May 17 had been declared a day of statewide shutdown by a coalition of non-Bodo groups. However, it was imperative to meet Rajni Phukan who worked for Suma Enterprise Ltd. Soma, along with three other companies – L&T, Alstom and Texmaco – had been contracted by NHPC for the construction of the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri hydro power project. Phukan and 462 others had offered to resign from their job at Suma the previous day. It was most likely that they would be able to clear their dues the same day, which meant that an possible entry into the project site could not be possible after that date. Besides, he was all-supportive of the movement against the big dam, and he nonchalantly proclaimed that he needed the job, and perhaps the dam too, for his own survival.
There were a handful vehicles on NH 52. The few that plied were stared for long after they disappeared from sight by police and CRPF personnel. That day, the green and blue hue of the highway was replaced with the khaki colour. Little boys carrying unusually large gunny bags were stopped – strangely, never are little boys taking big bags ever stopped on 'normal' days. Perhaps it is easy to digest child labour on a normal day, than to believe the innocence of the same child with the large bag on the day of a statewide shutdown.
The three petrol pumps on the highway across a 10km-stretch were half open. Long bamboos were put in place at the entrance of the petrol pumps, to notify that they would be doing no business. To prevent my guide for a day, a young student, from exposing himself unnecessarily before the large contingent of CRPF personnel, we avoided taking the route via Ghagor, past the erstwhile checkpost and protest camp. We took another route and the approximate 20 km ride was breathtaking. The distant mountains of Arunchal Pradesh surrounded us on three sides, as bamboo branches bent forward to provide us shade and coolness.
Tomorrow's children on Twitter will tweet
"Our forefathers sang that the woods were lovely, dark and deep..."
This stretch of road too was heavily guarded. After some distance, a godown was visible, and large rings could be seen. There were at least 50 of them parked there on someone's arable land. These rings were part of the construction material of the dam at Gerukamukh. Finally, we reached the NHPC gate. It was a mammoth iron structure, with the mountains in its background.
Waiting to be taken to the place where it won't rust....
Rajni Phukan was waiting for us, along with Jibon Bora, the Secretary of Soma Workers' Union. Both of them have been working on dam construction sites for the last 17 years, beginning with the construction of the Ranganadi dam in Lakhimpur. Phukan said, “After the resistance movement in December 2011, there has been almost no work here. No construction materials are reaching here. The company slowly stopped giving us our Sunday pay and the overtime pay. We understand that the completion of the project seems bleak in the given scenario, which is why we have decided to quit the job.” About 2 months ago, about 500 workers with L&T also went home; Phukan told me that there are just a handful left at NHPC.
We took a stroll around the campus of the headquarters of the Lower Subansiri hydro power project. A large gate notifies that it was a Kendriya Vidyalaya high school; all spic and span with no students yet. A signboard showed us the way to a shopping complex, bank, residential quarters, etc. The gate to Soma Enterprises Ltd was manned by aging guards; Bora said that all the construction materials were stored there. There was a high wall and a barbed fence over it, yet the top curve of the large rings (like the ones seen previously on the way) were visible.
A well-screened entry into the fortress amid the hills...
The administrative staff at the NHPC office were local boys and girls. But the reigns were in the hands of experts who were not from the region. Phukan facilitated me to meet the Geophysics Chief of the project, S Murugappan. A kind man who offered coffee in the tea state, he refused to go on record with our long conversation. He said that only recently it had been decided that nobody except for the Executive Director, could speak to the media. Even so, the permissions had to be taken from NHPC's main office in Faridabad. “But since you have come all the way, I will explain some things to you. Just do not note down anything,” he said. He tried his best to explain how the project was technically sound, how it was to be the largest dam in Asia, how dams in other countries had withstood the test of time, how the Bhakra-Nangal dam was “temple of modern India” like it had been quoted by Nehru. He loaded me with enough brochures that screamed out the projects of NHPC. Then he let his public relations manager Mr Toppo give me a tour of the project site, for me to understand what he was talking about and how the dam was “indeed a much-needed project”.
(To understand the social and ecological threats to the North East through a series of hydropower projects, do read this detailed report: Damming Northeast India)
Gone are the grains from the hands.
