On December 3, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by a Guwahati-based civil society group challenging an order passed by the National Green Tribunal order in July.

The tribunal had cleared the decks for the resumption of construction of the contentious Lower Subansiri dam along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. The Supreme Court’s endorsement of the order marks the end of a protracted legal struggle – part of nearly two decades of resistance against the dam.

The 2,000-megawatt dam, proposed to be built over a tributary of the Brahmputra river, stands at the heart of India’s hydroelectricity ambitions. But a fierce people’s movement – and subsequently a legal impasse – meant that the project never quite took off. As many as nine committees of varying mandates failed to resolve the stalemate.

Observers say the shifting contours of the project – the conflicting “expert” opinions on its safety and viability, the ebbs and flows of the legal trial, the many closed-door meetings to arrive at a middle-ground, the changing loyalties of stakeholders – is telling of many truths. Of not just the Lower Subansiri Project, but of the political economy of many big projects in India, particularly of the hydroelectric variety. This is that story.

Taming an ‘unleashed animal’

It begins in mid-1950s. 1954 to be precise. Assam had been ravaged by a flood so severe that it had obliterated entire towns and villages in Upper Assam. Enough was enough, Delhi decided. Something had to be done to “tame” the Brahmaputra which Jawaharlal Nehru said “was behaving like an unleashed animal”.

The idea of a “storage reservoir” as a remedy first came up in 1955, when the Brahmaputra Flood Control Commission – its mandate self-explanatory – envisaged a 125-metre high dam on the Subansiri tributary of the river at Gerukamukh close to what is now the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.

But budgetary constraints meant that the Commission, a state government body, could not really act on its plans.

The Centre takes over the river

In 1982, the Brahmaputra Board was formed. A central body, it was to be the sole authority on the river in line with demands in Assam that the river be handled by the Centre and the floods in the state be treated like a “national” problem. With the advent of the Brahmaputra Board, the idea of big reservoir dams being the only answer to Assam’s paralysing floods gained new momentum. It helped that they could produce electricity too.

In 1983, the Brahmaputra Board gave a definite form to the dam envisioned at Gerukamukh: it prepared a detailed project report of a 257-metre high rock-fill dam it proposed to build at the site. The project – the biggest in India by a fair margin at that point – was to be a harbinger of a new era of “taming” the wild river and utilising its abundant untapped potential to produce power.

Spanner in the works – by one of their own

But there was vehement resistance to the project. Not so much from environmental activists as from one of the ruling Congress’s own chief ministers, Gegong Apang who helmed Arunachal Pradesh for 19 straight years from 1980 to 1999. (Apang would be chief minister for one more term from 2003 to 2007).

Apang’s apprehensions stemmed from political calculations: the dam, as envisaged by the Brahmaputra Board, would submerge much of his constituency. Nothing doing, affirmed Apang, then one of North East India’s most powerful politicians.

The Brahmaputra Board, in its project report, also mentioned possible downstream impact but stopped short of quantifying it.

In 1995, though, Apang finally relented. He consented to the Brahmaputra Board studying the river basin and coming up with an alternative plan that was more sustainable and entailed lesser displacement.

This was the first of what was going to be many climb-downs on the part of project’s detractors over the years – a slow but certain change of stance from no-dam-at-all to maybe-a-safe-dam.

Near the Ghagar ghat along the Subansiri river, a man who was displaced from his original village which is in the middle of the river now. Photo: Anup Sharma

A change in plan and of hands

After its investigations, the Brahmaputra Board decided that there would not be one dam, but six smaller ones: three each on the Subansiri and the Dibang in their upper, middle and lower reaches respectively. Gerukamukh, the site of the original dam in the lower reaches of the Subansiri, would be the first of them – it is standard engineering practice to work up the river. But instead of the originally planned 257 metres, its height would be reduced to 116 metres.

Thus, began the Lower Subansiri Project as we now know it.

Around the same time, the first National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party took over the reins in Delhi – resolute to push hydroelectricity as the preferred form of power production in country. In 2000, the Centre directed the Brahmaputra Board to hand the project over to NHPC Limited, then known as National Hydroelectric Power Corporation.

The beginning of the resistance

NHPC finally began construction another five years later in 2005 – but the project ran into trouble yet again with the local population who took to the streets to protest the project. “The primary reason the movement started was because the environmental impact assessment of the project was done shoddily without any concerns about the impact downstream,” said Keshav Krishna Chatradhara, a local activist and one of the first to agitate against the project.

