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Category: Tribal India (Page 2 of 4)

The Great Meghalaya Floods of 2014

Over the past two weeks, I have read with bewilderment as news has unfolded about a spate of catastrophic floods that struck the Garo Hills in Meghalaya state of northeast India. The Garo Hills have a special significance to me, because I spent nine months teaching at a school there, five years ago. I knew the Garo Hills mainly as a quiet place of farms and jungles, and friendly but reserved people. It is hard for me to imagine it as the site of a major natural disaster, and harder still for me to read about the destruction thousands of miles away without being able to do anything about it.

In the predawn hours of September 22, catastrophic floods struck parts of the Garo Hills, particularly the outskirts where the hills meet the plains of the Brahmaputra River Valley. According to the local and regional news, the floods are the worst in the hills’ recorded history. The rivers that flow down from the hills swelled from late monsoon rain and found new channels. The floods washed away almost everything in their paths, destroying huts, toppling trees, wrecking crops, and even demolishing some brick structures. More than a thousand villages were submerged, and fifty-six people lost their lives.

The floods disrupted the transportation and communication infrastructure of the Garo Hills. Landslides blocked NH-51, which is the main road to Tura, the Garo Hills’ largest town. The population of Tura depends on regular shipments of goods coming up on trucks from the plains below. At one point, the Shillong Times reported that Tura had stocks of rice for seven days and sugar for only four. Indian Air Force helicopters airlifted medical supplies into Tura, but since the town has no airport for fixed-wing aircraft, a full-scaled resupply airlift was not possible. Fortunately, relief crews were able to reopen the road before supplies in Tura reached critical levels.

Also affected was the Meghalaya electric power grid. The state’s grid runs entirely on hydroelectricity. Barapani Reservoir, near Shillong on the eastern side of the state, feeds water into the five-stage Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project. In other circumstances, the heavy rainfall could have been a boon, as it filled Barapani to capacity. For the first time in several years, the Meghalaya Electric Corporation Ltd. was forced to open the spillway of the dam to prevent the reservoir from overflowing. At the same time, though, the floods damaged the state’s transmission infrastructure, leaving many areas incapable of taking advantage of the electricity. Some of the damage has proven difficult to repair. In Bajengdoba (where I lived and taught), the substation was flooded and powerlines washed away. Local boys and young men have volunteered to help the state authorities erect new powerlines, but according to the latest reports I have read, electricity has yet to return to Bajengdoba.

Although the immediate danger of the floods is past, the hazard of epidemics, particularly malaria, remains. Even after the monsoon ends, the hills dry out, and the mosquitoes die off for the winter, recovering from the floods’ destruction will be a continuing project. I have no doubt that the people of the Garo Hills will dig out and rebuild, but it may take years. In this work, I wish them all the best.

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

(For more about the Garo Hills, please see my post series that begins with “A Short History of Garo-Land.” Also, please see my posts about the Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project, part one and part two.)

Umiam Dam (part 2)

Although originally scheduled for completion in early 1963, the Barapani (or Umiam) Hydroelectric Project did not come online until June 1965. The dam was built by a combination of hand labor and imported American heavy machinery, such as bulldozers and backhoes. An American loan of $2.5 million covered the foreign exchange costs of the project, for the purchase of construction machinery as well as the turbines. The in-country costs of the project were $13.1 million, which were also covered by an American loan.1

The Barapani project was the second hydroelectric project undertaken after independence in Assam. The first was the Umtru Hydel Project, lower down in the Khasi Hills. The project, completed in 1957, was financed by Canadian capital from the Colombo plan. A run-of-river project, the dam relied on the flow of the Umtru River to turn its turbines for producing electricity.2 Umtru Dam was not capable of producing consistent levels of power throughout the year, because the flow of the Umtru River varied seasonally. Since snow never falls in the Khasi Hills, the area’s rivers rely entirely on rainfall. During the rainy season months, from around April to October, the rivers run high with heavy rainfall. But during the dry season, with no rain to feed them, the rivers sink and slow considerably.

