On April 4, the state-owned North Eastern Electrical Power Corporation issued a circular with a warning. As the monsoons set in over the coming months, it said, water levels in the electricity-generating Ranganadi dam could reach perilous levels. It asked people living downstream from the dam to stay away – or violate the order and face accidents at their “own risk”.

In other words, the power corporation would not be responsible for any losses in the event of a flood.

The North East is one of India’s most flood-prone regions. In 2017, when Lakhimpur district in Assam was hit by devastating flash floods, residents had blamed the Ranganadi dam for making the damage worse.

While the main reservoir of the dam is in Yazali in Arunachal Pradesh, the water stored there is transferred through an artificial channel from the Ranganadi river to the Dikrong river in Assam.

To ensure that it does not spill over during the monsoon, the April 4 circular said the water would be released in a “gradual manner”, just enough to maintain full reservoir level in the dam. In case of a flash flood, it would not be so gradual – all the gates of the diversion dam, the outlet for the reservoir water, would be opened at once.

People living downstream from the reservoir and the diversion dam, on the banks of the Ranganadi and Dikrong rivers, should stay away from these areas, and keep their livestock away, the circular said. It did not mention how long local residents should do so.

The circular reflects a major lapse in the way Assam’s dams are managed: there is no real-time early warning system in place to inform people about impending danger. Such a mechanism would have meant residents living near dams would not have to vacate homes or pasture land for indefinite periods of time.

In the absence of real-time warnings, people living in these areas face an impossible choice: vacate the land and lose the meagre livelihoods you have, or stay and risk your life.

‘Public interest’

The 405 megawatt Ranganadi dam was hailed as the North East’s first run-of-the-river dam. These do not have large dams or reservoirs but generate electricity from the energy of flowing water.

Villages in downstream Assam have been the most affected by the dam. The water stored at the reservoir and transferred to the Dikrong has reduced the Ranganadi river to a trickle. Silt regularly flushed out of the reservoir and transferred downstream has turned the Ranganadi river bed shallow.

In 2017, when residents had blamed the dam for worsening the floods, NEEPCO had claimed torrential rain was responsible for the disaster and not the dam, which had helped minimise the damage.

This year, NEEPCO chairman and managing director VK Singh has claimed the April 4 circular was issued in the “public interest”.

“The basic thing to understand is, floods used to come even when the dam was not there – it is not that we are creating floods,” he said. “Whatever water comes, people downstream are confused [and believe] that NEEPCO has released this water. To make things clear we made the circular [saying] that whatever excess comes, it has to go down. If we do not issue [it], people will blame us unnecessarily.”

When asked why people were told not to go near the river, Singh said it was because nearby residents had “encroached” on the original riverbed.

“Visualise that Ranganadi dam is not there, the river is dry most of the season and during the high flood season, if people are venturing into the river area, there will be an adverse impact,” he explained. “When the river is artificially dry and water comes suddenly then people will be trapped and they will be unnecessarily blaming us. To clear up these things, we say do not visit the river area because you are not supposed to be sitting inside the river course.”

Lakhimpur deputy commissioner Sumit Sattawan said it was a “routine” circular, issued every year. “We have a WhatsApp group with them [NEEPCO] where they share information before opening the gates,” he said. “Ringing of sirens is also done to alert people of the water release from the dam to ensure that they do not go near the river. That communication channel is working so far.”

Alakananda Medhi, project coordinator of the Assam State Disaster Management Authority told Scroll.in that they were not aware of the circular even a week after it had been issued by NEEPCO.

Flooded Lakhimpur district in 2017. Photo credit: Arunabh Saikia

Real time warnings

Arup Kumar Sarma, professor of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati, said the notification issued by NEEPCO may have been routine but a more robust early warning system was needed. Typically, these are systems that monitor dam performance and changes in behaviour. They issue warning signals to the area that may get flooded when any change is observed and send notifications to the first responders.

“A proper early warning system is necessary,” said Sarma. “People will have to be trained and informed that though the water level is not rising, it can suddenly. The suddenness can be removed only by warning. I think this circular was part of that. But a more rigorous exercise is needed to alert people.”

Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, an independent researcher who studies the sociological impact of rivers, echoed these concerns. “It was part of the agreement while building the dam that they would provide an early warning system,” he said. According to him, NEEPCO had made these assurances to civil society groups and non-governmental organisations.

Without having installed real-time early warning systems, the power corporation could not just ask people to stay away from the river, Rahman felt. Such orders came with economic costs to local communities.

According to him, the Ranganadi river had been “stolen” from local communities. “It is not a run-of-the-river dam, it is a run-away-with-the-river dam where one appropriates the entire river space – upstream and downstream – and then the communities don’t have any rights over the river throughout the year,” Rahman told Scroll.in.

Rahman claimed communities used to know the pulse of the river as the water level would rise slowly but now that indigenous knowledge was obsolete as the river was controlled by a dam and water levels rose suddenly.

“If the communities are under the shadow of the fear of the dam, that anything might happen at any time, then the communities will obviously not depend on the river for livelihood as much as they used to do earlier,” Rahman said. “Slowly, successive generations will move away from the river and the whole river will be appropriated.”

The rule curve

Water expert Himanshu Thakkar, who is the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, also emphasised that the river was a commons and not the property of NEEPCO.

According to him, the power corporation should withdraw the circular, which seemed to project an unsafe way of operating the dam during the monsoon. He objected to the plan to maintain the dam at full reservoir level throughout the season.

“The rule says that they can only fill up the reservoir towards the end of the monsoon,” he said. “During the monsoon, dams should be operated at the minimum drawdown level,” he said. This is the lowest water level that can be maintained to support normal operating conditions in the dam.

All dams need to be operated according to the rule curve. This is a plot of how much water should be stored in the reservoir at each point in time, ideally governed by monsoon patterns. According to Thakkar, the dam could not hit full reservoir level before the end of the monsoon.

Maintaining high water levels, Thakkar argued, only created the risk of disaster in downstream areas. “The Assam and Arunachal Pradesh governments should protest,” he said.

Singh claimed the rule curve has been followed. But the power generator does not have a happy record of monitoring danger in time.

On March 26, it lost three employees trying to close a flooded tunnel in Assam’s Dima Hasao district. Heavy rain in neighbouring Meghalaya had sent water gushing into the tunnels and nearby areas. The employees died as an uprooted tree collapsed on them at the Khangong hydro power station.