The official press statement notifying Prime Minister Narendra Modi visit to Manipur on Friday outlines the main agenda of his trip: the inauguration of the 105th Indian Science Congress at Manipur University and other development projects.

Among other, a significant development project Modi was supposed to launch during his visit was the Mapithel dam, part of the Thoubal Multipurpose Project.

Forced to retreat

But as things stand now, that will not happen, courtesy a shut-down call by a pressure group opposing the ban if the Prime Minister inaugurated the project. The Joint Action Committee Against Forced Inauguration of Mapithel Dam, an umbrella organisation of 20 groups representing various sections claiming to be affected by the project, had threatened a 48-hour shutdown, coinciding with scheduled inauguration of the dam by Modi on March 16.

The committee’s primary demand entails the compensation of people displaced by the project according to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. “We are against the commissioning of the dam until grievances of affected people are addressed and our rights are respected,” said Letsei Mate, the general secretary of the joint action committee.

The committee, however, withdrew its shutdown call in the late evening hours of March 14 after the government supposedly agreed to not inaugurate the project on Friday as was initially planned.

Irengbam Arun, the media adviser to the chief minister confirmed to that the inauguration has been postponed. “We felt it was not right to inaugurate the project till all its components are complete.”

A string of delays

The Thoubal Multipurpose Project, located in the Mapithel valley in the state’s hill districts of Urkhul and Senapati districts, was approved by the Planning Commission in 1980. Construction started in 1989. The stated objective of the project was to utilise the water of the Thoubal river for irrigation, drinking water and to generate electricity.

The project’s annual irrigation potential is 33,400 hectares and drinking water supply capacity, 45.46 million litres a day, most of which would be directed to Imphal. In addition, it is also supposed to produce 7.5 MW hydel power for rural electrification.

But the project has seen inordinate delays over the years, and is yet to be fully functional till date. In 2015, the flow of the blocked Thoubal River was blocked, courtesy the Mapithel dam. Activists say while none of the stated objectives of the project have been achieved yet, the blocking of the river has wreaked havoc for local communities. The main issue is the blocking of the river, said Ram. “Now there is no water downstream. People are dependent on the water for fishing and farming activities. People have lost their livelihood. The question is why did they block the river and deprive people of their land and livelihood three years before the project was complete?”

The delays have also lead to huge cost escalations. In 1980, the project was conceived at the estimated cost of Rs 47.25 crores, but revised estimates made in 2016 peg the project at more than Rs 1,500 crores.

Local communities rise up

Apart from complaints of inadequate compensation, opposition to the commissioning of the dam itself has become louder over the years. Local communities claim that the project violates the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 and its new avatar, the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

The first organised dissent against the project came in 2013 when Chandel Nagas of Manipur’s Hills affirmed that the project, which has submerged large tracts their ancestral land, violated environmental safeguards. They petitioned the Union tribal ministry to decommission the dam claiming that first stage clearance for the project was granted by the environment ministry only in 2010, a good 11 years after constriction first started. They also claimed that the second stage environment clearance was granted by the ministry without consulting them in violation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006.

But with the tribal ministry insisting that the lack of consultations was a “unique isolated case”, people displaced by the project approached the National Green Tribunal in August 2013. In December 2017, the green tribunal finally ruled in the villagers’ favour, ordering the state government to ensure the Forest Rights Act of 2006 is complied with and consultations with affected local communities are held.

However, the joint action committee contends that the state Government has not honoured the green court’s judgment. Ina memorandum to the Prime Minister to the Prime Minister through the governor’s office, it claimed that any commission the dam without following proper procedures would amount to contempt of the court.

But the government’s last-minute decision to postpone the inauguration of the dam may have only briefly staved off an inevitable face-off. As Mate said: “This is only a temporary relaxation.”