The Barapani project offered a solution for the rivers’ unreliability. The project’s one concrete dam and two earthen dams plugged the bottom of the Umiam River’s gorge, creating a reservoir that could store water during the dry winter months. The power station was not located within the dam itself, but farther downhill, at an elevation 560 feet lower than the water intakes in the reservoir. A 1.5-mile conduit piped the water down to the power station. This arrangement provided greater head (pressure) for the turbines. After passing through the imported Japanese turbines of the first stage of the Umiam project, the water was diverted into the Sumer Stream, a tributary of the Umtru River. The Umiam reservoir thus provided a consistent water supply for both the Umiam and Umtru hydroelectric projects.3

The Umiam Hydroelectric Project was included in India’s Second Five-Year Plan, and it was overseen by the Assam state government. This project—like the scores of other projects included in Nehruvian India’s Plans—was imposed from the top by elites. Although the project was located in a rural area, most of the local population had little stake in it besides serving as laborers during construction. The primary customers of the project were not the rural inhabitants of the Meghalaya Plateau, but the mills and factories that were also a part of India’s top-down development plans. Most of the sources I have found on the dam mention only the use of electricity for industry. So far, I have found just one source that even mentions the prospect of rural electrification.4

Fifty years after its construction, the Umiam Dam still stands in its ravine high in the Khasi Hills. A series of additional stages to the project have added further generating stations downhill. Despite the increased generating capacity, the Umiam project has not been able to keep up with rising demand. At times of peak power demand, particularly in the summer months, the Meghalaya state electric utility must selectively cut power. These scheduled blackouts have become a fact of life in areas served by power from Umiam Dam. The project provided power to an under-served part of India, but it could not keep up with increased demand due to population and industrial growth.

Aerial view of Umiam Reservoir in January 2010.

Aerial view of Umiam Reservoir in January 2010.

  1. Agency for International Development, Program and Project Data Related to Propose Programs – FY 1965: Near East and South Asia (Washington, DC, 1964), 84; USAID Mission to India, The United States Contribution to Indian Development (New Delhi, 1966), 34. []
  2. “Canada and the Colombo Plan: The Umtru Project,” External Affairs 9 (1957), 241-43. []
  3. Umiam Hydel Project,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960; “Umiam Hydel Project,” Indian Railway Gazette 62, no. 9 (1964), 239. []
  4. The source that mentions rural electrification is “State Electricity Board and Its Work,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960. []
garo-hilltop-pan_2226px

September 30, 2005: Black Friday

On the morning of Friday, September 30, 2005, dual demonstrations in Tura and Williamnagar—the Garo Hills’ two most populous towns—erupted into violence. In both places, police fired on demonstrators; by official counts, the police killed four demonstrators in Tura and five in Williamnagar. All were teenaged students. (Unofficial counts placed the total death toll at eleven.) This tragedy would become known as Black Friday. It continues to be commemorated and memorialized in the Garo Hills to this day, seven years later.1

The demonstrations in Tura and Williamnagar were just two of many protests staged in the Garo Hills in response to the Meghalaya state government’s plans to restructure the Meghalaya State Board of Education (MBoSE). Earlier in 2005, the Khasi Students’ Union had placed pressure on the state government to move the education board’s headquarters from Tura to Shillong. A State Level Committee (SLC) submitted its report on August 29, stating that MBoSE should be split between Shillong and Tura. The state government agreed to act on these recommendations in full.2

In the Garo Hills, groups such as the Garo Students’ Union (GSU) and the Garo Hills Citizens’ Forum (GHCF) voiced their opposition to the state government’s plans to “bifurcate” MBoSE. The GSU started a “non-cooperation movement” in Tura on September 15. Calling for a mass strike, GSU agents coerced managers of shops, schools, and banks to close for the duration of the non-cooperation movement. Heightened police security allowed government offices to open during the strike.3

The restructuring of MBoSE was symbolic of a larger and longer-running struggle over the distribution of state power. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Garos in Meghalaya had felt marginalized when their state was created with its capital far away in Shillong. MBoSE was one state government ministry that was headquartered in the Garo Hills. The Garo activist groups thus resisted the Khasis’ attempts to move MBoSE to Shillong, an act that they felt would lead to their further alienation and exclusion from political power.

