The Tipaimukh has been a life-and-death question for Bangladesh, and thus people regardless of political affiliation, intellectual and ideological background, ethnic and cultural variation, and religious affiliation have come onto a common platform to render massive protests against the construction of the Dam. With a unilateral demand for an abrogation of India’s decision, protests in different forms—rallies, human chains, protest meetings, seminars and symposia, strikes, and so forth—continue to carry on across the country. Protests and demonstrations have, indeed, transcended the national boundary and taken on a transnational from. The movement thus turned to a global social and environmental movement embodying the “environmentalism of the poor.”
The environmental movement in Bangladesh over the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam cannot be disconnected from the turbulent past and other bilateral tensions between Bangladesh and India, such as the disputes over the water sharing of the transboundary rivers including the Ganges and Teesta as well as unabated tensions in borders between these two nations. The trajectory of the Indo-Bangladesh relations—mostly marked by bilateral tensions—has always been a key catalyst in the domestic politics of Bangladesh, and has drawn the political lines between the ruling AL and the main opposition—Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Begum Khaleda Zia, which has been actively supporting the anti-Tipaimukh Dam movement. Sheikh Hasina’s government which came to power in late 2008 through a participatory election, and for the second consecutive term in early 2014 through a non-participatory electionFootnote 12 has always been accused by the critics and the opposition parties of being pro-Indian and thus adopting a “subservient” foreign policy towards India. A number of cabinet ministers constantly remark that the Dam would not harm Bangladesh and this is reflected in the government’s lukewarm response to India’s decision. The four-party alliance (now extended to twenty-party alliance) led by BNP expressed its sharp reaction to the government’s stance on the Tipaimukh issue, and vowed to take the issue to international forums if the government fails to stop it. The civil society groups had also been critical of the government’s role on the Tipaimukh Dam in question (Rahman 2009; Islam 2013).
Under growing pressure from the opposition parties, civil society, intelligentsia, and the media, the government proceeded to send a parliamentary delegation to India to survey the proposed Dam site. The delegation comprising ten members, all of whom were also the members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources led by Abdur Razzak, the then Water Resources Minister of Bangladesh, visited New Delhi en route to the Tipaimukh Dam site in Manipur in early August 2009. They however failed to survey the Dam because of weather condition (Rashid 2013; Islam 2013). The delegation members were reported to have had stressed to their Indian counterparts the need for negotiations regarding the concerns and issues raised between both countries. Concurrently, Bangladesh offered to conduct a joint study with India to examine the implications of the Dam project on the region and the future flow of water in the concerned river system, which directly affects Bangladesh due to its position as a lower-riparian country.
The civil society groups including the environmentalists in Bangladesh had formed the National Tipaimukh Dam Resistance Committee (NTDRC). A long March organized by different civil society organizations which included NTDRC and Sylhet Division Unnayan Sangram Samiti (a committee that fights for development in Sylhet Division), supported by BNP and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI)—the major Islamist party in Bangladesh and often branded as a “politically hardliner”, marched towards the Tipaimukh Dam site on 10 August 2009, but was stopped at the international border by the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), currently Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB).Footnote 13 BJI’s active role and support for this cause could become a genuine source of concern for India (Rahman 2009). Prior to the long March, BJI attempted to organize massive protests to mobilize people’s support against the Dam, but the government managed to thwart these protest movements. All the frontline leaders of the party were arrested by the government in 2010. Although the government was showing its zero-tolerance against any popular political-resistance movement surrounding the Tipaimukh Dam in Bangladesh, massive environmental resistance overseas and online continued (Islam 2013).
