North Lakhimpur, Assam- The battle against the Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project has persisted for more than a decade. As the project approaches completion, the ecological concerns that experts had forewarned are becoming evident.
Recent reports from various media outlets have highlighted issues such as landslides in the region and the diminishing flow of the river. In a recent interview, The Mooknayak spoke with Bidyut Saikia, who serves as the General Secretary of the State Committee of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, to discuss the widespread environmental impact and the concurrent political dimensions of the situation.
Discussing the environmental implications of the drying river, Bidyut Saikia said, “The Subansiri river is home to 239 varieties of fishes. Some of the varieties are locally known as Xalodi Pithia and Bam Seni. There were 28 Gangetic River Dolphins as well, out of which we have already recovered the lifeless body of one of them. There are some pockets with 2-3 inches of water, but you can easily cross the river with the aid of a motorbike now. Soon, the tube wells that draw water from the river will dry up. Vegetation around the riverbanks will be affected.”
Expressing a general disdain, the peasant organization leader said, “We were always warning the people of the ecological disturbances the dam will cause. Even our president, Akhil Gogoi, had written a book titled ‘Marubhumi aahe laahe laahe’ (The desert is arriving slowly but surely). Areas such as Lakhimpur, Dhokuakhana, Majuli, and Dhemaji’s groundwater will be affected. It is now that the public is understanding what we had warned them about.”
The Mishing or the Miri tribes are the ones who live near the Subansiri river. They are dependent on the river for their livelihood. According to Bidyut Saikia, 5-6 lakh people will be affected when the river completely dries up.
NHPC Limited, an Indian public sector hydropower company that oversaw the project, had apparently promised the communities that they would be using modern technologies to ensure the water level of the river does not decrease. “The public still opposed, but during Covid-19 and CAA NRC movement, when the common public was forced to stay inside their houses, they completed the whole project in a hushed tone.”
“It has been four days since the sudden drying of Subansiri river. Lower Subansiri Hydropower Project had multiple diversion tunnels. Four of them were blocked due to a landslide that occurred on 27th October. The last diversion tunnel (tunnel number one) later got blocked as well from the residue of the natural disaster,” Bidyut said. The drying up of the river is a surprise to the residents because even during the autumn season, the minimum level of water is 30-40 feet. The volume of water flowing is around 100-1200 cubic meters per second. But the current rate has come down to 5-6 cubic meters per second. “Blockages used to be frequent, but this time it is severe. It has been four days now, and NHPC has not been able to clear the tunnels yet.”
There was a time when protests against the project used to take place on a large scale, but things have changed now. Local people have lost faith. “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,” Saikia claims with a glimmer of hope.
“Right now, landslides have caused the blockage. But when power generation will start from January, the flow will be restricted anyway. Power generation will require the diversion tunnels to be blocked so that the water goes into the reservoirs. Ultimately, the river will run dry. Because of this, we are planning to mobilize people.”
A ‘tragedy’ is that there were two main leaders to lead the movements: Ranoj Pegu and Bhuban Pegu. Now, Ranoj Pegu is the current education minister in Assam’s cabinet. Bhuban Pegu is now a BJP MLA. “This is a great tragedy for the Mishing community as there is no one to lead them now. The two leaders saw their chance and took a U-turn from the movement. Takam Mising Porin Kebang, the student union of the Mishing community, is also now under the influence of these two leaders. So, the worst-affected community will be this particular tribe.”
It was during Congress’ rule in Assam that the project had started. On 16th December 2011, multiple large-scale protests were conducted primarily by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti against the project. “We blocked the roads so that no materials to build the dam could reach the construction site. People broke ferries and boats to restrict communication. But these days, we cannot conduct such protests because of the propaganda by the NHPC. The communities around the river are mostly poor, so the NHPC provided them contractual work. People were allegedly told that a ‘downstream assessment’ was conducted to make sure the flow of water is not restricted. This caused a gap between the local leaders and the community. Students were provided cycles and school bags with the name NHPC written on them. I feel various CSR and government entities also have involvement!” claimed Saikia.
In 2014, Rajnath Singh had come to Gerukamukh, the main site of the big dam. There, he had conducted a rally with Bharatiya Janata Party workers, promising people that if his party comes to power, the construction will be halted. On 24th February of the same year, Narendra Modi himself attended a campaign in Passighat where he assured the public that this big dam will be stopped. In its place, smaller riverine dams will be constructed for power generation. But when they came to power, the construction took place in full swing.
“Whenever we protested, Congress used to at least halt the activities. The party had put a stop on 16th December 2011. Nowadays with the BJP, protests do not hold any value. Whenever we take to the streets, police and the army are put into place to control us. Even during the smaller protests that we conducted during lockdown, police and the army beat us up and then detained us. The only difference between the two governments is that the BJP is far more aggressive towards protestors. No one cares about the people.”