Tipaimukh Hydro Project: Environmentalists cry foul play, the common man is clueless
::By Robert L Sungte::
Rupees 8,000 crores, 1500 Megawatt, 293.56 sq.km, 162.80 meters and Tipaimukh Dam makes no sense to one Mr Thanglien (name changed) who hails from Tipaimukh village, in the border village of Manipur and Mizoram. When asked by this writer on what he thinks about these figures, Thanglien is amused with ignorance and simply retorts, " I don’t know what all these means, but I have heard from someone who comes from the town to our village that the government is planning to build a big dam over here. Is that right?" This kind of reaction from a resident of Tipaimukh village, 500m upstream from where the government proposed to build one of the largest hydel projects in Northeast India is not strange considering the little homework done by the concern authorities on the impending project.
Lights maybe in or out of proposed Tipaimukh Dam but one thing that is certainly in is politics. Much of the work has been completed in paper. In January 2007 the Union Labour Minister Oscar Fernandez announced that the Centre would go ahead with the controversial Tipaimukh Dam which is to be built on the confluence of Barak and Tuivai rivers in the Mizoram- Manipur border if the State governments decides to implement it. It is now left to the Manipur government to decide whether it should give the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Ltd (NEEPCO) a green signal to start the project. Mizoram has already made it clear that it wants the dam to built at any cost.
Green signal or red signal, the project is already in the eyes of the green activists of in Manipur who has appealed to national and international environmental groups to put pressure on the government to shelve the project once and for all. At the same time there are vested interests groups including militants, NGOs, politicians and contractors who wants their share if the projects moves a head. Hectic underground meetings of various groups are the order of the day.
The missing link in these parleys, however, is the common man like Mr Thanglien who will be most affected by this mega-hydro project.
The environmentalist perspective
The Tipaimukh Dam project is the third hydel project to be taken up in Manipur and proposal for construction of the high fill-rock dam 500m downstream from the confluence of Tuivai and Barak(Tuiruong) river were made in the 1970s’. The government contention is that this dam will control flood in Assam and generate investment and employment in Manipur. The Ministry of Forest and Environment and Water Resource Commission had already given approval certificate to the proposed project after "proper studies" on the regions’ natural resources and wildlife.
Executive Director of Manipur Nature Society, Salam Rajesh, in his keynote address on the "Faunal Diversity of Barak River Basin", had, however, refuted the report presented to the Centre by NEEPCO officials. Rajesh scoffs at the NEEPCO report which mentioned Siroi Lily (found only in Ukhrul District) as one of the rare flora and fauna found in Tipaimukh area! Environmentalists in the Imphal valley like Rajesh rejected the government assertion that thorough environmental investigation has been done on the project. They held that no serious studies of the region were ever conducted by the government and its agencies.
The Tipaimukh area in Manipur and Mizoram comes under the declared "hot spot" of biodiversity in India. The area has thick under growth of evergreen trees and large bamboo forest. Rare species of flora and fauna are found along the Barak( Tuiruong) River and its tributaries. The tribals, the Hmars and Zelianrong Nagas, who inhabited the region have been using these rare species for preparing traditional medicine and delicacies since ages.
Dr Laiphrakpam Arunkumar of Mayai Lambi College, Imphal, had said, "If the project is implemented, not only the known species of flora and fauna will be lost but many more unknown species as well." It maybe noted that no government agencies or academic researchers have gone to the area precisely to conduct scientific research on the rich natural resources available in the Barak river basin and its tributaries.
Green groups pointed that not only will the rich natural vegetation of the area be submerged but it will also disturb the existence of some 140 species of fishes in the tributaries of Barak(Tuiruong) River like the Irang, Makru and Tuivai. Environmentalist in Manipur feared that the rare species of fish named Ngajai, and another species of fish resembling the shape of human footprint had already become extinct. As many as 34 species of frog, 12 species of snakes, 115 species of birds and 78 species of mammals have been sighted and among these many are recounted mostly by the locals themselves who named them in their own tribal dialect.
Environmentalist and General Secretary of the Hmar Students’ Association, Mr Joseph R. Hmar expressed the threat posed by the project to the simple tribals of the region. He argued that if the government plows ahead with its proposed dam "thousands of outsiders" will come to settle in the area and as a result the Hmars will be exposed to changes like never before to new culture, economy and politics. Mr Hmar and his fellow members have been actively involved in the Tipaimukh issue. The Dam will have more negative impact on the socio-cultural and economic lives of the rural folk, he opined.
