The strength of the protest against the construction of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) Ltd’s 2000MW Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project (LSHEP), which is under construction at Gerukamukh on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border, reached such a height today that it could halt the entire construction works of the project for over a year. In December 2011; the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad(AJYCP), Takam Mising Porin Kebang (TMPK) and few other organizations jointly launched an NHPC’s construction materials blockade programme at Pahumara near Ranganadi bridge in North Lakhimpur district and turned the movement violent immediately after the pre dawn crackdown of December 16,2011, in which the security forces brutally attacked the anti-dam agitators participating in the blockade programme. The flames of this incident spread immediately to other parts of the district such as Ghagornagar, Thekeraguri, Chauldhuwa etc. On the next day of this incident, to protest against this brutal police attack, people came out in thousands to NH-52 to block the road and engaged in scuffle with the police at Ghagar, Chauldhuwa and Thekeraguri near the Subansiri river. The protesters even smashed glasses of hundreds of vehicles plying through the road during the road blockade by pelting stones. The violence occurred continually as the administration tried to send materials to the project site forcefully. On January 13, 2011, the police vainly resorted to blank fire, rubber bullets and cane charges to disperse the protesters, who completely blocked the NH-52 by burning fire, slashing trees and scattering pebbles on the road at Thekeraguri. A tanker, which was carrying fuel to the project site of the LSHEP amidst tight security, was set on fire on May 11, 2011 at Thekeraguri by the agitators. In this case more than 20 persons were sent to jail for 54 days. After this incident, the security personnel evacuated a camp of the anti-dam activists at Ghagor from where they monitored and blocked NHPC’s construction materials. The NHPC’s construction materials blockade programme, which continued till May, 2011 compelled the NHPC Ltd to stop all kinds of construction activities of the project from mid-December 2011. To restart the halted construction, the Assam government deployed more than 400 additional Assam Police Battalion (APBn) personnel in the district of Dhemaji and Lakhimpur, particularly between Gogamukh of Dhemaji and Boginadi of Lakhimpur district. But in the latter half of the March, the government upgraded the security replacing the APBn personnel with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). To describe the situation, the leading anti-dam activist Akhil Gogoi said , “two districts of upper Assam are militarized”. From the beginning: The movement took almost a decade to strike this stage. In 2000, the Brahmaputra Board, which initially started the project’s work in the early 80’s with a multi-purpose scheme, handed over the project to NHPC Ltd. During the initial period, people of the adjacent localities did not know about the negative impacts of the project. Various organizations including AASU demanded local employment, allotment of contractual works to the locals in the project. But seeing the discrimination in jobs and contract works allotments to the locals, on 2nd February, 2003, Takam Mising Porin Kebang (TMPK), the students’ organisation of the riverine Mising community formed an organisation, Subansiri Valley Indigenous Peoples Forum (SVIPF), to protest NHPC’s anti-local stand. With their demands, the SVIPF submitted memorandum to the NHPC authority in 2003, and organised awareness meetings at various places including Majuli, Dhakuakhana, Gogamukh, Maharicamp etc. Paramananda Chayengia, the president of Mising Bane Kebang (MBK), and the Secretary of the then SVIPF informed that in those days, the dam was a very new concept to the people of this area and nobody took the matter seriously. He told, ”Gradually the SVIPF came into contact with some of the experts and organisations and we came to know about the social and environmental costs of a dam project and started to raise voice against the LSHEP.” Later the SVIPF, realised the contradictory views in the forum and dismissed it, admitted Chayengia. After the dismissal of the SVIPF, TMPK started a fresh movement against the construction of the project and joined AASU and KMSS in2003 and 2005 respectively. It would be noteworthy to mention that a group of youths; Pabitra Handique, Basanta Borah and Binay Krishna Tamuli Phukan published a 12-paged fortnightly tabloid ‘Pakhekia-Amar Sangbad’ from Gogamukh in Dhemaji district from June 21, 2003. This publication, continued for three years, carried out enormous stories on environmental issues and highlighted the downstream impacts of the LSHEP. Pabitra Handique, who was the chief editor of the tabloid told, ”We realised it much earlier and therefore in each issues we carried minimum one story. Our editor Basanta Borah wrote a series of articles on it”. ”Expecting a peoples’ movement with this tabloid, we started a campaign against the project”, Pabitra Handique added. Local people still believe, it had immense contribution in shaping the today’s movement.
