Indian Environment Minister Confronts Activists Over Dams in the Northeast

Samir Mehta

Activists protest outside the public consultation
Activists protest outside the public consultation
Guest blog by Samir Mehta, South Asia Program Director

Recently I had an exciting opportunity to be part of a Consultation on Big River Dams in Northeast India held by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in Guwahati, Assam. Mr. Ramesh was forced to listen to complaints about dam building in the Northeast of India during a public consultation in Guwahati, Assam. The Northeast is an isolated region of the country, with little development. While people there are clamoring for improvements to the region, they know dams are not the way to go.

Mr. Ramesh's arrival was met by thousands of protesters waving banners and shouting slogans (photographs) demanding no dams be built in the Northeast. The tension between the protestors and the heavily armed riot police was palpable.

The consultation began with presentations by experts, including those that had prepared the report, Downstream Impact Study of the Ongoing Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Power Project. The project is located in Arunachal Pradesh and close to the border of Assam. Its downstream impacts will be felt largely in the State of Assam. The report was commissioned due to public outcry after construction on the 2000 MW dam had already began. The report very clearly recommends that the mega dam should not be constructed at the present site. During his presentation, Professor Chandan Mahanta, Professor and Head, Department of Environment, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, stated that there are active fault lines in the region and that itself was sufficient reason for not constructing dams in the region.

The Peoples Movement for Subansiri Brahmaputra Valley in India protesting at the Subansiri River, Day of Action 2010
The Peoples Movement for Subansiri Brahmaputra Valley in India protesting at the Subansiri River, Day of Action 2010
Keshoba Krishna Chatradhara
Over 100 dams are planned for the region, despite the fact that no studies have been undertaken to understand the downstream and basin-wide impacts of them. When Ramesh was confronted about this fact, he sheepishly said studies would be carried out for a few dams that were already completed! Logically activists have insisted that the Environment Ministry cannot give dams clearance until the results of environmental impact assessments open to public scrutiny. Yet, a report prepared by a group of Indian ministers from various Ministries states that "However, the MoEF will not hold up the environmental clearance of individual projects for want of completion of such basin wide studies" When asked about this, Ramesh feebly said he would speak to his counterparts in the Power and Water Resource Ministries.

I pointed out to the minister that the Report by the Avay Shukla Committee to the Himachal Pradesh High Court states that the condition of environmental sanction to the dams of maintaining 15% river flow is pointless and meaningless as it renders the river dry for huge stretches. I further questioned India's stand to build dams in the north east to ascertain first use rights with China when negotiations begin, as China has so far not recognized the rights of downstream users in Southeast Asia. I pressed the minister on why his Ministry has not addressed the issue of downstream impacts of dams being constructed by India in Bhutan, whether his Ministry would take a stand on the 10th anniversary of the World Commission on Dams Report and how hydropower could be considered clean when dams in tropical regions produce greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately the meeting with Ramesh was extremely disappointing. He made no commitments to review the government's policy on dam building in the Northeast or to stop construction of dams pending the results of environmental impact studies. Activists are only left with the choice of stepping up their agitation to force him and his Ministry to do the right thing.