In 2003, the Union government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched an ambitious plan to add 50,000 MW of hydropower in India by the end of the 12th Five Year Plan in 2017.

Of the 16 states identified as sites of these hydropower projects, Arunachal Pradesh stood out as it accounted for more than half of the installed capacity of 50,000 MW.

Between 2007 and 2015, the Arunachal Pradesh government signed agreements for 142 hydropower projects, liberally giving away all the rivers and streams running through the state. These agreements, for projects ranging in capacity from 4.50 MW to 4,000 MW, were signed with both public sector and private players – from National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd and North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Ltd, to Jindal and Reliance.

There was no open and competitive bidding in any of the projects – they were literally given away on a platter to the highest bidder. Neither were prior feasibility studies conducted, nor any public consultations held. There were also no discussions on the impact these projects would have on the local population and biodiversity in an earthquake-prone area.

Threat to Arunachal

Arunachal is one of the biodiversity hotspots in India. These are regions that are a significant reservoir of biodiversity, but have lost 70% of their original habitat and are threatened with destruction.

The area is also prone to earthquakes. The entire North East, including Arunachal Pradesh, falls under Zone V, a very severe intensity zone, according to the Bureau of Indian Standards, which has grouped the country into four seismic zones with Zone V the most seismically active region and Zone II the least.

But as the government of Arunachal Pradesh embarked on its hydro dollar mission, all these factors were overlooked.

The government also armed itself to counter any protests from the local population.

Without any discussion, which is increasingly the norm in the state, the Legislative Assembly passed the Arunachal Pradesh Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act, 2006. This Act allows the government to “…regulate water resources within the state of Arunachal Pradesh, facilitate and ensure judicious, equitable and sustainable management, allocation and utilisation of water resources, fix the rates for use of water for agriculture, industrial, drinking and other purposes and matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.

The Act contradicts the traditional land and resource ownership followed in this northeastern region. The resources in the state are community-owned, and there is a strict ownership pattern of each village. There were voices of protest against the Act, but these were effectively crushed.

Where’s the money?

On July 16, 2015, the state Legislative Assembly was told that Arunachal Pradesh had received Rs 1,495.6 crores as upfront money and processing fees in the last 10 years from various power developers. A chunk of this – Rs 1,277 crores – was received between 2007 and 2011, when the late Dorjee Khandu of the Congress was the chief minister.

Nabam Tuki of the Congress, who was chief minister at that time, informed the Assembly that agreements were signed with 159 companies to execute power projects with installed capacities of nearly 47,000 MW in the state.

When it comes to the amount the government received as payment upfront, no one knows where it was spent and how the project proponents were chosen.

As if upfront money was not enough, the government of Arunachal Pradesh under Dorjee Khandu took a loan of Rs 225 crores in 2007 from the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation at 9% interest per annum to revive the sick Arunachal Pradesh Cooperative Apex Bank Limited, which is known to dole out loans to the state’s rich. By September, the loan amount, with interest, had risen to over Rs 500 crores.

The loan was taken against two National Hydroelectric Power Corporation projects – Dibang multi-purpose project (3,000 MW) and Tawang I & II (600 MW & 800 MW) that are still yet to take off. In January 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set the foundation stone for the Dibang project, not at the project site, but 500 km away in Itanagar, before an environmental clearance study was conducted. The project is yet to get techno-economic clearance from the Central Electricity Authority, which reviews the technological and economic parameters of proposed projects.

Uneasy voices

The questionable proposals regarding hydropower projects in the state came to the fore when the National Green Tribunal, in April 2015, suspended environmental clearance granted by the Union Environment Ministry to the Bhilwara Group’s 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu Hydroelectric Project. The project was proposed on an eco-sensitive stretch of the Tawang river basin in Zemithang that is the wintering site of the black-necked crane, which local residents hold to be sacred.

The appeal before the National Green Tribunal was filed by the Save Mon Region Federation, a Tawang-based group led by Buddhist monks.

