Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Power Project and the Politics of Risk

If not with anything else, the Nehruvian dream of development and progress in India at least left it with the politics of risk. Dams being an exceptionally controversial issue, this paper aims at furthering the debate by probing into the question of benefits of the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Power Project being constructed on the borders of the States of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, on the face of the acute ecological imbalances its construction heaves and the misery it would create for certain sections of the population living in these States. A study of this Project and comparison with like ones across the country might give an insight into the real scenario of ecological and human conditions fashioned by such development projects.



In countries rich in water resources, dams prove to be of soaring potential for development. Besides their usefulness in exploitation of untapped hydropower potential, their versatility rests in their ability to balance hydrological variability throughout the year and through every season and despite negative and contradictory effects borne out of their construction they are actually believed to have the competence of controlling devastating floods. And hence the establishment of large dams were conceived in India as one of the first step towards progress- the availability of electricity; of irrigation facilities; of storage of water and its incessant flow to all sectors of a national economy were dreams within reach and hence for Jawaharlal Nehru to consider the dams as modern day temples at one point of time is not shocking. However, the other side of the picture; the nightmares of development remained disguised under the euphoria of progress. Although the adverse effects posed by such gigantic development projects was started to be felt in certain corners of the country, it is only recently that a dissent has taken roots throughout the country against these development projects. Often the construction of dams threatens large scale ecological imbalances like earthquakes and floods and as a consequence the displacement of people and miseries related to poor rehabilitation plans and loss of livelihood, leading to rampant poverty. Notwithstanding the dissent or the apparent dangers posed by these development projects, the State continues to construct them for national good and at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of the poor people. This is the politics of risk being played in India. One such dam being conceived in the North-eastern region of India is the Lower Subansiri Dam Project. As much as it is a promising Project for the country, it is also a nightmare for the people living in and around the region of its construction.


Envisioning the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Power Project

North-east India besides its immensely rich resources which help support the country’s economy, is also known as the powerhouse of the country. But it was with the Lower Subansiri Dam project that the actual harnessing of its power potential began.

One of the major tributaries of Brahmaputra, River Subansiri flowing through Arunachal Pradesh to Assam, now supports a most significant hydroelectric project in the country- the Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Power Project. The river flows through Tibet and descends down the eastern Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh, joining the Brahmaputra in the plains of Assam. A Project on the river was envisaged way back in April 1983 and a river basin agency responsible to the Ministry of Water Resources, called the Brahmaputra Board, embarked on a detailed survey and investigation work for a 4, 800 MW Subansiri Dam. But it was found out that a project of such a large magnitude would submerge large tracts of land in the state of Arunachal Pradesh and hence the plan of its implementation had to be called off. Nevertheless since the Indian government couldn’t afford to put paid to the idea, a new survey was carried and finally decided on three separate projects on the River Subansiri. Thus the idea of the Lower Subansiri Dam was conceived, to be built on the border between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. It was decided that the location of the dam, powerhouse and the storage reservoir would be Arunachal Pradesh but the office and colony would be placed in Assam. With the failure of the Brahmaputra Board (a Board constituted by the Government of India with flood control as its primary mandate in 1972) to draw up a detailed project report on the Dam in question, due for 2000, the Ministry of Water Resources transferred the project to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (henceforth NHPC), a Central Government undertaking.

This gravity dam under construction is situated 2.3 km upstream of Gerukamukh village in the Dhemaji district of Assam. NHPC is developing this 2000 MW project at the cost of approximately $2 billion and the annual generation of power expected from it is around 7,421 GW.h. This dam in its completion would be 116 m (381 ft) tall, measured from the river bed and130 m (430 ft) from foundation.  284 m (932 ft) long, this dam will have a structural volume of 2,250,000 m3(2,942,889 cu yd). The reservoir shaped by the dam will have a gross storage capacity of 1.37 km3 (1,110,677 acre·ft), of which .44 km3 (356,714 acre·ft) can be used for power generation or irrigation.1

Establishing the dam came as a real challenge to its developers when they were faced with acute ecological capriciousness. There were at first unexpected geological conditions leading to landslides, then as they redesigned the project, they came to realize that the bedrock was reached sooner than expected and thus the dam had to be redesigned again for greater stability and when all of this was over heavy monsoons obstructed its construction. Further the protests against the construction of this dam have from time to time proved a hindrance in the progress of its erection.


