Conflicting Land and People
Part – II
By R. K. Ranjan Singh
Apprehensions in Bangladesh
The people of Bangladesh are worried about the possible changes in the flow pattern after the construction of THD. The Bangladesh side of the Joint River Commission is now pressing for a minimum environmental flow in the common rivers, and that the remaining flow can be shared between riparian nations, to withdraw or divert for irrigation and other use. They further stated that the Surma being the main river flowing through the haor (wetlands) areas of Sylhet Division, it feeds the lowlands with flooding during the monsoon and drains out stored water in the winter. The ground elevation has a natural slope towards the TanguarHaor in Sunamganj, the surrounding areas of which are at an elevation of about 3m on average above mean sea level. The watershed areas of the Surmariver spread to the Garo, Khashi and Jaintia Hills. A dam at Tipaimukh shall restrict some flood flow towards the lower basins of the Kushiara and the Surma. Storage of river water in the reservoir of the dam to produce hydro-electricity shall augment low flows in the downstream rivers during the winter, such that the haors in the Barak valley will remain filled in water till January. The downstream area of the Barak river shall have controlled flow released from the dam, and as a result, it is feared that the boro crop coverage will be reduced (Haque, 2010).
Conflict about Socio-cultural Heritage
Our land and our water are our history, inalienable receptacles of our collective memory, permanent sites of great spiritual and religious significance, and the foundation of our civilisation and life. This land and the waters are not a gift from any government, but are people’s very own by inheritance and right. No one can violate the right of the people to the land and environment. These are thoughts of the indigenous communities inhabiting the upper part of the Barak river basin. The Hmar regards Ruonglevaisuo (Tipaimukh) to be a historically important sacred site of their community, just like the Ganga for the Hindus. However, THD authorities seem to have little respect for the emotional and spiritual relationship of the indigenous communities with the Barak. Through generations, the ancestors of the modern-day Manipuris have fulfilled their roles as custodians of a land of beauty and fertility, to preserve it for the future. The project report of the proposed dam says that there is no historical monument in the reservoir area of the project. However, the people of the area still remember and are trying to maintain the historic route popularly known as TongjeiMaril (Old Cachar Road) running through the submerged zone. The legendary Barak waterfalls (seven stages of waterfalls) and the Atengba pat (a wetland complex of 6 small lakes along the right bank of the Barak) will also be submerged by the reservoir. There is also another small sacred river island of the Hmar community calledThi-le-dam, literally meaning ‘death and life’, in Hmar. According to Hmar religious beliefs, the island is the place where the soul of all human beings has to go first as soon as they die. This site will be lost under the rising waters of the reservoir. From this island, the soul proceeds either to paradise or to hell or comes back to earth to be reborn. All these sites and holy places will be lost by the people of Manipur, alienating the people forever from their ancestral heritage and culture and inflicting a blow to their cultural identity. The indigenous people of Manipur have inhabited the upper Barak region since time immemorial, certainly long before the idea of dams came up. They have been living in peace with their environment and leading lives of contentment, governed by an ancient and strong bond with the earth’s resources: land, water and forests.
Communities have a collective right to a pattern of development that is fundamentally of their own choice. People should have a right to reject the kind of development that they do not need or consider detrimental to their well-being. Indeed, the Chairperson of the UN Committee on the Elimination on all forms of Racial Discrimination has written to the Government of India on 2 September 2011 regarding THD, that people’s choice of the kind of development they want should be respected, and in particular, that the Right to Free Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Peoples before construction of the proposed dam should be operationalised.
Conflicting Health Impacts
One of the most serious and least-studied consequences of large dams are the long-term health impacts due to drastic changes in the ecological balance, displacement and loss of livelihood, sudden alterations in the demographic character of the area, and movements of large numbers of people involved in construction and other activities. There is no clear indication that these factors have been considered at all in the case of THD.
The project proponent has tried to promote the idea that the project is the only avenue for local people to develop in terms of obtaining basic infrastructure such as a surface transport network, schools and health centers. This kind of unequivocal projection can be arguably an undemocratic, unconstitutional and even immoral argument, amounting to coercion. The state has responsibilities towards the welfare and development of the people. It cannot forego these responsibilities and compromise on basic human rights. As a precedent in government policy and development planning, this is palpably dangerous.
Hydro-dynamics of the Tipaimukh High Dam
The Barak river upstream of the dam has a catchment of about 12,000 sq km. With an average annual rainfall of 1500 mm, the total water accumulation will be about 18 billion M3. However, minus the minimum annual average evapo-transpiration of 1200 mm, the available runoff shall not be more than 3.5 billion M3. Water has to be released from the dam hitting the turbines round the year to generate electricity. In that case, the average flow shall be about 40,000 cusec. This may be more than 1,00,000 cusec in flooding months to less than 5,000 cusec in the dry months. The dynamics of a dam involves the creation of a reservoir, that is, water flow has to be stopped at the dam. This shall delay the water flow towards the downstream until the optimum water level of the reservoir is reached. The dead storage is filled in the initial stage of storing the dam water, so the delay shall be shorter in subsequent years, but shall be on a regular basis. The water stored in the rainy season shall be released in drier months, such that it will increase the flow during that period in the downstream basin. Such dynamics will alter the riverine eco-system of the Barak river basin, particularly in the downstream areas. This is a key reason for the likelihood of a long-term conflict between India and Bangladesh on THD.
The cost-benefit analysis should take into consideration the social and environmental costs as well, which has not been taken into account for this project. The technological cost-benefit considerations alone will not solve the continuing and recurring problems that can occur during the construction, after construction, and once the dam becomes operational. The cost-benefit analysis of the THD varies from the first project report to subsequent reports. The estimated cost of the dam increased from Rs. 1,097 crores to 3,000 crores, and has now crossed Rs. 15,000 crores. Therefore, the calculation of a viable cost-benefit ratio should be mandatory. It is unfortunate that there is no national rehabilitation policy in the country. Further, till today, the issues of downstream impacts are missing from all Environmental Impact Assessment (EIAs). Provision of land for land and basic infrastructure amenities for the displaced population are serious and difficult problems. Considering these fundamental issues, the proposed THD will not contribute to true development of the affected land and its people. As a result, the proposed Tipaimukh dam across the Barak river is turning out to be an unending conflict-ridden project for the people.
An Alternative Approach
Developmental planning needs to focus on a specific zone, region, or river basin for effective and holistic planning. The catchment area of a river is one of the most effective planning zones. An Upper Barak Development Authority may be established for a holistic developmental approach in the entire catchment area to enable the region to grow in a self-empowered and participatory mode within a sustainable domain. Informed participation from the affected people representing all sections of the communities in the decision-making process leading to a collective agreement is imperative to arrive at decisions that are sustainable and socially just. Such a basin-wise participatory approach will lead to a better understanding of the ecosystem functions, values and requirements, and of how community livelihoods depend on and influence them. Such issues are inseparable from sensitive projects like the THD, and it is their inclusion which will have a strong bearing on the viability of the projects.
Introspection for an alternative development model and decision making processes about dams and its application, as recommended by the World Commission on Dams, 2000, including an options assessment for energy production, conducive to the protection of the environment and the socio-economic wellbeing of the people of Manipur would contribute enormously in reducing the conflict over land and development rights issues.