in the wake of Uttarakhand…

As the recent Uttarakhand disaster has shown, the relationship between development and the ecology cannot be regarded as a zero sum game. Not in this country, at least, which will soon be the most populous, and one of the countries likely to be the worst affected by climate change. Yet, state after state is brushing environment concerns aside – with the central environment ministry playing along. And one state where some of the most irresponsible tinkering with natural systems has taken place is Arunachal Pradesh.

the past few days have been spent in gujarat, researching my latest story. while there, i wrote this story based on all my arunachal reporting earlier this year for the times of india’s crest edition. it was a part of a larger package on how the country is making a mess of the env/dev tradeoff. (UPDATE (2018). Crest has been shuttered. The report is nowhere to be found. And so, pasting my final draft here.)

In the days after the Uttarakhand cloudburst, a tired old defense was again trotted out.

Responding to charges that environmental mismanagement – illegal construction close to rivers, unregulated pilgrim traffic, unchecked deforestation on the mountain slopes – had all contributed to the high fatalities, the state government hit back saying that the environment could not be allowed to retard development. That a “balance” needs to be maintained between environmental concerns and people’s developmental aspirations.

This is a response we hear often. It surfaced two years ago, for instance, when the debate over Go and No Go areas for coal mining was raging.

But take a closer look and you will find these belligerent responses hide more than they reveal.

Take Arunachal Pradesh. Between 2006 and now, this state in north-eastern India has signed an incredible 153 MoUs for hydelpower projects on eight river basins. This translates into one of the highest concentration of hydel projects anywhere in the world.

As expected, the environmental costs are high. Not only is this part of the himalayas prone to large earthquakes, these dams will also change rivers’ behaviour.

Arunachal is building what are called run of the river (RoR) projects – dams used only for power generation. Unlike thermal power plants which take a long time to warm up and cool down and are therefore used only for meeting base demand, hydel projects can generate power at the flick of a switch. All you have to do is get the water to spin the turbines.

In a RoR project, the dam’s wall stops the river from flowing as before. The reservoir fills up. In the evening, water is released to meet peak demand. Once the reservoir is empty, power generation stops, the floodgates are closed, and the reservoir slowly fills up again.

What does this mean for a river? Take the Lohit, which flows out of Arunachal and into the Brahmaputra. According to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for one of the dams coming up on the river — the Lower Demwe Hydro Electric Project — the Lohit’s flow is around 463 cubic metres per second (cumecs) in winter, 832 cumecs in summer and 2,050 cumecs in the rains. (A 3 cumecs flow is akin to a Tata Nano passing you every second.)

This will change once the dam comes up. For up to 20 hours a day , says the EIA report, the dam will trap the river, releasing just 35 cumecs (12 Nanos a second). The remaining will be released to spin the turbines only when demand for electricity rises in the evening. At that time, the river’s flow will expand to 1,729 cumecs (576 Nanos a second). As the reservoir empties out, the river will again shrink to 35 cumecs.

This is palpably new. River flows ebb and rise over months. “But now, what was an annual variation will now be a daily variation,” says MD Madhusudan, a biologist with Mysore- based Nature Conservation Foundation.

And this is from just one dam. Arunachal is building 153. To imagine their combined impact, see the EIA report for the Jaypee Group’s Lower Siang Project. If waters from the three terminal dams on the Lohit, Subansiri and the Siang rivers reach the floodplains at the same time, it says, the Brahmaputra’s height will fluctuate daily by 2-3 metres, as far as 65 km downstream. This unpredictability of flow will affect fishing communities and those farming in the Brahmaputra’s floodplains.

For its part, Arunachal defends these dams saying they will accelerate development in the state.

Which makes sense till you realise that, for all its proclaimed urgency to ensure development, the Arunachal government has mainly signed MoUs with companies with little or no experience in hydel. Google a company called Nano Excel Power to see for yourself.

In fact, as a recent CAG report noted, around 2005, the state took hydel projects away from the National Hydro-Electric Power Corporation (NHPC) and discretionarily gave them to private companies – some of which were new to hydel power. Till now, work has not begun on any of these projects.

Other MoUs are with companies that lack the finances. The outcome? A secondary market for trading in the licenses has come up. For instance, the company with the largest number of MoUs in Arunachal is politician Amar Singh’s Energy Development Company. At the time of signing these MoUs, it had less than 20 MW of hydel power generating capacity. It has, however, signed MoUs over 550 MW with Arunachal.

Singh is now looking for people willing to invest in his Arunachal projects. He says he is willing to divest up to 74%, perhaps even more, to anyone interested.

Those are the questions. If the state was so eager for rapid development, why would it sign MoUs with untested, financially incapable companies? Nor is it clear why the state signed more MoUs than it could support – it has signed MoUs for locations without roads, bridges, transmission links? It has also signed more MoUs than it can support in terms of its equity contribution.

It would have been better to reach out to more established companies and to build fewer dams after better studies. For some reason, that was not done. Nor is it clear why the state decided against building multi-purpose dams – which can also do flood control which is useful in an area that gets cloudbursts – and began building only RoR dams which, thanks to their small reservoirs, cannot store large amounts of water.

There are other questions. These dams are coming up close to each other. On the Lohit, the distance between six dams is 1 km, 9.5 km, 1.8 km, 3.8 km and 1.8 km, respectively. There are no studies on what such clustering portends for a river or how they will behave during a quake.

My paper, the Economic Times, spent three months studying Arunachal’s hydel boom. Bureaucrats were unwilling to answer any of these questions.

Look deeper yet and you see that the logic here was not rapid development. It was more akin to Coalgate. The discretionary allocation of natural resources – through MoUs — in return for rent.

In the process, the groundwork for another, perhaps larger, environmental disaster has been done.

too much coal in too few hands

So far, debates over Coalgate have been an exercise in selective attention. In the early days, most discussion pivoted around the UPA’s decision to allot blocks through the screening committee, and not auctions. The spotlight then settled on politicians whose family members got coal blocks, before moving to the UPA’s inspired attempts to vet what the CBI tells the Supreme Court. It is now refocusing on Naveen Jindal and Dasari Narayana Rao. The focus was, and is, mainly on morality.

In the process, the discourse has neglected two important questions. One, it has not understood the real fallouts of Coalgate. Two, the related question on how to fix this mess has received hardly any attention.

from my comment piece on the real contours of coalgate and how to fix things in yesterday’s ET’s edit page. this is based on all the reporting my colleagues and i did on coalgate between june 2012 and now. if you want further data on any of the points i make in this column, head here.

a trip to southern chhattisgarh

at a village near bhairamgarh, bijapur.

at a village near bhairamgarh, bijapur.

i just got back from a week-long trip to southern chhattisgarh.

if you, dear reader, hail from india then you almost certainly know the context for this trip. late last month, left-wing extremists (naxals, for the rest of this post) ambushed a convoy ferrying leaders of the congress party in chhattisgarh. about 27 people died, among them senior congress leaders in the state — including its state chief, and a leader called mahendra karma, who was the leader of a tribal militia called salwa judum set up with the help of the state to fight the naxals.

it was an unnerving development. for the longest time, tribals have been getting hammered as naxals and security forces fight each other. now, this latest attack appeared to presage an intensification of conflict with inevitably dire consequences for the tribals.

well. the thing is this. i was in chhattisgarh for a week. i filed two stories. the first on the day i reached dantewada which gave a broad overview re: the three likely fallouts of this attack. and the second during the night after reaching jagdalpur. this one went into more detail, speaking about the human costs of this conflict — skewed development, tribals being ground between the naxals and the state forces, and so on.

but those stories are not what this damned post is all about. there are far more insightful stories about southern chhattisgarh than what i have written — links to some of them are appended below. this was my first trip into the (buffer) areas where the state and the naxals are tussling for control — not the areas fully controlled by naxals — and it threw up large questions that I am now struggling with.

for one, it was hard to comprehend just how much violence this part of the country has seen in recent times. take karma’s salwa judum.

in their bid to weed out naxals, its SPOs (the tribal militia) began pointing out villagers with alleged links with naxals to police officials. they began going to villages and telling them to join the judum. anyone who did not join would be regarded as a naxal. next, in a bid to isolate the naxals further, the SPOs began telling villagers to leave their villages for special camps. they told the state government no ration should be given to villages which did not move to the camps. they started killing people they knew were naxal sympathisers. over time, this degenerated further. SPOs began using their guns to settle scores. some of the violence also began to unfold along tribal lines.

