NewAge Extra, June 12-18, 2009
Mohiuddin Alamgir reveals the implications and consequences awaiting Bangladesh and the Manipur state of India through the completion of the Tipaimukh Dam.
When completed in 1970 by India, the Farakka Barrage, around 18 kilometres upstream of Monohorpur, seemed a rather innocent venture by India at just ‘saving the Calcutta Port from silting’.
The reality was felt by the Bangladeshis over the next few decades as the entire south-western region of Bangladesh was affected due to the dearth of water. The country also faced long term losses in the agricultural, fisheries, forestry, industry, navigation and other sectors.
The barrage also caused some fatal damages over the years through floods, droughts, excessive salinity and depletion of groundwater. The then-Bangladesh government tried to solve the impending problem through bilateral talks immediately following the formation of the Indo-Bangladesh joint river commission (JRC) in 1972.
After being assured in the 1974 summit between the two countries that the Farakka barrage would not be put into operation before an agreement was reached on sharing the dry season flow of the Ganges between the two countries, Bangladesh allowed India to test the feeder canal of the barrage in 1975.
India commissioned the barrage and continued unilateral diversion of the Ganges flow, beyond the stipulated test period. The barrage had been operational without a water-sharing agreement till 1997, before the then-Awami League government finally managed to make the Indian government concede. In the meanwhile, Bangladesh’s economical activity and ecological health had been hugely affected.
Bitter experience has taught that the historic friendly relations Bangladesh and India share through their experience in the war of independence in 1971 have not always translated into deeds. Farakka, enclaves, killing of innocent civilians by BSF, maritime and land border demarcation, smuggling, subversive activities by the intelligence wings, both nations harbouring each others’ high profile criminals, the river linking project have been a thorn on the side of the apparent ‘friendly’ relations.
And now, the construction of Tipaimukh Dam threatens to affect north-eastern Bangladesh the way south-western Bangladesh had been affected by the Farakka. Despite India’s insistence that the dam has only been built to generate electricity and a lukewarm response from the government in power, in Bangladesh, citizens and environmentalists feel extremely concerned and many have vowed to resist the construction at all costs.
The Indian government recently resumed construction of the Tipaimukh on the Barak River, just a kilometre north of Jakiganj in Sylhet, which resulted in the recent, renewed interest on its affects. The construction work was stalled in March 2007 in the face of protests within, (people of the Manipur state of India are slated to be worst-affected) and outside, India for not following international conventions about the international rivers. The completion of the dam in 2012 will virtually dry up the Surma and the Kushiara rivers, thus choking the north-eastern regions of Bangladesh, say experts.
The Tipaimukh dam would also affect, while compounding the losses caused by Farakka, the country’s fisheries, agriculture, environment and water supply.
Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, the finance minister of Bangladesh and also the founder president of the green non-government organisation Bangladesh Paribesh Andalan (BAPA) points out, ‘India will be worse hit than Bangladesh and so the general people of India are also against the project.’
‘The region of Sylhet will be adversely affected if the Tipaimukh project is completed and most dangerously, if they make a barrage at Fulertala and withdraw water from Barak River, the whole region will have to face scarcity of water,’ says Major (retd) Hafiz Uddin Khan, vice chairman, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and former minister of water resources.
‘The free flowing Surma and Kushyara rivers will turn dry,’ he adds.
Due to the protests from the Bangladesh side, Shiv Shankar Menon, the Indian foreign secretary visited Bangladesh last month. He requested Bangladesh to send a group of dignitaries who will visit the Tipaimukh area to observe the actual scenario of the controversial project, as the Indian government is thinking seriously about the implementation of the project.
Given the current developments, it is rather understandable that the dam will be brought to reality. The overall implications and consequences brought about by the project may be even more fatal than we can perceive at the moment, as pointed out by experts.
To be located 500 metres downstream from the flowing rivers of Barak and Tuivai rivers, the Tipaimukh dam lies on the south-western corner of the Manipur State of India. The rock filled structure, with a central impervious core, has a height of around 180 metres above the sea-level. Its reservoir will have a storage water capacity of 15,900 million cubic m with a
maximum depth of 1,725.5 m.
