Tipaimukh Dam: The Controversy between India and Bangladesh

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Northeast India gets the highest rainfall in the country and its thick and extensive forests give birth to huge rivers. With a view to tapping the hydro power potential of these rivers, a nexus of policymakers, technocrats and contractors have mooted plans for the construction of dozens of dams. In the process, however, little regard is being paid to the short and long-term consequences on the ecosystem, biodiversity or the local people in the river’s watershed and drainage. One of the largest projects proposed for northeast India is the Tipaimukh dam on the river Barak in Manipur.

This 162. 8 m. high earthen-rock filled dam also has the potential to be one of the most destructive. Water is indispensable for all living organisms as well as for industrial growth and development. The last five decades have seen a quantum increase in water demand due to rapid population growth, consumptive lifestyles and the spurt in industrialisation and urbanisation. Developmental planning should primarily be based on the wise and judicious use of available natural water resources in the region.

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Any development work undertaken should have as its objective the upliftment of the majority of the people of the area, not just the benefit of a few better-off sections. In the case of northeast India, the lifestyle of different ethnic communities will need to be taken into consideration in an effort to evolve a sustainable system of development. Background The proposed Tipaimukh dam will be constructed 500 m. downstream from the confluence of the Barak and the Tuivai rivers in the southwestern corner of Manipur (24°14’ N and 93°1. ’ E approximately). The river Barak is the second largest drainage system in northeast India. It starts from the Lai-Lyai village in Senapati district of Manipur and meanders through the Senapati, Tamenglong Churachandpur districts and also through the Jiribam sub-division of Manipur. The upper Barak catchment area extends over almost the entire north, northwestern, western and southwestern portion of the state. The middle course lies in the plain areas of Cachar (Barak plain/Tampak) of Assam, while the lower, deltaic course is in Bangladesh.

The Barak valley or the Cachar plain is the natural flooding plain of the Barak river. Floods are frequent in the Barak drainage system and part of the natural cycle. In an attempt to control frequent flooding in the lower Barak plain, several proposals to dam the Barak river have been raised within government and political circles since pre-Independence days. In 1954, the Assam government requested the Central Water Commission and the Planning Commission to identify a suitable location where the monsoon waters of the Barak could be impounded to form an artificial flooding zone.

Accordingly, the North Eastern Council (NEC) entrusted the investigation work to the Central Water Commission (CWC). The CWC submitted their report in 1984, which proposed the construction of the Tipaimukh high dam at a cost of Rs. 1,078 cores. However, the report was turned down for the lack of proper environmental impact assessment of the submergible areas. Again, in 1995, at the request of NEC, the Brahmaputra Board prepared the Detailed Project Report. There was no progress after this.

Finally in 1999, the Brahmaputra Board handed over the project to the Northeast Electric Power Corporation Limited (NEEPCO). On January 18, 2003, the project received the all-important notification under section 29 of the Electricity Act. Main features The project envisions a 390 m. long, 162. 8 m. high earthen-rock filled dam across the Barak, 500 m. downstream of the confluence of the Tuivai and the Barak on the Manipur-Mizoram border. The dam will be at an altitude of about 180 m. above mean sea level with a maximum reservoir level of 178 m.

The dam was originally designed to contain floodwaters in the lower Barak valley but hydro power generation was later incorporated into the project. The project will have an installation capacity of 6×250=1500 MW and a firm generation of 412 MW. The dam will permanently submerge an area of 275. 50 sq. km. in the state of Manipur. A large number of people, mostly belonging to the Zeliangrong and Hmar tribes, will be displaced permanently and deprived of the right to their environment and to their age-old traditional occupations.

Official figures state that 1,461 Hmar families will be directly displaced due to the project, but the number of villages to be affected is yet to be independently verified (the 1984 report said 31 villages, in 1998 the official number fell to 15 and the 2000 report of NEEPCO records only 8 villages. By now, perhaps the official records show no settlements in the area! ). Huge areas of cultivated and cultivable land, particularly in the Tamenglong district and some of the orchard areas in the Churachandpur district will be submerged.

The historic Old Cachar Road, popularly known as Tongei Maril and traditional waterways along the Barak will be disconnected from the state capital and the upper Barak forever. The people use the river extensively for transportation as road connectivity is poor. They carry bamboo and ginger through the Tuivai river to Barak and then all the way to Lakhimpur in Lower Assam. A 20 km. stretch of the existing New Cachar Road (NH-53), including two major bridges over the Barak and Makru rivers will be submerged. The diversion that will have to be constructed will add 60 to 80 km. to the Imphal-Jiri road.

