A  hydroelectricity producing dam in Northeast India. Photo: NEEPCO
A hydroelectric dam in Northeast India. Photo: NEEPCO

A village in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland faced its first flood on July 27 after excess water was released from a nearby dam. The water destroyed the home and livelihood of the Lotha Naga tribe, who have yet to be compensated.

The people of Runchan village in northwest Nagaland had never suffered from floods. Jinario Lotha, the village chairman who is in his late 50s, said he could not recall seeing any fields in his village inundated with water like they were last month. The whole population of the village was in a state of shock after the flood.

Villagers said water started to fill the area at 2am on July 27 after a dam over the Doyang River, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, was opened. The 75 megawatt dam, built by the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEPCO) in the Wokha district of Nagaland, is only a few kilometers from Runchan village.

By the time the water receded on July 30, about 1,000 acres of cultivated land had been completely destroyed. The topsoil of the area had been washed away and replaced with sand, pebbles and rocks.

Although Nagaland has recently been hit with floods and landslides owing to heavy rain, the northwest part of the state is not prone to such disasters.

Destroyed livelihood

Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed in his Independence Day speech on August 14 that states in northeast India now had a closer relationship to the national capital New Delhi.

But the woes of the Lotha Naga tribe remained unheard and unaddressed. The flood destroyed agricultural land the Lothas had depended on for their livelihoods. Chang, a villager and farmer, said a huge swathe of turmeric was completely destroyed and covered with silt. “A river flowed on top of my land,” he said.

The man-made flood affected more than 39 families in Runchan, one of four affected villages in Bhandari sub-division. The water killed livestock, destroyed turmeric, jute, fisheries, vegetables, paddy, chillies, and much more. Liphi, Renthan and Koro were the other affected villages in the region.

Farmers belonging to the Bengali Muslim community and tribals, who also work as laborers and share-croppers on Lotha-owned land, were also affected. It may take years for them to bring the soil back to life, villagers said.

Other villages affected

The downstream impact was also devastating, mostly in Golaghat district where as many as 116 villages were affected. Most of these places are not flood-prone areas and like Runchan, they were also not prepared for the disaster. The biggest flood they could remember was in the ’80s, but that was small compared with their recent experience.

In a place where the river marks the boundary between the two states of Assam and Nagaland, the shifting rivers have created a cartographic effect. They re-draw boundaries or even lead to the loss of land. After the flood in Runchan, the Doyang River changed its course and many acres of land are now on the other side of the river – in a different state – and some land is now underneath the river.

The shift of the river towards the Nagaland side was not even and it ranges somewhere between 50 and 100 meters. Village chairman Jinario estimated that about 200 to 300 acres of land had been lost due to this man-made disaster.

Lichamu Kikon, a secretary in the village, said villagers mostly depended on agriculture and the flood would have multiple effects on their day to day lives. Many parents who had sent their children to study in other parts of the northeast will suffer greatly paying fees and food. Kikon added they might need experts’ help to grow crops as they are unable to make use of the soil.

Government failures

Kikon said they received an advisory on July 29 about the release of water, but it was too late. He said neither the NEEPCO or the government did any impact assessment survey and neither did they contribute to the affected village or the people downstream in Nagaland.

Runchen also faces an acute shortage of drinking water as the water that’s supplied is not fit for human consumption. Jinario said “after the flood, the Deputy Commissioner paid them a visit with some relief goods,” but that relief fell significantly short of the things mandated by the Disaster Relief Manual.

Jinario added there was no sign of post-disaster management measures either.

Although government officials refused to comment, the general explanation, carried by local newspapers, cited heavy rain causing surplus water to accumulate in the dam, which had to be released.

Serious questions are now being asked about dams in the northeast. The place is seen as a hydro -powerhouse by Delhi, say experts. Fears are mounting that if a 75 MW dam can wreak such havoc, what could the 2,000 MW dam being built in similar situations in Arunachal Pradesh.

The dams have been described as “ticking hydro-bombs” by Professor Siddhartha Kumar Lahiri, a leading geologist on the Brahmaputra. He says that in times when most developed nations are moving towards dam removal and restoring river eco-systems, the reverse approach in India should be questioned.

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