The Actual Story So Far: The Infamous Lower Subansiri Dam


By Basanta Deka

The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, NHPC, started constructing a huge storage dam to produce power on the lower part of the river Subansisri in Arunachal Pradesh after obtaining clearance from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, MoEF & CC, in 2003. After 14 years the National Green Tribunal, East Zone, based in Kolkata, has ordered for a fresh appraisal by the MoEF & CC. The order has made the initial clearance invalid as on today. This is a very important development with costly lessons, involving wastage of hundreds of crores, to be learnt by the government and the brokered bureaucracy.

The relook would be based on a report of a new three-member committee to be constituted by the Ministry with ‘accomplished experts and scientists’ in the fields of seismology, geology and hydrology. The NGT, EZ ordered to include one such expert from the North East. This is fine tuning of importance of opinion. The present Union government formed an eight-member committee, with four members from Assam, drawn from Gauhati University, Dibrugarh University and IIT-G, and four were suggested by the Union government. The number of eight got finely divided equally.

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The Assam group differed on all the major parameters with, let me title as the Delhi group. The state government and the Union government made no effort to resolve the differences regarding construction, seismicity, quantum of flow and preservation of life and environment. The obvious happened. The Union government upheld the expertise of the Delhi group in the NGT, EZ. The Sonowal government too rejected the views of the Assam group to toe the Modi line. Our politicians are always winners in U-turns. Modi opposed big dams in his election speeches in Assam. Now his government is fighting for a big dam on the river Subansiri. Rajnath Singh was a step higher. Singh opposed all dams! Sonowal has no step of his own.

Law is often defined as common sense refined sensibly. The Court prudently thought about the serious issues to be decided on merit. No wonder that the NGT, EZ empowered the new committee to consult ‘international experts’ as the need be. The proposed committee was given the liberty to discuss with ‘independent’ hydel experts. The Court expressed its intention eloquently saying that ‘life and environment are undeniably priceless.’ The directive to the power center was clear: ‘precautionary principle’ was the guiding spirit for the Court.

The dam was designed to store huge amount of water for twenty hours to be released in four hours. One of eight turbines would run continuously. The first of the two petitioners submitted that the small quantum of water running continuously would harm the economic life of the riparian Mishing community, water bed would dry up, fishes and dolphins would vanish, right to water would be violated, biodiversity is bound to be degraded immeasurably, and that the impact study down the stream to just ten kilometer was not judicious in conformity with an observation of the Supreme Court.

The petitioner submitted an alternate design of the dam that would remove the harmful effects and make the project truly run of the river type. It was designed by an ex-IITian from Kharagpur and endorsed by eminent professors of IIT-G. The NHPC termed the alternate design as ‘illogical and without any basis’. The Court cautioned the NHPC not to ‘brush aside with disdain and ridicule’ the proposal. The Court directed the new committee to evaluate the new design. It ensures a truly run of the river dam. Water flows in the same quantity for twenty four hours. The Court showed a straight dislike of NHPC’s attitude and remarked: ‘Intellectual arrogance in matters such as the one under consideration may lead to disastrous consequences.’

People of Assam, except the national political parties, are fighting the arrogant attitude of NHPC for over a decade. Result is that the construction had to be shut down from December 2011. NGT refused to allow construction since then except repairing works. Initially, the project was to be executed by the Brahmaputra Board as a multipurpose dam, with power production as an ancillary component. The money hungry politicians and bureaucrats and engineers just made it a power project and handed over to the NHPC.
Air is thick with stories how NHPC has supported many Assamese politicians over the years in the face of sustained protest by prominent public organizations. The deepest nine meters of the foundation was not done without any accountability of the money spent. The Assam Assembly in the last Congress rule advocated a multipurpose dam. Raising eyebrows and making the air thicker with suspicion, the present representatives are desperate to complete the dam without considering the merit of consistent public protest. The NGT, EZ was the place to ventilate the real concerns of the common man.

Existing Act says that any change in any scope of a project requires fresh appraisal and so, fresh clearance. These are Court verdicts. The NHPC made more than a dozen studies and appointed nine committees after the first environmental clearance. They needed new studies and mew committees because things were not going lawfully. The authority just avoided public hearing of new scoping by the new committees. The authority thus avoided what the regulations demanded. The second petition precisely pointed it out to the Hon’ble Court of Justice S P Wangdi and Dr. P C Mishra. The prayer of the petition was noted.
The tributaries of Ganga must not be diverted or stored any point in order to rejuvenate the entire river. This is the stated view of the government of India in the Supreme Court. The mighty Brahmaputra deserves the same treatment. The petitioner pleaded with the Court. It expressed its inclination to accept the plea. Any big dam is a sure path to kill the river.

The fact remains that the dam rests on a seismic spot. Even the alternate proposal does not bypass this hazard. Should an earthquake shake the dam people would be drowned in lakhs within minutes. It is in a formal report to the NHPC. Any dam in the frontier state of Arunchal Pradesh is a sitting duck for an enemy missile. The missile is capable of doing what an earthquake can do. The bigger the dam, the bigger is the temptation of both the corrupt and the enemy missile. The small, man-friendly, eco-friendly dams of Nepal should be examples for us.

Finally, the Court said: ‘We also make it abundantly clear that the remarks and observations made in the body of the judgment shall not be construed as expressions of our views on the merits of the case.’ An admirable piece of an order from a Court. The new committee must decide if they want lakhs of their fellow countrymen to live with the fear of getting drowned in water in a man-made disaster due to an earthquake.

The Author is the Former Assistant Professor of Physics, Handique Girls’ College.

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. TIME8 neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)