These factors have created a lot of controversy around the Tipaimukh high dam and multipurpose project with regard to its scientific and technical feasibility and environmental impact assessment, especially in the state of Manipur. Geological and seismic factors The proposed Tipaimukh project area and its adjoining areas are basically composed of the Surma group of rocks characterised by folds and faults with a regional strike of NNE-SSW. The entire locality has well-developed fractures and hidden faults called blind thrusts. These thrusts could be potential earthquake foci (Ibotombi, INTACH 2000).

Also, the course of the Barak opposite the Tuivai river itself is controlled by the Barak-Makru thrust. The entire drainage basin of the Barak is littered with fault lines that control the courses of the river and its tributaries. The proposed Tipaimukh dam axis is located on the Taithu fault. Such faults are potentially active and may be the foci and/or epicentres for future earthquakes. The plate kinematics of the region is very active. Boundary interaction between the Indian and Burmese plates makes the entire region highly seismically active, making northeast India one of the most earthquake prone reas in the world. Earthquake epicentres of magnitude 6 M and above have been observed during the last 200 years. Within a 100 km. radius of Tipaimukh, two earthquakes of +7 M magnitude have taken place in the last 150 years. The epicentre of the last one, in the year 1957, was at an aerial distance of about 75 km. from the dam site in an east-northeast direction. Another important aspect of seismic activity is that shallow earthquakes are far more disastrous than the deeper ones even if the magnitude is relatively low. The majority of earthquakes that take place on the western side of Manipur are shallow (upto 50 km. ocal depth) due to the nature of the tectonic setting of the Indo-Burma range. Under these circumstances, the wisdom of constructing a huge dam needs to be thoroughly discussed and investigated. Environmental impact The project report (1984) says that as per the Botanical Survey of India, there is no threat to any endangered plant and that they have not come across any rare endemic taxa or species of aquatic plants during their survey. The same report also states that as per the Zoological Survey of India, there is no endemic and endangered fauna in the area.

The references relating to the flora and fauna in the proposed Tipaimukh project area are not based on factual and authentic field information and the report is based on concocted and fabricated information. Manipur, along with the rest of northeast India, is part of the sensitive Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, identified on account of its gene pool of endemic plant and animal species. The absence of important information on the biodiversity of the region in the project report shows deliberate negligence and the lack of serious environmental impact assessment of both upstream and downstream areas.

The region is internationally acknowledged for its biodiversity wealth, and as such, is of immense significance for the country and, indeed, the planet. According to the forest department records, five species of hornbills are reported from Manipur: the Great Indian Hornbill, the Indian Pied or Lesser Pied Hornbill, the Wreathed Hornbill, the Brown-backed Hornbill and the Rufous-necked Hornbill. No one has done a proper study of the flora and fauna in the Tipaimukh area. However, beaks, feathers and other evidence eems to suggest that three of these five species are present in the Tipaimukh area, particularly in the Churachandpur district: the Great Indian Hornbill, the Indian Pied or Lesser Pied Hornbill and the Rufous-necked Hornbill. The prime hornbill habitat in the Tipaimukh area is located just above the sharp south-north bend in the Barak river (where the river bends sharply north from Tipaimukh in Churachandpur district to enter the Jiribam sub-division in Imphal East district). The dam site is located exactly at this sharp bend.

The project authorities insist that there are no migratory birds in the area, even though the site falls on the route of several migratory species such as the Amur Falcon Falco amurensis and the Sarus Crane Grus antigone. While the project report makes no mention of national parks or sanctuaries in the submergence zone, there are, in fact, two important wildlife sanctuaries, Kailam and Bunning. This area is one of the most important bird areas in the Sino-Himalayan temperate forest, Sino-Himalayan subtropical forest and Indo-Chinese tropical moist forest.

About 160 endemic fish species have been recorded from the Barak drainage system. This is enough reason to believe that the project report has been prepared without conducting serious research in the area, in which case, all permissions extended to the project should be rescinded and the project authorities severely castigated for providing incorrect information. On account of some of these shortcomings, the 1984 report was rejected. Whether updated and more accurate reports have been submitted to the MoEF is not yet known. Health impacts

One of the most serious and least-studied consequences of large dams are the long-term health impacts due to drastic changes in the ecological balance, displacement and loss of livelihood, sudden alterations in the demographic character of the area and movements of large numbers of people involved in construction and other activities. There is no indication that these factors have been considered at all in the case of Tipaimukh. The project proponents proclaim the project to be the only avenue for local people to ‘develop’ in terms of obtaining basic infrastructure such as a urface transport network, schools and health centres. This is an extremely undemocratic, unconstitutional and even immoral argument, amounting to coercion. The state has responsibilities towards the welfare and development of its people. It cannot forego these responsibilities and compromise on basic human rights. As a precedent in government policy and development programming, this is palpably dangerous. It is a well-known fact that the construction of dams invariably destroys the natural riverine ecosystem.

