Bangladesh: the Tipaimukh damned

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 228 August/September 2012

Beginning from the Manipur Hills in north east India, the Barak River, at 560 miles long, is one of the major rivers in southern Assam and within the Manipur territory. The Barak flows though Manipur, entering Bangladesh and forming the Surma Basin. Continuing south through Bangladesh as the Meghna River, it eventually reaches the Bay of Bengal. The Tipaimukh dam, first proposed in 1972, will be built along the Manipur-Mizoram border, about 100km away from the India-Bangladesh border.

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In October 2011, the governments of India and Manipur signed an agreement for the building of the hydroelectric dam with the Indian state-owned companies National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd (NHPC) and Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd (SJVNL) without the knowledge of the Bangladeshi government, in what was a clear breach of numerous international treaties. It was a clear indicator of the subservience of the Bangladeshi government to India, whose leaders Sheikh Hasina and Manmohan Singh respectively, have ignored pleas to stop the building of the dam, despite estimates that five million Indians and 40 million Bangladeshis stand to be affected.

The project has been facing staunch opposition because of the potential disaster for communities reliant on the river: Bangladesh is one of the world’s most active freshwater fisheries and home to approximately 20 million rice farmers. Farmers in the Surma basin depend on a single crop, rice, which is planted when water levels are low, and is harvested just before the monsoon season causes a rise – at which point fish begin to spawn, maturing just as the monsoon floods recede once again. These floods carry the nutrients needed to maintain the highly fertile conditions found in the region. Any artificial alterations to this flood pulse will affect livelihoods on a massive scale, as the dam would increase water levels by more than double but would not allow for them to recede.

Big dams: devastation and destitution

Bangladeshis fear that the Tipaimukh dam will be a repeat of the effects of the Farakka barrage which lies across the Ganges in West Bengal, less than 11 miles away from the border with east Bangladesh; since its completion in 1974, the barrage has affected 30 million people across the state and in Bangladesh, which loses an estimated over £2.5bn annually because of it. There has been desertification of areas, flooding and huge sedimentation. Vast areas of the towns Malda and Murshidabad have simply eroded. Agriculture, in particular the rice paddies that people rely on, fisheries and forestry have been destroyed with abnormally high water salinity rendering it unsafe for drinking and irrigation. Environmental experts report that repairing the infrastructure in the region could take 50-60 years.

Another major concern is that the Tipaimukh dam site is on the sixth most active seismic zone in the world: about 18 earthquakes measuring 7.0 or above on the Richter scale have occurred here since 1890. Geologists have speculated that the seismic activity that caused the 1967 earthquake at the Koyna dam in Maharashtra, western India, which killed 200 people, and the 2008 earthquake near the Zipingpu dam in China, which killed almost 70,000 people and left another 11 million homeless, were triggered by the reservoirs created by the dams. The Tipaimukh reservoir, when completed, will hold up to thirteen times the volume of water of the Zipingpu dam.

Big dams – big business

Building dams is not new in India: it was under the imperialist British Raj that India became one of the world’s most active dam-building nations. The SJVNL frequently receives funding from the World Bank and various consortia of foreign and European banks to build dams. The NHPC too receives heavy foreign investment for the dirty business of dam building, including from Deutsche Bank and Export Credit Agencies. French multinational company Alstom provides much of the equipment required to build mega-dams.

The NHCP has constructed many dams, with 30 currently being built or proposed. Two of these, the Lower Subansiri in Assam and the Uri II in Jammu Kashmir, are also facing fierce opposition – but the Assamese Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi says that ‘unreasonable protests’ cannot stop the project.

In Jammu Kashmir, reports have surfaced of residents, who were promised 10% of the energy generated by the dam, spending up to 12 hours a day without electricity; it is instead being siphoned off to more affluent communities across India, sold at a grossly inflated price. The Manipuri Government too, has been bribed with the promise of ‘free’ energy to be generated by the Tipaimukh dam.

The fact is that big dams are built because they make big money for the ruling class and for imperialism; the human and environmental devastation counts for nothing. Presently, the Tipaimukh dam is going ahead, but there is a significant movement in Bangladesh and India against its construction, and there have been violent clashes too: Indians and Bangladeshis who live off the land know that the fight against the building of the dam is a fight for their lives.

Nazia Mukti


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