05/11/2011 08:58 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2011

People's Power Blocks Dam Construction in Northeast India

With more than 150 dams proposed for construction and 11 projects in operation, Northeast India is one of the hotspots of global dam building. The biggest project under construction is the Lower Subansiri Dam on the border between the states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Social movements have organized massive protests against the mega-project in the Himalayan foothills over several years. In a huge success, they have just managed to send the turbines for the project back to the sender.

As the report, Mountains of Concrete, recently documented, the proposed dams in India's Northeast threaten fragile ecosystems that are rich in biodiversity, and indigenous communities that have protected these ecosystems for many generations. The dams will also have serious downstream impacts on the floodplains of the Brahmaputra in Assam and Bangladesh.

The Lower Subansiri scheme illustrates the problems of the dams in Northeast India. The 2000 MW project is being developed by NHPC, an Indian state enterprise, at a cost of approximately $2 billion. The 116 meter-high dam will submerge a 47 kilometer stretch of the Subansiri River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Its electricity would be exported from the impoverished mountain region to mainland India. The French export credit agency Coface provided $100 million in funding for the project's turbine contract. According to official data, only 38 families will be displaced if the dam is completed. Yet the project will wreak havoc on the rich ecosystems of the Subansiri and Brahmaputra floodplains.

As Neeraj Vagholikar describes in his excellent report, Damming Northeast India, the water level in the Subansiri will fluctuate 400-fold every day once the project is in operation. In winter, the dam will release a trickle of only 6 cubic meters per second for most of the day, but will gush 2,560 cubic meters per second when electricity demand is highest during the evening hours. "The project will starve and flood the dam on a daily basis," comments Vagholikar. This will greatly affect agriculture and wildlife in the floodplains and wetlands of Assam, including the Kaziranga National Park, a World Heritage Site. The high concentration of dams on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra will also create great safety risks. Yet the cumulative impacts of the dams in Northeast India have never been assessed.

The Krishnak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a farmers' rights movement in Assam, and the All Assam Students Union have mobilized against the Lower Subansiri Project and other dams for many years. In 2006, Assam's state government invited a team of experts to assess the project's downstream impacts. In June 2010, the experts recommended that the height of the dam be reduced, the safety be improved, and environmental flows be increased. In September 2010, NGO activists, including my colleague Samir Mehta, met with Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh to discuss dam building in the country's Northeast. After this meeting the minister wrote to the Indian Prime Minister asking for a moratorium on dam building in Arunachal Pradesh.

At this time, at least 40 organizations are working to stop the Lower Subansiri Dam. The grassroots movement not only relies on political lobbying, but also organizes pressure on the street. Since August 2010, it has prevented the turbines for the hydropower project, which were manufactured by the French company Alstom in India, to be delivered to the construction. The KMSS farmers movement threatened to block the transport by organizing sit-ins on the state highway.

In early May, the dam builder tried to move the turbines closer to the construction site on three barges under the covert of the night. Yet hundreds of activists of were on the alert and prevented the cargo to be unloaded in Sonitpur and the state capital of Guwahati. On May 6, the transport company gave in and announced that it would move the turbines out of the state and through Bangladesh all the way to Calcutta.

Internationally, downstream impacts of dams have gained increased public attention in recent months and years. A scientific study found in June 2010 that such impacts have affected an estimated 472 million people and some of the world's most productive ecosystems. The activists in Assam have captured the public imagination and created strong public pressure in their state. They have created a model of how downstream-affected populations can stop projects that do not respect their rights and interests.