Dam protest unites Kukis and kindred spirits in Myanmar

LAST month, Kuki women from Manipur demonstrated in New Delhi to show solidarity with kindred spirits in Myanmar (Sagaing division) who are demanding that construction of the Tamanthi Dam be stopped. Many Myanmarese refugees living in the capital also participated. Tamanthi Dam, a hydel project on the Chindwin river, is being built by the National Hydroelectric Project Corporation of India and Colenco Power Engineering Ltd, Switzerland, at an estimated cost of $3 billion. The dam will be 80 metres high and, when completed, will have an installed capacity of 1,200 MW.

India and Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding to this effect in 2004. The Chindwin is a tributary of the Irrawady river that originates from Hukawng Valley of Kachin state and flows through Sagaing division. Its catchment areas are in Mizoram and Manipur. When completed, the project will supply power to Myanmar and also India’s North-east border states.

Already 2,000 villagers have been displaced and another 45,000 are likely to be affected as and when work progresses. The victims are the indigenous Kuki communities who depend entirely on the fertile farmland of the Chindwin riverine areas for cultivation. The demonstrators alleged that there were no livelihood options in the relocated site, nor had they been given any proper rehabilitation package. They were offered compensation of just five dollars for the loss of their land. Villagers also alleged that their settlements were literally bulldozed. A total 2,500 acres in Leivomjang and 3,500 acres in Tazone villages have already been forcefully acquired.

Displaced villagers were relocated in the nearby forest areas. Tamanthi village in Sagaing division also lies close to the biodiversity hot spot called the Tamanthi Wildlife Reserve that provides sanctuary to numerous wildlife, many of which are endangered species. The Sumatran Rhinoceros (Didermocherus sumatrensis) and the Javan Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus) are said to have already become extinct.

The area is earthquake-prone. Last year, quakes measuring 6.4 and 5.5 on the Richter scale shook the Indo-Myanmarese border twice in February 2010, their epicentres being in west Myanmar. Mizoram and Manipur were also rocked. Banca, a Myanmar NGO, is said to have submitted an incomplete Environmental Impact Assessment report (conducted in 2006), for lack of time. In any case, the report does not seem to have much relevance given that construction is already underway even if, after more than seven years, the Timanthi Dam is yet to take shape.

For India, such mega dams are signs of economic development and added value. In May last year, India’s ambassador to Myanmar reportedly wrote to then foreign secretary Nirupama Rao saying that “the delay is affecting our image and is seen as confirming local (mis)perceptions about Indian companies”. This also comes at a time when India is seen as the main “climate deal broker” at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change-Cop 17. Pressured after two weeks’ of negotiation, India agreed to an “agreement” for emission cuts from 2020.

The “equity” deal in the politik of climate change no longer works for India, which figures among the main carbon emitters. India should also realise that “equity” or commitment for domestic reduction on carbon emission is neither permission to exercise a free hand along the borders over its neighbours’ forests, rivers, people and wildlife habitats.

It may be noted that many ethnic communities from Myanmar have taken refuge across the Indian border states of Manipur and Mizoram. The junta’s repressive rule displaced many Myanmarese citizens. A publication of the Burma Rivers Network states that these communities, inhabitating the Indo-Myanmarese borders, were allegedly described as “foreigners” by the military regime. In 1968, during the reign of General Ne Win, about 20,000 Kukis from 60 villages in northwest Myanmar were asked to leave the country.

A recent estimate by Refugee International reveals that there are about 100,000 Myanmarese refugees in the North-east, particularly in Mizoram and Manipur. Every year, about 500 of them, from mostly ethnic communities, make their way to Delhi.

India’s commitment to reduce global warming and its emergence among the global players of “climate change” could well be strengthened by committing itself to care for nature and human lives in these sensitive border areas. It would help a long way in solving the acute problems that continue to rage in the region. Perhaps India would have to cater to an additional influx of “climate refugees” joining the thousands of political exiles in the country.

The Statesman
January 16, 2012

No comments: