Barak Festival & Dam Plans: Contradicting realities

Jajo Themson *

  Stop Building Dams in Manipur - Let the Rivers Flow free - River Day 2021 at Nheng (Langpram) Village, Manipur
Stop Building Dams in Manipur - Let the Rivers Flow free - River Day 2021 at Nheng (Langpram) Village, Manipur :: Pix - CRAM

The Barak River constitutes one of the main aspects in the river system of Manipur. Our state is gifted with about 23 majestic flowing major rivers that nourished its indigenous human populace as well as uncountable living organisms in its ecosystem. These rivers fall under three features of river system.

The first aspect of the Manipur Rivers consist of the Chindwin River System comprising Akonglok, Chamu and Chingai, Yu and its tributaries like Maklang, Tuyungbi, Taretlok, Lokchao, Limlok and Tuiyang. The Chingai and Chatrick kong are the two rivers which drain parts of Ukhrul district and flow out in the east to join the Chindwin. The Maklang River flushes the Kamjong district and Lokchao flows in to Tengnoupal district and run out to connect the Yu River which finally joins Chindwin River in Myanmar.

The second aspect of the Manipur River system comprises of major rivers running in Manipur valley like Imphal River, Iril River, Thoubal River, Sekmai River, Wangjing River, Khuga/Tuitha River, Chakpi River and Nambul River. And the third aspect is the Barak River System which has its major tributaries like Irang, Makru, Tuivai and Jiri River flowing through the northern and western hills. The Leimatak and Ejei Rivers fall into the Irang River constituting an indirect tributaries of the Barak River.

Among the cardinal rivers of Manipur, the Barak River is the biggest river and the second largest in the North East India. It is originated as a small stream in the midst of the high hills covered with thick forest at Japvo Mountain in Liyai village in Senapati district at 3,015 meters altitude. The stream sprang at Liyai village is later joined by Deirii and Makhan streams as it flows down south through the Biiso valley. The Khiiri stream joined the Barak before it reaches Karong, Senapati.

   Barak waterfall  in Tamenglong District, Manipur  as seen on 30th January 2020
Barak waterfall in Tamenglong District, Manipur as seen on 30th January 2020 :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

As it takes towards north flow, a stream of T. Khullen joined the Barak and flows into Maram region. After crossing Maram area, the Barak runs down towards south into the portions of Liangmei, Zeme and Rongmei territories. Then it flows down southwards through the mountainous terrain till Tipaimukh near the tri-junction of Assam, Manipur and Mizoram states. Passing through Pherzawl and Jiribam districts it enters the plain of Cachar, Assam. It finally flows into Bangladesh to join the Brahmaputra and Ganga.

The Barak River runs 900 kms passing through the states of Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Assam in India. It later enters into Bangladesh from where it flows into the Bay of Bengal. Its length extends to 524 km in India and 31 km in the Indo-Bangladesh border and the rest falls in Bangladesh.

Within the Manipur territory, the Barak River showers directly to 53 tribal villages with 1,05,000 people. Among them, 11 villages in the Paomai region, 8 villages in Maram Naga tribe area, 13 villages of Liangmei Naga portion, 3 villages of Zeme location, 5 villages of Rongmei Naga tribe and 13 Hmar villages. Altogether, 53 tribal villages are direct benefited by the Barak River. Moreover, many lakhs of populace of the state are indirectly benefitted from Barak River.

The Barak River constitutes a heritage for the indigenous villagers and indescribable significance for those who have direct contact with it since the earth was born. The indigenous communities have unbreakable chain of relationship with the Barak River. Folk tales, folk songs, historical, socio-cultural, economical, livelihood, agricultural and religious ties are remarkable.

Villages in the Barak River range have serious concern for protection and safety of this river. Almost all those villages enact laws and established good regulations to enrich the Barak River including protection of water species. Massive stone and sand quarrying are restricted. Use of power generators, chemicals, bombs, dynamo etc. are prohibited. Besides this, felling of trees in the catchment areas are also banned. Additionally, steps are also undertaken to avoid dumping of plastic and other waste materials.

The Barak Festival

Liyai Poumai Naga village hosted the first Barak Festival in the year 2016 at district level. Some organisations used to celebrate Barak River Festival characterizing Miss Barak contest, cultural regale etc. before the Northern Maram Peoples Organisation (NMPO) brought up the same to state level. Liangmai villages organised the first Angling festival at Embiuky, local name of Barak River celebrated at the Langpram (Nheng) village portion under Tamei Sub-Division, Manipur from 10-13 March 2021. The main purpose of the festival was to escalate awareness on "Save Barak River" in tune to the International Day of Action for Rivers (IDAR) initiated by Center for Research and Advocacy Manipur (CRAM).

The first state level Barak Festival was celebrated at the Mini Stadium Ground in Senapati on 13th December, 2018. The theme of the first celebration was "Sustaining peace and harmony" Since then, December 13 is set as the Barak Festival every year. The second edition of the Barak Festival was celebrated in 2019 at Mini stadium Senapati under the theme of "Confluence of cultures" The 3rd and the latest edition of the Barak Festival was celebrated in 2022 at Sanyi Dahrii Sports Complex at Khabung Karong, Senapati district with the theme "Save Mother earth".

