The Manipur BJP leadership has requested the Union government that the 105 megawatts Loktak hydroelectric project be broken down or, to use the technical term, decommissioned. Following up on the political call from the party-in-power, the newly-elected state government has written twice to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to set up an expert panel and review the impacts of the dam.

Protests against already operating dams, or those under various stage of planning and construction in the North East, are not new. But this is the first case where one of the northeastern states has written to the Centre demanding a review, and the regional leadership of a party in power in the state has asked for a dam to be decommissioned.

The lay of the land

Located in Bishnupur district in the Imphal Valley, the Loktak is the largest freshwater lake in North East India. The Manipur river, as it flows South from Imphal, branches into the Khordak channel, which is the only inlet and outlet for the Loktak lake.

The dam on the lake was commissioned in 1983 and has been administered by the National Hydro-Electric Project Corporation since. A major component of the project is the Ithai barrage – which acts as an artificial reservoir to ensure sufficient volumes of water for the project.

The barrage is located at the junction of the Manipur river and the Khuga river, where the Khordak channel leaves the lake, flowing southwards.

The project came up before the Environment Protection Act, 1986, came into force. This Act mandates the need for a comprehensive impact assessment of projects, and also made it mandatory for consultations with affected people to be held before the setting up of a hydro project.

The lake is known for “phumdis”, or floating masses of vegetation, soil and organic matter. Fishermen living on these phumdis or in surrounding areas depend on the lake for their livelihood. In 1990, Loktak was declared a “wetland of international importance” under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.

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‘Loktak Project is disastrous’

Critics of the Loktak project have repeatedly alleged over the years that the barrage has affected the natural dredging process of the rivers and streams that drain into the Loktak, leading to flash floods in the area, in addition to wreaking havoc in the ecology of the lake. Agitations demanding that the dam be decommissioned have taken place for some years now.

Last month’s floods in the Imphal Valley, which caused widespread destruction, have led to a renewed campaign against the project – and members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are leading it. Although, torrential showers triggered the deluge, Manipur’s civil society organisations and political parties have claimed that the Ithai barrage made things worse.

In a press statement released last month, M Asnikumar Singh, the vice-president of the BJP’s Manipur unit, said: “The people of Manipur can live better without the Loktak Project. But we cannot develop without the Loktak. The Loktak Hydro Electric Project and Ithai dam have been disastrous projects and they must be decommissioned.”

Officially too, the Manipur government has made its reservations about the project known. On June 12, the state’s principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), also the Chief Wildlife Warden, wrote a letter to the Union environment ministry asking for the constitution of an “expert committee to carry out environmental assessment of the Ithai Bridge (Coffer Dam) of the Loktak Hydro Electric Project”.

Another letter on the same subject by the joint secretary of the state’s forest and environment department followed on June 24. Again, on August 2, Manipur’s chief minister N Biren Singh is reported to have told Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was on a two-day visit to Guwahati to take stock of the flood situation in the North East, to “review” the project. “Our honourable chief minister told the PM what the people of Manipur want,” confirmed Asnikumar Singh.

Questions mailed by to the Union ministry are yet to receive a response.

Loktak lake. Image: PTI

‘Loktak lake cannot be compromised’ 

Asnikumar Singh said even if the Union government refused to give in to the demand of decommissioning the dam, “there have to be some corrective measures taken”. “It’s high time there was a cost benefit analysis at least,” he said. “According to the DPR [Detailed Project Report], people of Manipur should be getting electricity generated from the dam at 10 paisa per unit, but instead people pay almost Rs 3 per unit. The people must know the total number of megawatts of electricity that the Loktak Hydel Project has produced since its commission in 1983. Also, the DPR promised drip irrigation for 40,000 hectares of land around the lake to enable multiple cropping. The project has completely failed.”

He added that there were other places in the state where small hydel projects could be developed instead. “Loktak lake cannot be compromised,” said Singh. “The people who governed the state 34 years ago were innocent. They were just made to sign on a paper. This cannot continue anymore.”

Himanshu Thakkar, founder and director of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based advocacy organisation, said the government would “have to give in to people’s sentiments” at some point. “If dams must be built, they should be done in a more transparent and democratic way,” said Thakkar.

India’s hydel push

Experts say the timing of the demand is crucial. “This has come when there is a renewed push to fast-track the Lower Subansiri project,” said Ram Wangkheirakpam, director of Indigenous Perspectives, an Imphal-based non-profit that works on environmental issues.

The mega Lower Subansiri dam, a 2,000 megawatts hydro-electricity project on the Subansiri river in Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh has been kept on hold since 2011 following an order of the National Green Tribunal and mass protests by various indigenous groups.

“One must remember that the NHPC [National Hydro-Electric Project Corporation] doesn’t have too many projects of its own in the North East,” said Wangkheirakpam. “And in public meetings to garner public support for the Lower Subansiri project, it has often projected the Loktak as an example of successful projects it has implemented.”

Currently, in addition to the Loktak project, the National Hydro-Electric Project Corporation operates two more dams in the North East: the 60 megawatts Rangit project and the 510 megawatts Teesta dam, both in Sikkim. Apart from the Lower Subansiri, the public-sector corporation is awaiting environmental clearances on four other projects in the region.

The decommissioning of the Loktak dam will have implications outside the region as well. India is currently in the middle of a hectic push towards hydroelectric power. To accelerate this surge, the power ministry has proposed that hydro-electric projects above 25 megawatts, currently considered non-renewable, be classified as renewable. This, the power minster has argued, would help India’s renewable energy capacity touch 225 gigawatts by 2022 because renewable projects get loans at lower interest rates. At the moment only wind, solar, biomass, and hydel projects up to 25 megawatts are classified as renewable energy.

Thus, it is unlikely that the Union government or the National Hydro-Electric Project Corporation will accede to a request to decommission the Loktak project as it will open the floodgates for other contested projects in the North East, said Wangkheirakpam. “But with the Manipur government backing it, it is a good time to critically look at existing projects and carry out more scientific studies to mitigate the damage done,” he said.

‘Ignorance’, says NHPC

Bedi Ram, the project head of the Loktak project, defended it, saying that the opposition to the dam stemmed from “ignorance”. “The real problem is the Manipur river,” he countered. “The river’s capacity is very little, which has further diminished as a result of siltation, so floods are inevitable. The government should try and revive the river instead of blaming the barrage.”

Ram added that water that flowed down from Manipur’s hills added to the floods in the Imphal Valley. “We have been telling the government that it should construct big check dams to stop that water,” he said. “That is the only way to prevent the valley from getting submerged.”

Ram expressed confidence that the Loktak project will “absolutely not be decommissioned”. “They have written letters in the past too,” he said, dismissing suggestions that dam needed to be reviewed.

Decommissioning a dam

Decommissioning of dams in India is indeed rare – and almost never because of safety or environmental concerns. The Tajiwala barrage, a colonial structure on the Yamuna river, was decommissioned in 1999 and replaced by the Hathikund barrage in 2002 because the old structure had stopped serving its purpose.

In March 2008, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition to decommission the Mullaperiyar dam in Kerala.

“In India, the Central Water Commission doesn’t want the word decommissioning to enter the vocabulary of water resources management in the country,” said Thakkar.

Internationally, though, decommissioning of dams is a fairly common practice. In the United States of America, more than 900 dams have been torn down since 1980. France, too, has seen quite a few dams being decommissioned recently. In the rest of Europe also, thousands of dams are being put through a review process. Among Asian nations, Japan is currently in the middle of bringing down its Arase Dam located upstream on the Kuma River.