Some 22 kilometres upstream of the Siang from the town of Pasighat in eastern Arunachal is the site of the proposed 2,700 megawatt(MW) Lower Siang hydroelectric project. It was transferred from the Brahmaputra Board to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), which then handed it over to Jaypee Associates. The Dihang or Siang flows down from Tibet through Arunachal to Assam, where it combines with the Dibang and Lohit rivers to form the Brahmaputra. The upper end of Assam where these great rivers meet is prone to flooding in the monsoons. The Adi are the dominant tribe of the Siang belt. They are said to have come from across the Himalayas at some distant period. The proposed 86-metre high storage dam (with nine 300MW turbines at its base) would be located just below the confluence of the Siang and Yamne, near the villages of Pongging and Bodak.

My contact in Pasighat took me to meet a middle-aged man whom he described as a “social activist”, someone who filed RTIs and PILs on behalf of people. Karunath Pazing lived in a long dormitory-like building where other families stayed as well. It was dusk and there was a power cut, and the activist was sitting outside with his wife near the embers of a fire. He studied law at a college in Lakhimpur when he wasn’t doing odd jobs. His wife supported him, too.

Pazing was from the village of Rasing some way up the Siang. He said agreements for 40 projects with a capacity of 12,000MW had been signed in the Siang basin alone, nearly all with private companies like Reliance Power and Adishankar Power, besides the 3,750MW Upper Siang II project given to NEEPCO (North Eastern Electric Power Corporation). He likened the money required to be deposited up front by developers to the betel nut and pan leaf offered in Assam by a girl’s parents to a prospective groom’s: it carried no guarantees. Everyone knew there were official and unofficial amounts (several lakh rupees per megawatt) to be paid, but no one knew where that money went. Pazing had filed a PIL in the Guwahati high court against dams in the Siang Basin, and my contact chipped in saying they would start another agitation if work resumed on the Lower Siang project. They said if the dam was built it would submerge villages a long way behind it, and Pasighat would be at risk of being washed away.

The Arunachal government says it has collected  Rs 500 crore so far as upfront money, but most people i spoke to said there were unofficial amounts involved too. Projects have been allotted to developers with no prior dam-building experience, and without bidding.

The Arunachal government says it has collected Rs 1,500 crore so far as upfront money, but most people I spoke to said there were unofficial amounts involved too. Projects have been allotted to developers with no prior dam-building experience, and without bidding. The main criteria seem to have been the amount of payment upfront and the percentage of free electricity for the state (which it would then resell). The agreements reportedly contain a clause which absolve both the state government and the developer in the event of damage caused by earthquakes or outside aggression. Experts have also pointed out flaws in some of the environmental impact assessments based on which the projects have been cleared.

The next morning I walked down from the circuit house to the riverside, where the Siang widens out on its way from the mountains into the Assam plains. White kohuwa reeds flowered in the distance on sandbanks, and an old woman was netting fish at the ghat. A person from a nearby basti gave me a lift back to the circuit house on his motorcycle. He said most people in Pasighat weren’t concerned about hydel projects, and he thought dams were needed for development.

Later I went to have a look at the site of the proposed Lower Siang project. Driving out of town we crossed the bridges over the Sibo Korong and the Siang, the mountains looming up with clouds at their tops. We crossed a swaying hanging bridge with the Yamne rushing by below, old and new bamboo slats laid on it (the old ones rot and fall away), and walked for about 30 minutes through trees and on hillsides. At one point, to our left, driftwood was piled up beside the river. The final stretch was uphill, behind us the river and the gorge at the confluence and paddy fields down below. The village was on a gentle slope with about 50 Adi long houses (made of bamboo, and palm or toko leaves for the roof) with pigs and mithun (a domesticated type of gaur) around them. In the veranda of one of the houses was an old man sat in a pair of tattered shorts. He was lean and weather beaten, shaped by the elements around him. His wife was a fair, pug-nosed woman. Their son lived in the same house with his wife and two children. They said they had chased the people from Jaypee away, and that they had no desire to part with their paddy fields. They felt they would get limited or no compensation, and be reduced to doing menial labour at the dam site.

