A few years ago, Dolungmukh/Gerukamukh on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border was just another point on the map. Today, it buzzes with activity as dump trucks furiously ferry materials to construct what is now India's most ambitious hydroelectric project "" the 2,000 Mw Subansiri Lower.
On the surface, the river Subansiri, a major tributary of the Brahmaputra, has been diverted through massive diversion tunnels and coffer dams (temporary structures) hold back the waters so that workers work on the main structures.
Huge tunnel boring-machines, meanwhile, chew through the sandstone hillside to create the tunnels to house the turbines. Workers hurry in and out of the tunnels, clad in gumboots and hard hats, and giant air scrubbers suck the sandstone dust generated by the drilling.
"There is no vacation for us. We only stop for the monsoons. We have a deadline to meet "" January 2012 "" and every day throws up a new challenge," said the chief engineer at the worksite, who oversees 5,000 workers.
When completed, the dam will tower 116 metres above the riverbed. The scale of the construction demands a number of contractors "" Larsen and Toubro (powerhouse), BGS and SGS Soma (dam), Alstrom (turbines) and Texmaco (gates).
The project was conceptualised in the 80's by the Brahmaputra Water Board (BWD) and landed with the National Hydropower Corporation (NHPC) in the late 90's and was finally given Techno-Economic Concurrence by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) in January 2003. Construction began after the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) gave its nod on August 23, 2003.
As is the case with any mega project in India, it has been anything but smooth sailing for Subansiri Lower. The clearance for the project took its time as the dam's waters would submerge a part of the Tale Valley Wildlife Sanctuary upstream.
The environment ministry allowed the submergence of the Tale Valley but committed the state government to declare all the upstream areas as forest land, which would mean that no projects can be planned upstream. But since NHPC was planning two more mega projects upstream "" Subansiri Middle and Upper "" the dispute landed in the courts and is still pending.
Also, the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the governments of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and NHPC has not been signed as the Subansiri Lower project site is in an area, which is claimed by both the states since 1950. The MoU is mandatory for any hydroelectric project before the start of construction.
Assam, on its part, is said to be refusing to put pen to paper because of the border dispute and the fact that it gets a negligible amount of power (1 per cent) as most of the submerged area is in Arunachal.
It is also worried about the Gallong community of about 200 people living near the dam site in the village of Durpai, which might be displaced by expansion of the dam colony or by compensatory afforestation for the submerged forest land.
"The border dispute is an issue that the two state governments need to address," said CEA's Member Secretary (hydro), Gurdial Singh.
In another lapse of procedure, the NHPC never submitted "Letters of Comfort from prospective buyers indicating quantum of power" to the CEA. The letters are mandatory under the Electricity Act of 1948. Singh said the Letters of Comfort had not been followed up because "the Electricity Act of 2003 had been passed and it was not mandatory under that".