[By Tv David Buhril, Chairman, Siphro]
[The "development projects" that are damming the rivers of the North East has inevitably come to be a part of the larger global discourse about large dams. This article forms a series of writings looking into the complexities of Tipaimukh dam. David Buhril wishes to thank Panos South Asia for supporting this research initiative.]
Far away from the idyllic flow of the Tuivai and Tuiruong (Tipaimukh) rivers, authorities cornered in power corridors gave a nod for environmental clearance of the controversial Tipaimukh Hydro-Electric Multipurpose Project.
While South Asia's biggest economy wanted to harness the hydroelectric power, little did the Tipaimukh villagers of the indigenous Hmar people, who would be affected by the foreign decisions, know about the impact of the decisions that has already put a go-ahead stamp for the mega structure to overtake their rivers, land, livelihood, culture and resources.
Their lifeline has been made to cut them off from the channels of representation, which should otherwise be made inevitable when they would be directly affected by the decision that was passed without their knowledge. The power of the decision makers who are not aware about their independent survival cultures would go a long way to usher a turbulent change that would negate the chance of their survival and continuity as people.
Tuiruong, the river that feeds their everyday life, interlinks them with their tribesmen in the upper stream as well as the down stream would be dammned in the name of development that has remain elusive in their life. The indigenous Hmar people, once again, realised that they are being excluded from control over the decisions and regulative institutions that will not only change the course of the river, but also their life.
While the emerging international standards and good corporate practice increasingly recognise pre-existing natural and community water and land uses, to respect indigenous rights and to negotiate prior informed consent of the traditional land owners, the unconsulted decisions for environmental clearance wholly negates their existence as human being.
Far from the negotiation table and power corridor that negates them, Tipaimukh villagers are worried and confused lot. "Tuiruong flows like the blood that keeps us alive. The endless talk for damming the river has brought us nightmares as we are never told what the structure would be like.
Besides, everything that has been happening against us are being decided outside us. We are worried. Moreover, the Government of Manipur will be sending forces to built the dam. We don't know what they are all up to," Thanghlei of Lungthulien village said.
The attempt to secure energy in these fringe geography has already insecure indigenous people who were put at the altar without any democratic consultations. This has severed the the Tipaimukh villagers whose ancestral land and resource were being targeted as urban fodder. With their cultural and identity footprints firmly attached to Tipaimukh, the proposed Tipaimukh dam has come to represent an imperialist-like character that the forgotten people are yet to come to terms with.
Much before the undisturbed sequence of repeated acts of survival see the structure that will rise to dictate them, the recently passed environmental clearance is seen as a more potent force than Christianity that first reached the Hmar people in Tipaimukh's Senvon village in the year 1910. The Tipaimukh villagers wonder whether they will continue to figure as survival indigenous societies when the act and decisions of the State go against them.
The Tipaimukh villagers in the fringe hills and mountain of Tipaimukh hardly know that their land and resources are being targeted to quench India's growing energy needs.
The proposed Hydro Electric Multipurpose Project that is designed to generate 1500 MW by damming the two rivers in seven years and three months is not merely a battle between development and environment, but a bigger battle between the "promise" and disguise of "development" and the impact it would have on stable indigenous community and their livelihood system.
For a community that has not seen the other side of their existence, the dam builder, North East Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) attempts to light up the dark world outside them does not come close to wake them to the need for sacrificing their land and resources.
After the decades of their mishandled experiences by the Government of Manipur that has severely failed to respond to their quest and aspirations for welfare and development, the indigenous communities of Tipaimukh have realised that the ebb and flow of their lives depends on Tipaimukh, which never fails them.
The Tipaimukh villagers are unaware about the promise of the 15.9 billion M3 reservoir capacity of the proposed dam, which will be the largest reservoir in the country. "We don't trust a government that has repeatedly failed us. We trust our soil, rivers and nature that has been a blessing for us. The Government or State is just a mistake.
They don't exist for us", Lalchunghnung, a villager from Tipaimukh's Senvon said. While the Government's decision has already outside the traditional land dwellers, the survival prospects of the indigenous people are left at mire in the name of "development."