Submersion of places of historical importance, few available rare monuments, closely associated with the Hmar history and lost of major chunks of cultivable land are the arguments put forth at various awareness meetings held by his team.
Likewise, the Citizens’ Concern for Dams and Development (CCDD), an Imphal based forum comprising of several NGOs and academicians is spear heading the movement for "awareness" among the Hmar and Zelianrong Nagas. Leaders of CCDD in their writings has been critical of the implementing agencies. "People and environment must be the centre of all development efforts," it had said.
The CCDD since 1999 has been organising seminars and lectures on the adverse environmental impact that the proposed project would have on the environment and the socio-cultural and economic life of the people. One of their strongest arguments is that the proposed dam site lies in a seismic zone prone to earthquakes and that it pose threats not only to the environment but to the people living downstream of the Barak River. The effort of the CCDD is, however, yet to reach the common man.
The Developmentalist agenda
Proponents of the dam and the government articulate that the dam will bring all round development not only in the Tipaimukh area but also to the state. The Government of Manipur, thereby, has signed an agreement for the construction of the dam with NEEPCO and the project is slated to be kicked off by 2008. The proposed project is to generate 1500 MW of electricity and the surplus power to be absorbed into the National Power Grid which will supply power to places as far down South metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Chennai.
The government believes that this will bring additional income to the state which could be used for infrastructure development and promotion of social welfare measures in the state.
The Chairman and Managing Director of NEEPCO, M R Ghosh in his Annual Report in March 2006 told the Board of Directors that power purchase agreement has already been signed with Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam, Nagaland and Mizoram. The Director’s report also added that once Manipur forwarded its clearance to the Ministry of Environment and Forest the project will be commissioned within 87 months from the date of clearance by CCEA.
The norms for building of mega dams, however, is yet to be met by NEEPCO and the parties in question. One glaring example has been the absence of Public Hearings. No Public Hearing has been held in Manipur in both the Hmar and Naga areas. The NEEPCO’s explanation as stated by the Director in his Annual report is that Public Hearings will be held shortly in these areas. Many observers in Churachandpur town believe Public Hearing will not matter much as the government and the agencies involved are bent on going ahead with the project.
The general view of politicians of Manipur appears that Tipaimukh Dam signify development of Tipaimukh area and the Congress government under Ibobi Singh had make it an issue during campaigning for the 2007 Assembly Election in February. However, the incumbent Congress MLA, Dr Chaltonlien Amo was defeated by RJD candidate.
Dr John H Pulamte, General President of Hmar Students’ Association (HSA), however, feels that politicians are supporting the project simply because they wanted to have some say in the contracts and small scale employment the project will beget.
Reflecting the mood of the common man over the years, Alfred L S Hmar, Editor of Sawrtui Monthly, the most read Hmar vernacular monthly in Manipur, observed: "The government at the centre and at the state has been planning for many years now and lots of money already spent for the project. As such, I can see the dam coming up within a few years whether the people want it or not."
The Populist glimpse
For the last 16 years, the Hmar Students’ Association (HSA) has been trailing the activities of the government as regards to the dam. The Hmar Inpui, the apex body of the Hmar tribal authority, had assigned to the HSA the "full responsibility" over the proposed project and to represent the Hmar opinion. The HSA main argument to the government at the Centre and the state was that tribal land cannot be exploited without their free and voluntary permission. They submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister of India which read: Ruonglevaisuo (Tipaimukh) is historically important and sacred site of the Hmars as river Ganga is to the Hindus, Nile to the Egyptians, Thames to London and Seinne to Paris.
Land from time immemorial has been the most precious possession of the Hmar tribals. The Tuiruong (Barak) River and its dense forest has serves the Hmars for as long as they could remember. Giving up their cultivable land from which they get decent food during good and bad years will be the hardest task for them.
Dr Pulamte writes: "In view of its economic potential and navigability (of Barak River) throughout the year for transportation of goods from Tipaimukh to Silchar town in the Cachar plain, it is the pride of the people."
The HSA which is apprehensive of the long term impact the project is likely to have on the Hmars has repeatedly stressed to take a balance path. However, their consistent efforts to has been to "educate the government" and make it understand that the dam "will not only definitely spell doom" for the region more but will bring forth "a grave and disastrous harm to the basic civil, economic, social and cultural rights of the affected people."
Dr Pulamte who has connection with both the Hmars and the Nagas in his capacity as the President of All Tribal Students’ Union of Manipur (ATSUM) vehemently opposed the Government of India’s development approach. Expressing his angst at the development policy of the Centre Dr Pulamte said, "The development approach is not people oriented and thus not sustainable... The indigenous people are not involved in at any stage of the decision making process."
