Villagers in Manipur have been protesting the commissioning of the dam for months. Photo: Courtesy International Rivers
Villagers in Manipur have been protesting the commissioning of the dam for months. Photo: Courtesy International Rivers

A dam that is scheduled to be inaugurated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this month threatens the future of hundreds of children, as livelihoods have been disrupted as waters recede into an artificially created reservoir.

Parents distressed by the massive economic disruption are now putting their children into orphanages as they have no means to support them.

Manipur is a small state in India’s northeast that shares a border with Myanmar. The Mapithel Dam was built on the Thoubal River in Ukhrul district to generate hydropower. As the flow of the river was blocked in 2015 to fill the dam’s reservoir, villagers who used to eke out a living by collecting sand and stones from the riverbed saw their earnings shrinking drastically, and now are barely able to earn 200 rupees (US$3) a day. Consequently, in March and April last year, parents of about 40 children from these villages had to send them to orphanages.

The villages of Nungbram and Leirongthel Pitra downstream from the dam, 34 kilometers from the state capital Imphal, are the worst affected. An increasing number of villagers have been approaching the Nungbram Legal Aid Clinic, seeking help to send their children to orphanages.

On January 16, a team from the Manipur Commission for Protection of Child Rights (MCPCR) conducted a survey and found that 164 children who had been attending private schools had dropped out as their parents could no longer afford to pay their tuition. Some members of the commission believe the dam has indirectly affected at least 700 children. They said the commission wanted to survey all 14 downstream villages to assess the true extent of the impact.

A resident of Nungbram village, Maibam Chandrajini, 48, said her two daughters had to drop out of school when they were just months away from their matriculation exams, as she and her husband could not afford to pay their tuition fees any more. Her daughter Maibam Abem, 18, said she and her elder sister Nirmala, 19, decided to quit school to ensure that their two younger brothers could continue their studies.

Chandrajini said she was seeking a sustainable livelihood for her daughters such as weaving or tailoring.

“Dams can be constructed or repaired any time, but it’s the fundamental right of children to receive a basic education in their formative years,” said Keisham Pradeep, who led the MCPCR’s survey team. “The government must be sensitive to their needs.”

Kh Barpananda, district program officer of the Social Welfare Department for Imphal East, said he was aware of the matter but had not received a formal complaint.

Little relief

Meanwhile, under the provisions of the central government’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, the MCPCR got about 96 children admitted to a nearby government school on January 31. However, Kamuching Government Junior High School has only eight teachers against the sanctioned strength of 15. Further, the floor is yet to be cemented and one classroom has no roof, said its headmaster Laishram Rajen.

The MCPCR has also recommended providing residential facilities to children whose parents’ livelihoods have been hit by the dam, but no such facilities have been provided yet.

“What more can we do? Our members have visited the school at least three times and spoken with the authorities concerned,” said an exasperated MCPCR chairwoman Sumatibala Ningthoujam.

Uprooting lives

The dam has not only hampered children’s education, but is also having far-reaching effects on the social fabric and personal lives of the villagers. Many of the children who had to quit school have had to become domestic helpers. Reportedly, some have joined insurgent groups. Being out of school also leaves them more vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Konthoujam Tenden, coordinator of Nungbram Legal Aid Clinic, said men from many of the affected families had gone to Myanmar or Nagaland to find work as lumberjacks or woodcutters while their wives waited for them anxiously and took care of the children. He said that among newly married couples, there were a few cases of young wives eloping with other men after failing to hear from their husbands.

Ningthoujam said villagers could make a living as farm help on the banks of the Thoubal River as there will be abundant water for double-cropping or triple-cropping once the multipurpose project starts operating in full swing. Pradeep, however, isn’t as optimistic. He criticized the government’s failure to conduct a proper social-impact assessment study before constructing the dam and to provide an alternative source of livelihood to the villagers.

Meanwhile, resistance against the dam, both among the locals and among civil-society organizations, is increasing in the area. A consultation meeting was held recently and it was decided to form a joint action committee and submit a memorandum to the president and the prime minister of India and the governor and the chief minister of Manipur, drawing their attention to the “gross violation” of the constitution of India in implementation of the project.

Modi is expected to inaugurate the Thoubal Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project on March 15. The project is supposed to generate 7.5 megawatts of electricity, provide 45.5 million liters of drinking water every day to the state capital Imphal, and irrigate 21,000 hectares of land.