An imminent long term threat to the North East

Rajaram Panda, Feb 13, 2013 :

The economy of the North-East is dependent on the Brahmaputra and the construction of three new dams might affect it.
The latest move by Beijing to construct three more dams on Brahmaputra river in Tibet, in addition to the one being built, has caused considerable disquiet of India as it has not been informed about the plans so far. A document listing projects to be completed in China’s 12th five-year-plan, a blueprint for the energy sector, approved by the Chinese cabinet made passing reference to the three hydropower bases on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river at Dagu, Jiacha and Jiexu on Brahmaputra without giving any details. Though the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei clarified that China has always taken a responsible attitude towards the development of cross border rivers and that the project had gone through scientific planning and study with consideration of the interests of lower and upper stream countries, it has not assuaged the concerns of the lower riparian countries.

At a time when it appeared that India-China relations improved considerably in all areas of cooperation following National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon’s recent visit to Beijing and talks with his counterpart Dai Bingguo, Beijing's decision on dam construction now threatens to undo the good work. Sharing of cross-border river waters had figured in the discussions but apparently China did not inform India of its plans to build the dams. Both Menon and Bingguo again met on the sidelines of BRICS security officials in New Delhi in January 2013.

One of the three new projects, approved by China at the State Council or Cabinet meeting on January 23, is reportedly bigger than the 510 MW dam at Zangmu that China has already been building. China argues that the dams are run of the river design and therefore would not be affecting the flows of the water. India is not convinced of the Chinese justification. 

Claiming that it had “established user rights” to the river, India asked China “to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas.” China’s decision makes India believe that Beijing does not believe in engaging India on this. India’s stated position so far had been that it “agrees” with the Chinese statement that it would “not hurt India’s interests”. 

This time, India’s response represents a distinct departure from that policy. It may be recalled that in March 2012, during the visit of Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi, an external affairs ministry officials said that “India and China have had many exchanges on this subject including at the highest levels, between the prime ministers of the two countries” and that the “Chinese side has on many occasions told us that they will not do anything on trans-border rivers which will hurt the interests of the lower riparian countries like India”. That time, India trusted the Chinese position to be “correct”. Even in November 2011, then foreign minister SM Krishna told Parliament that the Chinese premier, during his visit to India in December 2010, said that China's development of upstream areas will never harm downstream interests. He further asserted that the government had ascertained that the dam at Zangmu in the Tibet Autonomous Region was a run-of-the-river hydro-electric project, which does not store water and will not adversely impact the downstream areas in India.

Different situation

The situation in 2013 is drastically different than what it was in 2011. Not only does China continues to build dams on the river with impunity, and might implement its long-term plan of diverting the waters of the Brahmaputra to its parched North-East, it also refuses to accede to any international rule of law. There is no bilateral water treaty between India and China. China is not ready to even discuss the issue with India.
Indian officials say a large proportion of the catchment of the Brahmaputra lies within Indian territory, which will not be affected by the Chinese dams. Within the government, there is an urgency to dam the waters of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Some of this makes Bangladesh uneasy. While India agrees to accommodate Dhaka’s concerns and allows a stake in these projects, none of this is forthcoming from China to India.

Some of the northeastern states are outraged by the Chinese move on dam construction. The entire economy of Assam and the North-East is dependent on the Brahmaputra river and the construction of three new dams in the upstream of the river might affect the interest of the region in downstream areas. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has requested the Prime Minister to take up the issue with China. The Prime Minister has already taken up the matter with his Chinese counterpart. In reviewing its earlier stance, India as a lower riparian state with considerable established user rights to the waters or the river, has conveyed its views and concerns to the Chinese authorities and urged China to ensure that the interests of downstream states are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas.  

An NGO in Assam, Jana Jagriti, has alleged that China is building 26 hydropower dams, not just three, on the upper reaches of the river in Tibet. The NGO made public photograph in support of its claims that the projects are to divert the waters, which it calls “South to North Water Diversion Projects”. The NGO claims that once the Chinese complete the projects, Assam will receive 64 per cent less water during the monsoon and in the non-monsoon season, 85 per cent less water will come from China to India. Brahmaputra is the lifeline of Assam as well as the state’s cultural heritage, besides being connected with the state’s religious sentiments. The truism, however, is that apart from the economic benefits that China is going to derive from the projects, it would have strengthened its strategic reach. That would be more worrying for India. India needs to take a tough stance to protect and if need be defend its interests.     

(The writer is a specialist on Japan and East Asia and is currently a visiting
 faculty at JNU.)