Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Environment Minister questions government's development policy in northeast India

In note to PM, Jairam takes on govt, puts question mark on N-E projects
Ravish Tiwari, Financial Express

New Delhi: In unprecedented distancing from the government by a key
minister and questioning its development works in the strategic
North-East and Bhutan, environment minister Jairam Ramesh has taken up
with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh demands for a review of all hydel
projects in the region and a “moratorium on any further clearances for
hydel projects in Arunachal Pradesh” since “these are bound to be the
subject of agitation” in Assam.

In a letter to the PM on September 16 after attending a meeting in
Guwahati of “civil society organisations” opposed to big dams, Ramesh
has highlighted the views of ‘some NGOs’ that “we should not make
Arunachal Pradesh a pawn in the race between India and China”.

This, Ramesh states, was the response to his explanation on the
‘strategic significance’ of projects in Arunachal Pradesh. But in his
letter, he only names one NGO called Adi Students Union which made a
representation to him on this issue.

At least ten times in the three-page letter to the PM, he refers to
‘sentiments’, ‘dominant view’, ‘great concern’, ‘concerns of the
people’, ‘opposition building up’.

The letter ends with the warning that the “feeling in vocal sections
of Assam’s society particularly appears to be that ‘mainland India’ is
exploiting the North-East hydel resources for its benefits”.

What’s worrying for the government is that Ramesh has already made
some assurances that could impact the pace of progress. “What I could
assure the audience, of course, is that for projects not yet started,
we will carry out cumulative environmental impact assessment studies
as well as comprehensive biodiversity studies.”

This flies in the face of his own commitment to fast-track projects on
the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh. It is recorded in the minutes of
a recent meeting of the task force on hydro power development: “MoS
for environment and forests emphasised the need for time-bound
development of hydro potential in Siang river and he offered, on his
part, to consider forest and environment clearance on a fast track
basis for hydro electric projects in Siang river.”

Ramesh has taken up with the PM concerns over mega projects in Bhutan
like the Kurichu dam and Mangdechhu hydel project. These are bound to
have diplomatic ramifications as these projects are being built with
Indian help, and power produced from them would be purchased by India.
There are strong strategic underpinnings to these projects as they
symbolise the cooperation hastened by Bhutan’s unflinching support to
not let its territory be used by N-E insurgent groups. Confirming that
he had written to the PM after his trip to the N-E, Ramesh refused to
go into details. He, however, said the PM is slated to take an
inter-ministerial meeting on the subject on October 13.

In his letter, Ramesh has pointed to concerns over projects mostly
being built on tributaries of the Brahmaputra which even China is
looking to harness on its side. He is careful enough to front these as
views distilled from a “public consultation” organised at the “request
of a large number of civil society organizations in Assam” on
September 10 where he claims “over a thousand people participated in
an interaction which extended over six hours”. At the same time, he
ends up lending weight to some of these concerns while pointing out
that elections in Assam are due in next six months. “Even leaving
aside polls, these issues are important in themselves and merit our
serious consideration. I believe that some of the concerns that were
expressed cannot be dismissed lightly.” The key concerns and
“sentiments” to which Ramesh has sought to draw the PM’s attention

* There should be a “moratorium on any further clearances for hydel
projects in Arunachal Pradesh” until downstream impact assessment
studies, cumulative environment impact assessment studies and
biodiversity impact studies are completed.

* The 135 dams of different capacities being planned in Arunachal
Pradesh “are being given green signal” without carrying out these

* These MoUs signed “with the knowledge of the Central government”
have not taken on board the concerns of the people of Assam. “The
Government of Assam should be a party to these MoUs, especially where
downstream impacts are significant”. Incidentally, most of these MoUs
were signed during the first UPA government.

* There is “great concern” on the downstream impact in certain
districts of Assam from “existing hydel projects of NEEPCO like
Ranganadi and Kopili”. Incidentally, these projects have been declared
fully operational more than five years ago. “There is also concern on
the Kurichu hydel project executed by India in Bhutan and its
downstream impacts in districts like Barpeta, Baska, Nalbari and

* “There is opposition building up in Assam to the 2000-mw Lower
Subansiri hydel project being implemented by NHPC in Arunachal
Pradesh... the demand being made, on the basis of an expert committee
report prepared by a team from IIT Guwahati, Guwahati University and
Dibrugarh University is for the project to be scrapped”. Ramesh,
however, has also clarified in his letter that he told the audience he
was “in no position to make any commitment on the existing Lower

* Award of projects in Arunachal Pradesh to different companies in the
same river basin is making the “task of environment impact assessment
very difficult”. The examples given are of three different companies
involved in projects on Subansiri and also on Siang.

* The 1750-mw Lower Demwe hydel project on the Lohit river “should not
be given forest clearance, although environmental clearance has
already been given for the project” because of the downstream impact
of this project on Assam.

* The 1500-mw Tipaimukh hydro-electric project in Manipur “should not
be proceeded till a comprehensive downstream impact assessment study
has been undertaken”.

* Impact of hydel projects in Bhutan need to be “studied better”. The
entire approach to dams in the N-E “needs to be looked afresh”.

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