As a result, it affects the habitat of rare and endemic species of flora and fauna. Construction of a high dam disturbs river functions, causes floods, dries out downstream flood plains, devastates riverside ecology, obstructs the migratory path of fish and other aquatic fauna, prevents the exchange of micro-nutrients and silt between the upper and lower reaches of a river and has an overall adverse affect on the riverine food chain. The administration needs to look into these matters seriously before making any decision on the proposed dam across the Barak.

Interestingly, a dam across the Barak was first mooted in 1928. Surely, 87 years is enough time to gather all the necessary data and research on the impacts of the dam on the people and the environment of the region? Impacts on cultural heritage The Tipaimukh project authorities say that there is no historical monument in the proposed reservoir area of the project. However, the famous historical route which links Manipur to the outside world, the Tongei Maril runs through the submergence area.

After the construction of the dam, the downstream catchment areas, particularly on the Jiribam side, could also be affected by serious hydrological imbalances resulting in water scarcity and localised climate change. Even the legendary Barak waterfalls and the Atengba pats now known as the Zeilet lake of Kabui will be submerged (according to the official NEEPCO line, the Barak waterfalls will be visible during the winter). A sacred river island of the Hmar community (see box) will also be lost under the rising waters of the dam.

All these sites and holy places will be lost to the people of Manipur, alienating us forever from our ancestral heritage and culture and inflicting a crushing blow upon our cultural identity. The indigenous people of Manipur have inhabited the upper Barak region since time immemorial, certainly long before the idea of a dam came up. They have been living in peace with their environment and leading lives of contentment, governed by an ancient and strong bond with the earth’s resources: land and water.

The ancestors of modern-day Manipuris, through generations, have taken care to fulfill their role as custodians of a land of beauty and fertility, to preserve it for future generations. Our land and our water are our history, inalienable receptacles of our collective memory, permanent sites of great spiritual and religious significance, the foundation of our civilisation and life. This land and the waters are not a gift from any government but are our own by inheritance and right. No one can violate our right to land and water, least of all without carefully studying our rich heritage.

We have a collective right to a pattern of development that is fundamentally of our own choice. We have a right, too, to reject the kind of development that we do not need or consider harmful. Our children and their children hold us to this responsibility, one that we take very seriously. Cost-benefit analysis The cost-benefit analysis should take into consideration the social and environmental costs, which have not been considered in this project. Technological cost-benefit considerations alone would not solve the continuing and recurring problems that occur during the construction and post-construction periods.

The cost-benefit analyses of the Tipaimukh project vary in the various reports. The estimated cost of the dam increased from Rs. 1,097 crores to 3,000 crores and it now stands at Rs. 4,882. 51 crores. Therefore, the calculation of a viable cost-benefit ratio is cumbersome. It is unfortunate that there is no rehabilitation policy in the country. Provision of land for land and basic infrastructure amenities for the displaced population are serious and difficult problems. Considering all these factors, in short, the proposed Tipaimukh project will not help in the rue development of the affected land and its people. The project report also remains silent on the safety aspects of the dam. Experts around the world concur that the higher the water column in a reservoir, the higher is the risk of Reservoir Induced Seismicity (RIS). Studies indicate that dams higher than 150 m. usually have a 30% RIS factor. An alternative approach A new approach of modern developmental planning always tries to define a specific zone or region for effective and holistic planning. The catchment area of a river is one of the most effective planning zones.

An Upper Barak Development Authority must be established for a holistic developmental approach in the entire catchment to enable the region to grow in a self-reliant and sustainable manner. Informed participation from all sections of the population in the decision-making process is imperative to arrive at decisions that are sustainable and socially just. Such a basin-wide approach will enable us to gain a better understanding of the ecosystem functions, values and requirements and how community livelihoods depend on and influence them.

Such an understanding will be crucial to ensure that the energy, water and infrastructure development to meet local needs is sensitive to the social and ecological values of the region. ? Dr. R. K. Ranjan Singh is a writer and prominent environmental activist in the northeast. He is presently the Registrar of the Manipur University. BOX: Rounglevaisuo endangered – by Joseph Hmar Tipaimukh is at the confluence of the Tuivai and the Barak (locally called Tuiruong) rivers. The Hmar and other kindred tribes call this confluence ‘Ronglevaisuo’.

