2 Rijiju's In Power: "Everybody Is a Cousin Back in Arunachal"
ITANAGAR: On Tuesday morning, Union minister for home affairs Kiren Rijiju found himself in the middle of a controversy after the Indian Express reported that he had been named in a 129-page report by the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation’s (NEEPCO) chief vigilance officer levelling corruption charges against him in the construction of the 600-mega watt Kameng Hydro Electric Project.
Satish Verma’s report which was sent to the CBI, CVC and the Union Ministry of Power in July this year claims that an “elaborate conspiracy” involving contractors including Rijiju’s “cousin” Goboi Rijiju, NEEPCO officials and the West Kameng district administration of embezzling funds that “may extend up to Rs 450 crore.”
Among the many accusations, Verma’s report says that the conspiracy involved submission of fake and inflated bills by contractors in the name of transporting rocks needed for construction and that several transport challans and records provided by the contractor- Patel Engineering Limited (PEL)- were fake.
But what is the project really about?
Arunachal Pradesh is home to five major river basins- Tawang, Kameng, Subansiri, Siang and Lohit- and the several rivers and tributaries flow into the Brahmaputra in Assam. Several reports project the state’s hydropower potential to be at around 50,000 megawatt- a significant portion of the country’s entire potential.
However, so far only 405 mega watt of that has been ‘harnessed’ with the lone operational dam at the Ranganadi in Lower Subansiri district. Here too, the project has not been able to go fully operational as only two out of the three turbines on the dam function throughout the year.
From more than a decade back, several memorandums of agreements were signed between the state government and power developers including private and public players like NEEPCO and NHPC. At one point of time, there were more than 160 projects that had been planned for construction.
However, over time some of the projects have been scrapped and in some cases the power developers themselves have pulled out of the projects. Currently there are just over 140 projects with valid memorandums.
The reasons for power developers pulling out are several- from being unable to obtain environment and forest clearance to local opposition arising from environmental concerns to infrastructure gaps which make it nearly impossible to transport construction material to project sites.
There have been some exceptions to it such as the Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project on the Subansiri river along the Arunachal-Assam interstate boundary. But concerns raised by activists and experts in Assam over the project’s downstream impact resulted in widespread opposition and construction of the dam has been on hold since 2011.
The 600-mega watt Kameng Hydro Electric Project which is the subject of the current controversy is seen as a success story and is scheduled to be operational by next year.
The project is located in West Kameng district which falls under Rijiju’s parliamentary constituency, Arunachal West. It has two dams on the Bichom and Tenga tributaries of the Kameng river and the water from the river will be transported into the Kimi Power House to power four turbines of 150 MW each.
Power generation aside, the reservoir from the two dams will submerge over 230 hectares of land and displace/affect 98 indigenous tribal families across three villages. While the original cost of the project was estimated at 1160.60 crore, the actual expenditure as of September 2016 had crossed 4833 crore.
The two people in the centre of the current controversy are two Rijijus- one a well-known figure and face of the government in television news screens, while the other remains a mystery.
The minister has taken to social media and news channels to respond to the allegations stating that he had merely written to the Union Power minister Piyush Goyal after he had been approached by people from his constituency seeking early clearance of bills related to the project. He even tweeted “Is it a corruption helping poor Tribals?(sic)”.
True to recent form, he even said earlier that “those who are planting this news, if they come where we are, they will get hit with shoes. Is it corruption to try and help your people?”
The shoe comment comes more than a month after he said that “we should stop this habit of raising doubt, questioning the authorities and the police” and that it is “not a good culture”.
While he has dismissed any wrongdoings, Rijiju’s role and involvement in the projects remains unclear as there isn’t any concrete evidence linking him directly to any of the projects in his home district although rumours do fly about. As for this mysterious ‘cousin’ of his, not much is known.
Several efforts to contact Goboi Rijiju failed to yield any positive results. What is known is that he is a contractor who does wield some amount of political power in the area. Reportedly, he is related to the minister by virtue of being from the same village and sharing the same surname, which in tribal communities like the Sajolang to which he belongs could make him a member of the same clan but not necessarily an immediate or even a close family member.
In fact, the minister even said that “back there everyone is a cousin”. However, many could see his writing to the power minister as a conflict of interest.