As I said, Arunachal State finances are crippled because of lack of any substantial local revenue source. Hydropower generation is thus a very lucrative and attractive solution to put paid to this central assistance dependence. The whole state however seems to be divided over this issue. Many outside interests are involved, some giving well-intentioned support while some giving support only to advance their disguised agenda. Even the opposing parties can be divided into these two categories – concerned opposition and those whose real intentions dressed up as concerns. It’s not very difficult to apply a motive to everyone and huge sums of money are involved. The development as an industry is at exposition with all its trappings of splendour and gloom, hope and dismay.
The question of whether to build huge hydropower dams in the Eastern Himalayan region has many complex dimensions and to answer it in simple yes or no would be a pointless exercise. Firstly the basic question is of structural viability in seismic zone V which Arunachal is. Then there is the questions of water holding capacity and sustainability in the region where there is a lot of annual rain (highest anywhere in the Himalayas) which has caused loosening of the surface soil of this youngest of the alpine mountains. All the rivers carry tons of silt while landslides are frequent. The question of ecological destruction is one and that of project affected displaced villages is another. However, considering the abundance of land and sparsity of population, resettlement should not be a big issue. Social costs will be there for every development project but the mitigation of such costs in Arunachal is possible. The political mobilisation in the state is very different from the other states, its basically either along tribal lines or mostly a student politics. Tribes are geogrophically segregated and thus politically also. Its all manageable.
More serious is the problem of infrastructure or lack thereof. Taking huge turbines and other equipments to the actual site locations in the hilly terrain with no roads is not simple. Not everything can be heli-dropped. Moreover, the evacuation infrastrucutre too is virtually absent. The government is hoping for the consequent (presequent?) infra construction. Its a difficult job though. The proposed East-West Industrial Corridor will be at the foothills only. The road along the bank of Siang which goes in the N-W direction is only for one valley and that too is not upto the mark yet (not to forget its seasonality). Modi proposed a new border road from Tawang to Walong but it’s just a new prosoal as of yet. The Trans-Arunachal Highway is supposed to connect 11 district HQs, but it’s only a khayaali-pulao for more than a decade now. Project Beacon in Kashmir is excruciatinly slow but something is moving on the ground at least. In Arunachal, its all in the papers. BRO is good but very sluggish. GREF gets the work done but we all know about its efficiency. Private players find it difficult to come for a variety of reasons. Its primarily a state responsibility and the state has failed miserably.
If any development project is thrusted upon the local populace without its consent, it becomes like Baglihar. Baglihar dam has become something like an icon in JnK where people treat it as a symbol of ‘haughty central government attitude’. They claim (without any factual basis whatsoever) – that all the power generated is being sold to Punjab and Delhi and the locals get pittance in return and the huge power cuts continue in the area around it – one often hears it at corner tea-shops and in drawing rooms. Such animus feeling is very detrimental for future development. In Arunachal, the process has to be of consultation and consensus. However, in democracy, the more we talk, the less we do. Everyone has his own opinion. The ten-headed Ravana laughs while reeling under the pressure of Mount Kailash, nothing moves. All that the open talk shop ensures is delay and possible denial. C Northcote Parkinson in his fantastic caricature of bureaucracy has lampooned this official process. He says that if the bureaucracy doesn’t want to do some things, they talk more and talk public about their intention to do it only to ensure that it gets abandoned in the end. On the other hand, the important things are generally get done in silence.
As far as the hydropwer is concerned, Assam has some real issues to grapple with considering it’s a lower riparian state. It fears flooding as well as contraction of water flow. All the water that it receives comes from Arunachal and it does not want to lose control over it to the politicians of the not-so-friendly-neighbouring state.
International dimension of hydropower is also crucially important especially when India does not have any water-sharing treaty with China, neither does China subscribe to international water-sharing regimes. China’s occluding strategy and high-handed behaviour along with its economic might, history of successful top-directed efforts and Tibet imbroglio obfuscate the whole cooperation and breed nothing but suspicion. There are some latest reports of data-sharing and China allowing Indian hydrologists to visit the upper reaches of Yarlung Tsangpo. But these are hardly any cause of optimism and no long term solution. India wants to be an early bird by appropriating as much water as possible in probable future legal battle over the sharing. The battle is on for the future status-qou-ante-bellum. India, however, has to take interests of Bangladesh also in consideration before going ahead. India is not unknown for similar inconsiderate behaviour with her smaller neighbours in the past.
Economic viability is to be considered especially when the upfront cost is huge and about half of the projects are said be constructed by private players with certain kind of risk sharing arrangement with the government. Now this is crucially important. There are other sub-dimensions to it. In the past, it was found that the generation potential of thousands of megawatts was artificially inflated, without any serious, credible and scientific ground survey. Some private companies when reached the place after bidding found it difficult to start their operations. Second is the issue of ILP. Arunachal cant provide hundreds of daily wage labourers. Even the education system there is not well developed and neither is accepted by the society as yet as a necessary component of development (more on it later). Finding full time Arunachali employees as managers and engineers is also again very difficult. Thus any dam building and power-plant construction/maintenance will require it to employ outsider non-tribals. Simply bringing the labours from Assam and Odisha requires ILP. The turnover rate is huge and unpredictable in inhospitable land with unwelcome people. Even if the sufficient labours are found, getting their replacement and then obtaining ILP everytime may put the work to halt for some time. It becomes unsustainable from business point of view. India is not the British Raj anymore where Southern Bihar and upland Tamil country used to be the catchment areas for slaves and girmitiyas.
This is true of not only hydropower but any future industrial development. ILP, additionally makes it impossible for outsiders to purchase land. An outsider can rent it but can’t purchase it. This has created a kind of rent-economy where in cities, all the shops/apartments are locally owned, but are rented to outsiders for operation. Most of the shops that we saw in Naharlagun-Itanagar belt were being operated by Biharis and Punjabis. Locals hardly want to do regular jobs. For any industry for that matter, it becomes a strenuous job to maintain economic activities ongoing for the lack of property right and rigid labour market.
(The conclusion of our discussion as was – Carpet policy decisions don’t benefit and the solution has to be thought differently for different river valleys. There are five of them with different geographic and social/demographic characters. It’s better to treat them differently. One or two sample mega dams can be built as model and then we can think of the rest of the state with enhanced capacities and accumulated experience. There are other ways also to generate revenue like horticulture and tourism but all of these have their own pros and cons.)
ILP thus has to be revoked say some. There are other dimensions to it as well. Father Tommy from Kottayam was at ease with it. He said it does not matter for him whether ILP remains or not. Most of the fathers come from outside, especially from Kerala but they don’t face any problem. The Churches are built on the lands donated by local tribesmen. The Arunachal Vikas Parishad (AVP) people also came across more concerned about the overall ecological impact and wanted ILP to stay to keep the Arunachal identity intact. I found their interest was more pro-conservation of tribal identity only because the modernisation onslaught was supposedly emanating from the spread of Christianity. The common people seemed to be very conscious of their tribal identity as well. Each tribe has one special word for non-tribals which are partly pejorative as well. Adis refer to outsiders as hareng. Many of them do it innocently. But the lines are drawn. They are afraid that as Bengalis, Biharis and Bangladeshi Muslims have inundated Assam, the same may happen, the Bangladeshi Muslims are stopped in Assam only because of ILP. Once ILP is removed, the land-hungry people will change the whole face of their homeland by altering its demography. This is not an isolated opinion but quite a mainstream, lots of people we talked to expressed this opinion. May be.
To be continued…
(Preview Photo – Sunset in Khonsa, Tirap-Changlang area. Credit – Mr. Aniket Marne)