Although originally considered, to only contain the flood water in the Cachar plains of Assam, the emphasis of the dam was also later placed on hydroelectric power generation. The dam will have an installation capacity of 1500MW with only a firm generation of 412MW (less than 30 per cent of installed capacity).
Tipaumukh Dam was first thought of in 1954 when the government of Assam requested its construction to the Central Water and Power Commission of India for ways to manage floods in the Barak river basin. The commission surveyed and rejected three sites by 1965 on two grounds. The sites were geologically unsafe and large-scale submergence of cultivable land made it economically unviable.
The North-Eastern Council of India intervened and after discussion with Assam, Manipur and Mizoram, the states through which the river flows, the Central Water Commission began investigations in 1977. In 1984, it identified a new site. The dam, it was then estimated, would cost Rs 1,078 crore. The project was shelved as it did not have the requisite environmental and management plans.
In 1995, the Brahmaputra Board, responsible for managing the water of Brahmaputra and Barak river basins in India, carried out studies and revised the plan totalling the estimated cost to Rs 2,899 crore.
People of Manipur began to take notice as the completion of the dam would immediately result in their eviction from the area where they had lived for the past hundred years. In order to appease them, environment minister Kamal Nath assured that resettlement issues would be taken care of and nothing would be done in haste, in 1995. In 1995, chief minister Rishang Keishing made a statement declaring that the state cabinet did not approve of the dam.
In 1998, the Manipur assembly passed a resolution not to implement the project. However, in 1999, the central government handed over the project to North-Eastern Electronic Power Co-operation (NEEPCO) under circumstances, which many social organisations allege are questionable. They claim that during a spell of the president’s rule, imposed in 2001, the governor approved the project.
Then in 2003, the Public Investments Board and the Central Electricity Authority of India cleared the project by which the costs had been revised to Rs 5,163.86 crore by NEEPCO.
Currently, the information fed to the Indian public details that the project is to be built primarily for flood control and power generation. Irrigation and other benefits will be spin-offs. Flood control will benefit some plain areas in Assam.
However, Manipur and Mizoram, are likely to bear the brunt of submergence. But they are to equally share, as the central government stipulates to the Manipur government, 12 per cent of the power from the project, free of charge while the rest will be taken by NEEPCO.
Bangladesh in peril
Adverse effects of the Tipaimukh dam, including environmental deprivation, economic crisis and drought, will be rather irreversible as pointed out by the education, primary and mass education minister Nurul Islam Nahid. ‘If India withdraws water from the Barak river, the free-flowing Surma and Kushiara rivers will dry up,’ he mentions.
Abdul Karim Kim, an organiser of the Sylhet Paribesh Andolon feels that besides other parts of Bangladesh, Sylhet will be gravely affected. ‘The dam’s completion will disrupt agriculture, irrigation, drinking water supply, and navigation and ground water levels. Sylhet will face the same consequences faced by the south western regions of Bangladesh.’
He explains that Surma-Kushiara, and its 60 branch and distributaries support agriculture, irrigation, navigation, drinking water supply, fisheries, wildlife in numerous haors and low lying areas in the entire Sylhet division and some peripheral areas of Dhaka division. The river system also supports internal navigation, wildlife in haors, industries like fertiliser, electricity, gas etc.
‘Around five crore people of Sylhet and Dhaka division will face problems as Surma and Kushiara will lose five feet water in the rainy season. Environmental degradation will take place massively, severely affecting weather and climate, turning a wet cooler environment into a hot uncomfortable cauldron,’ he says.
‘Within 15 years, after starting the project and withdrawing water from the Barak, there will be no water in the rivers,’ informs MA Matin, general secretary, BAPA.
‘Scarcity of water will cause siltation on river beds,’ says Engineer Muhammad Hilaluddin, chief director of Angikar Bangladesh. He explains that when high rainfall will occur in the catchments area of the dam, enormous quantity of sediment-laden flood water will be released. He adds, ‘this will cause a severity of flood in the Surma and Kushiara channels, already raised for low flow. This will further raise the water level causing floods in adjoining additional areas.’
