What does it mean when landscapes, riverscapes, ways of life are altered forever? When a mighty, flowing river is plugged and made to stop, flow in tunnel and released as per our whims? For most of us, life and environment are so fundamentally modified that we would hardly question it. But as our worldview and our politics is set to dam some of the last free flowing rivers in the North East India into Hydro-Electricity Banks, what is at stake?
In an otherwise dammed country, rivers of the North East are our last free flowing frontier. The mighty Siang, Dibang and Lohit which join to form the Brahmaputra have flown unbridled here. Western parts of Arunachal Pradesh and eastern parts of Assam: The Upper Assam is a magical transition ecosystem, where mountain rivers metamorphose and change their form. It is here that rivers, held together in the tight embrace of mountains, suddenly find themselves free to widen, meander, deposit their load of silt and take leisurely curves. Like all transition ecosystems, these places are remarkably rich in biodiversity, providing habitat to Tigers and Elephants and Bears and a vast array of specialist birds like Bengal Florican. The floodplains hold invaluable cultural, social and economic importance to tribes like Idu Mishmis, Adis and Tai Khamtis in Arunachal.
It is exactly here, at this transition zone and upstream from here, that mega hydropower dam cascades are planned in Arunachal. If the dam cascades and the terminal dams at these floodplains come into being, the ecosystem will be changed and destroyed irreversibly. While we have engaged with the flawed and problematic environment clearance processes of these projects and continue to do so, this piece is simply an account of the such transition zones of Dibang, Lohit and Siang, based on my recent visit.
Dibang at Nizamghat
The mighty Dibang River (which almost entirely lies within India) originates near the Tibetan Plateau, widens and enters its vast floodplain at Nizamghat in Lower Dibang Valley District of Arunachal Pradesh. The name ‘Nizam’Ghat is perplexing and is a possibly based on “Needham”. J. F. Needham was a British Officer of the Bengal Police who led action against Adi Tribals who opposed the establishment of Military outpost at Mijom Ghat (as Nizamghat was then called), circa 1857. The Adis had thwarted attempts to set up an outpost (to keep a close watch on Adi Territory) here in an uprising. In 1894, Adis again defeated a strong and equipped British base camp, which was set up with the sole aim to teach the independent Adis a lesson. But Adis were unvanquished, even in the face of a technologically advanced enemy.
Road to Nizamghat we took was actually through the river bed…. river bed strewn with rounded, polished pebbles. On our left, mauve and feathery sea of Kash Flowers (Saccharum sp) flowed till the horizon. Growing more than 3 meters tall, they made a veritable ocean of purple plumes… a heaven for grassland species and birds. On our right, glory Kash was interrupted by a steep mountain with white Bauhinia trees in bloom. Call of Hoolock Gibbons punctuated the stillness of the landscape. We are staying in a small hotel amidst an Orange grove, which looked down at the floodplain of Dibang. Here too, I was awakened by a frolicking flock of Hoolock Gibbons, perched high up on tree tops next to our hut.
As we neared Nizamghat, the pebbly path expanded. I looked out in disbelief. For kilometers ahead of us, the landscape was pebbles. Grey, Blue, White, jet Black pebbles in all sizes. I still wonder how did Prashanto, our guide and driver, maneuver the car. Sense of direction came only through short wooden staffs driven in the river bed. And suddenly, the scene before us parted. The pebbly shore, was but a prelude to the river. The mighty Dibang. We were finally at Nizamghat and Dibang flowed in a steep, crisp channel ahead of us. Just upstream, there was a huge fan-shaped deposit where the river, hurrying through the mountains had deposited her load of pebbles and rocks. On the opposite bank was a magnificent vista of mountain that had succumbed many years ago to a violent landslide. From here on, Dibang’s path become multifarious, crisscrossing a huge flood plain, finally to meet Lohit River some 50 kms downstream, and then the Siang near the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.
We took a while to take all this in. I had come from a state with dry river beds… which was through its third drought of last four years, with some of the most polluted rivers in the country. The sheer scale and jewel-like aquamarine of Dibang was incomprehensible.
Only sign of human intervention was the lone boat tied to a staff and a solitary tent of bright blue plastic sheets next to the river. Here live 2 fishermen from Bihar who fished in Nizamghat for four months. As to why they came here, of all places was one one of those questions which does not have an answer. They just shrug and look around. “We came here”.
On the other bank, a lone elephant, dwarfed ludicrously against the landscape, was ambling slowly with his load… officials of the proposed 3000 MW Dibang Dam going to the dam site 10-12 kms from here, I was told by the fisher-folk.
At that moment, the suggestion that all this is about to change… can be changed seemed superfluous… preposterous even.
“Yahan sacchi dam hoga?” Prashanto asked no one in particular. Not one, about 12 dams are planned upstream from Nizamghat. The biggest hydropower dams in the country. List includes 3000 MW Dibang Multipurpose Project of NHPC and the 3097 MW Etalin HEP of Jindal Power Limited. Dibang Dam has received Environmental and Forest Clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, both in a dubious manner. The dam will submerge nearly 5000 hectares of prime forests and the flowing river will be converted into a reservoir 43 kms long. Building material for the dam will be procured from the deposits of Nizamghat… the pebbly bank may not be here for too long. In the winters, or “Lean Season” when water levels are low, the dam will hold back water for half the day, releasing it in a gush to generate electricity during high demand hours, twice a day, leading to artificial drought and artificial flood in the downstream, twice in one single day. This is called peaking releases. The dam site is approximate 13 kms upstream of Nizamghat and everyday, at Nizamghat, water levels will rise and fall by 10 feet in the lean season.
Environmental Clearance of the 3097 MW Etalin Project hangs in balance in the absence of a Cumulative Impact Assessment Study of Dibang Basin Projects. Upstream projects will mean more forest loss and more sharp water level changes at downstream Nizamghat.
The identity of this floodplain, moulded and created due to flows from Dibang will change irreversibly, as will that of the downstream river and banks, its diversity… fish, floodplains, animals like Tigers who cross the floodplains corridors in their old remembered ways.
It is nearing dusk. The pebble bed and dark waters are flecked with gold and rust. We have a long journey ahead of us through the ocean of Kash flowers. We take one last look at the river and mountains around us and turn to leave. Who knows what a next visit will have in store.
Tribals of Arunachal Pradesh have valiantly saved the Nizamghat from occupation in the past… as I return some optimistic dreams are taking shape…
Parineeta Dandekar firstname.lastname@example.org (All pictures by Author)