  Communities living along Barak River in Senapati District at Barak Festival :: 13th December 2018
Communities living along Barak River in Senapati District at Barak Festival in December 2018 :: Pix - Lamdamba Oinam

The main objectives of celebrating Barak River signified the need of conserving Barak River to ensure its free natural flow. Safe Nature, Save Mother Earth, protect the unchangeable heritage of communities and safeguard environmental integrity are principal objectives of Barak River festival. Moreover, celebration of the Barak festival also meant to communal peace and harmony among different communities through this river. Cultural development, understanding the basic rights of this river, realizing the communities' role in protecting Barak River, glorifying its majestic flow, evaluating the importance of this river-traditionally, socially, economically and people sustenance power etc. are other key concerns of the celebration.

Triplet dams plan

Antithetically, there has been strong push of state Govt. for building multiple hydropower dam projects over Barak River. Remarkably, the National Hydro-Power Corporation (NHPC) has signed an agreement with Manipur Govt. on 28 April 2010 reaffirmed on 22 October 2011 to construct the 1500 MW Tipaimukh Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project over Barak River, 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project over Leimatak River, 190 MW Pabram Hydroelectric Project over Barak River, 60 MW Irang (Taobam) Hydroelectric Project over Irang River, 51 MW Tuivai Hydroelectric Project over Tuivai River, 70 MW Nungleiband Hydroelectric Project over Leimatak River and 67 MW Khongnem Chakha Hydrolectric Project over Barak River.

Notably, based on the latest pronouncement made by the Power Minister Shri Th. Biswajit during the 45th meeting of the North Eastern Regional Power Committee (NERPC) Commercial Co-ordination Sub-Committee (CCM) on 28th June, 2022, among other six priority dam projects, 1500 MW Tipaimukh dam, 190 MW Pabram dam and 67 MW Khongnem-Chakha dam projects are in pipeline. These three large dams are being planned over the Barak River.

The dam building plan over the said river itself is antagonistic to the letter and spirit of celebration of Barak River Festival every year. The essence of every year celebration of Barak River festival and proposed construction of triplet dams such as 1500 MW Tipaimukh hydroelectric project, 190 MW Pabram hydro project and 67 MW Khongnem-Chakha Hydropower projects over the same river is quite contradictory.

While celebrating Barak festival, conservation of the river, glorifying it, upholding social, cultural and realising the basic roles of the Barak River in terms of environment, ecosystem as well as significance of agriculture, livelihood and other crucial roles of the river to the community people are major concerns.

But in reverse, building of three large hydropower dam projects over the Barak River will definitely lead to destruction of Barak River itself, impairing its ecosystem, derail its free natural flow, destroy capital assets of the community people, virtually uproot thousands of settlement under involuntary displacement, loss loving ancestral homes, losing wet paddy fields, animal grazing grounds, forest and more disrupting livelihood sources of people. Besides this, Hydropower projects are big factors for distorting social fabrics and cultures of the indigenous communities. It is not assumption but literally confirmed true from the historical experiences of dam building in the state.

In one nearest examples, above 3000 people had been uprooted in Khuga dam region and around 10000 indigenous populace are displaced involuntarily in the construction of Mapithel dam of Thoubal Multipurpose project. Plan of triplet large dams over the Barak River has high possibility of thousands of indigenous villagers invariably displaced. The triplet dams plan encombasses high potential downfall of traditional method of fishing, eradicate settlement, disrupt livelihood, loss culture, curbing indigenous peoples' right to river heritage, downgrade economy, shattering social ethos and diminishing history.

On the other hand, it is worth maintaining that about 15 km upstream range of Thoubal River/Yangwuikong was spoiled due to water back in the plan of generating just 7.5 MW from Mapithel dam project. It is imaginable how long will the Barak River range be damaged by the 1500 MW Tipaimukh dam, 190 MW Pabram dam and 67 MW Khongnem-Chakha dam.

Comparing with the fact of Mapithel dam, the whole river range of Barak River will be severely impacted grossly derailing its natural flow. If constructed, water back of 1500 MW Tipaimukh dam will extend up to at least 500 km, 100 km by 190 MW Pabram dam and 50 km by 67 MW Chakha dam, total of at least 650 km of the Barak River will become reservoirs. The question is, "Will there be 524 km long Barak River in the next few years when these triplet dams are built?"

If it is the case that Barak River is significant to the community people as well as state as we celebrate its festival every year, state need to deeply think over the potential river destructive power of development project like dams other than just calculating power harness. Glorifying the said river would be meaningless when the abovementioned three large dams are installed.

It is undeniable that such projects are virtually assassinating the majestic and free elegant natural flow of this biggest river of Manipur. The rising situation calls for serious assessment and cogitative planning. Comparatively, safeguarding generations of the indigenous socio-cultural, survival of people and sustainable maintaining of Barak River's natural eco-system in the larger interest of environment integrity is by far worthier than building of dams for some MW of power generation.

Realizing the significance of Barak River in all aspects like indigenous communities' life and survival, conserve indigenous people's socio-cultural importance, environmental significance, minute feasibility study of the proposed dams are so crucial. Moreover, development programs like dam building at the cost of and survival deficit of the indigenous people is not considered conducive.

Additionally, may be in the name of development, and welfare programs, plans and actions implemented in contradiction to the principle and policy will happen to be quite immature, mockery, unaccountable and unwise on the parts of the state Govt as well as dam construction companies which will defeat development justice.

* Jajo Themson wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at thmsontezonge(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on 27 January 2023.

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