In August 2009, the leaders of NTDRC at a discussion held at Dhaka Reporters Unity (DRU) in the capital warned the people about the potential danger of the Tipaimukh Dam, and asked for their spontaneous and broader participation in the anti-Dam movement. They stressed that the construction of the Dam on the Barak River would desert the northeastern region of the country, and thus they called upon the people to remain alert on the issue so that the Indian government would not be able to go ahead unhindered in its construction. The meeting was held as part of an observance with the “Global Solidarity Sit-in the Tipaimukh Dam Programme”, which was observed simultaneously in different district headquarters around the country and cities around the world, including Shilchar, Calcutta and Patna, India; Canberra, Australia; Tokyo, Japan; and New York, U.S. Referring to fifty large dams in the world, an engineer named Hilal, a discussant, said that a “water syndicate” is now actively constructing more Dams on big rivers to realize their selfish interests. “Such immoral activities of the syndicate have also contributed to global climate change,” he continued. Shankar Roy, a renowned Indian journalist and Dinesh Mitra, an Indian engineer who also happens to be a prominent leader of the anti-Tipaimukh Dam movement, both expressed solidarity with the participants of the program (The New Nation 2009).
George Galloway, a visiting British parliamentarian, who is internationally known for his role as a human rights defender and social activist, showed his solidarity with this movement and called for an international enquiry into the potential environmental impact of India’s proposed Tipaimukh Dam. The inquiry would need to examine the impact on the population of both Bangladesh and India, he added. He opined that the project is an international issue due to its implications for the climate and the environment, and thus India’s decision to build the Dam unilaterally would be “a criminal offence.” He reaffirmed his benevolent support by saying “I will fight to prevent the making of this Dam. Not only the Bangladeshi people, but a section of the Indian people will also be affected. Even the Indian expatriates in London protested… against the proposed Dam” (Islam 2013: 162). Galloway led a UK delegation and a huge Bangladeshi crowd on a March on 29 November 2009, from Sylhet city to the border with India where the river Barak bifurcates into the Surma and Kushiara. The March was arranged to draw global attention to the potentially devastating impact of the proposed Dam on Sylhet and the entire north-eastern region of Bangladesh (Bdnews24.com 2009).
The leaders of Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB), in August 2009, submitted a memorandum to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Mun via the UNDP representative to Bangladesh, seeking help to stop the construction of the Dam. The memorandum contended that the plan to construct the Tipaimukh Dam was a clear infringement of the 1996 Bangladesh-India Joint River Commission (JRC), the International Helsinki Convention, and International River Law. It also pointed out that the construction of the Dam would bring terrible ecological and environmental changes in vast areas of Bangladesh and many states of India. On 18 September 2009, IAB arranged a March on to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka to protest against the Dam. Other major political parties such as The Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) have also organized movements against the Tipaimukh Dam. Juba Union, the youth wing of CPB, held a two-day Dhaka-Sylhet road-March program to demand an immediate halt to the construction of the Dam (Islam 2013). After 2009, the movement surrounding the Dam gradually became less vibrant as Bangladesh faced other political and social crises. Most leaders of this movement got arrested and some of them faced execution or forced disappearance.
The movement in India and particularly its northeast regions against the Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Project was phenomenal. In April 2009, hundreds of people representing Bengali, Manipuri, Naga, Khasi, Reang, Dimasa, and other communities from the southern part of Assam district staged demonstration in front of the District Commissioner’s office at Silchar. The demonstrators condemned the government’s decision and demanded the immediate abrogation of the Dam project. Pijus Kanti Das, secretary general of the Committee on Peoples and Environment (COPE), and a number of leaders from different organizations and groups joined the demonstration. The demonstrators subsequently sent a memoranda separately to the then President Pratibha Patil; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; Union Minister for Forest and Environment Jairam Ramesh; Chief Ministers of Assam and Manipur Tarun Gogoi and O Ibobi Singh respectively through the District Commissioner of Cachar. In these memoranda’s, they expressed their concern for the people living upstream of Barak River and the potential environmental impact of the Dam’s construction (Islam 2013). Protests also took place in Manipur, Mizoram, and Barak Valley of Assam.