Then we walked up to the village secretary’s house. He had studied at the Pongging primary school under Assamese teachers. He said the school, which started in 1967, hadn’t produced any officers or doctors or engineers yet. There was no health centre. Even though it was a short distance from Pasighat, the oldest town in Arunachal, Pongging was stuck in time. A small turbine by the river provided low-voltage electricity and farming was tough. 

The traditional houses had to be rebuilt every 10 years or so at considerable expense (food and drink for the volunteers). The secretary said his life would be better if he could build a permanent house in town and send his children to a proper school. He said Jaypee would build roads and a hospital and give them jobs. He said, “The hearing for the Lower Siang project was disrupted by people from much higher up the valley, people who weren’t even being affected, but had spread rumours about villages like Geku, at the zero point, being submerged.” According to him, a majority of the people in the village were in favour of the project.

I had the feeling that some Adis might not like the idea of someone from another tribe signing away their rivers. “Times are changing,” the secretary said, “this is the computer age, we can’t go on living like in the old days.” The family who didn’t want to part with their land, and the secretary who talked about the “computer age”—in an ideal world there would have been space for both. But Arunachal had remained too remote for too long: the outside world was at the gates, and soon many of the old ways would disappear for good. A journalist in Itanagar, the state capital, told me that people were starting to leave their far-off villages to come and live in towns where there were schools and hospitals.

Arunachal is ripe for damming, and has had governments determined to do it. There is the lure of the 50 gigawatts (GW) of hydroelectric power capacity, a target that the government, and the companies that want to build the dams can only achieve by churning the country upside down, displacing people, and submerging villages. Development, the vaunted catchword, was a reservoir away.

Hanging like a cupped palm over the other north-eastern states, Arunachal has five major rivers—and their many tributaries, and other smaller rivers—all of which flow down from snow-covered mountains to the densely-populated Assam plains. From west to east, the five big ones are: the Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, Dibang and Lohit. It is in the basins of these large and small rivers that rights for hydel projects have been signed away over the years by the state government—with little or no say for the scattered local communities (the state of some 84,000 square kilometres has a population of about 15 lakh). A map of Arunachal with the planned power projects on it shows numerous small red bars across fine lines of blue.

According to the figures with the journalist from Itanagar, Arunachal has 156 proposed projects with a capacity of 46,500MW. Tawang, the western-most district, has 13, from the 2.4MW Paikangrong project (SMJ Consultants, New Delhi) to the 93MW Rho project (Sew Green Energy, Hyderabad), and the 780MW Nyamjangchu (Bhilwara Energy, Noida) to the 600MW/800MW Tawang I & II projects (NHPC, Faridabad). West Kameng district has 24 projects with a total capacity of 24,00MW, including the 600MW Kameng II (Mountain Fall India, New Delhi), and East Kameng, 22 projects with 1,600MW. At the other end of the state, the Upper Siang district has 12 projects with a total capacity of 4,505MW, and the Lower Dibang Valley district has 6 projects with 3,284MW.

Heading east across Arunachal, the big dams come up: the 2,000MW Subansiri Upper project (KSK Energy Ventures, Hyderabad), the 1,800MW Kamala project in Lower Subansiri district (Jindal Power, Gurgaon), the 1,000MW Siyom project in West Siang district (Reliance Power, Mumbai), the 1,750MW Demwe Lower project in Lohit district (Athena Energy Ventures, New Delhi) and the 1,200MW Hutong II project in Anjaw district (Mountain Fall, New Delhi). In all, some 16 projects of 1,000 to 3,750MW capacity, for a total of 30GW (this is not counting the 6,000MW Upper Siang II project, supposedly with NHPC).

It is these mega-dams, and the numerous smaller dams, that activists, especially in Assam, are worried about. The entire Northeast comes under India’s highest seismic risk Zone V, and the collapse of a mega-dam or several smaller ones would have catastrophic effects downriver. The runoff water from the operational dams could affect downstream aquatic life.

