India’s largest dam given clearance but still faces flood of opposition

Six years ago, former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh laid the foundation stone for the 3,000MW Dibang multipurpose dam project. The dam, to be built across the Dibang river, in the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, will be the country’s largest. The state plans to build more than 160 dams in the coming years.

Dibang dam will not only generate power but supposedly control floods in the plains of neighbouring Assam state. The dam’s reservoir was estimated to submerge 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres) of dense forests along the Dibang river valley. The forest advisory committee (FAC), which examines the impact of infrastructure projects on wilderness areas, was appalled and rejected it.

For a project so large, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) failed to assess critical components of the project and was widely criticised for inadequately predicting the dam’s effects on the environment. Its evaluation of impacts on wildlife is a farce. The authors of the document list creatures not found in that area, such as Himalayan tahr, and concocted species not known to exist anywhere in the world, such as brown pied hornbill. Of the ones they could have got right, they mangled the names, referring to flycatchers as ‘flying catchers’ and fantail as ‘fanter’.

In his scathing critique, Anwaruddin Choudhury, an expert on the wildlife of north-east India, sarcastically concluded the EIA makes a case for the project to be shelved, as Dibang was the only place in the world “with these specialities!” Despite listing these amazing creatures, the EIA goes on to say “no major wildlife is observed”.

In a similar vein, the document claims only 301 people will be affected by the dam. Authorities must be puzzled that a project with so few affected people should be opposed by so many. Protests by local people began soon after the inaugural stone was laid in 2008. Since then large crowds have disrupted public hearings. On 5 October 2011, police fired on one such mass demonstration, injuring 10 people. Regional authorities branded anti-dam protestors as Maoist rebels, further angering them.

In Arunachal Pradesh, the Idu Mishmi and Adi tribes will be the most affected. They fear loss of grazing land, fishing grounds, and lack of safety of the dam in a seismically volatile zone. Additionally, they are concerned that the large number of workers needed to build the dam will overwhelm their cultural identity and their lands.