Manipur has become the contemporary poster child of a battle that rages on within the forests of India. Specifically this battle is waged between the forces of capital accumulation and modernity against the traditional lifeworld of indigenous communities that depend on the forests, waters and land for sustaining their ways of living. The confluence of vibrant hydrological attributes within the state and the concentration of culturally diverse ethnic communities have become a combustible situation as the major river basins of Manipur have attracted project proposals and infrastructural investments in the creation of mega-dams. These mega dam projects threaten the environment as well as the economic and cultural existence of numerous ethnic communities that have depended on these river systems for thousands of years. The focus of this article will be the 1500 MW Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric project and the Mapithel dam of the Thoubal Multipurpose Hydroelectric Projects, aggressively pursued in Manipur. Indigenous communities have protested the numerous forms of violations conducted in the pursuit of profits. These projects come in the heel of a history of mega dam projects initiated in the Indian subcontinent, intent on maximizing profits for transnational corporations.
Mega-Dam Projects in India: A History of Failed Promises for Development
India’s massive river networks have spurred dam infrastructure projects and other hydrological project throughout its history. Dams were created in pre-colonial India wherein these infrastructures were designed to harness natural water cycle systems for human productivity by storing precipitation; tapping river inundations and recovering groundwater recharge (D’Souza 2008). Under British colonialism, modern irrigation techniques were introduced which no longer relied on the seasonal variations in the Indian climate and topographical structures. This was achieved through infrastructural interventions along the rivers’ course, with water flows channeled through canal irrigations and regulated by a series of shutters. However, this had a major impact on the topographical environment as these engineering projects transformed the eastern deltas of the Indian subcontinent (Bengal, Bihar and Orissa) from flood-dependent agricultural systems into disaster vulnerable landscapes. The legacy of the colonial hydraulic regime was one of environmental degradation, economic displacement and cultural disenfranchisement.
As the Indian state gained independence in 1947, it embarked on a massive attempt at harnessing the country’s hydrologic endowments in order to power its drive towards modernization. Prior to 1947, there were 300 dams that were operating in the country. Between 1947 and 2000, this figure has ballooned to 4000 dams, half of this figure was built from 1971-1989. Currently, India ranks third in dam building all over the world, behind the United States and China (Pande, 2007). The Indian government has rationalized these attempts at dam constructions by pointing out their beneficial contribution towards flood control, water supply, hydroelectric power generation and irrigation.
Since the 1980s, dam constructions in India, particularly the mega-dam projects have come under increasing criticism from social movements and civil society actors. Protests have centered on the economic and environmental devastation caused to communities that lie along the affected sites. Since 1947, the total number of people displaced by dam projects in India has totaled to 40 million and these displaced communities have been denied meaningful resettlement or compensation (D’Souza 2008). Conflict over the appropriation of the use of water resources generated by the dams have intensified in recent years as water from dams have increasingly been diverted away from agriculture and towards urban use and industry. The consequences of mega-dam construction are evident in the two local case studies of the Mapithel Dam and the Tipaimukh Dam in the state of Manipur.
Dam Projects in Manipur: The Contradictions of Development
Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project
The 1500MW Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project is a proposed dam construction project located on the intersection of the Barak and the Tuivai Rivers in South Western corner of Manipur. The proposed height of the dam is 162.8 meters while its length is 390 meters. The original intent of the project was to contain floodwaters in the lower Barak valley but hydroelectric generation was later incorporated into the project.
The project was first proposed in 1984 but it has been subjected to numerous delays due to raging controversies regarding the implementation of the project. Some of these projects include inter-state dispute between Bangladesh and India regarding water rights. Of particular importance to this paper however is its impact on the natural environment as well as the threat of eviction of numerous indigenous communities that lie along the Barak river basin. From 2004-2008, public consultations under the controversial Environmental Impact Assessment Notifications, 1994 and subsequent amendments, regarding the construction of the dam were met by staunch opposition from local communities to be affected by the project. Yet the project received environmental clearance in 2008 from the Government of India. The colossal impact of Tipaimukh dam was reinforced in in 2013 when the Forest Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India, rejected the Forest clearance for the Tipaimukh dam Project. However, there’s continued push for the dam construction by both the Government and multinational corporations awarded contract for the project, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), primarily. The policy stance of the national government as well as the government of Manipur has put the survival and well-being of indigenous communities at risk.
