By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan
In the last few weeks, the controversy over Tipaimukh Hydro electric project planned in northern Manipur has suddenly attained the centre stage in the current surcharged political atmosphere in Bangladesh.
The opposition led by BNP which is seen to be desperate to create a “Tahrir Type of Revolution” to change the regime ( though no such condition exists), has suddenly discovered the utility of this controversy to embarrass the government in its ongoing programme against the government.
True to style, the opposition leader shot off a letter to Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh that India should not proceed with the project without a joint survey and “discussions.” The Indian Prime Minister had once again, as he had done before given her the assurance that nothing will be done that would harm the interests of Bangladesh, that it would be a power project purely for power and control of floods and that it would not involve a diversion of water for irrigation. The reaction of Begum Khalida is not known.
On the 22nd of November, the BD Government has also formally asked for the full details of the project once again as media reports indicated that an investment agreement had formally been entered into on 22nd October this year between NHPC Ltd. of India, the Manipur State Government and the SJVN Ltd. (Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd.).
It is not clear why the Government of India could not have conveyed the details suo motu formally and well in advance, instead of waiting to be forced by Bangladesh for seeking details. The impression created here in Dhaka is that the friendly regime of Bangladesh is being “goaded” by the opposition to get the details!
The project- Tipaimukh is located on the border of Kolashib District of Mizoram and Churachandpur District of Manipur where the Tipai river ( Tuivai) joins the Barak river. The river travels another 180 Km in Assam before it enters Bangladesh.
The project is likely to submerge 90 villages and 290 Sq. Km of land in Manipur and Mizoram. The dam located at a height of 180 metres from sea level will be 390 metres long and 162.8 metres high. Expected production of power is said to be 1500 Megawatts.
Environmental clearance was given in 2008 after full and detailed investigation of the impact of the project and there has been no serious objection either from Mizoram and Manipur though a large number of villages in both states were going to be submerged.
It is to be noted that the project was originally envisaged only for flood protection downstream and irrigation and in this connection a barrage was also to be built at Fulertal in Cachar district of Assam. The idea of the barrage has been given up and instead the dam is being designed for getting maximum power. More important, the entire water will be allowed to go unhindered downstream as of now. This aspect is being rarely mentioned in the Bangladesh media.
It is said that a delegation from Bangladesh did visit the site two years ago and returned satisfied with the environmental impact of the project on the Bangladesh side too.
Objections seen from Non Governmental Sources in Bangladesh:
The main objections from non governmental sources can be listed. The list is not complete as some are only political statements and some are generalities that need not be considered. The important ones are
1. River Barak with Surma and Kushiyara are International Rivers and there should be an equitable share of water among the basin states.
2. Article 9 of the Ganges Water sharing treaty of 1996 imposes a duty on both India and Bangladesh that no harm is done to each other in the matter of sharing of waters.
3. A study of the Bangladesh Institute of Modelling in 2005 said that Tipaimukh will have adverse effects both short term and long term on the river system and the environment.
4. A dam upstream will have an adverse effect on the riverine habitat and the species.
5. The free flowing Surma and Kushiyara will run dry during the major part of the year – that is from November- May.
6. The dam is being constructed not only in an earthquake prone region (seismically volatile), but also in a fragile topographic and ecological setting. The recent earthquake in September in the Himalayan region in the scale of 6.3 in Richter is being cited as a warning to those planning dams in this region.
Bangladesh Government’s Position:
The position of the Bangladesh Government on the Tipaimukh dam has been eloquently projected by Adviser Dr. Gowher Rizvi in the “Daily Star” of December 13, 2011.
He had reiterated the official non-negotiable core position in four points namely-
1. There should be no diminution in the flow of waters in Surma and Kushiyara rivers.
2. There should be no adverse environmental or ecological impact.
3. No aggravation of the floods during the monsoon
4. Most important of all- there should no diversion of water from Barak River.
Concerns of Bangladesh Should be Addressed:
Given the good relations that exist between India and Bangladesh and given the attempts by certain groups to politicise the whole issue and deteriorating into “demagogy and stridency” and given the situation where anti social elements are being used to whip up frenzy particularly in the Sylhet region, it is important for India not only meet these concerns sincerely, but seen to be doing so.
It is not an issue that the Barak river along with Surma and Kushiyara is an international river and therefore theHelsinki rules should apply. But it is important that the lower riparian in this case Bangladesh is fully taken into the picture and its concerns addressed to mutual satisfaction.
There is no doubt that hydro power has played a vital role in meeting the demands of energy and in transforming the economy and landscape in the South Asian region. It continues to be the low cost alternative source of energy and it is still possible to maximise the benefits without compromising on environmental degradation. Examples of such a balance are many in this region.
Power to the unfortunate distant (geographically) States like Manipur and Mizoram is vital for their economic development. The two States Nagaland and Assam who should have protested more of their concerns seem to have been satisfied with the environmental impact of the project. The environmental clearance given in 2008 appears to have been done after full consultation with the two states and the Bangladesh government should have been kept in the picture.
Environmental concerns of Bangladesh could still be addressed if it had not been done already and conveyed to them. What appears to me is that many officials(we have a good term for it- the “hydrocrats”) and analysts in Bangladesh are fixated on the Farakka experience and fear a repetition of the same approach by India. Times have changed and another Farakka can certainly be ruled out.
There is no doubt that the dam at Tipaimukh will check the flood flow in Kushiyara and Surma valleys though the monsoon floods cannot be stopped. The storage of water in the dam will augment low flows of the river during the months of autumn, winter and spring to keep the ‘haors’ under water till February. The article on the project seen in the Daily Star of December 20, 2011 by M. Inamul Haque gives a clear and an objective analysis of the project. Mr. Haque is the chairman of Institute of Water and Environment of Bangladesh.
The study made by the Bangladesh Institute of modelling made in 2005 could still be revisited and examined. There are similar institutes like the one in Pune and other places in India who specialise in modelling techniques. If need be, some real experts could visit the area and given access to the data particularly by those who gave environmental clearance to the project in 2008.
Much is being made of the location of the dam in a tectonically unsafe region where geo tectonic movements are triggered when the Indian, Eurasian and Myanmar plates meet. If we go by this argument, no project can be located in this entire region! Repeated ravages caused by the Himalayan rivers during the flood seasons in spite of the projects now in existence are well known. What is required are more projects to regulate the waters particularly during the flood season and use such projects for the economic development of the region.
It is also important to remember that there are 15 major projects, most of them completed and running safely in the Himalayan region. The recent earthquake in the Himalayan foothills quoted in Bangladesh press has not had any adverse effect on the projects either.
It is the same analysts who are seen to be reviving the demand being made since the eighties to have large dams in the Himalayas in Nepal to control the floods in Bangladesh! One can imagine the devastation not only in Nepal but also in India and Bangladesh that with so many “heavy weight” projects, if one would collapse!
As has been mentioned by Dr. Gowher, what is required in Bangladesh is to depoliticise the issue and get away from partisan rhetoric and emotional hyperbole.
It also behooves on India, that given the current extremely good relations that exist between the two countries and given the feeling in Dhaka rightly or wrongly that India is not reciprocating the goodwill, the concerns and the national interests of Bangladesh should not only be adequately addressed but done in a more transparent manner in the months to come.