By: Christina Larlemdik, Nalori Dhammei Chakma, Jiten Yumnam & Petro Kotze
The Khuga Dam is, by all accounts, a failure. Unable to deliver on any of the original objectives of the Khuga Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project, the price of this expensive catastrophe is paid by the local people. Already discriminated against due to their position in a very patriarchal society, the decimation of their homes, communities and livelihoods have left local women in particular, to fend for themselves against impossible odds.
Ms. Gimzanuam of Ngoiphai Village in Churachandpur District shared how their lives have been impacted by the Khuga Dam:
“Our life before the dam was prosperous; we solely depended upon the resources provided by the river and the surrounding fertile land. The Government constructed the dam despite our objection. The dam had submerged our lands and failed to deliver us any alternative livelihood means. The government had promised us an employment opportunity for each household along with many other developmental schemes but still today, not a single promise was fulfilled. Our village does not have any government employees except few army men. We could no longer send our children for studies due to poverty. Our children are scattered to different places in search of odd jobs. There are hardly any educated youths in our village as they all had to work for their survival. When we look back to our lives before the dam, we could not help but weep as our life has changed for the worst”.
The disaster of Khuga Dam
The Khuga Dam is located at Mata Village in the Churachandpur District of South Manipur. Originally, the dam was to generate 1.5 MW of hydropower, irrigate 15 000 hectares of land, and provide up to five million gallons of drinking water per day to communities in Churachandpur town and the vicinity. Construction started in 1983, but was stalled for almost two decades and resumed in 2002, due to ethnic violence in the construction area and because the project had far overrun its budget. The cost was revised from the original 15 crores Rupees in 1980 to 433 crores in 2012.
Since its inauguration on 12 November 2010 by Ms. Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress, the dam has been lying defunct. Except for the cost of the failed project; the cost on the surrounding environment has been vast. Widespread areas of agricultural land, forest, wetland and village areas were submerged.
Since 1984, the Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD) of the Government of Manipur, that implemented the project, has also constructed about 25 kilometers of canals from the dam, over more than 40 hectares of forest land in the Dampi Reserve Forest, without the required clearance to do so. The sub-standard canals break when water is released from the reservoir, incurring additional costs. In August 2016, the IFCD (now the Water Resources Department) confirmed that the revenue generated from the dam since its commissioning is simply nil. As of July 2021, not a single unit of electricity has been generated from the Khuga Dam.
The people of the Mata Village, and the Churachandpur District
The villages affected by the project are inhabited by Chin-Kuki-Mizo ethnic communities, including the Zou, Thadou and Paite. All three communities are recognized as scheduled tribes, officially designated groups of people, and among the most disadvantaged socio-economic groups in India.
Construction of the dam directly affected about 22 villages, and many more have been affected by the construction of the canal. Traditionally, the villagers depend on the forest, their agricultural land, the Khuga River and wetlands in Khuga Valley for their livelihood and other economic activities.
The villages are governed by chiefs, based on kinship, which oversees the village administration. The chief is the rightful owner of the land, but the villagers have the freedom to cultivate and build houses where they choose with his consent. The Chin-Kuki-Mizo tribes function according to a deep-rooted patriarchal system, and participation of women in the village administration and decision-making is nominal. They do not own resources but play a significant role in managing the land and its resources.
They select crops and seeds, prepare the land, plant, weed, harvest, exercise pest control, process the crops and much more. They also trade seasonal crops and other forest products in local markets. Women form a crucial part of other economic activities, like cattle rearing and poultry farming, which generate income often used to educate their children. The women collect diverse seasonal vegetables, herbs, and other products from the forest and wetlands. They fish and collect snails and edible aquatic species from the Khuga River. It’s also they who fetch water for the household and village needs from the Khuga River that flowed through their village land or the nearby wetland.
They are also the bearers of cultural heritage, weaving traditional clothes and making household items. They ensure that knowledge on the preservation of diverse crops and seeds are passed on from one generation to another.
All of this has changed with the construction of the Khuga Dam. In 2007 and 2008, several villages close to the development of the dam, including the Sehken, Zoumun, Ngoiphai, Mata Mualtam and Geljang were displaced. According to the IFCD, nearly 250 hectares of land, including homestead land, agricultural land and forest land were acquired for Khuga Dam.
What was lost when the Khuga Dam was built
With the submergence of the land, women’s traditional role in fishing, agriculture, the fetching of water and the collection of sand and stone has either disappeared or become impossibly difficult. In the areas where they have been settled after their displacement, life is vastly different.
Basic amenities such as electricity, water, medical facilities, transport and housing are much worse. More than 70% of those displaced due to the construction of Khuga Dam suffer from poor access to housing and clean drinking water, and almost all (90%) have not gained adequate employment. Food scarcity is common and water availability is poor. Road access is lacking, forcing people to spend money on transport. The impact on children’s education and social development has been drastic. School dropouts increased, with young girls the first to be removed to support families at home.