Opposition to the dam centers on the massive displacement of river-based communities once the dam is completed. According to estimates from civil society organizations opposed to the project, the size of the area that will be submerged is equivalent to 30,860 hectares. This project will submerge 16 villages in the Barak River Basin and will render 40,000 indigenous people landless. Within this submergence zone, an official estimation revealed, at least 8,000,000 trees and 27,000 bamboo groves will be lost to the project. Biodiversity of the Manipur region will be severely affected since the submergence area is also home to a high concentration of endemic plants, herbs and medicinal plants, rare orchids and other flora and fauna. The affected forest area is also the habitat of an extensive array of endemic animals such as the Royal Bengal Tigers, clouded leopard, hillock gibbons, slow Loris, pig- tailed macaque, Himalayan black bear, Malayan sun bear, pangolin, Himalayan yellow throated marten, Indian rock python, crocodile, hornbill, capped hornbill, black panther among others. Indigenous communities dependent on this forest area for their social, cultural and economic well-being will be severely affected as they will be uprooted from their traditional homelands with little economic security and worse, without a sense of cultural rootedness. Food sovereignty will also be affected as some agricultural areas in the Barak river basin will also be submerged, displacing thousands of smallholder farmers dependent on agriculture. Dam construction in Manipur has had a devastating impact on food production in the state. Since the inception of the 105 MW Loktak Multipurpose Project in 1984, Manipur has been transformed from a self-sufficient food producer into a net importer of food products.
Mapithel Dam of Thoubal Multipurpose hydroelectric Project
The Mapithel Dam is one of the largest dams in the northeast part of India. It is 66-meters high and has a length of up to 1,034 meters. The dam is envisaged to irrigate up to 21,000 hectares of cultivable land, provide 10 million gallons of drinking water daily and generate power of up to 7.5MW. The proposal for the construction of the Mapithel Dam was initiated in 1978 and was approved by the Planning Commission in 1980. Construction began in 1989 despite heavy opposition from the affected villagers.
Opposition to the Mapithel Dam has spanned over three decades starting during the 1980s. The main reason driving opposition to the dam construction is the massive displacement of indigenous communities living along the Thoubal River. According to Mapithel Dam Affected Villages Organization, an organization opposed to the construction of the dam, the project will submerge six villages in the Mapithel Hill Range and Valley – Louphong, Phayang, Chadong, Ramrei, Ramrei Aze (Lamlai Khunou) and Lamlai Monbung, directly displacing an estimated 10,000 people. The Natural resources of the area will also be significantly affected as an estimated 1,000 hectares of wet paddy field and 595 hectares of forest land will be submerged. The effects are already starting to be felt by some villagers as the Indian government is forcefully commissioning the project. The construction of Mapithel, pursued with extensive militarization, lead to social division and conflict within affected indigenous communities. The dam is today a prima facie case of pursuance of undemocratic and brute forms of development injustice. In January 2015, the Irrigation and Flood Control Department of the Government of Manipur has started to block the Thoubal River in order to fill up the Mapithel Dam reservoir. This has resulted in a substantial loss of agricultural land, grazing areas and forest cover in the villages of Louphong, Chadong, Lamlai Khunnou, Riha etc. Affected villagers, who are threatened with their immediate survival, continues to resist the Mapithel Dam, insisting on the free flow of Thoubal River and to stop construction of the dam.
An enabling environment for large-scale destruction and human rights violations
The 1500MW Tipaimukh Dam project and the Mapithel Dam construction are just some of the several highly contentious dam projects that are being constructed in the state of Manipur. These infrastructural projects are examples of development aggression schemes which aim to drive indigenous communities from their ancestral domains in order to achieve the development objective of the local government of Manipur and the national state of India. The confluence of international financing and oppressive national and local policies have created an enabling environment for the large-scale destruction of indigenous communities within Manipur.
