A Himalayan conundrum in Arunachal

MIBI ETE and TONGAM RINA

ARUNACHAL is the eastern bookend of the Himalaya. It is in Arunachal that the mighty Himalaya and the Southeast Asian Massif meld across the highlands of Mishmi and Patkai hills. It is sporadically in the national news, sometimes due to border skirmishes with China, at other times due to the discovery of some new floral or faunal species. In the last years, several environmentally consequential development programmes have been launched in Arunachal, apart from the hydro-power development programme. The implications of these programmes have stayed under the national radar. In this essay, we attempt to provide a sweeping overview of the economy-ecology entanglements facing Arunachal today.

Let us start with hydropower. Arunachal’s hydropower development programme, rolled out at a breathless speed between 2005-2009, was supposed to add almost 32,000 mw installed capacity to India’s power generation within the next decade. The ambition of the Government of Arunachal Pradesh (GoAP) was to maximally exploit the state’s hydropower potential, with large-scale participation of private sector players in the development of 100+ medium and large hydro projects.1 At that time, this programme had triggered proportionate alarm among the country’s environmentalists. While at a handful of project sites, local resistance against hydropower development grew, at many others, the projects were cautiously welcomed by the local indigenous communities. Despite the local support, the programme did not move ahead as intended, and not one project out of the 100+ projects launched during this period was realized.2

In the meantime, other development initiatives of the GoAP took root on the Arunachali soil with greater success. Cash cropping is one such initiative. In many areas, jhum farmers have migrated to tea, rubber, citruses, palm oil, and kiwi farming with government support in the form of subsidized equipment, one-time monetary assistance and easy-to-repay loans. Some villages, particularly in Anjaw and Changlang districts, have abandoned jhum farm-ing altogether in favour of cardamom cultivation. In the initial years, the GoAP had provided market linkages enabling the farmers to sell their produce at competitive prices. This encouraged even more farmers to
take up commercial crops as it was seen economically lucrative. Similarly, the uptake of rubber cultivation has been growing rapidly in the last decade. The GoAP plans to scale up the commercial farming sector exponentially.

Another ambitious GoAP programme is the road network development under the Arunachal Pradesh Package for Road & Highways which plans to add 2,319 km length of roads by 2023-24. Other, more mundane, development activities continue apace. New district headquarters and other administrative settlements are being constructed in entirety. To feed the demand for raw materials, villages
are leasing out their riverbanks to contractors who remove boulders to nearby crushers which then feed on these boulders and belch out construction aggregates.

Each of these development activities has well known environmental impacts associated with it. The monumental hydropower development programme has caused environmentalists the most concern, and given its scale, deservedly so. Even if only a third of the programme comes to fruition, its consequences within Arunachal and further downstream in Assam will be immense. A single dam alters the life of a river. It is difficult to comprehend what 50 medium and large dams would do to the north Brahmaputra Valley catchment. The projects in Arunachal are technically run-of-river, but they do involve impoundment and result in ‘river disappearance’ for significant stretches downstream as well as reduced flows for considerable periods of time, thus affecting wildlife. Impoundments can the riverine flora and fauna upstream as well.

The process of project development itself, not to mention submergence, reduces forest cover. This is before considering the destabilizing impacts of climate change on the hydrological regime, as well as the feedback loop between large dams and climate change itself. And then there is the matter of the high seismicity of the region which adds inherent risk to such massive undertaking. If the experience of the Ranganadi HEP is anything to go by, a single dam can destabilize flood patterns.

Though they have gotten less attention so far, commercial agriculture and road construction will have their own sets of environmental impacts. In Arunachal, the commercial crops are mainly based on monoculture plantation. Monoculture plantations can and do lead to a decline of forest cover and biodiversity. The uptake of commercial farming has likely led to increase in deforestation. Since 2017, according to India State of Forest Report published by the Forest Survey of India, Arunachal has reported a decline in forest cover leading all the Northeastern states. The report cites increasing population, developmental activities and practices like jhumming as the reason behind the continued reduction in forest coverage.

Similarly, road construction will lead to some fragmentation of habitats for wildlife. As a secondary impact, roads will also lead to changes in forest cover at their edges. In the short-term, the road construction sites are thought to have triggered deadly landslides because of faulty earth cutting. The direct dumping of muck into the rivers has caused pollution due to turbidity.

In aggregate, these development initiatives could lead to drastic alterations at the ecosystem level, but we do not know of any scientific attempts to model these impacts. In principle, large hydropower development is subject to Environmental Impact Assessment studies, and Impact Mitigation Plans. But other initiatives such as road construction and commercial farming are not subject to environmental governance, or even mandatory forest clearance. On top of it all, the environmental governance regime itself is considered ineffective and the mandatory clearances are considered a farcical bureaucratic formality.

