Ebo Mili remembers that he was perhaps in Class 6 or Class 7 when he began witnessing and hearing about the anti-dam protests in his home district of Lower Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. That period, from around 2008 to 2013, was when concerns and vocal opposition to plans for large dams were at their height in Arunachal Pradesh.

Over the years, as the government kept pushing plans to tap the hydropower potential of the state, voices against them have slowly lowered. However, recent developments have given a renewed energy to those voices. According to State Chief Minister Pema Khandu, the state government is committed to taking up such projects “only once these concerns are addressed through a consultation process”.

In March this year, police in Arunachal Pradesh arrested lawyer Ebo Mili and Assam-based artist Nilim Mahanta for their role in defacing government property.

The two had been arrested for painting the words “No more dams” and a protest fist on the boundary wall of the state civil secretariat in the capital, Itanagar. While the graffiti by itself would have raised eyebrows, what caused a larger stir was the fact that the wall had recently acted as a canvas for a large mural that was commissioned by the state government to mark 50 years of the state being named Arunachal Pradesh.

A number of artists, both from outside the state and from indigenous tribal communities, had worked on the mural wall that has been named the “Wall of Harmony”.

From the portrait of Daying Ering – a member of Parliament from the state, before the state was officially formed, to depicting tribal lifestyle and landmark events from the last 50 years, the wall was supposed to educate and remind people of the state’s past. Instead, it ended up dividing opinions.

Mili and some others who had seen the wall were taken aback by the painting of a dam on the wall. To them, it symbolised the government’s continuous push for environmentally damaging hydropower projects.

The artwork depicting Arunachal Pradesh’s 50 years journey. Photo credit: Ranju Dodum

It was below the painted dam that the graffiti was painted.

Two days after their arrest, Mili and Mahanta were released on bail and ordered by a court to repaint the section of the wall that they had painted over. They obliged.

Tool of protest

On the first day that the two began working on restoring the wall, a few of the artists who had worked on the mural looked on from across the other side of the road. Agnes Linko who acted as the coordinator for the artists was joined by Jompi Ete and Ogin Nayam, two of the artists who had worked on the original mural. Walking along the wall, she explained what each part of the mural depicted and how the artists tried to put in subtle messages within the artwork.

Linko said that none of the artists who worked on the mural themselves support the construction of environmentally damaging dams but that the artwork was supposed to depict the journey that the state has taken over the last 50 years.

“And the reality is that dams do exist in the state,” she said.

She and the artists also pointed out that the water flowing out of the dam was painted murky instead of being depicted as pristine. It was their way of putting a message across.

The artists are not angry about the messaging of the graffiti. In fact, Nayam said that he “gets” why they did it. What irked them was what they view as an act of disrespecting another artist’s work.

Both Mili and Mahanta, however, have said that they meant no disrespect towards the artists who had worked on the mural.

For Mahanta, a native of Lakhimpur in Assam bordering Arunachal Pradesh, street art and graffiti has been a preferred tool of protest. As someone who feels the downstream effects of the Ranganadi dam in Arunachal Pradesh, he said that residents of the two states are connected to each other and must collectively speak out against large dams. He said that the release of water from the Ranganadi dam in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Subansiri district often causes flooding downstream in Assam where he lives.

The graffiti, a minor infraction, was the first of its kind anti-dam protest in several years. Over the years, through the use of advocacy, CSR activities and security forces, successive state governments have managed to stifle dissenting voices in the state.

Protests over proposals for large dams have also been witnessed in the Siang river belt, predominantly populated by the Adi and Galo tribes. However, apart from sporadic press releases and conferences, the protests against big dams in the state have mellowed.

Concerns began to rise again as the central government’s cabinet approved the 2,880-megawatt Dibang Multipurpose Project in 2019. If built, the dam will be the biggest in India in terms of its installed capacity. After years of protests by members of the Idu-Mishmi tribe, plans are finally on the path for the government to build the ambitious project.

With large amounts of financial compensation already handed out to the families that would be affected by the dam (through loss of land), renewed protests over the project became unlikely.

While the mural wall was supposed to depict Arunachal Pradesh’s landmark events and cultural identity, it ended up creating a difference of opinion due to the painting of a dam on the wall. Photo credit: Ranju Dodum

During a recent visit to Roing, one long-time vocal opponent of large dams on the Dibang who sought anonymity appeared worn down and said that on the ground there’s no more active Opposition.