Quickly, the protests acquired a political hue with Assamese nationalist outfits jumping into the fray. It was seen as another instance of the Indian state imposing its might to extract the region’s resources at the cost of the local population. “It was a people’s movement,” said Akhil Gogoi, advisor to the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, which was at forefront of the protests along with the All Assam Students’ Union.

On December 16, 2011, NHPC, worn down by persistent protects and a highway blockade, stopped construction even as it published a series of advertorials in local newspapers “dispelling baseless rumours with hard hitting reality”.

A group of experts examine, but what?

In the meantime, in 2008, a group of experts from Gauhati University, Dibrugarh University and Indian Institute of Technology had been roped in to study the project. The mandate of the Expert Group Committee was:

1. Assessment of impacts on environment

2. Likely spread of distribution patterns

3. Management plans of direct impact zones

4. Development plans for affected people/villages

5. Developing deliberate mechanisms to minimise impacts

But the committee failed to impress the local protesting public. Its terms of reference, Chatradhara claimed, did not reflect the people’s apprehensions. He said, “We wanted two questions answered: First, what would be the downstream impact; second, the scale of the impact. But the committee was instead deliberating mitigation measures and technical minutiae as though the construction of a dam was non-negotiable.”

In July 2010, the committee submitted a report that ran over a dense 1,000 pages, replete with mathematical equations. It remarked that the “mega dam of the present dimension was not appropriate in such a geologically and seismologically sensitive location”. But it did not quite close the door on the project itself. “It is recommended to redesign the project by sufficiently reducing the dam height and production capacity,” the report stated.

It added: “All efforts should be made by the dam authority to convince the people about the hydroelectric power project and its outcomes so that they can gain necessary confidence over the issue.”

Chatradhara said the report – in spite of its cautionary notes – did not help their cause at all. “It left the door open and for all effective purposes paved the way for the construction of the dam,” he alleged. “And our fundamental questions remained unanswered: how exactly are people like us living in the downstream going to affected?”

Dealing with the downstream

But committee members say it is an unfair criticism. Professor Arup Kumar Sarma of IIT Guwahati, who was part of it, said the committee did study “how the flow scenario in the downstream would be changed” because of the dam.

The most common – and genuine – concern the world over with big dams is that it dries the river downstream. This is because a dam is typically not operational throughout the day, but only during “peaking hours” in the evening when the demand for power is higher. The rest of the time the dam acts as a barrier of sorts for the natural flow of the river.

“We gave recommendations on how to counter that problem,” said Sarma. The report recommends that “the minimum discharge of the natural river be maintained through the turbines by at least one unit running continuously for 24 hours a day”. “For this we have recommended augmenting the demand side by incentivising power bought during non-peak hours,” explained Sarma.

Sarma said the committee also suggested “structural solutions” like creation a “pondage” to reduce this fluctuation in downstream flow. A pondage is a small storage unit usually artificially created behind the weir of the dam to maintain downstream flow during lean season.

But activists are far from convinced. Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman, who teaches climate justice in Guwahati’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, questioned how the experts arrived at conclusions and gave recommendations since long-time data on the flow of Subansiri was not available at all at that point. “It was an ambiguous report left open to political interpretations,” he alleged.

Chatradhara agreed. “At best, the report acknowledged that there is a problem, and that further studies needed to be conducted to really understand the downstream impact,” he said.

The site of the Lower Subansiri project.

New experts, more studies

In all fairness, further studies were commissioned, several of them.

In March 2011, a two-member expert committee comprising C D Thatte and M S Reddy, former bureaucrats with the ministry of water resources, was constituted by the Planning Commission. In April 2011, NHPC formed a Joint Steering Committee to “suggest feasible and practicable remedial measures in the downstream areas”.

In their 44-page report submitted in July 2012, Thatte and Reddy echoed some of the concerns echoed by activists from Assam. They called the expert committee’s recommendations “rather ambivalent”.

They also criticised the expert committee of not focusing on their job at hand: a downstream assessment of the project. “EG [expert group] has made little effort to estimate possible environmental effects…on downstream areas… as necessary for such assessments.”

The committee plucked several holes in dam’s design too. Among other inadequacies, the dam’s very foundation, it concluded, was “very weak”. “Its ability and competence to support the concrete dam is not established satisfactorily,” it remarked.

The Planning Committee, which was the custodian of the report, kept it under wraps and even turned down Right to Information requests seeking details. It was ultimately leaked out to the media in 2015.