The Northeast itself, with a limited industrial base and just four per cent of India’s population, has a peak hour requirement of only 2,400MW. Per capita electricity consumption here is about one-fourth of the national average of 1,000kWh, itself among the lowest in the world (China’s is about 4 times higher, and developed countries about 12 to 15 times higher). However, India at present requires around 156GW, which is projected to rise to 250/300GW by 2030. Seventy per cent of present generation comes from thermal, primarily coal, and there are still around 30 crore people off the grid. This is where, in the view of analysts, the Northeast with its potential of cheap, renewable hydro power comes in. And anti-dam activists rarely mention that dams will have the effect of reducing the widespread annual flooding in Assam.

Not everyone in Arunachal is against dams. My contact in Pasighat took me to someone he described as “pro-dam” , saying “tabhi toh aapka argument banega (That’s how you can make an argument)”. He also told me the village secretary of Pongging had been against the project before switching sides. The “pro-dam” person was a retired state civil servant on the outskirts of town in a large, informal tribal household. Obang Dai was from the nearby village of Balek, and had made his way up the bureaucracy. He now ran a residential school. Dai put forward his case for dams: power for development projects from horticulture to construction, and revenue for the state to allow for larger grants from the Centre (at present the Northeast states contribute 10 per cent for Central schemes to which the Centre adds 90 per cent). “Two hundred years ago we were stuck inside the jungles with no knowledge of the outside world; that has to change. Our people say, ‘till that mountain there is my father’s or grandfather’s land’. But what have they done with that land? Not even planted a single tree!” It reminded me of the Supreme Court’s order in 1996 banning indiscriminate felling of trees in the Northeast.

“There are school dropouts masquerading as leaders in order to extort money from companies,” Dai said. I saw a group on Facebook with just over 100 members that said firms coming from outside would require their permission to operate in Arunachal. It seemed a throwback to the old days when sub-tribes and even villages levied taxes on people wishing to pass through their territory.


Workers in Assam’s Sonitpur district connect towers of the high-capacity transmission line running from Assam to Agra.

That night my contact took me to visit a friend of his from the village of Komsing up the Siang. It was a traditional Adi house, with an open fireplace, smoke-darkened interiors, and children sleeping under a mosquito net (there are dengue cases in Pasighat). The man’s wife served us rice beer by the fireplace, and we talked of Komsing and dams and hunting. My contact was also originally from Komsing. They didn’t go back there much, though. The night ended with a drive out to the bridge over the Siang, the moonlight sparkling on the wide river. In 1911, a British expeditionary force went up the river and into the hills beyond to subdue the Adis (then known as the Abors) after Noel Williamson, Assistant Political Officer at Sadiya, had been hacked to death in Komsing after a misunderstanding. I thought of how the Gurkha and Naga troops would have landed on the ghat down below on their way up to avenge Williamson’s killing. An epitaph still stands near Komsing.

The next morning I met the divisional forest officer (wildlife), one of the two DFOs in Pasighat. Tashi Mize was categorical that dams were needed for revenue generation. “Unfortunately,” he said with a sideways glance at my contact, “there are those who would like our people in remote areas to forever live in the midst of the jungles, away from the world.”

China was constructing dams on the Tsangpo, so why couldn’t India do the same, he asked, when technology had developed to construct safe dams? Mize had a meeting to attend and so couldn’t give us more time, but he said the politics of the dams was another matter, and even though forest land would be submerged in some cases, he was for them.

Across the road from the DFOs office was the Jaypee office complex: the barracks-like office and deserted quarters behind had a whiff of army discipline. Some of the senior managers are ex-defence personnel. The land itself was with NHPC, which gave it to Jaypee when it took over the Lower Siang project (the group apparently started out supplying cement to NHPC). I spoke to one of the staff, a local. The MoA for Lower Siang was signed in 2006, but the project was halted due to public opposition. Now they had won a case in the Supreme Court, and had to submit a fresh DPR (detailed project report), and the forest department was, very slowly, doing a survey for clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

He said the dam would create a backflow of 77 kilometres along the Siang (reaching zero point or normal level near Geku), and a backflow of 6 kilometres along the Yamne, and would help control floods downstream in Arunachal and Assam. Most of the staff were now in Bhutan, where Jaypee was working on two hydel projects (and NHPC as well). Bhutan was much easier to operate in. He said Jaypee managers had thought that because they had the MLA on their side the project was wrapped up. “But Arunachal is a place where even a person on the street can point a finger at the CM and talk.”

