The Problem with Large-scale Hydro Dams in Northeast India

Alexandra Goodson

India’s Energy
As of 2009 India had the largest energy demand in the world behind China and the United States (Ahn 24). The largest supply of this energy comes from coal, but as India’s energy sector grows it has become more unable to deliver a constant and secure supply of energy. In recent years renewable energy has been explored as a clean and “sustainable” way to a more secure energy future for India. Wind power, solar power and even small-scale hydropower have shown to have produced good amounts of energy as well as maintain a sustainable picture. The Ministry of Development of the Northeast region identified the Brahmaputra Basin as the “future powerhouse of India” (Chowdhury196). Following that in 2001, the Central Electric Authority (CEA) gave the Basin the highest place of order for its high potential in electricity generation. Because of these high markings the CEA plans to construct 168 large hydraulic plant projects, many of which are already in the process of construction (Chowdhury 198). Large-scale Hydro dams have proven to cause more damage than good. In addition to the environmental damage that these dams cause, the damage to the livelihoods of the people affected by these dams may be even greater. This paper explores the environmental justice issues that are breached as a result of the building and running of these dams. The energy values that are taken into account as values that have been violated in the case study of large-scale hydro dams in Northeast India are due process, intergenerational equity, and intragenerational equity (Sovacool 367).

Due Process
The definition of due process by the energy justice conceptual framework is that countries should respect due process and human rights in their production and use of energy (Sovacool 367). States must take into account the communities that are involved in the decisions about projects that will affect them. In this case study this right is overlooked by the private companies who are building these dams and the states that allow for the construction of the dams. Due to India’s impending energy crisis their need for energy fast is extremely apparent. To speed up the process of accessing the power for the future development of the region the northeast states have started to sign and establish Memoranda’s of understanding (MoU’s) and Memoranda’s of agreement (MoA’s) (Chowdhury 201). Arunachal Pradesh is the largest player in the region in the hydropower generation. As of 2010 they have had 132 hydropower projects and their government has signed MoU’s for 103 large projects (201). Because of the MoU’s and MoA’s being signed before any other evaluation is done there is hardly and environmental or social impact assessments done for these projects. The largest due process issue that has presented itself as an effect of the construction of these dams is the resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced population. The Brahmaputra river basin is one of the world’s largest river basin’s covering 580,000 sq. km. It is home to more than 100 indigenous tribes. These people that tend to be affected are already part of the marginalized population of India, being the “scheduled tribes” or “scheduled caste” (202). The dams tend to be being built in remote area. These areas are inhabited by tribes who are dependent on the cultivation, forest and river ecosystem for food security and their livelihood (201). These people are many times not consulted prior to being resettled, therefore not having a say in the project or where they get resettled. When they are aware of the construction of a dam prior to its influence their protests go unheard by the government and the companies. An example of where these tribes’ human rights are blatantly violated is the Ranagadi Hydro Electric Project (RHEP). The project that was commissioned in 2002 eventually failed due to underproduction displaced more than 30 families to a settlement area 25-30 km away (202). The important things they lost were a schoolhouse, their own houses with electricity, and their jobs since their jobs were dependent on the land they lived on. The new settlement had a school with no teacher, depriving the students of any further education in that area. Their houses were made of poor quality material and the free electricity that was promised by the government never happened. Agriculture was the most common occupation, but due to unregulated flooding that killed both cattle and crops and the diversion of water for the dam causing problems for the flow of agriculture water, it is pretty impossible to maintain any farmland with certainty (203). This example is just one, of possible hundreds of future displacement stories that don’t reap any type of compensation or respect of human rights to those affected by the extraction of this energy.

Intragenerational Equity
Intragenerational equity is explained that present people have a right to access energy services fairly, and thus are entitled to a certain set of minimal energy services, which enable them to enjoy a basic minimum of well being (Sovacool 370). With the displacement of many lower caste tribal people, it is clear that their livelihoods are stationed lower than those of whom the energy is being extracted and provided for. Basic rights include employment, food, shelter and unpolluted resources (370). These rights are stripped from those who are affected by the construction of these large-scale dams. The building of these dams has brought and will bring 12,000 to 100,000 laborers into the northeast region. The influx of this amount of people will put more pressure on the resources that are still left after the destruction done by the water. Bringing in more parties to an already difficult to maintain area as it is being allocated, will make the question of what entities are these goods distributed to much harder to answer. When a dam is built, and people start to live around it intragenerational problems tend to arise. Different tribes try to stake claim to different parts of the land, while some fight still for the destruction of the dam (Chowdhury 205). After a while even the destruction of the dam causes problems amongst the people, as some have begun to make a living off of fishing in the water allocated and others have moved into parts where the destruction of the dam would flood their new homelands (205). Intragenerational equity becomes more and more difficult to contest as it the hardest to say what is most right. How does one weigh one life higher than another?

Intergenerational Equity
Intergenerational equity reviews the distributive justice between present and future generations. It includes that future people have a right to at least equivalent good life that is undisturbed by the damage our energy systems (Sovacool 307). In the Brahmaputra river basin the river system is closely linked with the floodplain ecology of the wetlands and grasslands in the Brahmaputra valley (Chowdhury 201). Any disturbance, especially large land projects, has the opportunity to ruin the ecology of the valley, making it hard for future generations to use that land. In addition, the river basin and valley is home to high seismic sensitivity due to the conjoining of the Chinese and Indian tectonic plate being right under this area, and because of this the area sees devastating earthquakes periodically (201, 202). It is unfair, especially with this knowledge very public and known, to possibly put future parties at risk of major floods if an earthquake were to happen. It is the responsibility of the Indian government to make sure that all projects are constructed in a way and place that does not put the future generations in a compromising position.

Large-hydro power dams have proven to fail the same people they were built to help in the region of northeast India. The transformation that will and has been imposed on the landscape, riverscape, and demographics is unjust. There has yet to be any sufficient evidence of appropriate compromises made with the people who have been displaced by the construction of these dams. It is pertinent that the Indian government takes into account its people first, and here they put the water before the dam so to say. In the future I would urge the government to be more aware of where they are building and who they are hurting. It would prove much better if they built a sustainable and efficient energy source, not only for the people in the region, but for everyone in the country.

Ahn, Sun-Joo and Dagmar Graczyk. “Understanding Engergy Challenges in India: Policies, Players, and Issues.” International Energy Agency: Partner Country Series (2012): 47-57. 20 Feb. 2015.
Chowdhury, Arnab Roy, and Ngamjahao Kipgen. “Deluge Amidst Conflict: Hydropower Development And Displacement In The North-East Region Of India.” Progress In Development Studies 13.3 (2013): 195-208. Business Source Complete. Web. 16 Mar. 2015.
Sovacool, Benjamin K., and Michael H. Dworkin. Global Energy Justice: Problems, Principles, and Practices. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. Print.