Hydropower politics casts shadow on Arunachal’s sensitive region

The growing resistance to dam projects led by Buddhist priest Lobsang Gyatso and others of the Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh shows India’s failure to understand the nature of governance, security and development challenges in north-east region. Reckless adherence to a dam building spree by politicians ignoring the impact it may have on ecology, people’s lives and national security has raised tension in a region where India is having a long-standing border dispute with China

On May 2 2016, two people were killed and several others injured in police firing on anti-dam protesters in the Himalayan town of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India.

The anti-dam protestors were demanding the release of a monk arrested in Tawang

Anti-dam protestors demanding the release of Lama Lobsang Gyatso in this file photo

Days later, tension was still simmering when I arrived there on a five-day visit along with my partner on May 15.

The people of Tawang dominated by Monpa tribe are opposed to 13 dam projects being planned in the district. Some of the projects near sites sacred to Buddhists are vehemently opposed by Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), a Tawang-based NGO.

Political resistance to two mega dam projects proposed in the Tawang district is headed by Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a leading Buddhist monk of the famous Tibetan monastery in Tawang. He is also general secretary of SMRF.

Anti-dam activists have a reason to protest. Arunachal Pradesh is ecologically sensitive and earthquake-prone. Tawang town, which is situated 10,000 feet above sea-level, is strategically located between India and China. A rising conflict over hydroelectric projects there will only benefit China which has still not accepted Arunachal Pradesh as an Indian territory.

But the pro-dam lobby is too powerful and it is said that over a hundred such dams are being planned across the state.

Lobsang has been advocating a socio-culturally and ecologically sensitive development model for the Mon-Tawang region. His SMRF protested against ecologically destructive hydro-power projects, demanded accountability in the execution of government schemes and development projects, and exposed corruption.

Based on his work, the National Green Tribunal suspended environmental clearance for the 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu hydro-power project in April 2016. A major issue that prompted them was the impact the project may have on the wintering habitat of the black-necked crane considered by the Buddhist Monpa community as an embodiment of the 6th Dalai Lama who was from Tawang.

Lobsang and SMRF members have been recording villagers’ objections against other hydro-power projects too proposed in Tawang.

Lobsang’s limited success annoyed the authorities. The local police arrested him on April 26 for leading a group opposed to the reconstruction of the spillway of the small 6 MW project with substandard material. He was released on bail.

On April 28, he was arrested for his alleged remarks against Guru Rinpoche, the abbot of Tawang monastery. The two reportedly disagreed on whether lamas should be involved in hydro-power protests. Rinpoche said on May 1 that he sought to find a peaceful solution to the dam issue.

Local political leaders lodged a police complaint against Lobsang even after he received a death threat from one Lobsang Youten.

Lobsang filed his own police complaint against Youten who was arrested but immediately granted bail. Lobsang, on the other hand, was denied bail which showed administrative and political bias.

People of Tawang and lamas began a protest demanding his immediate release. On May 2, they demonstrated in front of the local police station.

As tempers ran high and the protesters surged at the station, police opened fire killing two of them. Police could have used tear gas or rubber bullets to disperse the mob.

After the shooting incident, Lobsang was immediately granted bail. But the manner in which the police dealt with the protestors was shocking. The powerful dam lobby in the state is said to have played a role in the firing incident.

On May 16, Lobsang appealed to Monpas not to allow the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) to forcibly take their land for projects.  NHPC employees and workers should not be given homes for rent, he warned them.

Monpas feared that the influx of labour force into Tawang for dam construction activities would reduce locals to a minority in their own region. They also feared that dam projects may destroy sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

Jairam Ramesh, former central environment minister, had said in 2010 that construction of dams in major tributaries of Brahmaputra River is necessary for India to have a “negotiating position” with China.

Dam-building is said to be going on at a hectic pace on both sides of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China in Arunachal Pradesh, an Indian state under the Constitution of India since 1986.

The NHPC has proposed two barrages in Tawang district.

Curiously enough, while NHPC’s projects are facing resistance, Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) projects under the North Eastern Council (NEC) at Shillong are going ahead. Unlike NHPC engineers who are outsiders and do not empathize with local communities, NEEPCO’s engineers are locals who can get along well with indigenous communities.

The lamas of Tawang monastery were ruling the region until democratic rule came up gradually in Arunachal Pradesh following the independence of India in 1947.

During the 1962 India-China conflict, Tawang came briefly under Chinese control but returned to India after Chinese withdrawal. Though Tawang is now Indian Territory, China has not yet given up its claim to most of Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang.

When the present 14th Dalai Lama left Tibet and crossed into India on 30 March 1959, he spent some days at the Tawang monastery before marching on to Tezpur in Assam.

In 2003, the Dalai Lama said Tawang was “actually part of Tibet”. He reversed his position in 2008, acknowledging the legitimacy of the McMahon Line and the Indian claim to the region.

When the Dalai Lama visited Tawang district on November 8, 2009, about 30,000 people including those from neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan, attended his religious discourse.

The author was Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is the author ‘Security, Governance and Democratic Rights: Essays on the Northeast’, Niyogi, 2014 and ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ Routledge, 2016  

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