Ms. Marybeth Sanate, a women’s rights defender based in Churachandpur says, “I used to visit the Khuga Dam affected villages like Ngoiphai and Ngaloi after displacement. The entire village lived in a big tent. There was no separate kitchen, bedroom, bathroom or any other facilities. Women were complaining about their lack of privacy and all the difficulties they faced in cooking, sleeping, taking bath, and difficulties of living in one big room. The people had to live hand to mouth, depending upon the relief provided by people from nearby villages. The people have had enough with the government, exploiting their land and rights”.
Many affected villagers, including women, were forced to migrate to nearby villages and towns in search of work. The physical and mental impact of losing their land and community has been colossal. The women had difficulty comprehending the freedom and the abundance of food they enjoyed in their village, now submerged by the dam reservoir. Many cried recalling their village and way of life.
Now, many of the displaced women have to do more laborious work such as charcoal preparation and logging from the forest to sustain their families. Over and above that, villagers had to switch from wet paddy cultivation to slash-and-burn (jhum) products from the forest, adding immense pressure on the sustainability of natural resources in the Khuga areas.
Ms. Ginching w/o Dochinthang of Mualtam Village, Churachandpur District shared her own experiences on impacts of the Khuga dam: “As the dam had submerged most of our agricultural land, we had to travel quite a distance to obtain our basic necessities like rice and vegetables. The dam has stripped us of our entire livelihood activities, such as agriculture, fishery and forest dependence, etc. Our biggest problem now has become scarcity of drinking water as the stagnant dam water stinks and can no longer be consumed. We had to settle for any other means available in order to earn a living, so we took up selling of charcoal, vegetables of available variety, and selling of woods for commercial purpose”.
Another serious challenge they face is water, since the places they were forced to settle lack water sources like wells or tanks. Women are now compelled to walk many extra miles to seek water, since that found in the dam reservoir is contaminated and of poor quality. Many have to dole out extra money to buy water.
Downstream of the dam, the impact on livelihoods have also been severe. Mata is the first village located downstream of Khuga Dam, and has a population of approximately 1000 people. Before construction of the dam, almost all villagers owned and cultivated land for their sustenance, a means of living that has also disappeared under the water.
Ms. Ngailing, d/o, Mr. Dochingthang, a villager from Mata Mualtam (pictured with her son), shared: “The village had to be shifted to higher ground in 2006, as the previous location of the village was submerged by the reservoir of Khuga Dam. The dam had submerged our entire villages, agricultural lands, reserve forests and churches. Some of the villagers are compensated, ranging from only Rupees 20,000 to 50,000, which is too meagre. Many affected villagers were not compensated. The dam is useless. It only caused hardship”.
Further downstream, the people from Saipum village are affected by the regulated flow and decreased quality of the Khuga River, which impacts negatively on their livelihood.
With the loss of land and their resources for survival, women have lost the liberties and traditional roles they enjoyed in their villages. Over and above that, it is particularly cruel that the areas where they once sought refuge, have become dangerous to them too.
Women have been subjected to brute use of force and violence from the State and the Khuga Dam project authorities since they were in the frontline to demand compensation and rehabilitation against the dam’s impacts. On December 16, 2005 a combined force of the Churachandpur police, the 12th Indian Reserve Battalion, and the 41st Border Security Forces posted near the dam, fired indiscriminately at Mata Mualtam Village, killing three people and injuring 32 others. There has still been no justice for the massacre.
Since its construction, the dam site has been heavily militarized, posing a danger to women. In 2013, a woman was molested by security personnel of the 1st Indian Reserve Battalion and, in 2014, an eight-year-old girl was kidnapped and molested at the Khuga Dam Pump House. Women live in constant fear of the military abusing their powers and there are few places left to hide. Since male family bread earners lost their livelihood due to the dam, many have resorted to alcohol and drug use to cope with stress, leading to domestic abuse targeted at women.
A failed dam, failing women
As women reel in hardship, the Khuga Dam languishes in complete failure. Despite the submergence of a massive tract of forest and agricultural land, the dam fails to serve any developmental purpose.
In the meantime, the displacement of indigenous communities from their livelihood sources has led to a shift within primary activities, from dependence on wetland paddy cultivation to jhuming. All other activities, including the traditional economic activity of women such as livestock rearing has been decimated, the impact of which can be seen on entire communities.
The huge quantum of public money squandered in Khuga Dam could have been put to better use to improve the lives of the women, improve education and health infrastructure. The unaccounted environmental destruction still continues, and the overall concept of the multipurpose Khuga Dam project in itself is already paradoxical.
 Alex, Guite. (2014, September 9). Khuga displaced village yet to see electric light after eight years of re-location. The Imphal Free Press.
 Response of the Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD), Government of Manipur to Right to Information (RTI) application on Khuga dam by. Mr. Haokip in August 2016.
International Rivers’ South Asia program is part of the regional Transboundary Rivers of South Asia program. Supported by the Government of Sweden, TROSA is a collaboration with Oxfam, IUCN, ICIMOD and many local organizations that works on some of the more complex rivers in South and Southeast Asia: the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems, including their tributaries such as the Teesta, and Asia’s last last free flowing river, the Salween. The program aims to contribute to poverty reduction and marginalization among vulnerable river basin communities through increased access to and control over riverine water resources on which their livelihoods depend.