soon, conflict broke out between the judum and the naxals. at chingavaram village, naxals blasted a passenger bus carrying some SPOs along with locals. at Errabore, the Judum camp was burnt. about 40 people died. there were sundry executions. villages that wanted to stay unaffiliated found they would be attacked by SPOs if they did not go. but if they did go, they would be regarded as hostile by the naxals. and vulnerable to attack if they returned to their village. this resulted in some villagers leaving chhattisgarh for andhra pradesh where there are now an estimated 218 villages of chhattisgarhi tribals leading a twilight existence hiding from AP forest officials.

the camps had their own problems. at one time, each camp had as many as 20,000-30,000 people. there was little rice, enough for just one meal in a day, the dal had insects in it, there was no work. all people could do was sit around and wait. and the problem with leaving was that either the SPOs or the naxals would kill them.

over the past couple of years, the naxals have relaxed their embargo and told villagers they can return. today, camps like Errabore (which was started in late 2005) are much smaller than before. the only families still staying there are those expelled from the village by the naxals. and those of the SPOs. some villagers have shifted entirely. others, still unsure, go to their villages to work their fields, etc, but come back to the camp to sleep.

that was the old conflict. now, the state is seeing a new form of conflict — between naxals and the armed forces like the CRPF/state police. as between the judum and the naxals, similar battles of retribution between the naxals and crpf’s supporters continue. as for the SPOs, while the judum has been wound up, they are still around — now working as junior constables. commiting some, if not all, of their old excesses but also living in fear that the naxals will bump them off.


the second thing is how unequal the media’s reportage was to all these processes playing out.

reporters wanting to cover the war on green terror or whatever catchphrase they chose to parrot enter a polarised landscape. there are two camps. the hardliners — the government, local middle class, etc — demand instant action. this is a set of people who see the accompanying (tribal) costs of such impudent action as no more than perhaps necessary or inevitable “collateral damage”. who point at lanka’s crackdown on the tamils as an exemplar.

the second set pillory (correctly) the state for its human rights violations but seem to conflate the naxal and tribal questions. while at dantewada, for instance, i caught a part of a debate on TV where naxalism was being depicted by a JNU prof as an outcome of state failure. the state, said the lady, had been so irresponsive to their concerns that the tribals had finally mounted an armed insurrection. this school of thought also says that the tribals are turning maoist in order to protect their traditional way of life from mining companies, etc.

but the tribal story is one of underdevelopment and exploitation. the naxal one is about wanting to overthrow the indian state. i am very puzzled about this. what is the relationship between these two? which came first? the tribal uprising followed by aid and succour and training and whatnot from the naxals? or did the naxals come in first — seeking a new habitat given that andhra was running anti-naxal operations against them — followed by the tribals joining them? or, if you say that the naxals came in to help the tribals, then whose decision was it re: the nature of the counter-response to be mounted? did the tribals decide or did the naxals decide on their behalf?

if it is the naxals who decided, then it is the same old story, isn’t it? just like assorted state departments and do-gooding NGOs, are the naxals too trying to impose their model of development on the tribals? (also, development at the point of a gun?).


even as the two camps put out selective (and self-serving) versions of the truth, politicians and others began leaking conspiracy theories. a senior cong leader was in touch with maoists on the day of the attack; the bjp orchestrated this; no, the congress did; the naxals are on the payroll of the BJP…

in all, things were getting rather confusing. which is roughly when you would expect the media to step in, shine a torch here and there, and conjure up sense out of this stupid storm of suggestions and insinuations.

here is what it did instead.

two days after the attack, one editorial in a local paper said: “the call of the moment is to wage a limited-purpose war on the red terror with a fight-to-finish motive.” i come back to raipur five days later and i see another line in a hindi paper: “a week has gone by and the government and its agencies have done no kaarnama (have taken no action, loosely).” an edit in an english paper said salwa judum should be brought back.*

television took all this to another level. i saw documentaries which tried to sway the audience, not through analysis or reason, but through emotional footage of people weeping at the funerals of the leaders, or by playing sorrowful music to drive up sympathy for one set of victims.

