Extremely damning

Extremely damning the Manipur government has renewed its interest in setting up the 1,500 mw Tipaimukh multi-purpose project on the Barak at an estimated Rs 2,899 crore (at July 1995 levels). The project was held up due to the agitation led by R K Priyabrata Singh, chairman of the Manipur-based Action Committee on the Tipaimukh project. Now the government proposes to take it up 'purely as a power project so that the extent of land under submergence be minimised', though flood control on the river Barak was the main reason for its urgency in the past.

With numerous rivers and heavy rainfall, the state has the potential to provide energy equivalent to several thousand kilowatts.Keeping this in mind the Manipur government requested the prime minister's office to direct the Brahmaputra Flood Control Board to transfer the project to the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (neepco), Shillong so that it could be taken up purely as a hydro-electric project. It is reported that the Union government has entrusted the same to neepco.

A five-member cabinet sub-committee set up by the Manipur government headed by its irrigation and flood control minister M Nilachandra, has stressed on the power generation aspect of the project. The sub-committee also intends to overhaul the flood control component by reducing the height of the dam from the proposed 162.8 m to 80 m. However, the reactions of the states of Assam and Mizoram and the Union government - involved in the affairs of the Barak and the project - to the new proposals are not known.

The Barak passes through undulating forested tribal areas of Manipur, Mizoram and Assam before it enter the plains and joins the Meghna in Bangladesh. It discharges a huge amount of water, often inundating the adjoining areas and causing considerable loss of lives and property. With the increased pressure of population on land and extensive deforestation in the catchment areas, unrestrained flooding has become a recurrent phenomenon. Thus, the clamour for controlling the flood and harnessing the river for irrigation and electricity generation has increased.

After numerous proposals were rejected, the problems of Barak were first addressed in April 1974 when a suggestion was made to examine the possibility to accommodate the entire dam within the narrowest gorge portion itself, where rock conditions were likely to be most favourable. Such a site was identified at Churachandpur district's Tipaimukh, which is 500 metres downstream of the confluence of the Barak and the Tuivai rivers. The project report envisages the submergence of an area of 291.5 sq km and 303.2 sq km at 175 m and 178 m. In both the situations, there will approximately be 180 sq km submergence in the valley, about 30 sq m in Tuivai, 53 to 60 sq km in the Irang and 32 sq km in the Makru river valley (see table: In deep waters ).

The submergence of cultivable land is claimed to be negligible, as the entire area is mainly mixed jungle with bamboo predominating. It is estimated that 31 villages 1,310 families and 743 hectares of garden land will be affected by the submergence. However, there are other issues that have to be taken into consideration like construction, resettlement, colonisation and rehabilitation of the displaced people.

Appreciating the above problems, the Brahmaputra Flood Control Board, Guwahati, initiated a number of studies on the themes related to the project so that minimum damage is caused to the environment and community. Finally, in August 1991, the then Union minister for water resources called a meeting of members of parliament (mp) from the North-East and informed them that the Union government had decided to sanction Rs 1,316 crore for the project. Once the technical, financial and administrative decisions of the project are taken, it will take 11 years to complete.

The project will largely affect the Hmars, a Kuki-Chin tribe, who will bear the brunt of the changes. The Hmar society basically consists of subsistence farmers who draw all their economic resources from the land, forest and water bodies. By tradition they are jhumias - slash-and-burn type of rotational cultivators. Normally, a jhum plot is left fallow for five to 10 years before it is used again. But because of the continuous use of jhum and burning of the vegetation, hill slopes have been eroded and the top soil washed away, leading to environmental degradation and silting of the river.Though the proposed dam could provide employment opportunities to the masses and bring general prosperity to the area, the people have their doubts. In the absence of any official public statement regarding the extent, effects, benefits and compensation amount from the project, the region abounds with rumours, which have generated fears of losing the most precious asset of the community - land. The Manipur government should make their legal position clear about the conflicting claims on land compensation at the earliest. At the same time, they must organise reasonable publicity through the mass media about the intent, extent, damage, advantages and projected targets of the project so that their apprehensions may be dispelled.

The Hmars apprehend that the better part of cultivable land, orchards and most of their level ground will either be submerged or acquired for townships, colonies or other projects. The dam project has a rehabilitation scheme for the displaced people but what alternative jobs are available, the remuneration, duration and qualifications - have not been stated. The Hmars fear that most jobs will be technical in nature which will require special skills they do not possess. In their view, the project is a non-tribal conspiracy to steal their land. But their list of queries remain unanswered: Will the government establish a polytechnical institute in Tipaimukh to train the Hmar youth in skills required by the project; will the Hmars be given priority in the jobs generated by the project; in case the promises made are not honoured, what is the course of action open to them?

The Hmar experience tells them that the good intentions of the government are rarely implemented in their favour. They feel that the state government should set up a watchdog body to monitor the proceedings. The group should consist of representatives of all the churches, the mp and local member of legislative assembly, chairperson of the Sinlung Society, along with the general manager/chief engineer of the project. Representatives of various student associations may be included as special invitees when the situation demands.

In summation, the area in question, the immediately affected community and the states of Manipur and Assam, where the project is located, are in turmoil. The project has all the potential of solving the problems of the region's underdevelopment but for that there is need for inter-ethnic consensus in favour of peace and a trusted effective and acceptable leadership, who could ensure regional prosperity. However, it is surprising that though the region is geographically inhospitable, lacking in skilled manpower, entrepreneurship, construction material and other essential aspects - the Manipur government is pushing for the project. The Union government should carefully weigh the pros and the cons of the project before it commits substantial funds in a region where conflict and uncertainty reign.

One only hopes that the bitter experiences of the Swarnrekha multipurpose project, Koel Karo project in Bihar and Gandhmardan bauxite mining in Orissa are not repeated in Manipur.

In deep waters
A state-wise break-up of the land submergence (in hectares)
Forest land 113.32 9.54
Uncultivated private land 109.79 12.20
Private land 30.10 1.59
Cultivated land 25.95 1.08
Gardens 7.20 0.23
Total 286.36 24.64

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