On Sunday, China announced the completion of the first phase of a hydropower dam on the Brahmaputra River in Tibet. Just a few hundred kilometres downstream from the dam is Arunachal Pradesh, whose Upper Siang district is likely to be affected if the dam performs adversely.

The Indian government’s response to this has been muted so far, with no official statement as yet. The Chinese, for their part, responded that they would take care to ensure that all India’s concerns were met.

The government’s reluctance to vocalise its opposition to China’s dam more clearly might lie in geopolitical considerations, but also to be considered is its implicit support to several mega dams set to be built in the North East.

Dams in the North East were first proposed by then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2003. He envisioned 162 dams to be built across the region to harness its hydropower potential. The United Progressive Alliance government which followed decided to continue with the dams.

This was immediately met with fervent opposition in both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Campaigns in both states were locally-driven, but also had the support of parties in opposition in those states, including the Bharatiya Janata Party.

A political backing down

One of the key planks on which the BJP campaigned in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh was its opposition to mega dam projects. This was endorsed by everyone from Narendra Modi in a rally at Pasighat in February to Rajnath Singh who attended a huge BJP rally against the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri mega dam project in 2010.

However, things changed when the BJP assumed power in the centre. The first indication that this might not be the case after they gained power came in July when Minister of Energy, Piyush Goyal, reportedly told an 18-member BJP delegation from Assam that the people of the state should support the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri mega hydroelectric project to be built by the National Hydropower Corporation as it would end the power crisis in the state. An indignant Assam BJP cell had to rush to Delhi to fix the damage, after which Goyal said no work would be done without consulting the people concerned.

The government later expressed support for the 3,000 MW Dibang Multipurpose Project, another NHPC project and the largest proposed dam in India, in a far quieter way.

In August, the PMO reportedly advised the Ministry of Environment and Forests to expedite the process of clearances for the dam. The Forest Advisory Committee had initially rejected the recommendations of the Dibang dam in March. When they met again in September, all but one member of the committee agreed to the terms without much alteration.

An iron fist...

All anti-dam protests in the last year have been led from the Assamese side, which stands to suffer with the downstream impact of these proposed mega dams, but has not been made a stakeholder for public hearings in the planning of them.

But if Arunachalis today are not especially vocal about the latest round of forest clearances for the Dibang multipurpose project, it is because of their systematic beating down by the UPA government.

Seventeen large dams are proposed along the Dibang river alone, which is a tributary of the Brahmaputra, that originates in Arunachal Pradesh. The state, along with much of the rest of the north east, is among the most seismic-prone regions in the world.

The initial proposal for the NHPC multipurpose project was at first met with stiff opposition that has petered down in the last two years.

“If we talk about the environment and community impact, we know it will be disastrous,” said Tone Mickrow, former general secretary of the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, which was at the front of the protests in Arunachal Pradesh. “No compensation will be enough. But since they are illiterate people and easily convinced, they have been lured with [government compensation] money.”

With the efforts of activist groups in the state, public hearings, a crucial requirement to getting environmental clearances, were even postponed ten times between 2007 and 2011 to protest against the imposition of dams on the state.

However, after the first hearing was postponed in 2007, the central government permanently posted two Central Reserve Police Force companies in Roing, the headquarters of the Dibang Valley district. In 2009, CRPF personnel assaulted civilians in a market in Roing. In 2010, personnel from the India Reserve Battalion beat Miti Mepo, an elderly man, to death. This friction with authorities culminated in 2011, when the police opened fire during Durga puja in October, wounding eight schoolchildren in the process.

Days after this firing, the state and central government began to circulate rumours to the press stating that anti-dam protestors were influenced by Maoists, prompting Rijiju’s Facebook response. Arunachal Pradesh has never been affected by Maoist influences before. All protestors vehemently denied the charges.

... in a velvet glove

The protestors decided to back down. In 2012, they met Chief Minister Nabam Tuki at Itanagar and worked out a revenue sharing agreement that would ensure that those affected would get more than the promised one percent of revenue from the power generated by the dams. They also agreed to set aside other issues of social and environmental concerns for an as yet unspecified future date.

NHPC simultaneously began to conduct workshops with the affected people, promising huge amounts of compensation, though remaining vague about the terms of rehabilitation. Even private companies such as the Jindal group, which will hold a public hearing in Etalim on December 12, have been active in the region.

However, none of these organisations have been able to adequately address the mode of compensation or rehabilitation, quite apart from all environmental concerns arising from a mega dam that will submerge part of a national forest.

“The government says there will be a specific amount given per hectare to people who are losing their homes and farms,” said Jibi Pulu, an Anchal Samity member in Dibang valley. “But in a place like Dibang Valley, there are people who have grazing areas who are never mentioned. Nobody is talking about that.”

Another concern is that of where affected people will be rehabilitated.

“If you are rehabilitating people within this region, it will be difficult,” said Pulu. “The only habitable area is Nehru Gorge. There is no other place that at this height where this will be possible.”

“We were somehow able to sustain our movement for five or six years,” said Mickrow. “The government of Arunachal Pradesh and the central government were also listening to us and negotiating with us. Now that the public hearing is over, they are not concerned.”