Some local people had been offended with the managers’ assertion that they would construct the dam by force if necessary. As for the state hydropower body, he said it had been set up solely to handle the money coming in from the hastily-signed MoUs and MoAs, some for remote places along the upper reaches of rivers where projects were almost impossible. He was exasperated with the state government for not helping with their project.

Next to the Jaypee office was NHPC’s office for the 2,880MW Lower Dibang multipurpose project (earlier the office of the Lower Siang project, when NHPC was handling it). I spoke to one of the engineers, an Adi. He said the Lower Siang would submerge some cropland and habitations, whereas the Lower Dibang project on the Dibang or Talo river wouldn’t submerge any houses, only some cropland: it was mainly steep gorges where nothing could ever grow so it was better that the villagers took the compensation and allowed the project to come up. The project would also help combat floods downstream.

A scientist at the Naharlagun office of the Arunachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (APSPCB), which conducts public hearings on hydel projects, had shown me and the journalist from Itanagar footage of a protest against the Lower Dibang project.

 A group of belligerent Idu Mishmi blocked the road between the Upper and Lower Dibang Valley districts at a bridge, holding up banners saying “No Dam / No Displacement” and stopping a group of NHPC engineers from proceeding further.

Later, the scientist said, the government appointed an Idu Mishmi DC in the area who managed to persuade people. He alleged that some NGOs involved with the anti-dam lobby were taking money from groups that wanted to block hydel projects. He told us about how the hearing for the Lower Siang project around four years ago, disrupted by people from the upper Siang valley. The podium was vandalised and villagers were prevented from attending (something the Pongging village secretary had mentioned). The culprits had been provided with a truck and cases of beer and liquor to stoke them up. He said, “Certain political families which had been prominent earlier are trying to show that they still retain a hold; they are the ones causing these disruptions”.

But he agreed that the process of signing MoAs was wrong: villagers should first be made aware by the state government, and then one or two dams built to show they would work, instead of a large-scale signing away of the state’s river rights.

However, it would be premature to expect all of these projects to come up. The scientist said the majority would never get the requisite forest and environmental clearances. Of the 20 projects cleared so far, some have run into renewed problems, like the Lower Siang project, or Bhilwara Energy’s 780MW Nyamjang Chu project in Tawang district. Neepco’s 110MW Pare project near Doimukh and 600MW Kameng project and the 144MW Gongri project in West Kameng district are the only ones on track.

The journalist from Itanagar said a skewed “me first” model of development had taken root in Arunachal. Progress had come to mean lining one’s pocket with central funds.

In newly-independent India, provision had to be made for the administration of Arunachal Pradesh, then known as NEFA (North East Frontier Agency). There were no roads, as the British had preferred to keep the hill tribes isolated behind an invisible “inner line”, to prevent people from entering the hills and stirring up trouble. The area was seen mainly as a buffer with Tibet and China.

In the 1950s, Assam Rifles posts were established and supplied by air at great expense (the army took over only in 1959). What Assam went through in 200 to 300 years, including war and conquest, the hill tribes of Arunachal went through in about 50, and the squeezing of the period of adjustment with the outside world led to difficulties.

 From the late 1980s onwards, after statehood, more money began to pour in from the Centre. Bureaucrats and engineers from mainland India taught local politicians how to get their hands on central funds. Elections turned into a matter of buying up voters.

A person from Yingkiong far up the Siang I later met in Tezpur said the dam agreements were a big ghapla (fraud). He gave me the examples of a tour operator who started a project, and a south Indian developer who had said, “The minister told me the river is his, he said you just go and give liquor to the locals and start work”. The developer’s car was attacked en route to the project site and he had turned back and fled.

