‘ Allaying fears of big dams in the Northeast will be the litmus test for Modi’

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Avijit Majumder | 44 | Hydropower Expert
Avijit Majumder | 44 | Hydropower Expert
Photo: Ujjal Deb

Northeast India is seen as the powerhouse of the nation for its hydro and gas-based power potential. However, despite several efforts the region has not witness the desired infrastructure creation due to deadlocks including environmental clearances and opposition from the public.

Harnessing power generation potential in the Northeast would be top priority for the Narendra Modi government. Grass roots level power expert from Northeast Avijit Majumder, with over 20 years of experience in Northeast India’s power sector, in an interview to Ratnadip Choudhury explains why New Delhi faced troubles in its endeavour to build big dams in Arunachal Pradesh and how dams can be still built in the region without playing with nature.

Northeast India is seen as the powerhouse of the country, but the UPA govt could not harness the region’s potentials. In fact, dams are now seen as big trouble in this region. Who is at fault for this situation?
Dams are seen as trouble, but it should not have been the case. If you look at scientific studies, you will find that hydropower is clean. It does not cause environmental pollution but there are apprehensions in the region about the eventualities. Frankly speaking, those cannot be ruled out but should we not tap hydropower for national interests? The need of the hour is to find a solution where we build meaningful projects, where the intensions are to harness the potential keeping every aspect in mind by taking every stakeholder into confidence. This is clearly lacking. For instance, did the Centre ever ask Arunachal Pradesh government why it signed more than 160 MoUs for power project, mostly with developers who have no prior expertise in the power sector? Why were upfront premiums taken before necessary clearances were given? In the Northeast, in the name of developing power sector, middlemen, bureaucrats, contractors and policy makers make money since the projects get delayed and the costing increases and even if the project is completed, power tariff goes up. The new government first needs to break this vicious cycle.

The Centre needs to relook at how the hydropower potentials in the Northeast can be tapped. What can be the possible road map?
When the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) conducted a study on energy potential in the Northeast, they must have taken a lot of crucial aspects under consideration. I guess, the government needs to be very enterprising here. If it decides to first look at a target of 30,000 Mega Watt of power from the Northeast, it is possible. But the government will first have to identify feasible projects and allow developers with requisite experience to undertake and complete the project. What we saw in Arunachal Pradesh was that even government undertakings like the NHPC found itself in a spot. They spent crores on study and design of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project, but the project has been stalled for two years now. At the end of the day the loss is that of the nation. It is the taxpayer’s money that was used to build the dam.

Does that mean that the all fears regarding big dams are baseless?
Resistance movement against Lower Subansiri project had some valid points. I am giving this example to drive home the point that had Centre thought through the project, all these concerns could have been addressed, even while the project was in clearance stages. That could have saved time and money. Northeast India is an ecologically fragile area, so any developmental work here would need an in-depth vision.

Are to trying to say that private power developers should not be allowed to bid for projects in the Northeast? Do you feel government developers like the NHPC can finish a project in time given the red-tapism involved?
I am not against private developers. There are some very reputed private developers in our country. I am against fly-by-night operators. I have been involved in power sector in the Northeast for over 20 years. This is a complex region to work.

So how can the losses be minimised and a new approach worked out without jeopardising the ecology?
ONGC had commissioned the ambitious gas-based power generation unit at Palatana in Tripura, but it failed several times. Ideally, this should not have happened with an ONGC project. Has it been investigated, why it never took off? If you look at Turial project in Mizoram and Kameng project in Arunachal Pradesh, North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited allotted the work to the same company. Eliminating competition in the process. In Kopili, the water that is flowing into the turbines are carrying chemicals that are corroding the turbines. This is due to unregulated coal mining in Meghalaya. Now who checks this menace? The concept of upfront money is creating more doubt in the minds of people and it seems government is getting tilted towards developers, this should be done away with and the state concerned must be compensated with other development project.

Problems would be there in every sector, so how will the wheels of development roll in the Northeast?
The approach is to develop clean hydropower while minimising the adverse effect to the smallest quantum and this can only be achieved if is it done in phased manner. Projects are running late and the developers are not held accountable. Hydropower has the potential to make Northeast India financially independent but it should not be done in a rat race. Harnessing the power potentials in Northeast allying with big dam fears will be the litmus test of Modi’s maximum governance mantra.

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Special Correspondent

A young IT professional by training and a journalist by chance, Ratnadip comes from the smallest Northeastern state of Tripura and has been reporting out of Northeast India for ten years, as of 2014. An award winning Journalist, Ratnadip started his career with the Tripura Observer and went on to work with the Northeast Sun, The Northeast Today, News Live, Sahara Time and The Sunday Indian. He has also contributed to BBC, CNN, NatGeo TV, NDTV, CNN-IBN and TIMES NOW. Before joining Tehelka, Ratnadip worked with the national bureau of the television news channel NewsX. He specialises in conflict reporting and has a keen interest in India’s eastern neighbours. He has won the RedInk Excellence in Journalism Award 2013, Northeast Green Journo Award 2013, LAADLI Media awards for Gender sensitivity 2013. He is among 10 young Indian scholars selected by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on trans-boundary river issues of the subcontinent. He is based in Guwahati.

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