Dams On The Brahmaputra: Concerns In North-East India

Yarlung Zangbo River (also known as Tsangpo Ri...
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The Chinese plans of constructing several big and small dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has indeed captured public, media and diplomatic attention in India over the recent past. The issue of Chinese dams and fears of possible future diversion of waters by China under the grand South-North Water Transfer Project flowing into the Brahmaputra from the Yarlung Tsangpo, has evoked a lot of concern in India and has been taken up by New Delhi at the highest levels with Beijing.

Amidst the rising concerns about China’s ability to exercise control over the headwaters of the Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra river system and other major rivers flowing from Tibet into South Asia and Southeast Asia, the interventions by India on its territory and part of the river system has not been discussed much. India has embarked on a huge dam building spree in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, where many big and small hydroelectricity projects are under various stages of planning and construction.

The Yarlung Tsangpo enters India across the Sadiya frontiers in Arunachal Pradesh, where it is known as the Siang or the Dihang. In India, three major tributaries join this mighty river, which are the Dibang, the Lohit and the Subansiri; and upon entering the state of Assam, the river is known as the Brahmaputra. India is building a number of big and small dams along the course of all these tributaries of the Brahmaputra river system.

It is important to examine the actions of India as well in the larger dam building debate in the Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra river system. There has been a huge public fear in Northeast India relating to the Chinese plans of building dams and water diversion projects on the Yarlung Tsangpo, and this has been covered well by the local and national media, and is doing the rounds of seminars and discussions in national policy circles. However, there has been a huge public uproar against the dams India is building in Arunachal Pradesh, with many anti-dam movements being active in the recent past in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, which has remained below the radar of national attention.

The huge number of big and small dams in Arunachal Pradesh has the potential to damage the rich biodiversity and eco-system of the state considered to be one of the global biodiversity hotspots, result in huge displacement of people in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, increase the risks of flash floods and environmental disasters in a particularly active seismic zone, and induce conditions for further conflict situations in the region. Many of these effects have already been seen, with some projects almost near completion, and the damage done in the past five years is starkly noticeable in the state.

The huge inflow of big hydroelectricity projects have in a way destabilized many of the tribal societies in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, affecting traditional community responses to floods and making them more vulnerable to the varied extremities of nature. The anti-dam movements and activists have in many places in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, been branded as ‘˜Maoists’ by the respective state governments, which could have a potentially destabilizing effect in the region, adding further to the problems that the government is struggling to fight given the various insurgencies already active. This is a strategy that could backfire for the state governments, as already active insurgent groups could use and subvert this platform of popular anti-dam movements, if not the ‘˜Maoists’.

New Delhi has failed to find the right balance of strategy in developing the hydropower in the region. The huge number of dams is seen as unsustainable and as a knee-jerk reaction to the Chinese threat of dams and diversion, giving Indian negotiators enough big dam projects to justify sufficient water flow from China to India in international water dispute legal frameworks. Many of the projects in Arunachal Pradesh have now been diagnosed with fundamental design flaws and environmental assessment inadequacies, and therefore the anti-dam movements are gaining in strength and purpose.

India’s strategic vulnerability in the crucial state of Arunachal Pradesh, long being contested by China, is being enhanced given the intense opposition by local people to these hydroelectricity projects which can lead to dissension and insurgencies. India wishes to deflect attention to the Chinese dam and diversion designs, but in reality the ill-planned and unsustainable interventions by India on the Brahmaputra will affect the people of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and further to lower riparian Bangladesh, more than the Chinese projects.

The strategic presence of India in Arunachal Pradesh also is compromised with the resultant damages in crucial road infrastructural linkages due to the ensuing floods in the crucial national highways induced by the dam projects. The road connectivity projects which are important to India’s strategic presence in the border state will be severely tested in the face of the damages by the dam projects. A more holistic and sustainable policy of development of hydropower in Arunachal Pradesh is required, taking into account the various concerns of the local people. Overall benefit-sharing basin management principles must be prioritized by India.

* The article is written by Mirza Zulfiqur Rahman

* The author is a Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

* The author can be reached at mirzalibra10@gmail.com

* The article has been published with due permission from the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies (IPCS)

* You may visit IPCS’s website at http://www.ipcs.org for further readings.

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