Leaving out the indigenous population from the necessary framework of "free, prior and informed consent" the Government of Manipur and NEEPCO are heading for aggressive development in Tipaimukh.
The dogged efforts exerted by the Government of Manipur and North East Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO) to dam Tuiruong (Tipaimukh) and Tuivai rivers for the Tipaimukh Hydro Electric Multipurpose Project has come to represent development aggression.
The aggressive character have today been affirmed by the Government of Manipur decision to militarise Tipaimukh. Much before the environmental clearance was given, the Government of Manipur decided to open security posts at seven kilometers intervals along the 99 km stretch of Mon Bahadur road, which is to be used for movement of materials required for the construction of the controversial dam.
A total of 15 posts of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Border Security Force (BSF) and Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) will be initially stationed to provide security for the movement of officials of NEEPCO, the implementing agency of the project.
Moreover, the Union Government had already promised a Rs 400 crore security cover for the proposed project.. For the military station, villagers of the doom- bound Sipuikawn, which will be submerge by the dam water were made to allot land at the top of the hill.
"We heard that they would be coming in anytime soon. They have chosen the highest point of our hill. I think the dam water would not touch them while our village is predicted to go under water", Rorel of Sipuikawn village said.
In the absence of "prior and informed consent", the Tipaimukh villagers are cornered to fend for themselves. They have no institutional support to enforce their rights and interest.
Moreover, there is no accountable governmental body to enforce the rights of the people who would be affected by the project. In the face of that, the supposed protective charters, legislation and principles remain theoretically oriented rather than pragmatic.
A minor section of Tipaimukh villagers took part in the one and only "public hearing" that was conducted in Tipaimukh on March 31, 2008. The villagers were treated with brusqueness. Many of the participants came to know about the hastily conducted "public hearing" by word of mouth that was milling in the villages.
"The hearing was called at such short notice that we were left with no time to prepare ourselves. As the bamboo flowering has brought us immense misery, many of us did not have the money to go all the way to Tipaimukh for the purpose.. I also went, but it was a messy and confusing affair.
The Deputy Commissioner of Churachandpur district who arrived with a good number of security forces exercised patronising and dictatorial attitude. Majority of us did not understand what they were lecturing as they spoke in languages that was foreign to us.
If the authorities thought they were conducting consultation, I must say that was a big mistake. They never get to listen us out as none of us spoke. They handpicked few pro-dam speakers and that was how it vainly ended. Not a big deal", Lalsang of Parbung village said.
The Government of Manipur did not seem to see any reason to consult the Hmar people who would be severely affected by the dam. It is evident that the requirement for an informed and prior consent is merely taken as a procedural affair.
This necessitated the need for activating the framework for assessing the risks involved and recognition of the tribal peoples rights in accordance with their customary and traditional law that was assigned a higher pedestal than the law of the land.
The uninformed villagers were told that the project was conceived by the Government and that the project would go ahead regardless of their opposition. Tipaimukh villagers were made to feel like squatters on their ancestral land. The overt aggressiveness is seen by many as a tactic to further made the people helpless; to compel them to give up their land for the project to take shape.
This has immensely put a pressure on the villagers who were also frequently baited by the promises of contract, job, compensation, employment prospects and promises of everything that is missing in their lives. "For a deprived community who are already suppressed with high-handed policies and decisions, the political motives are not people centred and there is no trace of us getting the proclaimed benefits. The dam will be the biggest trap in our lives", a mission teacher said.
Apprehension has caught the Tipaimukh villagers imagination in the absence of transparency. The project had once fragmented the fringe society creating a minor class of pro-dam and the left out majority who are totally opposed to the dam. However, slowly, the looming ambiguities that has been playing with their ancestral land has pulled them together with a collective quest for securing their rights and land.
This has resulted in the conflict of interest where the State interpretations of development did not seep in easily despite the money spill in the already investment stage that the project has entered.
job, compensation, employment prospects and promises of everything that is missing in their lives. "For a deprived community who are already suppressed with high-handed policies and decisions, the political motives are not people centred and there is no trace of us getting the proclaimed benefits. The dam will be the biggest trap in our lives", a mission teacher said.