A Critique of the Dam

North-east India is already laden with a lot of troubles since its incorporation in the Indian State. It has been exploited and neglected by the State for a long time. Moreover it his faced with inevitable vulnerabilities for being located in a region which is prone to earthquakes and heavy rainfall. On top of that, the building of dams has already caused a lot of misery making the downstream regions prone to unmanageable floods. In fact the hydropower projects in the rivers of the Eastern Himalayas shall predictably destroy some of the World’s most potent rivers and their ecosystems. They would wreck the aquatic and terrestrial habitats of some fine species of flora and fauna, along with wiping out the indigenous communities depending upon them. Evidently the dams constructed in the upstream regions of Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan make the entire region prone to all kinds of hazards- from geological, seismological to hydrological ones. In such a situation, a critical view of developmental projects like the Lower Subansiri Dam becomes necessary.

It has been perceived that the reservoir of the Subansiri Project will submerge 47 km length of the Subansiri River and destroy 37.5-40 square kilometres which would include Himalayan subtropical pine forests, Himalayan subtropical broad leaf forests, part of the Tale Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, an elephant corridor and some subsistence agriculture fields. Besides this, once the Dam is in operation the water level in the Subansiri will fluctuate 400-fold every day. The dam will release a trickle of only 6 cubic meters per second for most of the day in the winters, but will gush 2,560 cubic meters per second when energy is being generated and during the evening hours, when its need is the highest. According to official data, 36 families will be displaced by the time the dam is completed.1

Northeast India being a seismically active region, the hydrologic characteristics and morphology of rivers and other water bodies are often influenced by the frequent earthquakes. Experts have inspected that the “dams are being raised at a sensitive seismic spot where two tectonic plates of the terrestrial globe are at present pressing against each other. If the weight of massive dams destabilises the plates, the resultant earthquakes will not only bring down the dams in a heap of ruins but would also unleash a deluge on the plains resulting in a calamity of unprecedented magnitude.” (Gohain 2008)

The region and especially Assam has already witnessed a catastrophe that changed the entire map of the water bodies in the region six decades back. It was an earthquake of 8.7 Richter scale that shook the entire region. Although there is more than enough literature on the occurrence of this catastrophe, it doesn’t need any evidence because it has been etched in the minds of the older generations who had witnessed the event. The earthquake not only led to heavy landslides which blocked the passages of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra, causing floods once the trapped water burst but also the entire river regime changed drastically. The huge amount of debris accumulated from the landslides raised the riverbed of the Brahmaputra. Floods have been a frequent occurrence since that event. Sanjib Baruah says, “Over the years, as rivers have changed course and riverbanks have eroded, thousands of acres of productive agricultural land, homes, valuable infrastructure and sometimes entire villages have been lost in Assam. The dykes and embankments built to provide flood protection have been no match to the Brahmaputra’s fury. To this day, the region struggles with the consequences of the 1950 earthquake.” (2012: 47) When only one earthquake of such magnitude could cause such unprecedented damage, only God knows what the consequence would be if another one of such tremors shakes the region again! This is something serious to be considered, given the number of dams that are being sanctioned to be constructed in this region. At least during 1950s there were hardly any such dams.

Siltation is another grave concern. Building dams require deforestation and mining of the river beds for boulders and cobbles. The Subansiri dam would be built with 32,00,000 tonnes of boulders from the bed of that river. (Gohain 2008) Deforestation leads to enormous amount of soil erosion and in the absence of the boulders which checks the velocity of the river current and thereby prevent the sand from being washed downstream, the silt expands and when adds to the flood water cause heavy damage to the fertile fields.  Further, with the building of a dam there will be a blockage of the river borne sediments which carry nutrients for the fields.

Recently, Assam was rocked by another occurrence of terrifying rage of the Brahmaputra. Floods were everywhere. As already mentioned, the construction of Lower Subansiri Dam can be ever more dangerous as the dam would release huge amount of water while power generation and especially during the rainy season. In a few hours floods have been seen to ruin entire households, sweeping away homes and people, livestock and property. They lead the surviving families to leave their original homes and settle down elsewhere, mostly in forestlands or protected areas where they are seen as encroachers. On the other hand, crops are damaged and the scarcity of food and drinking water leads to epidemics of diseases.

