Tribals Fight for Access Rights in North East India

By Ritwick Dutta (August 16, 2008) 

There are reasons to smile for the members of the Idu Mishmi community in the North Eastern State of Arunachal Pradesh located in the Himalayan Mountain Ranges: The Government on 13-08-08 has cancelled the proposed Public Hearing for the proposed 3000 MW Hydel Power Dam to be located in Dibang District of Arunachal Pradesh.

For more than a year, local tribal communities have been protesting against the dam touted to be among the highest in the Country on the ground that it woud devastate the fragile ecology and destroy the culture and livelihood of the Idu Mishmi Community numbering only 8000 Individuals.

The Dibang Dam is a classic instance of a fight of a local community for access to Information and Participation and a partial victory of the community. When the first Public Hearing was announced, local tribal community sent a legal notice through Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) requesting for postponement of the hearing in view of the fact that the Environment Impact Assessment Report was not available at designated places and only an electronic version was made available in a state where people hardly had access to Internet. The Government relented and directed that no Public Hearing be conducted till the required EIA Reports are made available at the designated places for access to the community. The Public Hearing was planned over two phases. The first Public Hearing saw large scale protests by community members.

As the Public Hearing process was underway, in a shocking development aimed clearly at undermining the Public consultation process, the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh decided to lay the foundation stone for the project at Itanagar, the State Capital located more than 500 Km from the project site ! This was met with stiff opposition both locally and nationally.

Finally, the date for the second Public Hearing was fixed on 20-8-2008. However, the community was shocked to learn that the place for conducting the Public Hearing was more than 100 Km from the affected villages and project site. The Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006 provides for conducting the Public Hearing in or in proximity to the project site. In the North Eastern Part of the country characterized by undulating terrain and heavy rainfall travelling 100 Km could very well take even upto a day’s journey.

The Community members with the support of Neeraj Vagholikar of NGO Kalpavriksh contacted Rahul Choudhary, Environmental lawyer and member of TAI Himalayan Coalition who immediately shot off a legal notice during the first week of August, 2008 citing violation of Principles of Natural Justice and provisions of the EIA procedure by conducting the Public Hearing at such a distant place which would make it difficult for the affected community to participate and thereby defeating the whole purpose of Public Hearing.

See also A Public Hearing without the ‘real’ public: Notes from TAI Himalayas

On 13th August, Community members were pleasantly surprised to know that the proposed Public Hearing has been cancelled. Even more important was the fact that the Chief Minister of the State has called for a meeting with all the concerned organizations who have been raising the issue with respect to the Dam to be held on 20-8-2008.

The happenings in the far eastern State of Arunachal has important lessons for the rest of the Country. The community is convinced that there is no use of Public Consultation unless it is based on adequate and proper information about the dam and its impact and the fact that people should be able to participate effectively in the Public Hearing. Easy access to the place where the Public Hearing is conducted is as important as access to information. In the absence of these pre conditions, the Public Hearing process becomes a mere formality and procedure to be accomplished in the EIA process. For the Idu Mishmi Community, it is their first step in securing their access rights.

Ritwick Dutta Ritwick (ritwickdutta@gmail.com) is the leader of the TAI Himalayan Coalition and the founder of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) and is based in New Delhi