Apprehension has caught the Tipaimukh villagers imagination in the absence of transparency. The project had once fragmented the fringe society creating a minor class of pro-dam and the left out majority who are totally opposed to the dam.
However, slowly, the looming ambiguities that has been playing with their ancestral land has pulled them together with a collective quest for securing their rights and land. This has resulted in the conflict of interest where the State interpretations of development did not seep in easily despite the money spill in the already investment stage that the project has entered.
The Tipaimukh Hydro Electric Multipurpose Project has entered into its initial investment stage. The Government of Manipur and NEEPCO has not only injected proposals for militarization but has also pumped in money for small scale contracts, which otherwise has benefitted a little over five persons in the entire Tipaimukh sub-division.
Despite the run for money for the few that was planted by the NEEPCO, the Tipaimukh villagers are not ready to dam its principal lifeline lightly. Despite the fact that the State and NEEPCO did not touch upon the key issues of the indigenous peoples rights to protect and preserve their ancestral land and their survival as a people, the visible quest is for their pro-active involvement in a project that they believe should centred around them.
However, the Government as well as the dam builder have not dealt with the adverse cultural, social and environmental impacts that the dam would bring.The dam planners made neither projections nor provisions for the cultural repercussions of the project on the indigenous peoples.
"What we have heard in all these years has been, if not the brightest, than the brighter side of the dam. The authorities who come and go projected the dam as our saviour and the only way to development available for us", Hmingmawi of Tipaimukh village said.
On the other hand Lalditum said, "I have not seen any dam in my life and it is impossible to even imagine the good and bad side of it. But I don't want to be compensated. I don't want my village and any other Tipaimukh village to be submerged. If that change has to overtake us, whatever beautiful name it bears, development would be our biggest enemy", Siema said.
"The promises of the dam that we have long conceived are baked with lame promise and expectations. I used to imagine a bright and sparkling Tipaimukh dam. That was why I spoke for the dam before. But now, after learning about diverse experiences and the nature of what we often called development and our experiences to this day, it is certain that we would be at the losing end", Rolawm said.
Despite that the development aggression pursued by the Government of Manipur and NEEPCO has made it evident that they are ignorant about the survival cultures of the indigenous people whose livelihood system is fed by the two rivers that are projected to be dammed. This has inevitably introduced the transcending participation of the Tipaimukh villagers in development.
The worries of the Tipaimukh villagers are also reflected in their concern about the prospects of maintaining the age-old ties with their tribesmen in the upper stream as well as in the downstream. "Tuiruong is more than a flowing water. It is at the heart of our existence as human being.
The dam will severe our ties with the rest of our tribesman, which will toll us in the long run", Chala said . Lawmsiem of Sartuinek village said, "We don't want high waters to split up our lives. If it is for development, it should come with a different face and character and not by damming our precious rivers."
Oblivious of who the stakeholders are, Tipaimukh villagers are already at the receiving end of the project. While the power game has negated their participation and representation, the Tipaimukh villagers still aspires for a transparent process of decision-making by involving them with equal status.
The gap in the existing power relations is seen to be the factor that has severely reduced their rights. and led to failure in assessing the risk involved. In their quest for a people centric development, the Tipaimukh villagers idea of development weaves around equity, sustainability, transparency, accountability, participatory decision making and efficiency.
The conceived dam that will gnaw into their lifeline is seen as a hindrance to their development. While the inevitability for a negotiation to the already pursued efforts is strongly felt, the people who would be affected by the project felt the need to emphasise on certain priorities and primacies that consider their well-being and its prospect as a people.
The Tipaimukh villagers are dissatisfied with the undue legitimacy and high-handedness that was overtaken by the Government of Manipur as well as the NEEPCO.
For the natural resource- based communities the marginalization that resulted with the aggressive intervention of the State and dam builder has become more than intolerable. This has moved them for an immediate review of all existing procedures and regulations concerning Tipaimukh project.
Moreover, the Tipaimukh villagers quest for a review of policy and institutional frameworks to assess and remove any bias that goes against their participation. While the need for recognizing entitlements and sharing benefits is further felt, the absence of all the priorities in the proposed project has made them wonder if the Tipaimukh dam is for development or destruction.