Also, navigation in river channels in the Meghna will be affected due to depletion of water flow and consequent sedimentation and severity of flooding during the monsoon season. Surface irrigation will also be in danger. The Meghna-Padma river will have lower flow, accentuating saline backwater intrusion in the Padma channel.
‘The total agricultural sector of around 20 districts, directly and indirectly, will be affected,’ says Professor Anu Muhammad from the economics department in Jahangirnagar University. He adds, ‘The Barak-Surma-Kushiara-Meghna river system stretches about 946 km. Around 669 km of this is in the Bangladesh portion. If India withdraws water, the fate of this whole river system will be threatened.’
Many scientists, engineers and green activists feel that the completion of the Tipaimukh dam will increase the frequency of earthquakes in the adjoining region of both India and Bangladesh. ‘The north-east region of India is one of the six major seismically active zones of the world that includes north-east India and suburbs, and Bangladesh. The huge reservoir of the dam will create pressure on the ground of this region which is already a high alert zone for earthquakes,’ shares Hilal.
Protest in India
The people of Manipur state protested from the very beginning of the dam’s conception as they are to sacrifice the most. The unanimous verdict of the peoples’ affirmation was that the Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project is not for the people, by the people or of the people of the Manipur.
As has been pointed out by the intellectuals and experts of the state, the 900 km long Ahu (Barak River) is a constant source of the socio-political, economic and cultural sustenance for the indigenous Zeliangrong and the many indigenous and non-indigenous communities, who live along its course in India and Bangladesh. These cultures have grown up along these rivers over the past few centuries.
The mega-dam proposed at Tipaimukh (Ruonglevaisuo to the Hmar people) will smother this particular source of life for them while also affecting their culture, anthropology, ecology and economy. As per estimates of the authorities, the project will also totally affect 311 sq km area of the state. More than 40,000 people will be rendered landless as 16 villages at the Barak Valley will be submerged while around 90 villages will be adversely affected.
As such, academicians, politicians, students and civil society organisations have formed the Action Committee against Tipaimukh Project (ACTIP) to oppose the project which will further deepen the cracks in Manipur’s already fissured society. The construction of the dam will also benefit some groups at the cost of others.
Matin says ‘more than 20 social and political organisations, representing the largest communities, ethnic groups and political interests are protesting against the dam. We have a good understanding with them.’ The leaders of the groups believe that the unviable project design will also drive a wedge between communities that live in a state of unremitting conflict between themselves and with the state.
He points out, ‘the Indian government is playing hide and seek with their people as they are, not only making hydro electric power plant to produce electricity, but also planning to make a barrage at Fulertala, located slightly upstream of the river Barak.’ He mentions that the original plan is to supply water to the areas of Rajasthan and other states from the Barak river, around 900 kilometres away from the Manipur state.
‘This is actually a good strategy by the Indian government as although around 180 MW of power has been offered to the Manipur state, it needs only 150 MW of power. The rest will be distributed to the other states,’ informs Hilal.
‘Besides these, the Indian government has already initiated works in the seven north eastern states, widely known as seven sisters of India, for 24 irrigation projects or dams,’ says Baki Billah, a member of the Communist Party of Bangladesh. He adds, ‘200 more are at the planning level. The construction of these dams or projects will also affect Bangladesh as these will eventually choke around 54 rivers in Bangladesh.’
Abul Mal Abdul Muhith expresses his doubts about the project, when he says, ‘the Indian government claims that the dam is simply a project to help the power problem of their country. How can we trust this after the bitter experience we have had with the Farakka barrage. Furthermore, when even the ordinary Indians are protesting against the project, it is worth contemplating how much it may affect Bangladesh.’
International river convention
The Tipaimukh Dam project was en- tirely developed and approved without informing the government of Bangladesh or involving its people in any meaningful exercise to assess the downstream impacts of the dam.