Their livelihoods are destroyed. People dependent on agriculture now turns towards the cities for urban jobs but it becomes difficult for technically unskilled people even to thrive in urban areas, thus leading to poverty and sordid conditions of living. The poor riverine people always live with fear and foreboding.

The aquatic flora and fauna and the dolphin population of the Subansiri River are also in danger of being destroyed. Baruah says that “It is hard to imagine fish surviving the power turbines of a hydropower dam. The changes in water temperatures, severe manipulation of water levels to meet the demands of power generation, and the reduction of oxygen levels are not conducive to the migration and spawning habits of fish, and their growth and reproduction cycles.” [2012: 48] Thus, fish being a major source of diet in the region and fishing being an important means of livelihood of the people, it is not only the fish who would suffer but also the people.

What is worst is that the construction of this dam would lead to forceful eviction of the indigenous people. Their familiar environment would be lost to them, so would the resources they were thriving on.


Anti-Dam Campaign

The danger was coming and it surfaced when in 2000, authority over the Lower Subansiri project was transferred from the Brahmaputra Board to the NHPC. First of all the idea of a multipurpose project was discarded to make space for a power only project, solely aimed for distribution of power to the large industries elsewhere in the country and secondly, by the transfer Central Government attained a stronger grip over the project.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (henceforth EIA) for the Lower Subansiri Dam was completed by mid-2001 which was more or less in favour of the dam. In the public hearing of its report, no efforts were given to inform and assemble people who will be affected by the project. The hearing took place only in name; the grievances of people were overlooked.

However, a national civil society organisation called the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group condemned the report because they found out that the project developer had breached the Forest Conservation Act 1980 and the Environmental Protection Act 1986 by starting to construct the project housing before receiving forest and environmental clearance and hence asked for action being taken against the project developer. The project was also condemned for being constructed in an area recognized by the Wildlife Institute of India and Birdlife International as ‘high conservation area’ (Choudhury 2010). It seemed the EIA summary report had disregarded the environmental importance of the project area.

Another environmental non-governmental organization called Aranyak, approached the Supreme Court and accused the project of flooding a part of the Tale Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. The matter was then looked into and the project was subjected under stringent conditions that ‘no further projects upstream from the Lower Subansiri Project would be allowed in the future and that the entire catchment area of the Subansiri Dam would be declared a national park.’ Further, ‘[t]he project developer was also ordered to pay the entire cost of resettling and rehabilitating the people displaced from the national park’ (Choudhury 2010)

In 2003, the All Missing Student Union of the Gogamukh project area appealed for a second public hearing as they realized the insincere efforts of the first one and that the project does not conform to the requirements laid down by the World Commission on Dams (henceforth WCD). The assembly called for a ban on the project and sought for a smaller, eco-friendly dam. But despite these protests the project received environmental clearance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests on 16 July 2003, subjected to certain conditions. [Choudhury 2010]

Agitations against the construction of the project were gaining ground as the construction progressed. In 2004, the People’s Movement for Subansiri Brahmaputra Valley (PMSBV) along with national level such civil society organisations as Kalpavriksh and the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People continued the objection against the project more vehemently. The PMSBV conducted meetings both in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and also came in connection with the International Rivers Network.

These organizations brought out mass protests on the street; sent petitions to the financers and the ministers; and demanded the suspension of the construction until a proper scientific study on the impacts on the downstream people was not seen to.  The demands were given a deaf ear and the protests didn’t cease. In fact in 2005-06 they were joined by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), two most dominant pressure groups not only in the State of Assam but in the entire North-eastern region. The latter was being led by Akhil Gogoi who has gained nation-wide recognition as a RTI activist. Even the main opposition party in Assam, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) gave their full support to the protests.

The protests were mainly directed at the disinterest shown to the possible adverse impact of the dam on the downstream communities, whose opinion mattered little before the approval of the project.  These protests resulted in the formation of an Expert Group who was to look into the matter of the downstream impact of the dam. The group comprised of scientists from prominent research centres of the region.  However the study was kept at bay for a long time and the construction of the dam went on in full force. Pressurised by the various organizations, the study finally began in mid 2008 and the report was submitted in 2010. This time, the report brought to light that the operation of such a mega project would actually prove appallingly unsafe for the people living downstream.

