Ticking Hydro-Bombs and Life in the Brahmaputra Valley

Dr. Siddhartha Kumar Lahiri


NE India finds a beautiful combination of valley-range relationship. If lofty mountains like the Eastern Himalayas force the monsoon to yield orographic precipitation; there is further supplementation to the big rivers by the glacial melt. A huge amount of water and sediments constituted of heavier bed-loads and finer suspended loads are being carried continuously by different streams and rivers related principally to the Brahmaputra River system. As per the recent estimates, sediment yield of the Brahmaputra is 852.4t/km2/yr which is the highest in the world (Latrubesse, 2008). With a mean annual discharge of 21,200m3/s, measured at Bahadurabad in Bangladesh, Brahmaputra is the seventh largest river in the world (Tandon and Sinha, 2007). The complex source-sink relationship of the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal connected by the massive Brahmaputra River system has suddenly become highly vulnerable due to the proposed and ongoing construction of some of the biggest dams and hydro-power projects (Fig. 1).

arunachal district and dams

Fig. 1. Proposed sites of big dams and the associated ‘Hydro-bombs’ in the Arunachal Pradesh. Work has already begun in some of the sites. Life in the upper Assam valley is in dire straits. (Source: Neeraj Vagholikar, Sanctuary Asia)

An estimated capacity of 60,000 megawatt electricity generation is targeted (Lahiri &Borgohain, 2011). How big is this number? The present day need of electricity at its peak hour for the entire NE India is less than 5000 megawatt. Then, why so much of hydro-electricity generation is targeted? The answer is simple and can be found in the colonial legacy of the area. The people living in the place for centuries were never considered as stakeholders of significance whenever big issues involving big capital like energy sector came into the forefront.

Campaigning against the big dams all over the world has already reached such a proportion that none of the advanced countries intend to raise even a single big dam in their own territories fearing sharp resistance from different corners of the civil society. It has already been recognised that leave aside all negative impacts, if alone the ecological alteration is considered, post-dam scenario offers a no return situation. However, for the third world countries, pedagogy for the oppressed takes a ‘U’-turn (See: World Bank, Water and Development, 2010). Official documents, more or less all over India, are tailored according to the needs of the big capital investors, take hardly any time to issue NOCs; suggesting routinely huge benefits at little costs. But as soon as the moments of vast devastation comes, the bogeys of ‘extreme events’ (Ziegler et al., 2014) (hence, lack of adequate administrative preparedness); ‘inattentive or callousness of the lower level stuffs’ are raised to divert the woes of the sufferers. The sufferers narrate their experiences before the TV channels; hearts of the safer spectators melt; donations pour in and one party shouts the mismanagement in supplying relief and the party in the power boasts of their promptness in reaching the flood affected people. However, during the mock shows of TV battles, it is concealed that every year, with addition of new big dams, increasing numbers of hydro-power bombs are planted and at some points of time these are supposed to blast. For most of the big dam constructions, the down-stream impact of probable ‘flash floods’ were never studied in detail. But even a gross estimate can reveal the magnitude of havoc. Let us take a simple example. We have mentioned above the mean annual rate of water discharge measured through the Brahmaputra is about 21,200 m3/s. Let us consider a tributary river through which lesser than one hundred times of this volume flows which is say, 200 m3/s. If a dam suddenly releases water accumulated for just three days, the volume of water is about 5.2 × 107 m3. What does it literally mean? It simply shows that a field 10km long and 1 km wide becomes submerged under 5m (single storied building) high water column within minutes. One can well imagine its impact. The incubating dangers in big dams are nothing but the ticking hydro-bombs – who can deny it? Big dams are an immediate threat to the life of the Brahmaputra valley.

This will be the right place to have a quick look of ‘life’ in the Brahmaputra valley. Though Brahmaputra valley is famous for the ‘Assam Tea’ to the external world; the richness of its natural resources are present in very diverse forms on the surface and at different depths of the subsurface. If tea, different varieties of rice and citrus plants are there on the open space for everybody to see; there is limestone at shallower depths; coal at a little more depth and then oil and gas in the depth range of 1.5 – 5.0 kms. Thanks to the British Raj which made very cautious moves to keep the original inhabitants of the place away from its meticulously planned enclaves of economic activities where labourers from different places of India were brought to till and farm the ‘Lords’ Gardens’ following the similar colonial policies practised in the West Indies Islands and elsewhere like Mauritius.