(there is a left-wing equivalent for this. last month, i saw a documentary screened at delhi’s india habitat centre on the myriad struggles against the state. there too, relying on no more than the right background score or the right camera angle, the docu tried to manipulate opinions. in one shot, young maoist fighters are standing with their right arms outstretched, squeezing the index finger in empty air — miming the firing of a pistol. in another shot, training is underway at the kanker camp set up to impart jungle fighting education to the armed forces. here, cadets are running and the official in charge, wearing red jodhpurs, is on a horse. and the way the biases of the film are, and the one way the biases of the IHC audience were, people tittered whenever the army guy barked out his instruction or the cadets slid down ropes yelling — for some godforsaken reason — “COMMANDO!!!” but stayed quiet at the ‘let us all now pretend to fire pistols’ sequence. i do not mean to be facetious. looking at the army of muscular cadets being trained to take on scrawny 20-25 year old tribal kids highlighted the tragedy underway. it was just that the docu was so busy scoring cheap rhetorical shots that a chance to push everyone’s understanding a degree deeper was lost.)

this, as a friend told me, is a complicated part of the country. even if one is well-intentioned, try and file stories super-fast and you will miss vital nuance. what the people in the town of dantewada say will be different from what the tribals say but it might be the same as what people in the judum camps say. also, you cannot take what the villagers tell you as representative of all villagers either. villagers in the buffer zone might feel differently about things from those in the naxal-controlled areas. (i learnt this the hard way. the story published in the physical paper has less nuance than its online version. i reworked it after returning to delhi).

the deeper you go, the bonds between the villagers and the naxals, i am told, do change into something more familial — most families will know someone who is a naxal. even if the naxals came in and began imposing their values and ideas on the tribals, enough time has gone by for the tribals in these villages to start feeling comfortable with at least some of the naxal cadre. not with all cadre, mind you. for there is some violence directed by the naxals against the villagers in their control. one of the links appended below focuses on that.

as it is, the deeper you go, the villagers, unfamiliar with hindi, daunted by the processes playing out around them and unsure whom to trust, get more and more reticent. understanding what they think gets harder and harder. (and that is assuming you can reach them).

like my friend said, this is very complex.

but little of this nuance percolated into the coverage. nor did much get said about the human costs of this battle.

it makes you wonder. what chance does more measured reporting have in this age where rabble-rousing has replaced reportage as the bait for readers and viewers? does it get swamped? is it still possible to contribute to the public discourse? or is there a political economy sort of an engine at work here taking us towards inevitable conclusions and outcomes?

and how will this end? the centre is leaning towards military responses. the naxals are unwilling to talk. if anything, by attacking political leaders, they have paved the way for an intensification of conflict and placed the tribals in harm’s way. and if the crpf is not able to discriminate between the naxals and the tribals, what should one expect? more of this war of attrition with the price being paid by some of the most vulnerable people in this country?


and so it goes. i promised to put up some good articles on the situation in southern chhattisgarh. am appending those links now. this list, i should add, will keep growing as i read more. a wiki of sorts in a blog.

(post attack)



3. (in which the naxals take ownership and explain why.)

4. on the vast gulf of incomprehension between the chhattisgarhi tribals living in the conflict zones and the indian state + indian press + the rest of the country.



2. (this one tells you about life in naxal controlled villages).

3. (on naxal cash flows from essar)

4. (on mahendra karma)

5. (an essay in seminar where dileep simeon discusses the link between naxals and tribals. he says: “The Naxalite movement is not a movement of landless peasants and tribals seeking to overthrow state power. It is a project defined as such by those who are neither peasants nor workers nor tribals; but who claim to represent their interests. The right to make this claim was dependent upon what the earliest Naxalites referred to as ‘revolutionary authority’. The mantle of legitimate authority was obtained via certification by the international communist movement, in this case from the Chinese Communist Party led by Chairman Mao.“)

6. check out their march, 2010, issue which is dedicated to “red resurgence”.

7. and then, there are books. on adivasi resistance? in fiction, jangal ke daavedaar, by mahasweta devi. not to mention titu mir, again by her. in non-fic, birsa munda, by ks singh. more recently, a rogue and peasant slave, by shashank kela. there is also protest in democratic india by leslie calman. and contested domains by akhileshwar pathak.  on life in conflict areas? rebels from the mud houses by george kunnath. windows into a rebellion by alpa shah and judith pettigrew. alpa shah’s in the shadows of the state. i have read some of these. the others, along with a bunch of papers on the kindle, are awaiting their turn. too many things to do + time wasting too easily = a rajshekhar who has entirely failed to keep up.

also, here, some photos of mine from this trip.

* a passage in mahasweta devi’s khoimala dewana and the holy banyan tree explains editorials like the one which wanted salwa judum resurrected. she talks about renunciation, detachment and indifference and how the third can emerge from the first two. with distance comes detachment and detachment can all too easily become indifference. once out of the field, concerns about the folks one met there start to recede. put enough distance between us and southern chhattisgarh and even the battles underway there become no more than a game of chess.