Losing the best cropland to dams

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LAND IS at a premium beyond the Assam plains in the Northeast where two-thirds of the area is made up of hills and mountains. With less than 3 percent cropland, Arunachal Pradesh is India’s most sparsely cultivated state. of the few patches of fertile alluvial fields, the most priceless are the lower banks of the Siang river that becomes the Brahmaputra after being joined by Lohit and Dibang downstream.

So imagine the shock of the villagers when they were told that the 2,700 MW lower Siang hydroelectricity project will drown 51.51 sq km, including those prized paddy fields. Ironically, as India proposes to build more than 150 dams in Arunachal Pradesh, one of the touted USPs of these projects is their relatively small socio-economic impact. the state’s population density of 17 per sq km is the lowest in the country and very few people would be displaced by the submergence caused by dam reservoirs.

On the ground, however, it will cause significant damage to livelihood and food security. Vijay Taram, convenor of Pasighat-based Forum for Siang Dialogue, explains their predicament: “It is wrong to argue that we have so much land and only a small fraction of it will go under water. You have to realise that the land we will lose is the very fraction where permanent cultivation is possible. Almost the entire stretch where we do riverbank agriculture will be drowned by this project.”

A few miles from Pasighat, one needs to take a hanging bamboo bridge to cross a roaring Siang and continue on a goat trail for half an hour to reach Pongging, a village of around 50 families belonging to the Adi tribe. Ote Panyang, one of the headmen, surveys the fertile cropland that stretches all the way down to the river. “All these fields and our entire village will be gone. even some of those forests where our yaks graze will be submerged,” he points uphill to indicate how far the water will rise.

Kangong Taying owns six hectares of Pongging’s prime land and is angry: “Be it education or medical care, be it day or night, we need to walk all the way across the river to the road for everything. We never complain because we belong to this fertile land by the river. Now they want us to take their money and move. Why don’t they realise that nowhere else in this state can money buy us such land?”

Arunachali tribes living by other major rivers of the state share the predicament. Tone Mikrow belongs to the Idu-Mishimi tribe and spearheads the anti-dam movement in Roing. “Much of our good land is occupied by government and security establishments. Further loss of plain land to dams will leave nothing for farming and shrink the jhum cycles,” he says.

Traditionally, jhum (shifting) cultivation on hill steps follows a 5-8 year cycle (the length of the fallow period between two cropping phases) to allow the soil to regain its vigour. loss of agricultural land will shorten this cycle to 2-3 years, leading to erosion, and also clearing of new forest areas.

In Siang valley, however, the anti-dam resistance is in no mood to budge. since the affected villagers clashed with police last year, the state has been on the back foot. But Taying knows that the worst may not be over. “our land should not be snatched away just because we are a peaceful lot. Nobody is too far away from guns in the Northeast.”

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