About the Author - Dr. Sanjib Baruah
Dr. Sanjib Baruah is currently professor of political science at Bard College in New York, United States.
His articles on the Lower Subansiri Mega Dam projects is an ey opener of not only for the authorities constructing the project and also for the common people of North-East India.
He is the author of many books like "India against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality", "Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India", etc.
A major focus of the debate on dams has been the safety of large dams in earthquake prone Northeast India. By comparison, much less attention has been paid to a particular feature of these dams: that they are almost all designed solely to generate electricity.
Most of the dams under construction in Arunachal Pradesh - or, in various stages of planning--are quite different from an earlier generation of "multipurpose" river valley projects that had irrigation and flood control as well as electricity generation, among their goals. Indeed initially dams on the Subansiri were designed with flood control as the main goal. Only after the project was turned over to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, Lower Subansiri became a single-purpose "power-only" dam.
Unlike multipurpose projects where the resources generated by hydropower are used to fund public goods like irrigation, flood control or navigation, in single purpose hydropower dams there is little effort to balancing the conflicting interest at stake, and to making development equitable.
The economics favoring investments in hydropower dams are relatively straight forward. The fuel driving hydropower dams is moving water. When the rules are defined in a particular way a river can be a "free" resource. Hydropower dams require huge initial investments. But once they are built, their operational costs are minimal, unlike say, thermal power plants that use coal, oil or natural gas as fuel. In India, very small "host states" can get very large royalties from the sale of hydropower, which creates a particularly distorted incentive structure to favor single-purpose dams.
It may be useful to compare this with the very different economics of hydropower dams in some developed countries. By and large, developed countries at present are not investing in large-scale hydropower like India or China. There are two reasons. First, today’s developed countries had built some of the earliest hydropower plants in the world. The first hydropower plant in the US -- at the Niagara Falls - for instance, was built in 1879. The best sites available for hydropower plants in these countries were taken up long time ago. By contrast, even though the hydropower potential of the Himalayan rivers has been known, it was not possible to build hydropower dams in remote Arunachal Pradesh till quite recently.
But there is a second reason for the difference. Thanks to the changes in social attitudes towards the environment, the economics of hydropower dams have changed in developed countries.
This is especially clear in the US where hydropower dams need licensing from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The licenses are usually valid for fifty years. When licenses expire, hydropower dams need re-licensing. Hundreds of dams were licensed during the first part of the last century. At that time the environment was not a major public concern. But they have come up for relicensing after the environmental movement had significantly influenced the legal regime governing hydropower generation.
Take for example the Clean Water Act of 1972 which aims to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters.That has to affect the economics of hydropower dams.
The FERC’s licensing requirements for hydropower dams now include conditions that relate to various non-power uses of rivers such as water supply, irrigation and flood control, as well as the requirements of fish and wildlife preservation, river recreation, environmental quality, and energy conservation. The hydropower industry complains from time to time that these conditions have made hydropower plants unprofitable. But courts have rarely favored such arguments. As a result, owners of hydropower plants, writes environmental lawyer Sarah C Richardson, who may have thought their largest costs had long since been paid off, now face new costs of upgrading or building fishways, installing turbine screens to deflect fish, or reducing generation in order to maintain streamflow requirements Thanks to these demands, hydropower in the US has lost the competitive advantage vis-à-vis other energy sources. Indeed a number of hydropower dams has been dismantled because of that.
The lessons of the changing economics of hydropower dams are profound. One reason they are not more apparent is perhaps the misleading term "environment". It is easy to say that rich countries can afford environmental regulations that poor countries cannot. But what are environmental issues in the US, are in a place like Assam matters that concern the livelihood and food security of thousands of poor people.
Dams change the flow regime of rivers. No one argues that it does not affect water quality, or that it does not impact the other users of those rivers. In Northeast India where fish is central to the people’s diet and a major source of the caloric intake of poor people -- the impact on fish is particularly important. Dams obstruct fish passage, and it dramatically impacts the life cycle of many migratory fish species. 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. The blocking of sediment-borne nutrients are bound to impact downstream agriculture. A minute’s reflection on the Assamese word ‘polox’ would make this rather obvious.
The gains and losses from large hydropower dams in Arunachal Pradesh are likely to be distributed very unevenly. The bulk of the benefits of electricity will go to relatively well-to-do people who live very far away. The host state will be compensated handsomely with royalties from hydropower sales, and some of the people displaced in a physical sense in the immediate project area will be compensated and rehabilitated. But a large share of the socioeconomic costs will be borne disproportionately by thousands of poor people who depend on small-scale fishing and subsistence agriculture in a very large region -- well beyond the area covered by the so-called environmental impact assessment reports.