It was the time when State Elections were on head. The Congress Government of Assam was in thorough confusion, on the one hand it needed to support the construction of the dam so as to not go against their parental figures at the Centre on the other there was no way they would have won the elections if they went against the people of Assam. Hence the State Government took the middle way- they sympathised with the people and promised to look into their grievances once they again came to power and would take due actions, even stop the construction of the dam if further studies showed that it was actually detrimental to the downstream communities.

The construction of the dam continued amidst protests and elections. Congress came to power and the first thing they did was coin the people protesting against the project as ‘Maoists’ and ‘Extremists’.

In December 2011, the protest took its most rigorous turn. The anti-dam activists started a civil disobedience campaign which blocked trucks carrying building material to the dam site. This step halted the construction since then. The anti-dam activists by no means allow the construction to start again.

But since Arunachal Pradesh is to gain from this project, the Arunachal Pradesh government is seeking the Central Government’s help in solving the controversy and commissioning of the project as soon as possible. Power Minister M Veerappa Moily puts the responsibility of terminating the controversy on Assam’s Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. Gogoi although is in favour of the dam, cannot go against the people and hence has chosen to go for more studies, now by global experts!


Politics of Risk

The sheer politics of risk rests clearly on the Central Government’s interest in moving on with the construction of the dam despite the studies which proved the undesirable consequences that might ensue in the downstream area from the presence of such a mega project.  The government’s apathy towards the lives of the poor downstream people and the environment is visible in its non-conformity to the norms laid down by World Commission Dams (henceforth WCD) and its repeated attempts at studies to be done in the region. The most disturbing question is- why the need for more studies when the risks are so obvious?

Chatradhar argues that “The conditional environmental clearance is difficult to interpret. While it gives the project environmental clearance and permits work to go ahead, it also calls on the project developer  to  undertake  studies  of  the  impact  of  the  project  on  aquatic  fauna,  biodiversity  and habitat conservation falling within the project submerged area” (Choudhury 2010 )

According to the 1994 provisions, it is the duty of the EIA to study thoroughly the impact of the project on the surrounding area prior to the approval of the project. First of all, the EIA failed to give a thorough and just assessment and in spite of that the project was given environmental clearance. The government’s subjecting it to conditions like the further studies is proof of its shilly-shallying in wanting to cease the construction. No matter what, the construction should go on.

One may even concede to the fact that the perimeters of the study area of the EIA were limited and those of the Expert Group more comprehensive and hence the differences in the reports. The expert group in its study “also considered the potential impact on the large numbers of wetlands that interact with the river in multiple ways including migration of various species of fish. The survey found that people in those zones depend on the river in many different ways depending on their distance from the river. Apart from getting water and fish from the river, they harvest fuel wood, sand and pebbles as well; and depend on it for transportation.” (Baruah 2012)

Based on the observations, the report recommended that the dam should be redesigned, specifically its height needed to be reduced and changes should be in favour of increase in the river water flow and must help flood moderation. However, bringing about such changes would cut into its power producing capacity and hence profitability. Keeping in view the Central Government’s ardent interest in exploiting the Subansiri for power, a smaller, eco-friendly and multipurpose dam that the expert group had in mind wouldn’t have suited its ambitions. The expert group also discovered that the site for the project was not suitable from geological, tectonic and seismological points of view.

The NHPC however rejected the latter aspect on grounds that those studies had already been carried out before the approval of the project and as for the former aspect; the NHPC was quite indifferent to the hardships that the downstream people would face because traditional livelihoods are hardly worth saving!

Every developmental project comes with risks and when the Government of India already plans to move ahead with its ambitious hydropower development plans on the rivers of India and especially the eastern Himalayas, evidently it is far less concerned regarding the safety of its citizens than it seems to be and more concerned with the economic development to be brought about at the expense of the poor people; their livelihoods and environmental damage.

It’s strange that the representatives of the people who are elected to look after the grievances of people can act so unconcerned and callous towards the same people who elect them. It is inconceivable, why a nation-state who professes democratic ideals need to use coercive methods to quash the protests springing from the dispossession of rights and against life threatening dangers. The protests are usually carried out by the people from lower rungs of the society because the higher middle and the higher classes are insulated from any kind of danger by their access to economic resources. In fact, more often than not, it is these classes who stand to benefit from such mega projects.