At the international level, an enabling environment for the construction of mega-dam projects has been facilitated by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. These two institutions have becomes increasingly involved in financing India’s infrastructure projects well before the adoption of neoliberal policies by the Indian government in the 1990s. In the 1980s, the World Bank provided a US$450 million dollar loan to co-finance the controversial Sardar-Sarovar dam project; however in 1994, they withdrew from the project after an independent assessment discovered that the project violated social and environmental policies of the Bank. The project has led to the displacement of 250,000 people (Bosshard, 2015).
The humiliation of the Sardar-Sarovar project led to the World Bank’s disengagement from massive hydropower projects. However, over the past few years, the World Bank has expressed its intent in pursuing dam infrastructure projects in order to address energy concernes, particularly in Africa (Bosshard, 2013). While there has been no direct funding for these two dam projects from the international financial institutions in question, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have created the support infrastructure that enables the eventual operation of these dams. An example of a project financed by the World Bank is the High Voltage Transmission Line in covering Manipur and other areas in Northeast India. An estimated twenty (20) dams in the Manipur state, including the Tipaimukh Dam, will generate power for this transmission line. The World Bank also commissioned a study detailing the hydropower potential of India’s northeast regions and stressed the need to harness these resources to address the energy needs of India (Rao, 2006). The report emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships in order to effectively exploit the hydropower resources of the region.
At the state level, the antiquated Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has served as the basis of the government for expropriating communal lands from indigenous communities in order to advance infrastructural development. This act, coupled with the Manipur Land Registration and Reforms act of 1960 help facilitate the transfer of land to corporate entities by arguing that the land under question belongs to the state by virtue of “eminent domain”. These laws subsume the right of indigenous communities to charter their own paths toward sustainable development under the banner of “national” development which only prioritizes the interests of the elites.
In order to squash public resistance, state officials utilize antiquated laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958. This law facilitates massive militarization in these areas targeted for development by granting soldiers the power to arrest suspected lawless elements without warrants and to fire those suspected of violating the law, even if it causes death. Furthermore, this law grants soldiers legal immunity, leading to a culture of immunity in affected areas. In areas affected by the Mapithel Dam construction, this law has been used as the basis for the torture and extrajudicial executions of individuals opposed to the construction of the dam. (Vasundhara, 2011). One incident of human rights violations that occurred during the course of the opposition to the dam occurred on November 3, 2008 when more than forty (40) protesters, all women, were tortured by members of the Indian Reserve Battalion and the Manipur Police. Another episode was the brutal dispersal of protesters demanding just compensation for villagers displaced by the Khuga Dam, also in Manipur wherein 3 people were killed while 25 were injured when they were shot upon by a combined team of Indian paramilitary forces, the Border Security Forces and the Indian Reserve Battalion. These incidents underscore how democratic forms of opposition to development aggression are brutally disregarded by the state apparatus in order to protect their investments.
In addition to the repressive mechanism of the military and paramilitary forces, the national and local states bend the regulations and laws in order to facilitate the construction of these mega dams. This is primarily accomplished through ignoring the protocol set by the United Nations regarding expropriation of indigenous peoples’ lands through the acquisition of free, prior and informed consent from affected communities. Villagers and communities affected by the Mapithel Dam and the Tipaimukh Dam projects assert that despite the outright opposition displayed in the various consultations held by the state agencies, these projects still continued. This shows that the Indian government violated the norms set by the United Nations regarding the acquisition of free, prior and informed consent.
As part of the international solidarity network, we can support the anti-dam struggle in Manipur by propagating the struggles of the people of Manipur at an international level. We can do this through various social media campaigns that publicize their struggle and at the same time, mounting diplomatic pressure against the Indian government by barraging the Indian embassies with diplomatic appeals aimed at desisting from the implementation of the project. We can also directly contribute to the struggles of the people of Manipur through building the capacities of these local organizations in mounting campaigns as well as in financial contributions to their cause. Lastly, we can aid their struggle through building an international coalition linking the indigenous peoples of Manipur with other communities and regions that are facing similar struggles against dam infrastructure projects and in advancing their self-determined development.