In any case, ecosystem-level changes will likely emerge over a longer time horizon and will be identified and acknowledged a posteriori. What we can claim with certainty for now is that there will be significant loss of forest cover and biodiversity. Arunachal is one of the most important repositories of biodiversity in India as well as the world. What is more, the recent trickle of discoveries of new species in the region indicates that much of the biodiversity is yet to be documented, let alone the intricate interdependence of species fully understood.

It is not as if the GoAP is rushing naively and ignorantly into an ecological crisis. Last year, on 13 November 2021, it adopted the Declaration on Climate Change Resilient & Responsive Arunachal Pradesh in the 12th meeting of the Council of Ministers. This was done at the Pakke Tiger Reserve, one of the four tiger reserves in Arunachal and widely regarded as model example of conservation where communities and the union and state governments are considered equal stakeholders. Broadly, it is a response to the sixth assessment report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Conference of Parties 2030 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The declaration was drafted purportedly in recognition of ‘the increasing body of evidence on the direct and indirect adverse impacts of the ongoing climate change which pose a serious burden on the well-being of all at all ages and sustainable development.’ The document has five expansive themes that are a compaction of some of the 17 SDG goals. The first theme of ‘Environment and, forest and climate change’ emphasises climate-resilient forestry, climate-resilient water resources management, and renewable energy and energy efficiency.

With the stated intent of ‘accelerating comprehensive, smart, climate resilient and inclusive development of people and land with its mighty rivers and abundant natural resources’, it aims to ‘generate awareness and build capacity in judicious use of water’ and emphasizes on renewable energy and energy efficiency, increase hydel power production, including through micro/mini/pico projects and increase solar power generation in the state. The document also speaks of installation of early warning systems to monitoring hazard-prone areas with particular focus on hilly tracts along state/national highways, degraded mountain slopes, and areas near hydropower projects or major development sites, indicating a recognition of the risks that the current development path entails.

 

On paper, the GoAP is not short on good intentions. In practice though, it is willing to bend rules to expedite its development agenda. For instance, it has cited delays in forest clearance as one of the reasons for road and other projects not taking off on time. To this end, it has announced that it will seek dereservation of some of the forest lands to speed up development work. Besides, for a state government short on cash and options in these neoliberal times, hydropower was and is magic, which will bring in the investment and revenue that will supposedly make the state self-reliant.

Self-reliance was the goal held up by the then Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu to justify the early years of hydropower frenzy. Setting aside the rumours of enormous wealth transfer to private pockets, the goal of self-reliance is hard to argue against. From its birth, the state has been heavily dependent on the Union government’s grant-in-aid, state’s share of the central taxation and borrowings. For instance, Arunachal’s total annual budget outlay for 2022-23 was estimated at Rs 26,000 crores. The estimated resource to be generated by the state, for 2022-23 is just Rs 3035 crore which is mostly through tax revenue, an indicator of the precarious financial position.3 The GoAP’s own projection is that if fully exploited, the state could earn a revenue of about Rs 15,000 crores from hydropower alone.4 It is clear that the GoAP will forge ahead with its development plans.

Historically, where the state assailed the environment with its development agenda, the local communities came to its defence. In the 1970s and the ’80s, the heydays of socio-environmental movements in India, social movements against infrastructure projects and environmental activism could make a common cause. As Sunita Narain5 noted in these pages two decades ago, this defence was a selfish struggle to protect their own culture and survival which were intertwined with their environment. Thus, the celebrated anti-dam movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan, mobilized the community grievances against involuntary dispossession and impoverishment with the Adivasi discourse of ‘jal, jangal, jameen’ (water, forest, land) and helped fire up a transnational debate on the nature of development itself.

Given this, it was not unreasonable to hope that in Arunachal too, the indigenous local communities would reject the large hydropower projects and other disruptive development initiatives. But history did not repeat itself in Arunachal and by and large, communities in Arunachal have welcomed the various development initiatives, cautiously if not enthusiastically. But if environmentalists are disappointed, they must sympathetically understand the response of the local communities considering two main historical processes.

The first is the process of policy changes for social impact mitigation triggered by the 20th century activism of the broad social and environmental coalition. Their activism forced the Government of India to acknowledge the interests of the environment and the affected local communities.
In response, it put together some semblance of environmental governance framework, and designed policies to mitigate the social harm and impoverishment caused by development projects. In Arunachal, a Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy
6 was formulated in 2008 based on the National R&R Policy 2007. On the calculus of costs and benefits, this policy tipped the scale in favour of benefits for the communities. At several hydropower development sites too, the potentially hefty compensation packages have given communities a reason to evaluate such projects in a positive light.

