The Etalin Hydropower Dam is a massive infrastructural project proposed in the North-East Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh, that has been reopened for consideration by the government. The Idu Mishmi community has been protesting the massive dispossession the project will bring, facing violence from the government and a lack of solidarity from some conservation institutions. MSc Environment and Development candidate, Paromita Bathija, tells us more about this contentious project. 

Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, India, where the proposed Etalin Dam will be built. Photo credit: goldentakin.

The Etalin Dam, set to be built in Dibang Valley of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, is the second hydropower project proposed in the region, after the already approved Dibang Multipurpose Dam. They are part of a larger national project that proposes over 42 Dams projects for Arunachal Pradesh. Dibang Valley is a global mega-biodiversity hotspot, and the home to the indigenous ‘Idu Mishmi’ community. Floated as a public-private collaboration, the Dam has been fiercely opposed by the Idu Mishmi, who have been protesting against the proposal since 2008. Since early 2020, India’s environment ministry has been on an approval-spree for development projects that bring huge socio-ecological destruction and affect indigenous lives. The Idu people fear that the dam will bring ecological degradation, threaten their culture, and dispossess them from their lands and livelihoods.

Arunachal can be seen as a ‘frontier’ on multiple levels. When powerful actors recognise the economic potential of monetising the State’s resources, such as by damming the Brahmaputra river, it turns into a ‘resource-frontier’. The commodification of resources by the government involves transferring ownership away from the community, while bringing economic returns only to the developer. This process of resource-grabbing benefits from the biodiversity that has been traditionally cared for by the Idu Mishmi, while leaving them behind to face the negative social, economic and environmental consequences of infrastructural projects.

As the Central government has had a history of tensions with populations in north-eastern India, and the state is bordered by Tibet, Arunachal has also become a ‘nation-making frontier’. The Centre sees the need to assert its sovereignty over the territory to dispute China’s claims, and makes efforts to ‘nationalise’ the Idu community to dispute their expressions of dissatisfaction – primarily through building large infrastructural projects. This makes the Etalin project more likely to be approved, and the voices of the protesting community less visible. So, Arunachal’s identity as a resource-rich State that is seen as having ‘untapped development potential’ needs to be seen alongside its role in the ‘nation-making’ project.

The government has responded to protests with direct violence and by excluding the community from decision-making processes. Protesters were prevented from voicing their concerns at public forums, and have been attacked by army personnel; most shockingly in 2011, when the army opened fire at a public gathering. The Centre justifies such action by promoting a narrative of the Idu people as being ‘anti-development’, and their protests as ‘aiding insurgency’. This is supported by the narrative that the community is incapable of appreciating the project’s ‘development potential’, and of protecting the region’s biodiversity (despite the Idu Mishmi caring for the Valley’s resources and biodiversity for generations)

The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for Etalin Dam was carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). They approved the project after supposedly examining mainly its impact on wildlife. They reported there were lower wildlife populations in community-managed forests in than the government-owned Sanctuary, despite studies that show the opposite. Failing to properly consider the potentially massive environmental destruction and dispossession, WII granted the EIA on the condition that Rs. 4 Crore be granted for tiger conservation, even hinting that they should be the receiving institution. So, the institute appeared to reproduce the narrative that the local community is not capable of caring for biodiversity, while facilitating capitalist expansion into the region.

India’s environmentalists have led a series of petitions against the possible approval of the Etalin project, and most emphasize the loss of trees and wildlife, often without drawing attention to the dispossession of Idu Mishmi people. Meanwhile, the community continues to fight for the recognition of their resource-rights and the actual developmental needs of this remote region – seeking to negotiate better development efforts with the government. Drawing attention to how the Dam fails to carry them along in the flow of monetary benefit, the Idu call for preventing and sharing the negative outcomes of infrastructural projects, and inclusion in decision-making procedures. They assert that as the proposal for a Dibang Multipurpose Dam has already been approved, the Etalin proposal must be withdrawn.

In response to the community’s articulations, Dibang Multipurpose Dam must only be implemented in collaboration with the Idu Mishmi. The government must compensate for resource-grabbing by ensuring that the project employs local people, and incorporates their knowledge and demands. The proposed Etalin Dam must be scrapped to prevent huge loss of biodiversity, impact on wildlife, and dispossession of the indigenous people who inhabit and care for Dibang Valley. India’s environmentalists and conservation institutions must reflect on the ways in which they articulate demands to the government. It is essential to acknowledge the role communities play in caring for natural resources in order to deconstruct the narratives that enable environmental destruction (‘the community is misusing natural resources > therefore the government must take over their land > and the ‘development potential’ of this land must be realised by collaborating with private developers to build infrastructural projects that bring income to the public-private collaboration while eventually damaging the environment and displacing communities’).

Environmentalists and conservation-enthusiasts must reflect on how present demands to the government may fail to centre the threat posed to the community. There is a need to build alliances with the Idu people, recognise the Idu Mishmi’s ancestral relationship with Dibang Valley, and consequences of restructuring resource access and livelihoods. These groups need to work in solidarity with the community to emphasize decision-making roles and resource sovereignty for them, and advocate for the repeal of the Etalin Dam to prevent the massive and violent dispossession it poses.

Paromita Bathija (@ParomitaBathija) is currently a student on the MSc in Environment and Development at LSE. Her main interests include political ecology, forest rights, and community resistance.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.