One project that encapsulates the problems with hydel projects in the Northeast is Lower Subansiri. Head east on Assam’s NH52 at the beginning of October and passing through Dhemaji district you see lush paddy fields, blue skies and the mountains of Arunachal in the distance. But there is a darker side to this rural idyll. Dhemaji and neighbouring Lakhimpur district) on the north bank of the Brahmaputra are among the districts worst affected by flood in Assam. The floods come every monsoon caused by heavy rain and the level of rivers such as the Subansiri, Jiadhal, Kumotia, Gainadi, Ranganadi, Dihing, among others, rise as they flow down from Arunachal. Vast areas are inundated, and bridges, roads, and embankments damaged, turning this upper corner of Assam into a water world. Just last year, out of a total of 1.44 lakh hectares of cropped land affected in Assam, 93,000 ha were in Dhemaji alone (and another 11,000 ha in Lahkimpur). Around 3.36 lakh people in Dhemaji and 74,000 people in Lakhimpur were affected by the floods, out of a total 8.75 lakh people affected the entire state. The Mising tribals in these districts, who came down to the plains from the hills long ago, have adapted with their stilt houses and boats. However, an increase in sand casting—sand brought down from the hills by rivers —is raising river beds and burying fertile land, challenging even the capacity of the Mising to adapt.

The small town of Gogamukh astride NH 52 in Dhemaji is the headquarters of the Mising Autonomous Council. It is better known today from its association with the Lower Subansiri project. The site at Gerukamukh is just 16 kilometres north of Gogamukh. I first went there in February 2014, catching a Guwahati–Jonai night bus that dropped me off at Gogamukh at 3 a.m. A broken, rutted road leads through fields with huts and a stretch of forest. Past an iron bridge is the NHPC complex: discoloured walls topped with barbed wire, gates manned by armed sentries. The road climbs a hill, with Subansiri to the left, and then goes up to the dam site past high concrete silos. The construction site, past a tunnel, is not easy to get into. But you can turn left, down to the bridge from where the half-built dam can be seen, three construction cranes standing over it.

Up ahead, between the cliffs, a cement barrier rises from the water, with the river flowing out of the diversion tunnels on the cliff side, dark hollows in the rock just after the dam. On the other side of the river is the incomplete powerhouse to accommodate eight 250MW turbines. An armed CISF guard in a monkey cap peers out from the guardhouse to check if I am taking photos. Work stopped in December 2011 after an agitation by the KMSS, the Takam Mising Porin Kebang (TMPK) and the All Assam Students Union (AASU). Ahead of the bridge are rollers and excavators, all rusting in peace. Every idle day costs NHPC Rs 3 crore.

The road turns back in a loop to Gogamukh, through a one-time IAF bombing practice ground covered with hummocks, and the silent, dripping Dullung reserve forest. An elderly north Indian shopkeeper pedalled by slowly on a bicycle loaded with supplies. Where the road meets the highway there is a small army encampment ringed with barbed wire. It came up after the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) tried to prevent the transport of turbine parts to the site.

It was in the 1970s that the now defunct Brahmaputra Flood Control Corporation surveyed the Subansiri with a view to controlling downstream flooding. The work was carried on by the Brahmaputra Board formed in 1980. They came up with a plan for a multi-purpose project on the Subansiri’s lower reaches to help with flood control and irrigation. Power generation was an incidental part of the whole. It had the support of organisations such as AASU. After the project was transferred by the Ministry of Water Resources to NHPC in March 2000, it was revised to a run-of-the-river project, with power generation the main objective.


The reservoir of the Ranganadi hydroelectric project. Water is diverted from here by a tunnel to a 405MW powerhouse in thefoothills.

The Board’s original design called for a rock-filled dam more than 200 metres high. NHPC came up with an alternate concrete-gravity dam, whose dimensions have since been revised to a height of 116 metres and a width of 271 metres (along the river). So it built a road and a colony and started work, paying compensation to villages in Arunachal whose community-held lands were submerged. Initially all was well, but as construction proceeded disputes arose between NHPC and people from the nearby area, who demanded a greater share of jobs and contracts. By then groups were pointing out flaws in the dam’s design. Slowly, opposition to the project grew, leading to the involvement of AASU, KMSS and environmental activists from outside.

