On June 22, the Upper Siang district administration in Arunachal Pradesh convened a meeting with panchayat members and headmen of 12 villages.

All of the villages stand to be affected by a proposed hydroelectric power project on the river Siang, which has been fiercely resisted by residents of the area for years now.

The Siang is the Brahmaputra’s main tributary that flows into Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet.

The meeting was meant to “generate awareness” about the benefits of the 10,000 MW Upper Siang Multipurpose Storage Project and the administration’s decision to take up pre-feasibility surveys to prepare the ground for the project.

Deputy commissioner Hage Lailang appealed to the village representatives to cooperate with the government and district administration and allow a pre-feasibility survey for “national interest” and “area development”.

However, representatives from the project-affected villages vehemently expressed their opposition to the dam.

“The deputy commissioner of Siang asked us not to oppose the dam,” Tarok Siram, the headman of Parong village. “I told him to take the opinion of 116 families in my village. I pointed out that the homes of 43 families will be under water if the dam is built here. The remaining families will have to be relocated.”

The Upper Siang hydropower project will be built by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation.

The mega power project will submerge the ancestral lands of the Adi community, including the district headquarters of Upper Siang district, Yingkiong, say activists.

“We have been protesting since 2008-’09 against the dam as it will inundate many villages and towns and over one lakh Adi tribe population will be landless,” said Gegong Jijong, president of Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum, a collective of agriculturists from the Adi community. “We don’t need the dam. Why will we allow the survey?” said Jijong.

While efforts to carry out such a survey were resisted earlier, the villagers’ anxiety has been heightened by a new forest law passed by Parliament last year.

The Forest (Conservation) Amendment Act, 2023, allows the Centre to divert forests for strategic projects within 100 km of India’s international borders – without the need for any forest clearance. “The Siang dam is being pursued as a national strategic project and according to the new forest law, there will be no need for forest clearance,” said Bhanu Tatak, an anti-dam activist.

Upper Siang deputy commissioner Hage Lailang downplayed the opposition to the project.

“Only a section of the people oppose it,” Lailang told Scroll. “There are people who support it also.”

Alo Libang, the local Bharatiya Janata Party MLA of Tuting-Yingkiong, who was present at the June 22 meeting said that the public should allow the survey activities in the “national interest”. He said the proposed dam was needed because of “strategic importance” and national security concerns.

On July 8, two anti-dam activists, Ebo Mili and Dugge Apang, were detained by the police ahead of Union power minister ML Khattar’s visit to the state. Apang is the convenor of the Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum, while Mili is part of several Arunachal Pradesh-based civil society groups. Both were released after a few hours.

Mili and Apang were among a group of activists who wanted to submit a memorandum to the power minister expressing their opposition to the project on the Siang River. “The proposed Siang mega dam threatens our ancestral abode that hosts delicate ecosystems, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity. It threatens our way of life,” the memorandum read.

Village representatives at the Siang deputy commissioner's office on June 24. Photo credit: Special Arrangement.

The pre-feasibility survey

The dam was first proposed in 2017 by the Central government think-tank Niti Ayog, which said it would be the country’s biggest hydropower project, with a capacity of 10,000 megawatts.

The NHPC has selected three sites at Uggeng, Ditte Dimme and Parong areas along the Siang river to assess if the dam is feasible in this area.

“We are currently doing investigation and surveys for the pre-feasibility report,” an Arunachal Pradesh-based NHPC official told Scroll, requesting anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

A pre-feasibility report is a concept paper prepared ahead of the detailed project report to assess the probable cost of the dam and whether the dam can be constructed in that area. The survey also involves drilling a 200 metre-deep hole to test the strength of the rock surface.

“We will compare the pre-feasibility reports from the three sites. Based on the reports and assessment, we will finalise the dam’s location,” the official said.

Last year, the NHPC was not able to complete the surveys due to opposition from the anti-dam groups.

The Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum had filed a police complaint in July last year, alleging that the teams were conducting surveys in Parong without the consent of the people. They had alleged that NHPC officials had sneakily carried out their work in the wee hours of the morning to avoid the villagers’ anger.

Another NHPC official told Scroll that after the pre-feasibility reports are submitted, different government agencies will check them and grant approval of the detailed project report, followed by an environmental and forest clearance.

“It may take another five years to start the construction because of the local resistance,” the second NHPC official said. “The preparation of a detailed project report and environmental and forest clearance go hand to hand.”

A dam to counter China

According to an Indian inter-ministerial technical committee report of 2022, seen by Scroll, the Upper Siang Multipurpose project is being constructed to counter the threat posed by the Chinese projects that are being developed in the Yarlung Tsangpo river upstream. The Brahmaputra or Siang is known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet where it originates.

However, experts have warned that the “dam-for-dam” policy can have high costs in a seismologically fragile region, and is unlikely to blunt the impact of dams in China.

The inter-ministerial technical committee report also claims that the Upper Siang project can help “comfortably moderate” flash floods in the event of a glacial lake outburst flood or GLOF.

GLOFs occur when lakes formed due to melting glaciers breach their capacities.

The report said the proposed dam will act as a “flood cushion” in case of sudden release of flood due to any breach in storage in China.

However, activists remain sceptical about such a claim. “Governments always make tall claims about future projects,” said Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “How true the claims are depends on a large number of factors, including how the project is operated. Their track record is abysmal.”

NHPC’s ‘development’ raises eyebrows

For some months now, the NHPC has started pre-construction activities in the region, which is being seen as a way to win over the local residents to the idea of a mega dam.

On May 24 last year, the Union ministry of power had approved Rs 350 crore for social development works in East Siang, Siang and Upper Siang districts related to the Upper Siang Multipurpose Project.

A number of memorandums of understanding have been signed between NHPC and several other departments for development-related projects that include the construction of a multipurpose sports complex at Bolen, upgradation of schools and health centres, among others.

As part of the outreach activities, the NHPC handed over two Bolero vehicles to the Siang district administration on March 3.

But these overtures are being viewed with suspicion by many local residents.

A protest against the NHPC's plans to carry out development work in the region. Credit: Special Arrangement.

On March 23 this year, the 1,500 local residents, mostly from Adi farming communities, under the banner of Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum, protested against the NHPC version of “development”. They demanded the immediate rollback of corporate social responsibility funds allocated by the NHPC to the district administrations of Siang and Upper Siang.

“The government is manipulating the people’s consent through pre-construction activities in the name of the development initiatives,” said Bhanu Tatak, the anti-dam activist.

“If NHPC will do development work, what should the government do?” Tatak said. “They have been carrying out these activities only in the proposed dam site. Clearly, despite 30 years of anti-dam resistance, they are yet to acknowledge the people’s will.”