The Joint Steering Committee, for its part, suggested a plan to mitigate the downstream impact amounting to Rs 470 crore – a recommendation that the NHPC was only happy to accept.

In the court

Meanwhile, the project became a subject of litigation in 2013 when Assam Public Works – better known for filing the petition in Supreme Court that led to the National Register of Citizens update in Assam – approached the National Green Tribunal. They challenged the recommendation of both the Joint Steering Committee and the Expert Group Committee. Significantly, though, the non-profit did not challenge the project’s environmental clearance – the bedrock of the people’s movement – or the project itself, for that matter. “Only challenge was to safety and downstream impact in the course of operation of the project,” the tribunal would note in its final order.

The activists on the ground seemed to take a dim view of the decision to move the court. “It did not help the movement,” Akhil Gogoi told Scroll.in in a recent interview in Guwahati.

In an interim order in 2015, the tribunal allowed NHPC to carry out “repair and maintenance work that were not related to the main project for the safety and protection of the people of the locality”. “The case completely weakened the movement,” said Chatradhara. “That gave them the legitimacy to carry out construction work in the name of repair work.”

One committee, two factions

Meanwhile, the saga of expert committees continued. In 2015, as part of its negotiations with the agitators, the ministry of power appointed a Project Oversight Committee to “examine various aspects of the project”. The committee comprised eight members – four from Assam, and the rest from other parts of the country, representing the Centre. The Assam representatives were also part of the first Expert Group committee.

The two factions submitted separate and contradictory reports – none of which have been officially made public yet. The National Green Tribunal would later remark that the two groups “expressed diametrically opposite views”.

From court records, it is understood that while the Central group green-signaled the project without any major modifications, the Assam experts pretty much stuck to their original diagnosis about the questions of safety and suitability of the dam and its design. The latter in its report affirmed that seismological and geological issues plaguing the project had not been satisfactorily resolved.

They wrote critically of their Central counterparts. “The members representing Government of India refused to accommodate the question of redesign of the project,” the Assam experts alleged.

They added: “It is unclear and rather puzzling as to why the issue of safety of the foundation and general safety of the project has not been given due consideration and continued to be undermined and resisted without any tangible scientific reasoning.”

Of ‘bias’ and ‘conflict of interest’

Finally, in November 2017, clear that yet another expert committee had failed to provide definitive answers, the green court did the inevitable: it directed the ministry of environment, forest and climate change to constitute one more “committee of three expert members from the field of seismology, geology and hydrology” to “examine the entire matter and reports of various committees constituted”. One of these members, the tribunal ordered, was to be from North East India.

This time, trouble began even before the committee could get to work. Assam Public Works and a former activist of the All Assam Students’ Union, Tularam Gogoi, moved court yet again alleging that the committee suffered from bias and conflict of interest. Their reasoning: one member had been consulted by the previous project oversight committee and had supposedly backed the Central team; another (the North East representative) was a former employee of Brahmaputra Board – a case of clear conflict of interest, according to Assam Public Works.

Even as the court dragged its heels over the objections, the committee submitted a report in favour of the project. Days later, on July 31 this year, the National Green Tribunal dismissed the pleas to reconstitute the committee. “Mere association of organisations with the project in professional capacity is not enough to hold that any expert who worked in such association will have an institutional bias,” it ruled.

For ‘public interest’?

It also paved the way for resumption of construction, finally – after nearly eight years. “The project is to advance public interest,” it declared.

On December 3, the Supreme Court dismissed Assam Public Work’s petition challenging a review of the green court’s order.

For many activists, it was vindication that going to the court was counterproductive. “The people who went to the court were repeatedly told: ‘Don’t go to the court’. The people’s movement was strong enough,” said Himanshu Thakkar, the founder and coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based advocacy organisation. “Now the court’s decision will be used to delegitimise the people’s movement.”

The Indian judiciary, Thakkar alleged, had “never been able to see through the problem with these projects.” He said, “You won’t find a single dam project in India where rehabilitation has happened in a just way; where there has been an honest environmental impact assessment; where there is an honest environment management plan implemented; where costs have been properly scrutinised. Not one project.”

Yet, he continued, “this judiciary has done nothing to stop any of these projects.”

Whose judiciary is it?

But is it fair to blame the judiciary considering expert opinion on the project itself was divided? “It may seem like there is a split opinion on the project, but that is not true,” said Thakkar. “The truth is that the Centre is an interested party in these projects and they try to manipulate the process at each stage.”