There was also a clash of attitudes between NHPC engineers and managers from the mainland and the laidback but proud local people. “Amar iyat tamul pan-ote kam hoi jai (You can get things done here even over betel nut and pan leaf)”, a former small-time contractor with the project from near Gogamukh told me on my second visit, in December 2015. It was echoed by an engineer at the headquarters of Neepco in Shillong, who said that if they had been given the project, it would have been completed by now. “Most of our staff are from the North East, they understand the sentiments of the locals.” [Author's note: Between the filing of this story and its publication online, there have been reports of materials and parts being transported to the Lower Subansiri project site without being stopped by the agitating groups.]

Neepco is currently operating the 405MW Ranganadi project in Arunachal and the 275MW Kopili project in Assam, besides working on the Pare and the Kameng projects (in Arunachal). Neepco has paid Rs 100 crore as the first instalment of money up front to Arunachal for the 3,750MW Upper Siang II project (part of a 9,750MW project; the 6,000MW Upper Siang I project is supposed to go to NHPC), which is to be designed by the Russian firm RusHydro.

Chandan Mahanta, professor of civil engineering at IIT Guwahati, says NHPC initially failed to communicate effectively with people in the downstream area. “Now they are doing good work with schools, scholarships and medical assistance, but that should have been done at the beginning.” Mahanta is part of an eight-member committee formed by the power ministry to sort out the issue, one of four members from Assam (the other four are from the central government). Mahanta says he has questioned NHPC’s seismic studies on the project.

“They say the dam can withstand a G force up to .38, based on a Richter scale reading as high as 8. But what if there’s an earthquake with an intensity of 8.5 or 8.75? The G force could go up to .44 then.” In 1950, there was an earthquake measuring 8.6. The epicentre was just beyond Arunachal’s eastern boundary with China. The 1897 Assam earthquake might have been even more powerful.

In 1950 the Subansiri was blocked near its mouth for three days by landslides and debris, before the water burst out and flooded the entire downstream area. The botanist and explorer Frank Kingdom-Ward described how “millions of tons of rock and sand” poured into the main rivers and their tributaries. Since then the Brahmaputra, whose bed was raised by the deposits, has overflowed its banks more regularly and with much more severity.

NHPC says the National Committee on Seismic Design Parameters has approved the structure and that the site cannot face forces greater than those caused by a temblor measuring 8 on the Richter scale. But factoring in a larger event would call for a change in design, which would increase project costs (already up to Rs 16,000 crore from the initial Rs 6,000 crore) as well as the unit cost of power. Mahanta also points out that NHPC has dug nine metres deep into the sandstone for the foundation, whereas the Board’s design called for a 16-metre foundation—the depth at which more stable rock is found. He concedes that the NHPC in its other projects in Tawang and the Dibang Valley has factored in earthquakes higher than 8 on the Richter scale.

Just a few hours before I met Mahanta at his office on January 4, a lengthy pre-dawn tremor measuring 6.8 with its epicentre in Manipur sent people all over the North-East running out of their houses in panic.

Another objection from activists regards the quantum of water flow from the turbines. NHPC has agreed to operate one turbine continuously, so a minimum flow of 300 cumec (cubic metres per second)—comparable to the lean season flow—is maintained. With all eight turbines running, the discharge would be 3,500 cumec, comparable to peak monsoon flow. The apprehension is that if turbines are stopped during low power demand, the fall and rise of the river along its 130 kilometre course to the Brahmaputra would affect aquatic life and cause erosion. NHPC is setting up embankments at places with porcupine structures to cope with the latter, but local fishermen and woodcutters say fish and driftwood have both decreased after the river was diverted.

There’s a feeling among those watching the project that if the BJP comes to power in Assam in this year’s assembly elections—it won half the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats in 2014—the Centre will get the project done. Also, in 2015, the Power Grid Corporation of India completed at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore a high-capacity 800kV 6,000MW transmission line from Bishwanath Chariali on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam to Agra in Uttar Pradesh. In future the lines will transfer power from the northeastern region and Bhutan to the national grid (Bhutan is working on developing, with financial and technical assistance from India, projects with a capacity of 10GW by 2020).

“We feel the Centre will get the project done one way or the other as the country needs power,” Monoj Gogoi, an anti-dam activist, had told me during my first visit to the project site. If an understanding is reached with the groups agitating against the project, as some say is already happening, NHPC will need to get the turbine parts to the site and construction will resume.

