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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Subansiri Saga: Dams, Discontent And Shifting Tides Of Power

The Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project, a contentious endeavor spanning over a decade, is now on the verge of completion. As the final stages unfold, the prescient ecological concerns raised by experts are manifesting with a clarity that demands attention. In the region, recent reports from a spectrum of media outlets have brought attention to challenges like landslides and the dwindling currents of the river. In a recent interview, I engaged in a conversation with Bidyut Saikia, the General Secretary of the State Committee of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti. Our discussion delved into the far-reaching environmental consequences and the parallel political intricacies entwined with the unfolding situation

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By: Dipak Kurmi
The Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project, a contentious endeavor spanning over a decade, is now on the verge of completion. As the final stages unfold, the prescient ecological concerns raised by experts are manifesting with a clarity that demands attention.
In the region, recent reports from a spectrum of media outlets have brought attention to challenges like landslides and the dwindling currents of the river. In a recent interview, I engaged in a conversation with Bidyut Saikia, the General Secretary of the State Committee of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti. Our discussion delved into the far-reaching environmental consequences and the parallel political intricacies entwined with the unfolding situation.
The drying river brings forth a poignant narrative, as articulated by Bidyut Saikia: “The Subansiri river, once a vibrant ecosystem, shelters 239 diverse fish species, with local names like Xalodi Pithia and Bam Seni adding a cultural touch. Among its inhabitants were 28 Gangetic River Dolphins, a number diminishing as evidenced by the recovery of one lifeless body. In certain pockets, a mere 2-3 inches of water remain, facilitating motorbike crossings. However, the imminent drying of tube wells, reliant on the river, looms on the horizon, spelling potential consequences for the surrounding riverbanks’ vegetation.”
The peasant organization leader, steeped in a palpable sense of disapproval, remarked, “The ecological disturbances predicted due to the dam were consistently emphasized by us. Even our president, Akhil Gogoi, penned a book titled ‘Marubhumi aahe laahe laahe’ (The desert is arriving slowly but surely). The repercussions extend to areas like Lakhimpur, Dhakuakhana, Majuli, and Dhemaji, where the groundwater faces impending impact. It is now, at this juncture, that the public is grasping the essence of our earlier warnings.”
The Mising, also known as the Miri tribes, inhabit the environs of the Subansiri river, their lives intricately woven into its currents. Dependent on the river for their livelihood, they face a precarious future. In the words of Bidyut Saikia, when the river reaches complete desiccation, an estimated 5-6 lakh people from these tribes will bear the brunt of the consequential impact.
The NHPC Limited, an Indian public sector hydropower company at the helm of the project, purportedly assured communities of employing cutting-edge technologies to safeguard against a decrease in the river’s water level. Despite this pledge, public opposition persisted. It was during the tumultuous periods of Covid-19 and the CAA NRC movement, when the general populace found themselves confined to their homes, that the entire project was surreptitiously concluded, shrouded in a veil of secrecy.
The sudden drying of Subansiri river, an unforeseen event unfolding over the past four days, has sent ripples of concern through the community. The Lower Subansiri Hydropower Project, equipped with multiple diversion tunnels, faced a cascade of challenges. A landslide on the 27th of October blocked four tunnels initially, and subsequently, the last diversion tunnel, tunnel number one, succumbed to the remnants of this natural disaster. This unexpected phenomenon has taken the residents by surprise, as even during the autumn season, the customary minimum water level hovers around 30-40 feet. The usual flow, ranging from 100-1200 cubic meters per second, has dwindled to a mere 5-6 cubic meters per second. Bidyut expresses the severity of the situation, noting that while blockages were not uncommon, this time the impediment is profound. Despite four days having elapsed, NHPC has yet to clear the obstructed tunnels, intensifying the apprehension surrounding the drying river.
The project, once a focal point for large-scale protests, has undergone a transformation in the sentiments of the local people. Faith has waned over time. However, a spark of optimism kindles within Bidyut Saikia as he shares, “But I personally feel our call might gain momentum since people can now see with their own eyes how the ecology is being affected by the hydroelectric project.”
The blockage, currently instigated by landslides, is just the precursor to a more looming challenge. Come January, as power generation kicks into gear, the flow will inevitably face constraints. The intricate dance of power generation necessitates the closure of diversion tunnels, redirecting water into reservoirs. Inevitably, this orchestrated process leads to the river’s depletion. Fueled by this foresight, plans are underway to mobilize people and address the impending consequences.
The movement faced a poignant ‘tragedy’ as it unfolded with the guidance of two key leaders, Ranoj Pegu and Bhuban Pegu. However, the narrative took an unexpected turn, leading to a stark contrast in their current roles. Ranoj Pegu now holds the position of the education minister in Assam’s cabinet, while Bhuban Pegu has embraced the role of a BJP MLA. This shift has left a void in leadership for the Mising community, constituting a great tragedy. The two leaders, once integral to the movement, took a U-turn, altering the trajectory of advocacy. The influence of these leaders extends even to Takam Mising Porin Kebang, the student union of the Mising community, further exacerbating the predicament for this particular tribe.
The project’s initiation traces back to the era of Congress rule in Assam. On the 16th of December 2011, widespread protests orchestrated mainly by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti unfolded against the project. Roads were obstructed, barricading the passage of materials destined for dam construction. Ferries and boats were dismantled, creating communication barriers. However, the landscape has evolved, and the ability to orchestrate such protests has dwindled, attributed to NHPC’s strategic propaganda. Leveraging the economic vulnerabilities of the predominantly impoverished communities around the river, NHPC offered contractual work, fostering a narrative of cooperation. Allegedly, assurances of a ‘downstream assessment’ to ensure uninterrupted water flow created a divide between local leaders and the community. In a claim made by Bidyut Saikia, students were provided cycles and school bags branded with the NHPC logo. He suggests a broader involvement of various CSR and government entities in this intricate web of influence.
In 2014, at the forefront of Gerukamukh, the primary site for the colossal dam, Minister of Defence of India, Rajnath Singh, orchestrated a rally alongside Bharatiya Janata Party workers. Amidst the fervor, promises echoed that, should his party ascend to power, construction would come to a standstill. On the 24th of February in the same year, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, graced Pasighat with his presence during a campaign. He emphatically assured the public that the grand dam project would be halted, replaced by the establishment of smaller riverine dams for power generation. However, as the reins of power shifted, the construction unfolded with unabated momentum, contradicting the earlier assurances.
When we protest, the dynamics have shifted significantly. In the era of Congress, our demonstrations wielded some influence, prompting the party to at least temporarily suspend activities, as witnessed on the 16th of December 2011. However, under the BJP regime, the landscape has transformed, rendering protests seemingly ineffectual. Taking to the streets now invites a formidable response, with the deployment of police and the army to quell dissent. Even in the midst of smaller protests conducted during lockdown, the response remained harsh, with instances of beatings and subsequent detentions. The key distinction between the two governments lies in the BJP’s heightened aggression towards protestors, leaving an unsettling sentiment that the welfare of the people is overlooked. (The writer can be reached at dipaknewslive@gmail.com)

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