As an example, Thakkar cited the constitution of the various committees. “They have been full of people with no independent track record,” said Thakkar. “Look at the last committee for example: its members had been associated with the project in some capacity or the other.”

The basic problem, Thakkar said, was that that the judiciary “does not understand the concept of conflict of interest”. “That’s how the government gets away with all its manipulations,” he claimed.

Just politics

But outside the courts too, resistance has been on the wane. Several top Mising leaders – the dominant community living downstream of the project – have softened their once militant opposition to the dam. Many of them have, over the years, grown closer to the Bharatiya Janata Party dispensation, which, on its part, has done a complete U-turn on its stance on big dams. Before 2014, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial contender spoke against them, but, once in power, his government enthusiastically pursued the same projects.

“It is clear to all that some leaders have been co-opted by NHPC and the government,” said Chatradhara. “It is for everyone to see.”

Partha J Das, a Guwahati based water policy activist, agreed. “There are obvious indications that loyalties have shifted and the resistance is faltering and fracturing,” sad Das, co-author of Damming Northeast India, a comprehensive 2010 study of hydropower development in the region.

Yet, Gogoi insists that the resistance will continue. “The thing about the Subansiri protests is that unlike other dam protests, it is not just restricted to affected people,” he said. “It’s a national struggle of the people of Assam – and it will continue.”

Escalating costs, diminishing returns

Soon after the July 31 order, NHPC resumed construction at Gerukamakh. Documents accessed through the Right to Information Act reveal that the company has made three major changes to the original design: the width of the dam has been increased from 171 metres to 271 metres; there is now a “provision for an “additional cut-off wall downstream”; the upstream cut-off wall has been extended. These modifications, the company said, is in line with the recommendations of the dam design review panel set up the power ministry in December 2012 at the behest of the Thatte-Reddy Committee.

These changes, the scientific community in Assam maintains, do not address their concerns adequately.

According to the NHPC’s own estimates, the estimated project cost has gone up from the initial Rs 6,900 crore to Rs. 20,469 crore – an increase of nearly 200%. The tariff of the electricity produced, according to the company’s own calculations as revealed in a recent RTI query reviewed by Scroll.in, will be around Rs 6.70 per unit. The current rate of power in the Indian energy exchange is around Rs 3 per unit.

Is the project even economically viable anymore? Scroll.in sent a detailed questionnaire on the costs to the NHPC, but has received no response in spite of daily reminders.

“Hydro was not ever ecologically or socially viable; now it is not even economically viable,” said Thakkar.

Even techno-bureaucrats seem to partly agree with that. “We have missed the hydro bus in India due to all the protests and politics,” said a senior official of the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited, a leading state-run hydropower player. “It is just not economically feasible anymore.”

Dam for whom and what?

Maybe then the dam on the Subansiri would at least help in flood control? The original raison d’etre of the project was that, after all (although storage dams as a means to manage floods is itself a subject of hot debate).

Turns out not very well. The Thatte-Reddy committee in its report remarked that the “single most important of the project”, flood management, had been “ignored” by NHPC as it converted a “single high dam into a cascade of three dams” on upper, lower and middle reaches of the river. “The dam should be able to control floods but not to the extent a high dam would have,” the added. “The very purpose…has been defeated.”

What then explains the Central government’s insistence to go through with it in spite of so much bad faith? Das suspected it was a prestige issue. “It is essentially a statement of power,” he said. “That the government is all-powerful and that they will not bow down to anyone.”

Thakkar, though, said it went beyond that. “It’s not a prestige issue alone – it’s a question of money,” he said. “You get to spend of thousands of crores of money without any accountability. These projects are rife for corruption and manipulation.”

Information received under the Right to Information Act shows that the company has spent Rs 10,939 crore on the project till August this year. Of this, Rs 3115 crore amount was attributed to “IDC” or indirect costs. NHPC did not respond to queries seeking more details about these costs.

It did, however, provide a breakdown of the “downstream package of Rs 470 crores”. “Rs 145 crore is for downstream protection measures, Rs 320 crore for developmental works in downstream areas and Rs 5 crore for social awareness and mass awakening program,” the company said in an email to this reporter.

“They will give a break-up of their costs,” Thakkar added, “but can you scrutinise what exactly they spent on the physical aspect of the project on what on other things? Nobody can.”