The British rulers made considerable efforts to explore (Rennell, 1765; Wilcox, 1830) and develop waterways because river transport mechanism was the cheapest among all types of transport systems. Railway tracts were laid down with equal enthusiasm where connectivity through water ways was not possible. Strangely, even after the constitutional power transfer in the August 15, 1947; semi-colonial and semi-feudal socio-economic structure was maintained and preserved in the most sacrosanct manner by the Indian state which treated the NE India a ‘remote place’ from its perception of the mainland India (A simple example is, an ONGC employee posted in the NE states gets a ‘remote area allowance’). A remarkable difference between the ‘British Raj’ and the ‘Swaraj’ was, waterways were not managed properly by the ‘Swarajwallahs’ and a costly roadway transport system was encouraged to appease principally the truck and other motor car lobbies belonging mostly to the ‘cow belt’ of India. Subsequently, the roadways deteriorated a lot which helped to consolidate the ‘remoteness’ discourse and ever-inflated price tags for even the most essential goods like potatoes and onions.

The local political machinery is treated by the Indian state as an equivalent to a municipal board which is practically dissociated from the management and decision-making on most of the major resources like oil, coal and tea. In annual budget reports, the accountancy of what exactly is taken away from the state is hardly mentioned. The highlights of the matter mostly show a small basket of revenue collection and a huge basket of ‘grants from the centre’ and the people belonging to the state are made to believe that unless certain ‘grants’ and ‘doles’ come from the ‘centre’, it may collapse at any time. To ensure the ‘security of the people’ the ‘strong centre’ should be given a ‘free hand’ to explore and exploit different mineral and oil resources and the lately added item the ‘Water resources’.

During the ongoing period of unprecedented length of global recession when the safer heavens of big foreign capital investments are shrinking at a very faster pace; any market expert, whatever might be her/his political affiliation; will admit that the hydro-power sectors promising a sustainable rate of super profit for a century in ideal situations and at least half a century for even the most conservative estimates, is highly tempting. Thus, in spite of getting continuous signals of the magnitude of dangers from the big dams, the canards of developments by constructing big dams are continuously been raised by the official political class in power. They have sold themselves to the whims of the corporate class. Right at the moment, the people of the Brahmaputra valley vis-a-vis their relationship with the projects of big dams seem to stand as described by two social scientists in a slightly different context about 180 years back:

“…veiled by religious and political illusions, it (Read: the big capital) has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation…all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” (Marx & Engels, 1848)

(The author is an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Geology, Dibrugarh University, Assam and the editor of South East Asian Journal of Sedimentary Basin Research. He brings in a rare element of interdisciplinary research, between natural and social sciences. He is also associated with Natun Padatik, as an Associate Editor, and can be reached at siddharthalahiri@dibru.ac.in)

Lahiri, S.K., Borgohain, J., 2011. Rohmoria’s Challenge : Natural Disasters, Popular Protests and State Apathy, Economic and Political Weekly XLVI ( 2), 31-35.

Latrubesse, E., 2008. Patterns of anabranching channels: the ultimate end-member adjustment of mega rivers. Geomorphology 101, 130–145.

Marx, K., Engels, F., 1848. Manifesto of the Communist Party, Translated in English by Samuel moore in 1888 from the original German text, 38-39.

Rennell, J., 1765. A general map of the River Baramputrey, from its confluence with the Ifsamuty near Dacca towards Assam, India Office Library and Records, London, UK.

Tandon, S.K., Sinha, R., 2007. Geology of large rivers. In: Gupta, A. (Ed.), Large Rivers: Geomorphology and Management. John Wiley & Sons, pp. 7–28.

Wilcox, R., 1830. Map of the Brahmaputra and Ichamati Rivers. Reduced and drawn by M.H. Dias, India Office Library and records, London, UK

Ziegler, A.D., Wasson, R.J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y.P., Sati, S.P., Juyal, N., Nautiyal, V., Srivastava, P., Gillen J., and Saklani, U.,2014. Pilgrims, progress, and the political economy of disaster preparedness – the example of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood and Kedarnath disaster. Hydrological Processes, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.