The green tribunal said that a fresh study, which includes public consultation, should be carried out for environmental clearance to be granted.

The Save Mon Region Federation had challenged the grant of Environmental Clearance on the grounds of faulty scoping process, concealment of information, submission of false and misleading data, lack of application of mind by the Expert Appraisal Committee at scoping stage, as it overlooked inappropriateness for siting the barrage at the wintering site of the black-necked crane, non-inclusion of terms of reference for impact assessment of 7.5MW Khangteng that is part of the Nyamjang Chhu Hydroelectric Project and farcical public hearing. A public hearing with project-affected people is mandatory before any project is finalised.

Apart from black-necked cranes, the valley where this project is planned is also home to other Schedule-I species such as the red panda, snow leopard and the Arunachal macaque Macaca munzala, a recently-discovered primate species.

The National Green Tribunal took note of the fact that the Environment Impact Assessment report does not record any of these facts.

Since the ruling, Tawang has seen massive protests. Two people were killed in May when the police opened fire at citizens, among them Buddhist nuns and monks, who had come to a police station in Tawang town to secure the release of monk and anti-dam activist Lama Lobsang Gyatso from police custody. Gyatso heads the Save Mon Region Federation and has been a long-time opponent of big power projects. He was arrested on April 28 for allegedly defaming the Tawang monastery abbot, Guru Tulku Rinpoche.

Chief Minister Pema Khandu, whose People’s Party of Arunachal is in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, is the son of the late former chief minister Dorjee Khandu. They belong to Tawang. It is a strange coincidence that one of the loudest voices of protests against hydropower has come from a district that has given two chief ministers to the state.

Such voices of dissent are expected in the future as well with citizens more aware of the cascading affects on environment and fear of displacement.

Government interest

As recently as September, Chief Minister Khandu said that hurdles in development of hydropower in the state will have to be overcome.

The equity share of the state in these projects ranges from between 11% and 26%. So the state government has an interest in getting these projects off the ground as soon as possible.

The journey ahead is not going to be easy.

As of now, only four out of the many projects in Arunachal Pradesh are under execution, including Kameng HEP (600 MW) in West Kameng by North Eastern Electric Power Corporation. It is this project that is at the centre of a controversy pertaining to Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju.

Pare HEP (110 MW) in Papum Pare district by North Eastern Electric Power Corporation, Subansiri Lower HEP (2,000 MW) in Lower Subansiri district by National Hydroelectric Power Corporation and Gongri HEP (144 MW) in West Kameng district by Patel Engineering are others that are in various stages of completion.

Official records say that the state’s own hydropower generation stands at 15 MW to 16 MW. Almost all existing micro and mini projects are defunct in the state. The fall-out is massive power shortage in Arunachal Pradesh. Forget about rural areas, even state capital Itanagar goes without power for hours together in the summer.

While the government continues to chase its dream of revenue generation though hydro power, it remains to be seen how it takes it forward.

So far all the mandatory public hearings regarding these projects have been farcical. The hearings are conducted by the Arunachal Pradesh Pollution Control Board with the district administration, effectively edging out all scope of dissent or even public participation.

Usually, promises of compensation for lost forest cover, job opportunities, contract works, roads and civic amenities are made. For a villager who is deprived of even basic amenities, such allurements are hard to resist. A member of family employed as grade D staff or a small-time contractor supplying boulders for the project is enough to placate people.

Environmentalists have already spelt out the cascading effects these projects will have on Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. These concerns have been brushed aside as the handiwork of few with vested interests.

But there are few facts we cannot ignore.

The functional Ranganadi hydroelectric station in Yazali in Lower Subansari district by North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Ltd is a testimony. Those living downstream know what is to live in constant fear. The river goes dry in the winter, while the monsoon spells trouble for them because of an unannounced release of water. North Eastern Electric Power Corporation even issued a circular stating that it is not responsible for any eventuality after the release of water from the dam.