Conclusion: Rights and Risk

Dams symbolise a State’s journey towards modernisation. They also symbolize the presence of a market, a market for hydropower. The low recurring costs of hydropower and the lower carbon emissions compared to coal based thermal power makes hydropower a favourable product in the market for power. It comes handy even for revenue generation.

Initially river valley projects were endorsed to see a river basin region develop. They had multiple purposes- irrigation, navigation, flood control, hydro-electricity, besides others. Although largely caricatured by engineer’s visions, who did not consider the resettlement of displaced people and environmental impacts, these dams, posed fewer risks compared to the neo-liberal and postmillennial hydropower projects. The sizes of the projects are getting bigger and bigger and so are the risks they impose on the surrounding ecosystems and people dependent on those ecosystems.

This is the reason why dams have never been approved by people in general. Lower Subansiri Dam is not the only case. As early as in 1946, thirty thousand people, comprising of local politicians, bureaucrats and the people who were going to get evicted from the dam site, came to the streets protesting against the Hirakud Dam. The Koel Karo project was commissioned despite the fact that it would have destroyed 200 tribal villages and submerged 45,000 hectares of arable land. In 1985, the World Bank approved the $450 million Sardar Sarovar Multi-purpose Dam project on the Narmada. According to World Bank estimates, the project was to generate 1300 million cubic-meters per year of water for civic and industrial purposes, an installed capacity of 1450 MW of electricity and provide irrigation to 1.9 million hectares of land. The project was to submerge 13744 hectares of forest land, 11318 hectares of fertile agricultural land, and displace over 100, 000 people, mostly persons and families belonging to the category of scheduled tribes and the rural poor. 2 Had it not been for the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Campaign) against the colossal injustice of sanctioning the Sardar Sarovar Project, the politics of construction of large dams wouldn’t have received the world’s attention.

The stakeholders who are promised the benefits of the dams are often the ones victimised by a dam’s construction. They are turned out of their own homes; dispossessed of the right to their land. In this context, Sanjib Baruah by quoting Nixon makes the situation in the Brahmaputra valley clearer:


There is perhaps no better example of what postcolonial theorist Rob Nixon calls the “resource law of inverse proximity” at work – “the closer people live to the resource being ‘developed’ the less likely they are to benefit from the development’”… The people living by a river writes Nixon, …may belong to the land but, within a Lockeian logic of private property, the land doesn’t belong to them. Thus in terms of the right to remain (not to speak of the right to just compensation) they can readily be cast as uninhabitants, residual presences from a pre-capitalist era… [2012: 49]


And what reason does the Government have to give for this forceful eviction? In the name of the ‘eminent domain’ and ‘public purpose’ embodied in the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, which has been amended a lot many times, however without changing the reasons for acquisition.  In any case, the Government has no other justifiable rationale, no matter if public good has been achieved or not. One would wonder what public good it anyway achieves by evicting people from their own lands and damaging the environment. Furthermore, there are fallacies even in the resettlement and rehabilitation policies because most of the Project Affected Persons (PAP) never get properly rehabilitated and no matter however the bills try to compensate the PAPs, the ultimate reality is that the primary objective is to facilitate an acquisition in order to carry forward the policies of neo-liberalization and support the interests of the corporate sector.

Unlike the capricious natural calamities, the risks posed by the developmental projects are very much predictable and hence these risks are created by man-made decisions. These are indispensable risks attached to the giant ambitions of a country to modernize. One cannot help but live with these risks if one is a part of that country.

The people of the Brahmaputra valley also, just because they belong to that region; have to live with a number of risks posed by these mega dams. The government of India initially avoided conforming to the right and risk approach that was recommended by the WCD but with the increasing pressure of the civil society, it started an inclusive project planning and decision making process. But EIA has always remained a tool for only pacifying the people; at ground level it makes little space for the input of the people. In India, a project is approved first and the tasks of EIA carried on later. Poor countries are not entitled to environmental regulation. It is believed, the more exploitation of the nature and its resources, the faster is the economic growth.

If only the administrators of India could realize that a project like Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Power Project, in the long run, will prove a curse to the society instead of being a boon, the controversy would not have got this far. Projects like these are evidence of India’s inability to secure more eco-friendly and viable solutions for its development.



  1. Source of data: Wikipedia, online- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subansiri_Lower_Dam
  2. Cited from Indira Gandhi National Open University, Master of Arts Study Material (Sociology)Unit : Dams and Development




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