Since the river Barak is an international river, Bangladesh as a lower riparian country should have an equitable share of water. Moreover an access to the design details of the project, planning and design etc also is a right of the country.
‘We do not know what is going on there,’ says Mir Sajjad Hossain, member of Joint River Commission (JRC). He adds, ‘we came to know from our sources that India is planning a hydroelectric plant. India has not sent any official documents about the proposal.’ Ministers Abul Mal Muhith and Nurul Islam Nahid reiterated the same point.
‘The Indian government was asked to give data about the Tipaimukh Dam twice during the JRC meeting- in 2003 and in 2005, but they did not provide us with the data,’ said Hafiz.
As such, this is clearly a gross violation of co-riparian rights of Bangladesh. India has disregarded some major provisions of the 1997 UN Watercourse Convention on the Article 5(1) Equitable Utilization, (7) No Harm Principle, (9) Exchange of Information.
‘India is taking the privilege of being a big country,’ says Professor Nazrul Islam, chairman of the University Grants Commission and a renowned environmentalist of the country. He adds, ‘Bangladesh can do nothing but complain to the international communities.’
JRC and going international
‘JRC is a dead horse and good for nothing. They should be renamed Jhuliye Rakha Committee (Hanging on a matter),’ says Matin. He adds, ‘we were told that the Bangladeshi part of the committee could not produce satisfactory data due to their Indian counterparts non-cooperation in the JRC meeting.’
Nazrul Islam feels that the solution to the problem is through mutual understanding between Bangladesh and India and a more efficient role of the JRC. ‘Our government and JRC can request India to postpone or, better yet, stop the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam if possible. This can be done through bilateral diplomacy or through UN intervention,’ he says.
‘JRC should soon start negotiation on equitable sharing of water, according to our entitlement as a lower riparian of the international river Barak-Surma-Kushiara, through international forums and the UN,’ suggests Anu.
‘Unilateral withdrawal would be a gross violation of the UN Convention that regulates the use of water of international rivers/water courses. This should be done as soon as possible. Any delay in negotiation might end up in a pathetic situation, causing irreversible environmental, economic and hydrological chaos,’ urges Matin.
Muhith feels that data exchange between the two countries’ governments will help at solving the issue. ‘Bangladesh needs to have the design, survey data, drawings, maps etc. prepared by the dam authority in order to verify the adverse effects and also to initiate mitigation measures for the lower riparian Bangladesh.’
‘We are waiting for the official invitation from the Indian government that Shiv Shankar Menon, Indian foreign secretary, told us about during the visit,’ says Mir Sajjad.
‘Bangladesh will obviously respond to the invitation and will take the right decision through mutual co-operation, through which the general public of both countries will be benefited,’ hopes Nahid, the education minister and a member of parliament from Sylhet.
The Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Pinak Ranjan Chakrabarti, while talking to the media recently said that although India will have sole control over water flow at the proposed dam site, it will not hold it back.
‘The flow of river water and flood control will remain in the hands of India’, he told reporters after a courtesy call on communications minister Syed Abul Hossain at the ministry.
‘Tipaimukh Dam is a hydro-electric project that will generate electricity from the flow of water, and then will release the water back,’ he added.
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina said on May 27 that her government would form an all-party committee to report on the pros and cons of the proposed Tipaimukh barrage in India, before taking a decision on the disputed project.
‘We have to send a technical committee rather than a parliamentary committee to find out what is actually going on,’ says Hafiz.
‘The nation has to fight together to protest this project,’ he adds.
Choking north-eastern Bangladesh
* India has resumed construction of the Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River which will virtually dry up the Surma and the Kushiara rivers, thus choking the north-eastern regions of Bangladesh
* The construction will disrupt agriculture, irrigation, drinking water supply, navigation and ground water levels. Sylhet will be worst hit
* Tipaimukh to be used only for hydroelectric power generation, say India
* The people of the India state of Manipur to be affected the most
* The parliamentary committee on water resources and technical experts to visit Tipaimukh