The Tuivai meanders in from the east and the Tuiruong flows straight in from the north. The Tuivai is so named by locals as it meanders around the hills in many directions before reaching the confluence (tui = water and vai = to wander). Tuiroung (Barak) is so named as the floods and strong current brings dead bodies and waste down the river from upstream (tui = water and roung = corpse). The confluence is about 500 m. upstream of the proposed Tipaimukh multi-hydro dam site. Rounglevaisuo is a historical and scared spiritual ite of the Hmar tribe as well as of the Unau-Suipuis, the kindred tribes of the Hmar: the Hrangkhawls and Darlongs of Tripura, the Bietes of Meghalaya, the Sakecheps of Assam and the Komrem tribes of Manipur. It is at Rounglevaisuo that the kindred tribes parted ways after centuries of travelling in central and southeast Asia. After their separation, the tribes began to evolve their own separate identities. Thus it is a place to which they are spiritually and historically connected. The Unau-Suipui tribes left the place to the Hmar to treasure and preserve for all generations to come.

Many generations of our ancestors have lived and died, taking great care to fulfill their role as trustees and custodians of this priceless heritage, preserving it for their children and children to come. Further upstream is the sacred river island of the Hmar. This small river island, a little upstream from the dam axis, is called Thiledam which means ‘death and life’ in Hmar. In the Hmar religious belief, the island is the place where the soul of all human beings has to go first as soon as they die.

From this island, the soul proceeds either to paradise or hell or comes back to the earth to be reborn. The couple of centuries that the Hmar have lived in Rounglevaisuo have seen many turbulent times. The Hmar through the ages have gone through political, economical and socio-cultural changes but have managed to hold on to their core identity. Many of the changes to their culture, economy, socio-religious and political life, in most cases, were caused by outsiders who came in contact with the Hmar. These changes had all appeared beneficial at first but turned out not to be so in the longer run.

Of the many changes to have occurred, one of the most important changes is the disruption of the traditional self-governing village administration. The traditional village administrator includes the chief, the councillors, the priest, the youth commanders and the crier or messenger. In 1956, the Manipur Village Authority Act (Abolition of Chiefs) was introduced and the administration of revenue was vested in a new village authority with members elected directly by the people on the basis of adult franchise. The formation of the new council was a step in the right direction but was not roperly implemented and conflict in villages arose between the new and the traditional administrative bodies. In the traditional set up, the chief was only a nominal head and real powers were in the hands of the councillors, priests and youth commanders, without whom the village’s socio-cultural and religious life cannot function. They were completely sidelined in the new set up. Thus a completely independent village administration was destroyed because the government failed to study or really understand the traditional administration of the tribal village.

Another change that has had a great negative impact on the Hmar when it was introduced a century ago is trade and the money economy. These concepts were introduced to the Hmar by shrewd businessmen from the Cachar plains. Trade and money was introduced to a traditional subsistence economy based on give and take of foodstuff, livestock and utensils. Villages on both sides of the river grew, but with it the degree of differentiation among the people on the basis of wealth became tremendously significant. Most importantly, monetary debt, which was almost unknown before, became rampant.

The introduction of trade, politics, wealth and power had the effect of ruining the happiness and well-being of large sections of the people. There are many other changes that have also had a significant impact on the Hmars, such as Christianity, assimilation into the Mizo culture and armed ethnic conflict. In recent years though, the pressure of the changes forced upon the tradition and lives of the tribe has been so much that the survival instinct, which has seen the Hmar through many generations of change may not see them through this time.

For the first time, on account of the Tipaimukh project, outsiders will be permanently settling in thousands in the area, for years on end, perhaps even permanently. This will be a new pressure on the Hmar, who have never had outsiders in large numbers residing in their land for any length of time. Missionaries, traders, politicians, soldiers, labourers, etc. all came in small numbers and never stayed long. But if the government goes ahead with the proposed dam, thousands of outsiders of different races and creeds will move in to our land and the tribe will be exposed to changes never seen efore: a new culture, economy and politics. Heavy pressures will be exerted on our land and forest and even more on the people. Our culture and traditions will be the first casualty, as it has always been the government policy to assimilate tribal cultures and traditions into the mainstream. The next casualty will be our language as the outsiders will not understand the local language and local people pick up alien languages very fast.

In such a situation, other languages will gradually replace the Hmar language as the main medium of communication in our heartland, leading to the eventual extinction of the language. With our culture, language, land and forest under so much pressure and the keen involvement of government and corporate sectors in the project, it is only natural to be suspicious of everything and everybody. It becomes hard to believe that the project is actually being implemented in the best interests of the people of the state.

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