PASIGHAT: With the state and central governments’ plans to build what would be the country’s largest hydropower project in terms of installed capacity, the debate over hydropower has once again surfaced in the Siang belt, bringing to the forefront differing views.

Last week during a meeting of chief minister Pema Khandu and some his cabinet colleagues with NITI Aayog officials in New Delhi, it was announced that a plan to build a “300-metre high dam with power generation capacity of 10,000 megawatts” was being planned as part of the Multipurpose River Valley Project for Siang river.

The plan envisages to build a single dam on the site of the proposed Siang Upper Stage-II project which was originally to have an installed capacity of 3,750 megawatts. The Stage-I project was originally intended to have an installed capacity of 6,000-MW.

As soon as the announcement was made, several indigenous rights organisations based in the Siang basin raised their voice in collective opposition to the plan.

During a recent press conference at the capital, Itanagar, the Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum (SIFF) secretary general, Tasik Pangkam, said that there could be “serious law and order problems at the proposed project site” if the state government and the NITI Aayog went ahead with the plan.

Even before the press conference, a collective of organisations including the Forum for Siang Dialogue and Siang Peoples’ Forum, said they were against the proposed project as it could “submerge large tracts of agricultural land and affect 25 villages and two towns of indigenous Adi people of the area in the upstream and nearly 30 villages downstream”.

Whether the ambitious plan comes to fruition or not, one government official on conditions of anonymity said that it would be unlikely considering the technical aspects of building such a massive project and factoring in local resistance.

However, while rights’ groups have voiced their protest against the plans for building mega dams in the Siang river, there are still voices of support for dams in the Siang basin.

In Pasighat, the headquarters of East Siang district and nearby places such as Mebo, many of the people we met said that dams should be built for the sake of development and safety.

One of the many reasons that people said that they would like to see dams built is so as to avert a repeat of the June 2000 flood.

Back then, a sudden increase in the water level of the Siang led to massive flooding and loss of life and property along the river. One senior state minister had claimed that a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo (as the river in China is called) had released water that led to flooding in the downstream areas. While the Chinese authorities never admitted to such allegations, people in Pasighat and other areas have little doubt that that was the case.

Aini Taloh, a social worker and former head of the Adi Bane Kebang Women Wing’s district unit in Pasighat said that that day of the flood, it had not been raining which could have led to an increase in the water level of Siang.

Vijay Tayeng, an agriculturalist based in Mebo, around 20-km from Pasighat, said that he was in Pasighat when the flooding occurred and reiterated that there was no rain on the day.

There are also several tales of how products with Chinese labelling had been found in the aftermath of the flood.

Tokrik Tayeng, a health department official and agriculturalist, said that there were even dead birds that had been caught up in the waters of the Siang and had washed down which had been banded with small, individually numbered tags to the legs with Chinese characters on them.

Apocryphal as these stories seem, many believe them and are fearful of a repeat of such an event.

“I am not sure if the Chinese did anything but if it happens again maybe dams on our side can help avert disasters,” said Pasighat resident Kaling Borang.

However, Tasik is unmoved.

“The people who say they want dams are unaware of the ground realities,” he said, a day after the press conference.

He said that the planned 10,000 megawatts project will displace the Adi people and that that is “not a matter of joke”.

Tasik also refuted allegations that the organisations opposing large dams on the Siang are being backed by any NGOs based outside the state or politically motivated.

“We would not be able to hide it if he were being backed by outside NGOs. As for being politically motivated, we have people from both the Congress and BJP who are part of our organisations,” he said, adding that if they were motivated by politics such people would not be part of their organisation.

Despite the popular narrative, the indigenous rights organisations have repeatedly said that they are not opposed to all dams on the Siang, only the large ones.

One senior Adi bureaucrat based in Pasighat also echoed a similar sentiment, stating that the hydropower projects must be given the go-ahead after thorough studies are conducted over their impact but that the lives of the indigenous population must not be affected.