(The Subansiri river)
Though the Peoples’ Movement for Subansiri Valley (PMSV), presently known as Peoples’ Movement for Subansiri-Brahmaputra Valley (PMSBV) was formally formed on February 18, 2004, its members started their activities much earlier. Delineating the history of his organisation, the PMSBV’s Secretary Keshoba Krishna Chatradhara told, ”Till 2003, there was not even a single organisation in the downstream areas of the project who directly opposed the project. We heard about the SVIPF and the AASU but instead of opposing the project, they asked the NHPC to fulfill some of their demands. They basically demanded local employment. In that situation, after acutely studying the various aspects of hydroelectric projects, few youths started a network covering various levels against the LSHEP in 2003. This group formed a network through internet with the anti-dam groups of other places who also supplied few of the study materials. At that time, the writer of this case study took all the initiatives. Immediate to its inception, the members of the PMSBV started a campaign in the downstream areas of the project. In 2004, the PMSBV distributed thousands of awareness leaflets in the local language and stuck posters and banners in the populated public places. In that period, the PMSBV confronted several problems from the pro dam lobby as they were the local contractors in the project. They tore the banners and posters and tried to intimidate the members of the group. But the unstoppable PMSBV made a target to organise village level awareness meetings in all the 202 villages under the Bordoloni Development Block in that year. They became partially successful in this mission. By this time, the Subansiri Sanrakshak Naari Santha (SSNS), a women organisation formed by a group of women of Halakhbari village near Gerukamukh joined the PMSBV and participated in each and every activities of the PMSBV. ”After seeing the catastrophic Tsunami in the television, which occurred on 26 December, 2004, we realised that if the dam of LSHEP under construction bursts, a similar kind of situation will occur in the entire downstream of the project,” told Kalpana Hazarika, the founder president of the SSNS. She also informed that to realize the ground realities, a group of women visited the project site and this led them to form the SSNS. A day before its first public rally at Maharicamp, the Gogamukh police seized a mike and a vehicle which were used for an announcement about the rally. Despite the police intervention and intimidation, the SSNS organized its first rally at Maharicamp where the PMSBV also participated actively. From this incident, the joint journey of both the organizations started. Besides other activities, both the organizations have been jointly observing the International Women’s Day and International Day of Action for Rivers since 2005. In 2005, International Women’s Day was celebrated at a school premise. In 2005, both the organizations organized a week-long workshop on the impacts of the LSHEP at Halakhbari: starting on March 8 with the celebration of the International Women’s Day and ended with the celebration of the International Day of Action for Rivers on March 14 at Dirpai on the bank of the river Subansiri. As an activity of the Day, the PMSBV, SSNS and several other organizations sent a memorandum to the highest authority of the LICI stating not to fund the NHPC. The year of 2005 was a very important year for the PMSBV and the entire anti-dam movement in Assam. Akhil Gogoi, now the secretary of the KMSS first participated in an anti-dam meeting organized by the PMSBV at Gogamukh Nagar High School in that year. Later, on September 7, 2005, Akhil Gogoi addressed a huge rally organized by PMSBV at Mising Kristi Bhawan presided by Oi Appon Gonesh Pegu. Perhaps, this was the first big rally against the LSHEP where more than five thousand people had participated. In a decision of the organizers and all the participants in that rally, shouting slogans against the NHPC and the government, marched towards the Gogamukh Circle Office to send a memorandum to the Chief Minister of Assam through the circle officer. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has a long history of conflict with the LSHEP. In the early years of the last decade, AASU claimed that the implementation of the project was an outcome of the Assam Accord. But from 2003, AASU’s movement started with its threefold gradation of basic demands: 1) Ensure the security to the lives, livelihood and properties of the people of the downstream area 2) 100 percent local employment, and 3) Review of the public hearing. Stating these demands, Dhemaji district unit of AASU sent a memorandum to the Chief Managing Director (CMD) of the NHPC on October 11, 2003. A series of memoranda were sent to the concerned authorities; both to the government and the NHPC. The All Dhemaji District Students’ Union also took part in a series of talks with the NHPC and the government. But the result was void of any outcome. The year 2006 was full of the ADDSU’s agitations, such as sitting in demonstrations, hunger strikes, road blockade etc. On Decemder 2, 2006, the ADDSU declared a 100-hour NHPC bandh programme and the ADDSU activists entered the project site and halted the construction works round the clock during the bandh. This compelled the government to call AASU for a tripartite talk between the AASU, NHPC and the Assam government. The talk was held on December 8, 2006 at Dispur under the chairmanship of Assam’s Power Minister Pradyut Bordoloi. According to a recommendation of this sitting, an experts’ panel, comprising eight experts from the Gauhati University, Dibrugarh University and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati, was constituted to study the downstream impacts of the Lower Subansiri Project. Demanding the execution of the recommendations suggested in the tripartite talk, the ADDSU again took a series of agitation programmes in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The experts’ panel first released its interim report on February 10, 2009, and stated that the building of large dams were hazardous in the