Proponents of development in the region like Elf Hmar, are of the view that the dam can bring considerable changes in the lives of the people either positive or negative. He, however, expressed his dissatisfaction in the present system of governance which he claimed has "failed in all front." He expressed his displeasure that of the 19 Health Centres for a total population of 24,084 in 55 villages (as per 2001 census) not even one is in ‘good health’.
This writer also visited Manipur and found that there are no functional hospitals coupled with a non-transportable National Highway-150! If the government is really sincere in the upliftment of the Hmar tribals and their area it should first address their basic needs before fulfiling its own ambition.
The Hmars as in entity is maintaining passive silence on the question of whether they should support the construction of the dam or otherwise. The HSA which claimed to represent the Hmar opinion made it clear that they "are neither anti-dam nor pro-dam" but they cherished the officials to answer certain questions like: Will the compensation be worth the sacrifice the people are about to make? Will the power produced really benefit the people and the state? For how long the land will be acquired by NEEPCO? Will the local tribes be given proper reservation in jobs? beside others.
The Hmar tribals are equally divided on the issue of the proposed mega project. No consensus has been reached. What concrete stand should they adopt as and when the project is given a green signal remains a mystery as ever it was 30 years ago.
Rationalism or escapism
Opposed to certain points highlighted by the HSA, there are others who fancied the project as the "saviour for the prolonged ignored backward Hmars of the region." Mr Lallien (name changed) a government employee in the Public Works Department is of the view that the dam will be "the mother of all development of for the Hmars."
Prof Lal Dena (a Hmar tribe) of Manipur University cogitates, "Tipaimukh Dam’s benefits out weights the negative effects" it will have on the Hmar tribe. Prof Dena, a Professor of History, also refuted the claims of several writers and anti-dam activists about the lost of valuable monument of historical importance if the dam ever comes up in the near future.
He challenged readers of Sawrtui Monthly (May, 2006) to take an overview at "our land and tell me where the historical relics are? We have Tawm Lung, but who remembers it anyway? We don’t have much to pinpoint and say this is of immense historical importance. Even if there is, it is not worth the dam."
"We need to sacrifice what little the tribe has for the greater development of future generation," Prof Dena opined.
North East India as a whole covers an area of 2,5,100 sq.km (smaller than Madhya Pradesh which is 308,000 sq km) is host to more than 75 dams of varied size and heights. But only about 35% of the villages in the North East have power supply. Most of the power generated is exported to other states like West Bengal and to the National Power Grid, leaving the most parts of the seven states in total darkness.
More than the people it is the environment that has been hit the most. North East despite being declared as one of the "Hotspot of Biodiversity" of the country vast forest area has been engulfed and many rich habitats submerged by dams.
Sacrificial altars of development were prepared and sacrifices performed but the cost has been very expensive especially in the history of dam construction. People have become apprehensive, environmentalist cry foul play, politicians callous, middleman exults, anti-social elements takes advantage but the common man simply retorts and retire in disgrace after having being burnt at the sacrificial altar.
Another contentious issue is the deployment of security forces. The HSA and other organisations felt that "the heavy militarisation of the project site will not augur peace and development. Instead, it will have a seriously impact on their culture and custom, they opined. They also feared that it could lead to "massive human rights violation."
Official in the state administration and the NEEPCO knew fully well that no work can be carried out in the area unless there is adequate presence of security forces as the Tipaimukh area is the stronghold of several militant groups.
Some influential militants groups in the state has already announced that they will oppose any attempt to build the dam. Observers feel that the militants who had their camps in the dense forest of the region felt threatened at the prospect of security forces being deployed once the project is implemented. The Hmar militants, surprisingly, are silent on the issue; thereby leaving the playing ground to the valley based militants and other groups active in the hilly terrain.
The Hmars and their natural resources today are in the sacrificial altar of development. Their utter silence is a matter meriting further research. Their passive silence over the issue is interpreted by observers that the Hmars have already entered the "battle for the protection of their traditional land rights and dominion over the forest and wildlife." Some says, the Hmars welcome it. Whichever way, the scale maybe heavier, it is important for decision makers to take note that the Hmars as today are "neither anti-dam nor anti-establishment". But taking them for granted will be the goofiest mistake the government at the Centre and the State can afford to commit. Welfare scheme or commercial project the proposed Tipaimukh Multipurpose Dam officials’ arduous task now is to ensure that promises worth the people’s sacrifice are made and kept; plus there is no holding back of the hand that gives when power is generated from the project, if ever.