“Are you from NEEPCO?” asks an anxious woman returning from the fields. A local resident, Nanaji Boko, a retired agriculture department official, says: “Ever since the state government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with NEEPCO to build a 3,750-MW dam on Siang in 2013, locals. especially women. swore an oath to not let any dam company official enter the area.”
Within minutes, residents of Komkar assemble and start sloganeering against NEEPCO with placards saying that the village is completely against big dams. It seems like a routine song and dance sequence when any higher-up visits the area.
On September 26, 2017, NITI Aayog made a detailed presentation before Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Pema Khandu to scale up 3,750 MW to 10,000 MW project on Siang river. If one goes by MoAs/MoUs signed by Arunachal Pradesh government since 2007, 36 big and small dams are planned on river Siang itself. The Chief Minister’s Office also issued a press statement saying that a 300-metre-high dam will be built with a capacity to generate 10,000 MW.
Earlier, the state government had mooted three big dams, Siang Stage I, 2 and 3. While Stage I and 2 were to be developed by NEEPCO and National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC), the third project near Pasighat was to be developed by Jay Pee Cement Industries.
The project faced stiff resistance from the Adi community and Siang Stage 3 fell into the backburner. Siang Stage 1 with a capacity to produce 6000 MW, according to a proposal prepared by NEEPCO, would have threatened defence installations belonging to Indian Army and Indian Air Force in Tuting close to Sino-Indian border. Taking these issues into account, NITI Aayog proposed combining both Siang Stage 1 and Stage 2 to build a 10,000 MW dam near Geku, close to Yingkiong at 25% cost lesser than the two projects.
Anger and speculation
Ever since the government issued the statement to build the dam, the valley is rife with speculation and anger over the proposed project. If built, the project would not only sink Komkar and surrounding 25 other villages and their homesteads but also Yingkiong town, the district headquarter of Upper Siang district under water, according to an RTI filed by Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum (SIFF), a local body that has been spearheading the movement against big dams in the region. “Our community has opposed any kind of survey by the dam authorities. If the dam comes up, where will our people go?” asks Tasik Pangkam, Secretary of SIFF.
Tasik Pangkam, secretary, Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum (SIFF)
On the other hand, a press statement issued by CM Khandu’s office issued in 2017 lists Rs 2,400 crore to the state’s coffers as annual revenue among the other benefits such as Rs 200 crore per annum which will be used for local area development. “Besides Rs 4,500 crore proposed for rehabilitation and resettlement package, the project will attract an investment of about Rs 80,000 crore with huge employment generation and creation of several economic opportunities,” the statement says.
Since 2017 the government has been assuring the locals with the CM Khandu himself coming to Yingkiong and Pasighat and saying that without peoples’ consent the dam project will not come up. Even on January 9, 2019, Khandu attending a public meeting after inaugurating a bridge in Yingkiong, reiterated that the dam will not come up without the consent of the local residents.
These assurances, however, have not gone down well with the community that is likely to be impacted by the dam. “CM did say that the dam will not come but our protest is against the proposal itself. Be it 3,750 MW or 10,000 MW. We will not allow any public hearing to take place. We want the government to cancel the project,” says Pangkam. SIFF office bearers say that the dam project has to be cancelled.
Pangkam states if the government is serious about not bringing the big dam on Siang it should issue a written notice. “At present, we have filed a case against Arunachal Government, NEEPCO and host of dam developers which includes all the 36 dams proposed on Siang river including the proposed 3,750 MW dam which has been expanded to 10,000 MW. If government is not willing build any of these dams, it should submit to the court that it is going ahead with any of these projects,” he adds.
In the petition, the SIFF asked the court for an investigation into upfront premium received by Arunachal Pradesh government out of 233 Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) and Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). According to an order issued on August 17, 2015 a bench headed by Justice K. Sreedhar Rao and Justice PK Saikia asked Arunachal Pradesh to issue public notices detailing the proposed dams so that locals know of these plans. Pangkam says that till date the state government has not issued any such notice.
Arunachal Hydropower Department, on the other hand, maintains a vague position on the question of the proposed dams. CK Joshi, chief engineer of the department, says that the proposed dams on Siang is “just an idea”. “There are many ideas that we propose and work on. The proposed Siang dam is an old story. We are facing some issues here. Cannot comment further on their status,” the official says.