However, there seems to be little hope of any long-term measures for flood control, both at the state and central level, across Brahmaputra’s impoverished north bank. People from Dhemaji and Lakhimpur will keep leaving, looking for jobs elsewhere, as far as Maharashtra and Goa. The trafficking of minors from among the poor tea tribes and tribal communities will continue. And in an area with a high percentage of educated unemployed, attempts by the Maoists to widen their base will only increase.

In the west of Arunachal, among the mountains of West Kameng district, the powerhouse of Neepco’s 600MW Kameng project at Kimi is nearing completion. The state’s project will have a 14.5 kilometre head-race tunnel under the mountains and a two-kilometre surface high-pressure tunnel delivering water from the 69-metre Bichom dam and the 24.5-metre Tenga dam to the powerhouse on the right bank of the Kameng at Kimi. The Bichom and the Tenga are tributaries of the Kameng, and the smaller Tenga dam, which is meant to supplement the flow during the lean winter season. The water will reach the powerhouse at a velocity of 4 metres per sec through two penstock pipes and turn the four 150MW turbines to produce 350 crore units of electricity annually.

Neepco hopes to have one turbine running by mid-2016 and the other three within a year or two of that. The project has overstretched its deadline of 2009, and the cost has doubled to Rs 5,000 crore. Inaccurate initial geological reports led to changes and delays in tunnelling, and the difficulties of logistics and communications in this remote area were underestimated. A kutcha road branching off the highway in a loop for some 90 kilometre has been cut out to access the powerhouse and dam sites.

Along the Assam foothills in early November, the paddy was being harvested. The picture postcard view on the Tezpur–Tawang highway was marred by soldiers patrolling from Nameri to Tippi past the border town of Bhalukpung. An NHPC manager returning from Tawang had been kidnapped by militants near Nameri in 2013. About 75 kilometre from Tezpur, the kutcha road branches off the highway at Pinjoli and crawls along the side of the mountains, in places the jade green waters of the Kameng visible down below. There are solitary transmission towers awaiting power lines, and one or two patches of paddy on the hillsides. The area is sparsely populated by the Aka tribe (Buragaon is the main village near the dams and powerhouse) with some Monpas and Nyishis.

At Kimi a new but empty and dusty residential and office complex on a hillside awaits the project’s commissioning. The few households of Kimi village have been moved to nearby Khupi, with their consent, Neepco officials say. The staff operate from a smaller office complex cleared out of the jungle in 2004. There is a large switchyard and a flat grassy area with numerous pipe segments lying out in the open. A bumpy track leads to a construction site by the river, with the powerhouse to the left, and two or three shabby huts to the right, the offices of Patel Engineering, the contractors for Neepco.

Behind them the jagged rocks at the river’s edge and the hills on the other side form the upper boundary of the Pakke tiger reserve. Workers pump cement mix from a machine up to the power house. In the office (a low roof with a fan whirring just under the ceiling) and speak to the supervisor, an Assamese youth from Nagaon. He stays at the nearby Patel Engineering colony, and goes home once every two to three months.

“The road is terrible during the monsoons and it is difficult to bring equipments and supplies to the site,” he said. I went in through the high entrance to have a look: a fixed crane on top for assembling the turbines. Walking past the turbine parts on the floor I saw the actual scale of the building, an immense chamber with people at work down below on the turbine cavities. A young engineer from Odisha mentioned how there were four entry pipes, one for each turbine, through which water would come in from the two penstock pipes. The turbines being assembled would weigh 85 tonnes each. It was strange to see something so huge and technical coming up in the middle of a jungle.

The project site, from construction areas to storage yards to the shabby but well-stocked shops had, along with the bumpy and muddy roads, the feel of a frontier settlement. I felt some of the engineers working here might come to enjoy this isolation and freedom. They were open to technical questions about the project, but weren’t too comfortable with questions about the politics of dams. They would rather talk about the surge shaft and penstock pipes, concrete and steel linings for tunnels, water flows and water levels in the dams.