Himalayan foothills. The ADDSU demanded to halt the construction of the main dam’s work until the final report comes out. After the submission of the final report by the experts’ panel on June 26, 2010, the AASU went for another round of agitations and demanded the implementation of the experts’ panel’s recommendations. From December 2, 2009, the AASU and the TMPK jointly called for a 100- hour fuel products blockade to the NHPC’s project. In the remaining 15 hours to the end of the programme, the police and paramilitary forces barbarously attacked the protesters at Gogamukh. To protest against this atrocity, both the organisations called a 12-hour Dhemaji district bandh on December 6, which affected the normal life in the district. Again the AASU and the TMPK jointly organised a massive rally at Dirpai near Gerukamukh on December 21, 2009, where more than 20000 people participated. All the top leaders of both the organisations participated in the rally including Sammujjal Bhattacharjee, Tapan Kumar Gogoi, Sankar Prasad Rai, Johan Doley and Inder Chungkrang. At the end of the rally, all of the protesters marched to the project site and submitted a memorandum to the NHPC. These two organisations started a 100-hour long programme of construction materials blockade to LSHEP on 6 July, 2010. By this way, AASU has been continuing its agitation against the project. The Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) is another major students’ organization of Assam that came to the scenario in 2008. That AJYCP’s Dhemaji district unit first participated in the ‘International Day of Action for Rivers’ organized by PMSBV at Jonki Panei Kshetra, a small island of the Subansiri. In 2009, the AJYCP formed a conglomeration of 32 anti-dam organizations called ‘Alliance against Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project’. Kiran Ban Deori, the president of this Alliance told that this Alliance’s major activities were public meetings, bike rally, distribution of awareness leaflets etc. He admitted that the conglomeration could not last long for ideological differences. The AJYCP’s General Secretary, Manoj Baruah took the matter very seriously and for the past several months his organisation has been demanding a cumulative downstream impact study of all the hydroelectric projects which were coming up in the Arunachal Pradesh. The Guwahati based vernacular newspapers also played a very crucial role in the entire anti-dam movement. Since 2003, these newspapers have been continuously unfolding the negative impacts of the LSHEP and the anomalies done by the NHPC during the construction. The vivid descriptions of these newspapers successfully motivated the downstream people for a movement. Involvement of the Political Parties: All the major political parties of Assam excluding the ruling Congress stood against the construction of the dam. The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) convened a two-day workshop at Guwahati on January 21 and 22, 2010 and invited environmentalists and anti-dam activists to the workshop to learn the issue properly and elaborately. Following this workshop, on September 3, 2009, the party organized a massive rally of around 15 thousand people at Pachani Camp, just five kilometres away from the project. In the rally, all the top brasses of the party including former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Party President Chandra Mohan Patowary, Kumar Dipak Das, Dr Arun Kumar Sarmah, Dilip Saikia, Birendra Prasad Baishya, Joseph Toppo, Atul Borah etc attended the rally and urged the people to come out to prevent the construction of the dam. The representatives of the party have been raising the issue in the Parliament and state Assembly. Similarly, on eve of the last assembly election in Assam, on November 17, 2010, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also organised a rally of about ten thousand people at Pachani Camp. Addressing the rally the former President of the party, Rajnath Singh told about the devastations of large hydroelectric projects and urged the government to go for a multi-purpose mini and micro hydel projects on the Subansiri. Opposing the LSHEP, the CPI (M) has also been taking some agitational programmes across the state. He also proposed a water treaty between China and India. In the 80’s and 90’s, the people of Lakhimpur and Dhemaji believed that the construction of the dam over the river would bring a drastic change to the economy of the area. They believed that the project would carry numerous scopes for employment generation. Tulsi Saikia, the first chief Secretary of the ‘Subansiri Dam Demand Committee (SDDC), formed in 1987, told, ” After forming the SDDC, we met the then Prime Minister V P Singh and most of his cabinet ministers and the members of the planning commission in Delhi and other places in the 80’s and 90’s and demanded the Subansiri multi-purpose dam. But the NHPC changed the Brahmaputra Board’s multi-purpose scheme.” ”We never expected such a project which could bring untold miseries to the downstream people”, he reiterated. Nanda Kishore Maheswari, who was the president of the SDDC also told, “We demanded a multi-purpose dam over the river and hoped it would generate local employment and boost the economy of the region but when the entire project work was handed over to NHPC Ltd, they abandoned the original plan and mooted to tap 2000 MW of electricity by constructing a 116 m high rock-fill dam over the river at Gerukamukh.” Maheswari also added that he would never support the project in the current form. The people like Tulsi Saikia, Mukhyanath Patir, Mahendra Borgohain, Mohan Doley etc of Gogamukh who associated with the SDDC started to take a U-turn since 2000, and began to protest the dam directly or indirectly. In the public hearing of the project, which was held in 2001, few local people opposed the project arguing its negative impacts but it was not brought into consideration. The anti-dam agitators believe that the project has immense social and environmental costs. Once the project is constructed, it would bring untold miseries to the people living in the downstream areas of the project.