NEEPCO officials refused to comment on the issue stating that the matter was in the high court while Pangkam and others from SIFF have demanded that Arunachal Pradesh government should return the upfront payment of Rs 200 crore taken from NEEPCO for the proposed dam.
CK Joshi, chief engineer, Arunachal Hydropower Department
Refugee in your land
At Yingkiong town, members of SIFF gathered in a stadium hosting the Republic day parade on January 26. As the deputy commissioner, Tamik Talong, unfurled the national tricolour, the members opened up a gigantic map of Siang river with proposed 36 odd dams to protest against the damming of the river. “We are doing this campaign on the Republic Day to make the citizens aware about the threat that the dam posing to the town and neighbouring villages,” said Gegong Jijum, a retired police official.
Some local residents such as O Modi, a dentist who works in Roing, however, maintain that the dam project will be good for the Adi community. “We need jobs and development that this project is likely to bring for the community so I support the dam. However due to the local politics being played over the dam, it may not happen,” Modi says. On being asked about the large scale displacement, Modi says he is fine if there is good compensation being to the locals, who can take the money and settle elsewhere.
Jijum, on the other hand, is dismissive of opinion expressed by Modi. He says that people like Modi have secured jobs and the support for the dam is only from people who want to make the most from the speculation about the dam. “Such characters do not represent us. Land is scarce in the mountains. No one wants to be turned into refugee in their own land,” he says.
Hailing from the Gette village, Jijum saw one of the first mini hydroelectric plants in this area on Sipit river coming up in 1991. “During monsoon, when the Sipit river was flowing at peak, it washed away the dam,” he says . What remains in place of a 2MW project are massive fragments of concrete with moss and plants growing out of concrete settled over the rivulet’s bed. “The construction was absolutely shoddy. In many places they did not even use rods and put a pile of stones on top of each other and put cement in them. Our rivers carry a lot of water and sediment during the monsoon. Weak structures may not be able to withstand the turbulent river,” he says.
Big dam: no; mini hydel: yes
In Komkar, however, people are open to the idea of smaller or mini hydel projects. Around 10 of these power stations supply uninterrupted power across Upper Siang district. According to Gaon Burha (Village headman) of Komkar, Akkan Badu, residents do not have a problem with mini hydel projects. Opang Boko, a young farmer from the village shares his knowledge about run-of-the-river projects, which “do not necessarily harm the rivers like the big projects do”.
However, mention big dams and Komkar residents would go up in arms against anyone building them. Among the many stories about dams, Komkar villagers narrate how the locals burnt down the Jay Pee barracks and blocked the roads against public hearing in the region in 2012. Gaon Burha Badu says that even in Komkar people are prepared to die in order to save their mother – the Siang River.
Unlike other riparian cultures, Komkar and surrounding villages in Upper Siang district across the Adi belt do not divert any river for irrigation. “The Siang river itself provides our fields with moisture in the dry seasons,” says Opang. From midnight till about 10 am, a dense mist lingers above the river course from November onwards after the monsoon. “The fog provides the moisture to our crops. We tap one of two streams for daily needs but most keep free from river bodies,” says Opang.
Largely depending on the fields and the forest, the members of the Adi do not see big dams as a means for development. A local school teacher, Upak Taram says that the community needs means to develop themselves, but not at cost of losing their lands to the dam. “In my school, if you ask our children are opposed to the idea of a big dam,” he says.
Expert such as Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, a Guwahati-based academician studying perception of people towards big dam projects in border areas for Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), says that over years dam projects on Siang and other tributaries of Brahmaputra has turned it into a site for speculation. “Since Brahmaputra is a transnational river that spans three countries, the Siang, one of its most important tributary is used to create strategic assets such as dam. Big dam projects have often being planned and later abandoned in Arunachal Pradesh so much so that they have become paper dams. On the other hand, for communities the plan for a dam becomes a source of anxiety as the locals are never made a part of the dam building plans and are often left in dark,” he says.
With Arunachal Pradesh government yet to announce a decision over the dam, locals are becoming impatient with the uncertainty around them. For SIFF members, this uncertainty means a regular trip to Itanagar, about 388 kilometers away to check if there is a new dam being planned on Siang.