ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Whose River Is It Anyway?

Political Economy of Hydropower in the Eastern Himalayas

The large dams being built on the rivers of the eastern Himalayas have become highly controversial. The hydropower that north-east India is expected to produce is meant almost entirely for use elsewhere. That these dams will be exclusively hydropower and not multipurpose dams and that there will be a great unevenness in the distribution of potential gains and losses - and of vulnerability to risks - accounts for a serious legitimacy deficit in India's ambitious hydropower development plans in the region. The enclosure of the water commons - the inevitable outcome of these dams - will have a devastating impact on the lives of millions, especially the rural poor who depend on the water commons in multiple ways for their living. What is occurring in the Brahmaputra Valley today is resistance by a riverine people against powerful elites bent on pursuing a strategy of accumulation by dispossession, and trying to turn their rivers into free fuel for hydropower plants, in utter disregard of the impact on their lives and livelihoods.

The author is grateful to Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh, Henrik Berglund and Åshild Kolås for invitations to speak at their institutions – those talks provided the basis for this article; to Sarat Phukan for his help and support in gathering information; and to Sushil Khanna, Rajashri Dasgupta and Zilkia Janer for reading and commenting on earlier drafts.

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