TIPAIMUKH a plea for rational and scientific discussion

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A controversy has been raging about the impact of the proposed construction of the hydroelectric project in Tipaimukh on the environment, economy and security of Bangladesh. We cannot afford to take this lightly and we must do whatever it takes to ensure that our national interests are not compromised in any way. We have to make sure not only there is no diminution in the flow of waters in Surma and Kushiyara rivers but also there is no adverse environmental or ecological impact, no aggravation of the floods during the monsoon, and most important of all there is no diversion of water from Barak river. These are non-negotiable and lie at the core of our national security concerns.

As often happens, the knowledgeable experts have been pushed aside by those who are not so well-informed but have strong opinions and views. The discourse has deteriorated into demagogy, stridency, devoid of substance and playing to the gallery. Not surprisingly, the debate has generated much controversy and heat but very little light or illumination. Partisan politics and propaganda has replaced the pursuit of truth amongst many commentators.

Like everyone else in Bangladesh I am also deeply concerned and had spoken to many experts, environmental scientists, policy makers and politicians from all shades of opinion to understand the impact of the Tipaimukh project prior to traveling to Delhi. They helped us to understand the issues and raised concerns on which we were asked to seek clarifications and assurances. During our visit we met with the key decision makers in India, including the prime minister, and raised those concerns. Let me summarise the facts and information that we have been able to gather:

Tipaimukh feature image

Confluence of Tuibai River and Barak River in Manipur, India

* Tipaimukh, located in the Indian state of Manipur, is a multipurpose project being conceived with twofold purpose: first, it is a hydropower generation scheme that will produce 1,500 megawatts electricity; and second, it is expected to contribute to the moderation of floods downstream;

* According to scientists and hydrologists in a run-of-the-river project like this water stored in the dam or the reservoir has to be discharged continuously to enable generation of electricity. During high flood season, the discharge can be regulated to mitigate flooding of the plains while continuing to generate power;

* The flow of water in the two tributaries of the River Barak in Bangladesh, Surma and Kushiyara, is unlikely to be affected as there will be no withdrawal or diversion of water in the project. A dam with a reservoir practically augments the flow of the river in the lean period and does the opposite in the rainy season;

* It can have adverse impact on downstream users only if water is diverted elsewhere for irrigation or other uses. In the agreement signed by Manipur government and the National Hydro Power Corporation there is no provision for the construction of a barrage or any diversion of water from Barak River. Within India itself river water sharing is an acute problem and a source of conflict between different states. We believe that the Indian government understand and value their inter-state relations. Assam and Nagaland, like Bangladesh, are also lower riparians and Barak passes through these states before entering Bangladesh. Governments of these two states have not objected to the project and have actually welcomed it because they also will benefit from its flood mitigation, dry season augmentation and power generation components;

looking at the map it also becomes clear (for the distance of the proposed project area from Bangladesh border) that our risks are much less

* The signing of a Promoter’s Agreement between the Government of Manipur, NHPC Ltd. and Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd. On October 22, 2011 is an intent to set up a joint venture company. It is expected that the project will be completed in 87 months after the government approval has been received. The project will be funded through World Bank financing and so far, to the best of our knowledge, the funding has not been arranged or even discussed with the Bank;

* Bangladesh is ecologically vulnerable and a victim of global warming. The importance of biodiversity in a world where pressure is fast pushing out vulnerable communities and animals from their natural habitat cannot be overstated. The Indian environmental groups are deeply engaged in conducting research and informing policy. Our environmental groups should make common cause to ensure that environmental consequences of the project is fully understood and safeguarded;

* We were very mindful of the environmental consequences of the project on Bangladesh. We learnt that the project is located nearly 140 miles away from Bangladesh borders and it would appear that much of the environmental impact — flooding, submerging of land, displacement of people, disruption of livelihood and destruction of wild animal habits, etc. — will be largely confined to India and is unlikely to hurt Bangladesh because of the distance;

* The construction of a large dam in an area that is earthquake prone invariably poses a certain amount of risk for Sylhet area. However, it is unlikely that the Indian government will endanger the lives and livelihood of their own citizens in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam without proper study and assessment. Looking at the map it also becomes clear (for the distance of the proposed project area from Bangladesh border) that our risks are much less. It will also be imperative on India to ensure that the structure is so designed that it can withstand seismologic shocks;

assurances received from the highest authorities in India we should be able to delink the Tipaimukh project from emotive and political plain to scientific and rational level

* Barak is an international river; and as the lower riparian the interests of Bangladesh has to be taken into account according to current international practices.

* Under the instructions of the prime minister, Dr. Mashiur Rahman and I, together with our High Commissioner in Delhi, met with a number of Indian leaders including the prime minister and ministers for home, finance, power, rural development, and water resources; and the national security advisor. Our discussions were frank, candid and cordial and we were able to satisfy ourselves that our interests and security would not be jeopardised. In particular, the prime minister of India gave the following reassurances:

* He reiterated his previous assurances in Sharm-el-Sheikh (2009), in Delhi (2010) and in Dhaka (2011) that India would not take any action in Tipaimukh that would hurt the interests of Bangladesh. The same message was repeated in response to the letter from the Leader of Opposition, Ms. Khaleda Zia. (In international diplomacy an assurance from the prime minister of a country is tantamount to a firm commitment of the nation and should not be underestimated);

* The PM offered to share with Bangladesh all the information relating to the Tipaimukh project including environmental impact, project design and so forth; and he would also welcome any other delegation or study team that Bangladesh may send in the future. Bangladesh civil society and scientists should take advantage of this offer to conduct an in-depth study so that we can reach our own independent conclusions;

* Tipaimukh project, as conceived, had provisions for flood control and to increase supply of water during the lean season;

* We were categorically assured that there would be no diversion of water from the river. India will not construct a barrage on the river to divert water for irrigation or any other such use;

* The Indian PM also reiterated his earlier invitation to Bangladesh to become an equity partner in the Tipaimukh project and take a share of the power that will be generated. This would guarantee us a place at the decision-making table and the ability to oversight the project at all stages.

On the basis of the information gathered and assurances received from the highest authorities in India we should be able to delink the Tipaimukh project from emotive and political plain to scientific and rational level. We should accept the reassurances in good faith but also conduct our own scientific studies or to take up India’s invitation to go for an in-depth survey to determine the “adverse impacts” on the flow of water of Surma and Kushiyara; we should check out the extent to which the project will modulate flooding and enhance the flow of water in the lean seasons; we should assess the probabilities of damage from earthquake or dam bursting; we should conduct a cost benefit analysis of equity partnership in the hydroelectric project; and above all engage India in a dialogue that will enable us to advance our best strategic and economic interest.

To ground the debate in reality it would also behoove us to understand the location and distance of Tipaimukh (Churachandpur District in Manipur) and not confuse it with any other place in Cachar district of Assam. To do this we have to depoliticise the issue, get away from partisan rhetoric and emotional hyperbole, and put our national interest above factional and parochial interests. With the assurances that we have received from the government of India and the access to the information that we have got, we should get on with scientific and scholarly studies. We owe this to our country.

The writer is Foreign Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

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