This decision in turn must be understood considering the years of development process of the Government of India in the frontier region. Arunachali communities today are firmly enmeshed in the national and international markets of commodities, ideas and popular culture. The social, economic and political initiatives undertaken in the name of nation-building have repatterned the indigenous lives into a hybrid between the land-based subsistence and the market-based aspirational. Although a significant proportion of the communities continue to depend on their traditional natural resources for sustenance, other necessities of life such as healthcare and education for their children require a cash income. A few thousand rupees can determine the ability to get vital medical attention in a faraway town, something that can literally make the difference between living and dying.7 

Opportunities to earn these few thousand rupees are hard to come by in a poor state like Arunachal. So, when development initiatives emerge, they are valued as opportunities, not threats. Commercial farming is an opportunity to earn cash income. In many parts of the state, the launch of the R&R Policy, road construction has also meant generous compensations in lieu of loss of land due to the Trans-Arunachal Highway project. Roads also mean connectivity and access to healthcare and education, and markets. Aside from monetary compensation, hydropower projects bring in short-term employment, contracting opportunities even during the exploration stages.

Here is a crude illustration of the benefits for local communities of choosing short-term economic gains over prioritizing conservation and environment protection for the benefit of humanity and the planet: one hectare of forest under a carbon sequestration scheme in the neighbouring Meghalaya will earn about INR 22,000.00 over 30 years.8 In comparison, a hectare of forest land acquired for hydropower construction in Arunachal was given a compensation of about INR 14,00,000.00 in 2022.9 Besides, the ecological risks and impacts are likely to unfold at a longer time span across a wider geographical area. The community decision to trade their forests for monetary compensation in the present is not just greed or short-sightedness, but a pragmatic choice.

This is not to say that the Arunachali society is unanimous in its prioritizing of economic opportunities over the environment. While plantations and roads are small-scale initiatives continue to avoid public scrutiny, hydropower development generated controversy and debate right from
the start in early 2000s. While some see it as rescue from perpetual dependence on central dole-outs, others were opposed to it because of its impacts and risks.

At a few notable sites, such as the Dibang, Tawang and Siang, sections of the local communities have mounted staunch resistance against a few development projects. The then 3000mw Dibang Valley Multipurpose Project was met with resistance led by the All Idu Mishmi Students Union and the Idu Mishmi Literary and Cultural Society. Between 2007 and 2013, public hearings were postponed several times due to the stiff protests by the Mishmi community,10 although bad weather conditions were frequently cited as the official reason for the repeated postponements.

In Dibang Valley, the resistance eventually dissipated, partly due to government intimidation and coercion, and partly due to the changed cost-benefit calculus for the directly affected communities. It would not be wrong to suggest that the Dibang protests forced the government to seriously consider the issue of dispossession of local communities, and thus precipitated the formulation of the State’s Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy 2008.

In March 2013, two public hearings were held for Lower Dibang Valley and Dibang Valley districts. The environmental clearance was granted on 19 February 2015, by the Ministry for Environment, Forests & Climate Change (EF&CC) in February 2015. However, the Forest Advisory Committee rejected the proposal noting that the ‘ecological, environmental and social costs of diversion of such a vast track of forest land, which is a major source of livelihood of the tribal population of the state, will far outweigh the benefits’. Still, in July 2019, the union government approved the 2880 mw Dibang Multipurpose Project, paving way for the construc-tion of the world’s tallest concrete gravity dam. In early 2022, compensation for displacement and land loss were disbursed to project-affected families.

In two other valleys – Tawang and Siang – the resistance has been durable and steadfast. In Tawang, the monk-led organizations, Save Mon Region Federation and the Society for Development of Cultural & Education, Sera Monastic University, Karnataka, were at the forefront of the protests. The monks received massive support from the people of Tawang who were already angered that holy Buddhist sites were endangered by the hydropower plans. They were particularly hurt that the hydropower developers managed to obtain no-objection to site investigations from a few contractors and political leaders without seeking the consent of the people. In Siang Valley too, a consortium of organizations such as Forum for Siang Dialogue, The Nyiko Bachao Forum (NBF), Dam Affected People’s Forum of Siyom-Sirit (DAPFSS) and Siang Bachao Federation have steadfastly rejected any attempts to conduct public hearings.