(In the campus of Lower Subansiri hydro power project headquarters)
We got onto Murugappan's vehicle. We stopped at a site after climbing uphill for a while. From the barbed fences, one could see a large stone crusher in the distance below, on the other bank of the river. The crusher mill was connected to a site close to where we stood, by conveyor belts. These belts took the stones way up far and high. “Can you see that patch of green in the far right? That was what NHPC has planted as part of our forestation (sic),” said Toppo with a bright smile. “You are not from any NGO na?” he asked suddenly. I denied the allegation and say that I am only an independent journalist. Toppo himself began his public relations career with two NGOs, and then he found the jobs were not promising enough. He joined NHPC 2 years ago and it took him 6 months to understand the project well, to be able to conduct such guided tours for journalists.
A few minutes later, as we continued going uphill on a winding partly-cemented road (which was once a thick forest) parts of the dam construction were visible. A CISF checkpost stopped us, ad then let us o on seeing Toppo. The concrete construction looked huge already, amid the bushes on the periphery on the road we were traversing on. And then, the mighty Subansiri river could be seen. In the distant were the cascading mountains in different shades of distance. From among their feet, the river snaked out. And then we reached the viewing point of the dam.
What a scarily large structure it was! We were on one side of the mountain, and below us was the gushing river. At our eye level was the other side of the mountain, and between us was a tall red crane. Below, a platform had been created and the few men there looked smaller than ants. Turning right, and after some explanation from Toppo, I understood that a tunnel had been created, into which the river was flowing. Of course its width was nothing as compared to the width between where we stood and the mountain on the other side (which is the actual width of the river). On the left, from a corner, the river appeared to rush out – that was the exit point. Toppo explained that below our feet was the tunnel through which the river had been diverted.
There she flows - with her path diverted, her forest home concreted....
“The dam is supposed to come up to where we are standing – full 116 metres tall. But then, everything is in the mind. Even fear. If I tell people that this fence is safe, they still walk carefully as though they will fall. How will this fall? This is strong iron! Similarly, people have decided to sta scared about the dam. They want to think that there will be an earthquake and this dam will break. That is just not possible!” Toppo laughs.
The main dam below had been constructed in large 'slabs' and would be built upwards in a sloping manner. The stone crusher mill was visible at a distant; the conveyor belts leading to the crane would transport a cooled and solidified mixture of sand and cement. “This is a very unique crane. Can you see the spirals and the long extensions? The crane moves around in a circular way so that materials can be transported easily to any particular portion on the dam below,” Toppo said.
He also showed me the gates to 8 tunnels through which water would flow. Those tunnels were connected to a power grid far on the left, on the opposite side of the mountain. The water will travel up there, and through a tunnel, fall into the pressure shafts. That is the powerhouse where electricity will be generated,” he explained. I could tiny tubes in the distant where water could possibly flow into, to the turbines.
I stood in awe, listening to the marvels of the possibilities of human engineering and watching the grey concrete looking alien amid the lush greens. Faint sounds of machines were interspersed with the call of wild birds. We spent about half hour in that location. “I will now take you to the powerhouse,” Toppo said. The car passed through a bridge called 'Progoti Setu' (Progress Bridge) and we were now on the side of the powerhouse. Almost every large iron machine was in yellow – the colour symbolising L&T. Toppo took us inside to the place where the pressure shafts were assembled, which is a part of the turbine at large. A similar pressure shaft was mistaken as turbine when it had to be transported from North Lakhimpur to Gerukamukh in December 2011. It was protesting this transportation that the agitation took shape, which led to the creation of the checkpost and protest camp at Ghagor. For 4.5 months, it had been a successful protest act – to prevent the materials from reaching their destination.
“People are ignorant. They thought that the pressure shaft was a turbine an they have been making unnecessary noise about it,” said Toppo. The 4 storeys of the powerhouse was full of huge machines but no men operating them. “They men had to be asked to leave when there was no work taking place. We only now have the security guards,” said Toppo. The security guards were old, nearly-stooping Assamese men. Their tiffin boxes waited in a corner, to be opened at ease until we left the premise.
A little below, there were 2 large spiral casings; 6 more were to be assembled and fitted in a line series. Into the distant was the mountain. I realise that these large spirals were that what I had thought of as 'tiny tubes' while on the other bank of the river. “The water coming from the river will fall through a height of 80-90 metres, and they will enter these casings. They will hit the runners and then hit the pressure shafts. You can see those chamber-like things there – the water will hit there. And on top of this structure will be the transformer,” Toppo said.
We drove back to the office. Before I could thank Murgappan for the site tour, he asked me, “So tell me, how did you feel?”
This is what you will see now....