Huge upfront payments make it easy for dam builders to gloss over environmental regulations and huge profits for private firms means there’s plenty left over for government coffers, Jason Overdorf finds out
From the middle of a hanging bamboo bridge over the Siang River, the distant village of Pongging is barely visible. A light rain all morning, shrouds the village in mist.
One day soon, Pongging won’t be visible for a very different reason. The Lower Siang hydroelectric project, one of the many controversial dam projects planned for Arunachal Pradesh, will submerge the village along with vast lands belonging to the Adi, one of the largest of the state’s roughly 20 indigenous tribes.
Despite the fact that the planned dam would annihilate his village, Tone Daying, an affable young schoolteacher, says his people hardly get a say in the decision-making process.“These are our ancestral lands, so they have a very high emotional value for us,” he explains. “But my village does not have a large population, so our opinion does not matter in these decisions,” which ultimately belong to the government.
Daying’s is a simple statement, and it neatly encapsulates the debate over the proposed construction of more than 150 dams in the state of Arunachal Pradesh.
These aren’t your average dams, as far as India is concerned. Elsewhere in the country, dams have become controversial for displacing huge numbers of people and not properly compensating them for their land or providing adequate resettlement facilities.
By contrast, Arunachal Pradesh is sparsely populated, and many in Pongging will actually be well compensated for the loss of their homes, at least judging by the standards of dam builders in Asia.
The controversy in Arunachal Pradesh, then, is more about the potential loss of dwindling forests and rare tribal cultures — it’s following a different storyline, and a confusing one.
Many say that dam builders and government officials have used this confusion to their advantage, trampling environmental regulations and opposition from local activists.
“The government of India says that Arunachal Pradesh will be the powerhouse of India, producing 50,000MW,” says Vijay Taram, a lawyer and spokesman for the Forum of Siang Dialogue. “But no government is concerned about how much forest we are going to lose for producing this power.”
A new paradigm
The issues confronting policy makers, dam builders and anti-dam activists here are different from those posed by previous Indian projects like the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in Gujarat. Resistance to those projects has drawn international attention — and support from celebrities like author Arundhati Roy and Bollywood actor Amir Khan – because they would displace hundreds of thousands of poor villagers who have little power to negotiate on their own behalf. The contrast is sharp in Arunachal Pradesh. Though they are small in numbers, the state’s over 20 indigenous tribes have not been beaten down by powerful groups, the way that other tribal people and low-caste Hindus of the plains have been.
Historically, first the British and then independent India protected Arunachal’s tribes from domination. Even today, non-tribals are barred from owning land, and Indians from other regions and foreigners alike require a special permit to travel even for limited periods in the state — so it’s not possible for dam proponents to crush local resistance with imported goons. So, too, community solidarity and cultural practices like the Adi’s traditional court system, called kebang, makes Arunachal’s people tough negotiators.But not strong enough to stop projects altogether.