The GSU called off the non-cooperation movement on September 28, replacing it with a night curfew and road blockade. In calling off the strike, the GSU announced its intention to stage a rally at the Chandmari Playground in Tura on September 30. After speeches, the demonstrators would make their way down the town’s winding roads to the Deputy Commissioner’s office.4

It was during the first phase of this demonstration, at Chandmari Playground, that Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers clashed with the demonstrators.5 The police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least four. In the firings and the ensuing riot, at least ninety other people were injured, including fifty-four police officers. In Williamnagar, at roughly the same time, demonstrators at the Rongengri grounds threw rocks at CRPF officers, prompting a similar response as in Tura.6

The killings caused an immediate uproar in Meghalaya. Purno A. Sangma, the representative of Tura in the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament), called for president’s rule and the dismissal of the current Meghalaya state government. Later, he made the audacious demand that if MBoSE was split, then all state ministries that were headquartered in Shillong should also have branches in Tura. The GSU and other groups attempted to use the killings to their own political advantage. After another attempted non-cooperation movement, as well as a hunger strike, the GSU invited representatives of the state government to Tura for talks. Despite reports that the talks had gone well, tensions continued to simmer between the state government and Garo groups. The MBoSE bill passed in the state legislature the following March, leading to the creation of a regional education board office in Shillong.7

The much-delayed official inquiry into the Tura and Williamnagar shootings was finally released in April 2007. The investigative commission, led by retired Gauhati High Court judge D.N. Chowdhury, evaluated the firings in the two towns differently. The police in Tura behaved irresponsibly, because they fired at retreating demonstrators. By contrast, the Williamnagar shootings were declared “just and proper,” because the police had been provoked by protestors’ hurling stones. Neither demonstration had been sanctioned by the governing authorities.8

Efforts to commemorate and memorialize the victims of the killings began shortly after the day that was to become known as Black Friday. When Tura was still locked down by curfew after the shootings, hundreds of students in nearby towns marched silently with black flags to show their solidarity with the victims. A week later, the residents of Mahendraganj9 held a condolence service and prayer meeting. On the first anniversary of the killings, six thousand people gathered at Chandmari playground in Tura to unveil a cenotaph inscribed with the names of the shooting victims. Residents of Williamnagar unveiled a similar monument.10

The fourth anniversary of Black Friday took place during my own sojourn in the Garo Hills. On that day, the teachers at my school joined teachers at hundreds of other schools throughout the Garo Hills by going on strike. The teachers refused to work in protest of the killing of unarmed students four years earlier.

Although Black Friday was an important part of cultural memory in my part of the Garo Hills, my school’s commemoration of the fourth anniversary was perhaps superficial. We did not spent the day in mourning and reflection for the lives lost. Rather, most of the teachers sat through a committee meeting, while I went to Guwahati for shopping.

  1. “Nine killed in student protest,” Calcutta Telegraph, October 1, 2005; “Police says they fired in retaliation,” Times of India, October 1, 2005; “10 killed in Garo Hills police firing,” Hindustan Times (HT), October 1, 2005. []
  2. “Lapang defends report on MBoSE,” HT, September 8, 2005; “MBoSE controversy behind violence, HT, October 1, 2005. []
  3. “Garos hit hard by GSU non-cooperation,” HT, September 15, 2005; “Garo students’ non-cooperation continues on 2nd day,” HT, September 16, 2005. []
  4. “Non-cooperation to be lifted, night blockade to follow: GSU,” HT, September 26, 2005. []
  5. A police force operated by the Indian central government, the CRPF is used to supplement state police forces in trouble-prone areas. The CRPF also monitors elections. []
  6. “11 students die in Meghalaya firing,” HT, September 30, 2005. []
  7. “11 students die in Meghalaya firing,” HT, September 30, 2005; “Non-cooperation movement by GSU in Garo Hills today,” HT, November 6, 2005; “Garo Hills NGOs strike over MBoSE starts today,” HT, November 16, 2005; “GSU to launch hunger strike in Garo Hills from Monday,” HT, December 1, 2005; “GSU gives time to Garo MLAs to prove sincerity,” HT, December 15, 2005; “MBoSE bill passed amidst resistance,” HT, March 24, 2006. []
  8. “Probe holds Tura firing ‘irresponsible,’” HT, April 19, 2007. []
  9. The southwesternmost town in Meghalaya, Mahendraganj is located in the flatlands at the foot of the Garo Hills. []
  10. “Partial relaxation of curfew in Meghalaya,” HT, October 5, 2005; “Mahendraganj holds public condolence meet,” HT, October 12, 2005; HT, “Sept 30 victims remembered in Garo Hills,” October 4, 2006. []

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