With around 160 hydal power projects planned on Brahmaputra, there is a need for a holistic environment assesment
By Pradyut Bordoloi, Power Minister, Assam
As a power minister in the state of Assam – I probably have practically understood the meaning of a bipolar syndrome. On one hand I constantly need to mobilise power in the face of a demand growth explosion in my State – on the other hand I cannot turn blind eyes to the other side of development problems. How does one not get worried knowing that nobody is seriously studying the ramification of allowing reckless construction of river dams in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra water system. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has apparently identified as many as 160 assorted hydal power projects to be put up in the highlands of Arunachal Pradesh without carrying out a holistic study.
Hydel power projects like the one on Lower Subansiri River will enable us to get 600 megawatt power from 2012. At the moment, Assam has a deficit of 300 megawatt, which will grow every year. But when you look at the gamut of sanctioning projects in totality, you realise that there are several lacunas in the system of allotting power projects in a remote area.
Environment and Forest ministry carries out an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) study for every single project. Usually a small group of experts would fly down from Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata to a location in the North East for EIA study. They stay for a night in a hotel in Gauhati, or in a nearest urban centre. Maybe the entity, which is going to promote this power project, would have a helicopter commissioned for such a study. They will fly around the zone; they will have an aerial view of the proposed site. Then they will get back to Delhi and they will file their EIA, which may not see all dimensions of an environmental impact. An individual EIA will cover only 20-25 km radius of that project site. But has anybody imagined what would be the cumulative effect of 160 hydel power projects in the region? Twenty years from now when 160 power projects in various capacities are ready, what will be the combined adverse effects on a downstream state like Assam?
This is one point that gets us worried. That’s why the government of Assam, despite my being a power minister, we have raised this issue again and again in different forums.
What we keep saying is that before the CEA (the Central Electricity Authority) allows anybody whether it is a government or a private entity to put up any hydal project in the highlands, a comprehensive EIA should be carried out to see dimensions of the cumulative effects in the entire area. Once you carry out the comprehensive study, you should identify which part of the highlands would be safe, where probably the downstream adverse affect will be minimal and where probably you can take some redressal measures.
Arunachal Pradesh government is apparently signing MoUs with all sorts of fly-by-night operators. Prospectors are pouring in, paying upfront value and sign MoUs. All these private players may not have any accountability; they do not care about the environmental affect in the downstream areas. It is very dangerous to allow reckless construction of river dams in the upper reaches of Brahmaputra, without having a roadmap determined by the appropriate authorities – be it the power ministry or central water commission or central electricity authority. And the problem is, when a power project is allowed, multiple agencies are involved. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. There is hardly any coordination. Everybody is doing his or her own job, but hardly any cohesive approach is taken to monitor in a holistic manner.
Because of our objection, an inter-ministerial group on this issue was formed. The group has recommended that a study on Brahmaputra basin be carried out. But unfortunately they are not doing anything. Arunachal Pradesh thinks if these projects come up, they would become the richest state in the country. They might not have any concern for the people of Assam who live in the downstream areas. If you ignore all these environment issues, it will bring catastrophe in the future.
At the same time I have seen there are certain groups who are totally against dams or any kind of developmental activities. All these groups have converged in Assam and are spreading lot of disinformation while the Central government puts everything in a cold storage. I think there should be a generated condition for an informed rational decision. We should not let anti-developmental people spread all sorts of misinformation and corrupt the minds of the people of Assam. We are not against river projects, but we have to know for sure that the places where the dams will be put up are safe and that adverse downstream effects can be properly addressed.
There is also concern about dams being built in highly seismic region around the foothills of Himalayas. In 1950, great earthquake of Assam actually changed the entire topography of the area. Brahmaputra changed its course; it’s been flooding the plains of Assam every year since then. Coincidently the very dam of Lower Subansiri project currently being developed by NHPC is located on the fault line of the great earthquake of 1950. God forbids if there is an earthquake of 8.5 Richter scale again, it would be a disaster – at least that is what the people of Assam shudder to think.
I’m not guided by any kind of biased views, but if somebody’s raising an issue that has to be addressed by appropriate authority. In today’s world there is technology to take care of structure even in earthquake prone areas. You have to tell the people of Assam that an appropriate technology is being used and the dam is going to be safe. That has to be told to people or else they are becoming victims of frightening misinformation. They are being constantly told that river dams are like huge ‘water bombs’. Unfortunately even the main opposition Asom Gana Parishad has changed its tune. Consistently, the party had demanded big dams in the state for long 25 years. With the elections approaching, they are now making a U Turn on dams on one up-manship contest against dams.
We have to create condition for debate and discussion on river dams. Let people be told that appropriate technology is being used and that Central Government is very sensitive to these issues – that we are in safe hands. Before that the question that will continue to haunt us in Assam is ‘hydal power at what cost’?
(As told to Kunal Majumder)