As indicated earlier, the Indian government initially stated that the project’s object was to contain flood-water in the Cachar plains of Assam, and therefore, the people of Cachar initially favored the Dam’s construction. However, they joined the movement against the proposed Dam when it became apparent that they had been misled. In August 2009, a joint meeting between various environmental organizations of Cachar and the Manipur groups opposing the building of the Dam was held. The speakers alleged that the Indian government had been misleading the downstream people with regard to the benefits of the Dam for a long time (Islam 2013). On 28 July 2009, the Hmar People’s Convention (Democratic) of Manipur issued a press release which stated that the proposed Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project is a war imposed on the indigenous Hmar people and various other communities located downstream and upstream. The power-greedy governments and Dam builders in India, who are driven by short-term interests in their blind pursuit of profits, are putting indigenous communities at stake. They have not sought the consent and opinions of these indigenous communities in whose land the Dam is proposed. A statement from the press release stressed that “the Rivers that nursed and fed our honored generations before shall continue to flow for all the generations to come. We cannot allow the rivers to be disturbed and are obliged to see that no outsiders, their forces and might will destroy or disturb the natural flow of the rivers of life” (quoted in Islam 2013: 165). It also appealed to the visiting Bangladeshi parliamentary delegates to steadfastly share the concern to save the rivers Tuiruong and Tuivai; to work together for the collective good; and to save the rivers from irreparable damage. Hundreds of people held a rally in an interior town of Manipur’s Tamenglong district to protest the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam in early March 2010. The participants marched through Nungba town, which they said would be affected by the proposed Dam, and submitted a memorandum to the state’s chief minister with the assistance of the subdivisional officer of Nungba subdivision on 9 March 2010.
Environmental resistance against the Tipaimukh Dam has swept through (Fig. 1) North America through formal protests, organizing seminars, and submitting petitions to the United Nations (Islam 2013). Along with the physical protests on a global scale, there have been a wide range of debate, discussions and protests in the virtual world, such as blogs, Facebook, newspapers, and rallies, against the Tipaimukh Dam. More than 100 Facebook groups have been created, including “Protest Tipaimukh Dam”, “Stop Tipaimukh Dam”, “Protest against Tipaimukh Dam”, “Tipaimukh Dam and Fulertal Barrage–Let’s Stop India”, “Save Our Bangladesh”, “Tipaimukh Dissemination”, “Tipaimukh Barrage”, and so forth. To organize and to disseminate the news and information related to the Tipaimukh Dam, a good number of blog sites have been launched. Protest Tipaimukh Dam, for instance, posted 208 articles and pieces of news analysis related to the Dam in 2009. Many other online forums have been formed to resist the Dam’s construction. These forums are reported to have mobilized people’s support against the Dam throughout the world. Over a dozen online petitions that collected thousands of signatures in favor of the anti-Dam movement were sent to the prime minister of India. Beyond Bangladesh, India, and North America, South Asian people inhabiting other parts of the world have expressed their deep concern about the constructions of the Dam. Adopting various means of social movement, such as protests, petitions, and other form of resistance, their endeavors have been aimed at mounting pressure on the Indian government to reconsider and to abandon the Dam project.
This “environmentalism of the poor” showed an initial success when the project was halted in 2007. The government of India, with its neoliberal agenda prioritizing economic gain over ecological and social costs, pursued this project again. Although the movement could not stop the project entirely, it pushed the government of both countries to address certain concerns. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina brought up Bangladesh’s concerns relating to the Tipaimukh Dam Project with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during their meeting on the sidelines of the 15th Non-Aligned Movement Summit held in July 2009 in Egypt (Rahman 2009; Islam 2013). Following the signing of the “Promoter’s Agreement” on the Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Project to set up a Joint Venture Company (JVC) between the Government of Manipur, NHPC Ltd. and Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd. in October 2011, in early December of the same year, Dr. Mashiur Rahman and Dr. Gowher Rizvi, advisors to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina paid a visit to New Delhi to discuss Bangladesh’s concerns. In September 2011, during the Indian prime minister’s visit to Dhaka, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) titled “Indo-Bangladesh Framework Agreement on Cooperation for Development” was signed by the two Prime Ministers that prevents India from taking any unilateral decision to construct the Tipaimukh Dam. Official responses stated that technical teams from both countries should have regular meetings on this high-voltage issue (Rashid 2013).Footnote 14