Making New Environmental Knowledges: EIAs and Public Hearings on Large Dams in Northeast India

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In 2000, the Indian government envisaged the large-scale transformation of Northeast India to power India’s neoliberal developmentalist project. According to the government’s plan, the region was officially set to receive over 150 large, public and private sector hydropower projects with most of them to be located in the border state of Arunachal Pradesh. Despite dam building being contentious the world over, the government assumed hydropower development in this region to be frictionless. Project documents claimed that the dams would bring much needed development to this “backward” border region by utilising the "abundant" water resources of the Eastern Himalayan region and produce “clean energy”. However, until today, not a single one of the proposed projects has been completed. The Indian government’s attempts at implementing hydroelectric projects in the Northeast region have floundered upon choppy waters. How did the central government seek to implement its seemingly foolproof developmentalist vision in this region and why did it fail? Looking back on the period from 2000, I focus on the government’s hype, the knowledge-making practices of the public and private sector dam builders and the failed environmental regulation procedures. By analyzing the contestations around the proposed hydropower dams in this region, I argue that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) a technocratic tool and the cornerstone of India’s participatory environmental governance system, is neither successful as a consent manufacturing mechanism nor as a tool to manage expectations and conflicts. Instead, it acts as a legitimating device that helps make visible power relations, and thereby is generative of opposition and political participation. In this sense, EIAs succeed because they fail for their sponsors. My thesis uses the political ecology approach to theorize the role of Participatory Environmental Governance (PEG) in contentious development. Although legal procedures for this form of governance have been implemented in India for two decades, PEG is yet to be recognized as a credible space for negotiations between policy and politics and for producing meaningful developmental outcomes.
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