A former zila parishad member from the district also said that a younger lot of residents from the Dibang belt have been active recently voicing their opposition against the dams on social media platforms. However, he said that that is pretty much the extent of it. Bhanu Tatak, an artist from the Adi tribe living in Roing, has been one of those who has been speaking out against the DMP and other projects. She was also accused by the state government of inciting and commissioning Mahanta and Mili to paint the graffiti. It is an allegation that all three deny.

Mili admits that what they did was legally wrong. “As a lawyer, I know it was a mistake,” he said, but adds that “as an activist, I could not control myself”.

Loss of ecosystems

Reports that the Forest Advisory Committee of the central environment ministry may soon award the forest clearance to the Etalin Hydroelectric Project have drawn concerns once again. The 3,097-megawatt project will be built in the Dibang Valley district.

A group of conservationists recently wrote to the Forest Advisory Committee asking it to reject the request for forest clearance for the project. The state forest department called a meeting in Roing on June 9 to hear “all the complaints” pertaining to the Etalin project.

India’s Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat’s recent comment that a proposal has been made to build a massive dam at Yingkiong in Upper Siang district near the Chinese border also has some worried. Last month, the Siang Indigenous Farmers Forum met at Yingkiong to discuss the plan and said it was “alarmed” by the minister’s comment.

In a statement, the Siang Indigenous Farmers Forum said that the “obdurate intention of the central and state governments to install such project is catastrophic for the indigenous tribal people”.

Environment researcher Chintan Sheth said that in the North East, infrastructural development can lead to large-scale loss of natural ecosystems including secondary forests and, bamboo growth, which in turn can lead to loss of carbon sequestration areas.

Additionally, he said that there is a massive impact on the downstream areas of dams where artificial flooding caused by the release of water during the lean season can be very damaging. He also said that the loss of varied forest plants and trees can have an adverse impact on the environment.

“The oversimplification of any ecosystem can affect its ability to sequester carbon,” he said.

Sheth, who has been working on the state’s environmental health and wildlife for 15 years, said “tree death is occurring in West Kameng at small scales for reasons we do not know”.

But it needs investigation. He also said that there is concrete data to indicate that methane emissions from hydropower reservoirs can adversely impact the environment.

“Once you start submerging vast areas of forests and grasslands, the organic matter keeps accumulating,” he said, adding that these organic matters need to retain their natural flow to sustain mangroves and oceans miles away.

“There is a deep connection between all of these things,” he said.

Addressing climate resilience

Sheth suggests that governments should have a special cell where independent researchers can be tasked with studying the issue and framing policies without the fear of backlash.

A step in that direction was made last year with the adoption of the Pakke Tiger Reserve 2047 Declaration on Climate Change Resilient and Responsive Arunachal Pradesh by the state government.

Chief Minister Pema Khandu had called the declaration a “historic and significant milestone” and said the government would do its best to “protect the people from the challenges posed by climate change and its impact on biodiversity”.

The Pakke Declaration’s intentions of working for a sustainable future, however, go against the government’s continued push for building large dams in the state.

According to Pema Khandu, the state government is committed to taking up such projects “only once these concerns are addressed through consultation process”. Dams will help mitigate floods, said Khandu.

The Pakke Tiger Reserve across the Kameng river near Tipi. Organic matter keeps accumulating once vast areas of forests and grasslands are submerged. The natural flow is essential for the organic matter to sustain mangroves and oceans. Photo credit: Aparajita Datta/ Wikimedia Commons

“Look at the devastation that is happening in our foothill areas due to recent floods,” Khandu told Mongabay-India in a written response. “The only solution to avoid such damages is to ensure that such water is stored for some time and released in a calibrated manner.”

“It will also save us from the flash floods which happen due to temporary dams created due to huge landslides in upper ridges including Tibet,” Khandu said. “We have seen these devastations in Siang on multiple occasions.”

On the negative environmental impact of such large hydropower projects, Khandu adds that with the current level of technology and awareness, the probable negative impact of the dams on the environment can be easily mitigated.

“It is observed that wherever such dams have been constructed the flora and fauna have been rejuvenated and have contributed positively to the ecology,” he said.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.