 

On its part, the GoAP has been intolerant of dissent and resistance against hydroelectric power. In the past, the GoAP under various chief ministers displayed its willingness to use state sanctioned violence and intimidation against protestors in Dibang Valley, Siang Valley and Tawang. At all three sites, there were incidents of police firings where protestors were injured. In the Dibang Valley, the protesting communities were met with state-led intimidation and accusations of being Maoist sympathisers that culminated in a violent incident in October 2011 when a Special
Task Force drawn from several government security services opened fire inside a Durga Puja pandal. In Tawang, during a police firing, two protestors were killed. In Siang too, activists reported state-sanctioned intimidation by security forces. Despite this, so far, the collective opposition to mega-hydropower development has prevailed in Siang and Tawang.

Overall, the GoAP has begun to take a reconciliatory public stance on large hydropower. When the Niti Aayog proposed the gigantic 11,000 mw Upper Siang Project on the Siang River, the current chief minister demurred that projects in Siang Valley will not be undertaken without the consent of the people. At the same time, the objectionable projects in Tawang district and on the Siang River have still not been cancelled. While there have been no recent incidents of state-led violent repression of protests, perhaps because the entire hydropower programme was in a limbo for almost a decade, the rhetoric continues to be intolerant. Anyone who raises environmental concerns is labelled anti-development or anti-national.

This intolerance came to the fore again recently when two activists, Arunachali lawyer Ebo Mili and Assamese graffiti artist Nilim Mahanta, painted over a mural on the wall of the Civil Secretariat, the seat of the Arunachal government in Itanagar. Ebo Mili is part of a small but committed group of state-level activists that has been critical not only of the environmental impacts of hydropower development but also the dubious process of environmental governance too. They have regularly pointed out the poor quality of environmental impact assessment reports produced by third party consultants, and flagged instances when the GoAP has not upheld its own environmental laws when awarding clearances to the hydropower projects.

The mural that Mili and Mahanta painted over was of controlled water gates to depict the journey of hydropower development in Arunachal was commissioned to celebrate the 50th year of the renaming of the state. The two activists painted ‘no more dams’ and a sign of resistance over the mural, to protest Arunachal’s hydropower programme. They were arrested for ‘defacement upon a carefully curated painting at the state’s expense’ but later released as their arrest triggered discussions on freedom to dissent and the pros and cons of hydropower in Arunachal.

At the time of writing this essay, the hydropower sector in Arunachal is bustling again. As of March 2022, MoAs with at least 44 private sector developers were terminated by the GoAP as they were ‘not inclined to execute’ projects. In an ironic turn in the Arunachali hydropower story, the GoAP gave several of these projects back to public sector undertakings, from whom these projects had been taken away about two decades back. The formalities for environmental clearances and land acquisition for several projects are likely to start soon.

In the August 2002 issue of Seminar on Indian Environmentalism, Harsh Sethi11 had noted in his introduction the two opposing emergent trends ‘towards foregrounding local control over local resources, often using the language of community and tradition’ and ‘towards integrationism and more complex structures as in-evitable and thus advocate a policy of negotiation and cooperation between different stakeholders, locally, nation-ally and globally.’

In Arunachal, control over resources has been rightfully ceded to local communities, but the impacts of the local decisions over the forests and water resources will have resonance across scales on the urgent issues of climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. But the current environmental governance regime does not take adequately into account the multi-scalar and inter-dependent nature of environmental impacts with longer time horizon. New stakeholder groups may yet emerge when the effects of environ-mental change begin to be felt. Until then, it is business as usual.

Footnotes:

1. In the following years, more MoAs were signed with private developers, but the average size of projects began to decline.

2. This failure had to do with several reasons that had little to do with local politics. One important reason for the slowdown was the drastic fall in market prices of electricity, which made the financial investment in hydropower projects look unviable.

3. https://www.arunachalbudget.in/docs/glance.pdf

4. https://arunachaltimes.in/index.php/2020/02/12/seminar-on-hydropower-development/

5. Sunita Narain, ‘Changing Environmentalism’, Seminar 516, August 2002, pp. 15-20.

6. The Arunachal Pradesh R&R Policy 2008 was later superseded by The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 and The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Social Impact Assessment and Consent) Rules, 2014.

7. Mibi Ete, ‘Hydro-dollar Dreams: Emergent Local Politics of Large Dams and Small Communities’, Geographies of Difference: Explorations in Northeast Indian Studies, 2018.

8. This calculation is based on the figures gleaned from a REDD+ Project in the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. https://cotap.org/projects/khasi-hills-india-community-redd-carbon-project/

9. This figure was obtained from a member of a community that recently received compensation awards.

10. Raju Mimi, ‘The Dibang Multipurpose Project: Resistance of the Idu Mishmi’, Water Conflicts in Northeast India:
A Compendium of Case Studies, 2013, pp. 111-120.

11. Harsh Sethi, ‘The Problem’, Seminar 516, August 2002, pp. 12-14.