Small numbers drown northeast anti-dam stirs
Nitin Sethi, TNN June 5, 2012

NEW DELHI: It’s a tough one to sell to the rest of India. A dam in northeast India displaces a much smaller number of people than, say, a Polavaram project in Andhra Pradesh that would displace more than a lakh. Or a project on the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh that threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands.

So when the gigantic 1,750-MW Demwe Hydroelectric Project comes up on Lohit, a tributary of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh, just a couple of hundred households of the small Miju Mishmis and Digaru Mishmis tribes are displaced. India hasn’t heard of them.

This number of people could fit into a single block of a Delhi housing colony. Moreover, they are not ‘us’. For the rest of India, Arunachal Pradesh has been India’s border land, not someone’s home.

The government assesses that the dam is needed for ‘strategic’ reasons as much as for the power it would generate. So the impact on the flora, fauna and environment comes second.

The few hundred families in the way can be taken care of with contracts, jobs dole – a minor cost of development. No one questions if the dam would wipe out an entire community’s way of life. Such as in the case of the Tipaimukh hydroelectric dam in Manipur, where the Zeliangrong Nagas stand to lose their sacred spots and half their fertile hills or the sacred mountains of Sikkim’s Lepchas in the case of dams on the Teesta.

“Their” sacred spot is not really “ours”. The highest state officials sit in tense meetings when Hindu religious leaders threaten to create trouble over dams on tributaries of the Ganga, but violent protests and tribal roadblocks against the 150-plus dams planned for Arunachal alone hardly matter. A few hundred of them were out to protest – far below the number that the rest of India would notice.

Dams are sold to the country as the solution to a region’s impoverished communities even as developers plan how to evacuate all. Strangely, no one notices how these solutions brew more latent (and not so latent) discontent among the communities, till the communities just stop to exist as the grid sends power out over the eastern Himalayan ridges.