Is the Clock Ticking for Northeast India After the Uttarakhand Disaster of 2013?
The Uttarakhand disaster of 2013 invoked an immediate concern over the trajectory of infrastructural development. Experts believe that although the multi-day cloud burst initiated the catastrophe, the colossal damage incurred subsequently was largely due to haphazard and unplanned development. In fact, the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) of India termed the determinant of the catastrophe as “the climatic conditions combined with haphazard human intervention”.
Until 2013, there were around 200 small or big hydropower project proposals under review in Uttarakhand in addition to the existing 45 operational hydropower projects, as per the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL). In fact, the highly sensitive zone of Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin had 67 hydropower projects under review. The myopia in the construction of multiple dams, tunnels and barrages combined with poorly planned construction of dams and tunnels diminished the resilience of the fragile Himalayan ecology in these areas. A near common consensus has it that the unbridled anthropogenic activities which had expedited, if not triggered, this cataclysm in the state resulted in over 5,500 fatalities and directly impacted around 4,000 villages in addition to a gigantic loss of assets. This unsustainable and parochial approach of energy sufficiency through hydropower projects in Uttarakhand points to a looming disaster in Northeastern India where the developmental interventions present an ominous resemblance to that in Uttarakhand.
A report by the International Rivers highlights that the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) of India has identified more than 150 hydropower project sites in the Northeast, around 80 of which are in Arunachal Pradesh alone. Similar to the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin in Uttarakhand, the entire Brahmaputra region in the northeast is not only ecologically fragile, but vulnerable to intense construction activities while also falling in high seismic zones. The tag of ‘future powerhouse” that was applied to Northeastern India at an international business summit in Mumbai in July 2002 and the investment of major corporations in these projects reek of vested interests and a disregard for the ecology of the region. For instance, the Thatte-Reddy Expert Committee, in its report had apprehensions on the run-of-the-river Subansiri project located in a high seismic zone. Similarly, there are concerns over the dam on the Dron River in Meghalaya which may denude the local ecosystems with the subtropical pine and broadleaf forests that are similar to that in Uttarakhand, and may severely diminish the soil holding capacity of the region.
A solution to obviate a calamity in the Northeast requires immediate attention on all the critical dimensions of the issue. The impact assessment studies need to be cumulative and participatory in nature. It is critical to understand that the majority of these hydropower project interventions are on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra River.
An impact due to increase of river beds, restriction in the water carrying capacity, or increased siltation in one region may have a disastrous consequence over another region. The discrete project-specific impact assessment studies such as on the Subansiri River project or the Dron River project should be supplemented with a comprehensive study of the entire Brahmaputra region to preclude unanticipated transmittal shocks. In fact, the fundamental argument to thwart a possible impending disaster in the region is an impartial environmental impact assessment in itself. Taking cues from a 2013 report submitted by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP); there has been an evaluation of 262 hydropower projects in the last 6 years in the country and none of them got rejected! Hence, it is imperative on the part of policy interventions to adopt a holistic understanding of ‘development’ instead of over-abusing the term. While the energy imperatives for the economic security of a state are justifiably prioritized, the unfortunate and alarming dichotomy is the lack of a cumulative assessment of the risk factors involved in the construction of the hydropower projects at such eco-fragile zones. The lessons learned from the case in Uttarakhand will be of no eventual use if commensurate actions are not taken to preclude a similar calamity in the northeast India especially when both regions witness a contextual resemblance over the approach adopted for ‘development’!