16._A_turbine_cavity_for_a_150MW_85-ton_turbine_in_the_machine_room_of_the_Kameng_HEP_s_powerhouse_at_Kimi__Arunachal__fo1-1024x768.jpgA cavity for a 150MW 85-ton turbine in the machine room of the Kameng hydroelectric project’s powerhouse at Kimi, Arunachal.

Wildlife activists have voiced concerns about the effect of the dam on fish in the Kameng, especially mahseer, and also on the downstream areas, particularly the Nameri national park in Sonitpur district. But there have been no widespread protests. After Sonitpur lost almost all of its 1,000 square kilometres reserve forests to politically-sanctioned encroachment and deforestation over the past three decades, the condition of a river doesn’t appear to bother people.

The project chief spent a decade at the Ranganadi project powerhouse, and was then at Neepco’s headquarters in Shillong. He said there was no problem with the locals (though the man from Patel said they initially protested and called bandhs). He had asked the people at the resettled village of Kuphi to clear some jungle and grow vegetables which they could sell to Neepco (supplies come from Tezpur), but they didn’t want to do that. He said, “I’ve seen an Arunachali who used to come to Ranganadi wearing slippers, he became a contractor, and now has a house and cars in Yazali and a flat in Delhi, all with Neepco money”.

Two more engineers came into his office while I was there, to discuss communication issues (the BSNL tower was down, a frequent occurrence) and logistics. They work late into the night, most men away from their families, while at the project site work continues 24 hours a day. All of them had stories to share: the last call to their families from Balipara after Tezpur in the days when mobile connectivity was even worse, the engineer who got a message in the middle of the night that his daughter had passed away and then drove through the night to Tezpur only to find out that the news had been about his brother’s daughter, landslides on both ends of the kutcha road cutting Kimi off, the engineer who died while load testing on a bridge just after Pinjoli. The elder brother of the dead engineer, himself an engineer at Kimi, said to me, “We are like soldiers serving the country, but unsung ones.”

The project chief said local politicians in Assam blamed the Ranganadi project for floods, whereas it had mostly helped control them. “We have a single person in a one-room office at Yingkiong for the DPR for our 3,750MW Upper Siang II project, but he has been asked to vacate the place by anti-dam groups.” A similar fate seems to await the NHPC’s 6,000MW Upper Siang I project.

The next day an engineer took me to Kuphi, or pachis (25 kilometre) as they called it, with pineapples on the upper hillside, an orange orchard below, and bamboo and toko pat Aka houses with the usual runny-nosed kids. The Aka tribe are supposed to be the only one in Arunachal to have migrated upward from the plains. There were two pucca houses, the larger one the village headman’s (he did contract work with Neepco) with a small truck outside it. Water and electricity had been provided and there was a school, a long, single-storey building. The engineer said most of the people preferred their old-style houses.

On our way up to have a look at the penstock pipes, the road was all dust and stones. The pipe segments were being welded together by workers with only a hard hat as protection (most are from Bengal and Odisha). The two pipes came down from the hill above, and where they were covered with cement they looked like bunkers. Further down the hill they were joining segments beyond which were the two vertical entry shafts from where the water would separate into four streams and enter the powerhouse. There were mobile generators and cement mixers, and rusting iron and steel everywhere. High above, from where the cement casings for the pipes came down, an excavator was clearing the hillside. Beside the pipes, on the slope, was a stone crushing unit. There was something oddly impressive about the whole enterprise.

The engineer himself was from Assam, and had been with Neepco since 1980. He said the Lower Subansiri imbroglio should be solved by negotiation.

“At Kopili and then at Ranganadi the local people first said they wouldn’t let the projects come up. But that was just a way to bargain with us while negotiating. The same is the case with this project. Now we have no problems with the locals.”

He told me about a geologist who had been crushed under tons of earth at the Ranganadi project, and an engineer who lost his life there when going up to check a blasting site. When they were about to close the head-race tunnel before operation at Ranganadi, he nearly had tears in his eyes.

The engineer went home for about a week each month, but after a few days he would start missing life back at the site. “It might sound bad to say so, but that’s how it is.” Then he added, “When I retire, I’m going to miss this life.”

Published from the February 2016 issue of Fountain Ink