Assam legislators and local populace is questioning the union government's environmental clearance to the 1759 MW Demwe Lower hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh.
Clearance was given to the project without carrying out a downstream impact assessment as sought by the Assam Assembly last year.
Estimated to take five years to construct and cost over Rs 13,144 crore, this project entailing a 163.12m high dam was granted to Athena Demwe Private Limited.
The proposed site is perilously close to a major pilgrimage - Parasuram Kund, where millions of Hindus gather every January for the ritualistic Makar Sankranti bath. Local Mishmi tribal people also revere the spot and organise two festivals there.
The clearance for the mega dam on Lohit - one of three rivers that join to form the Brahmaputra downstream - on February 12 came sans a downstream impact assessment sought by the Assam Assembly in December last year.
It also followed a "farcical public consultation and appraisal" and a "backdoor NOC" from the Parasuram Kund Improvement Society (PKIC). This Society controls the pilgrimage where sage Parasuram, Vishnu's sixth avatar, is said to have dipped to wash his hands off the axe with which he had killed his mother.
"The site selected for this mega hydroelectric project is 800m upstream of Parasuram Kund while the powerhouse would be 600m closer. The NOC from PKIC was obtained, but without consent from its governing body," said former PKIC chairman Khapriso Krong from Tezu, headquarters of Lohit district. "The additional divisional commissioner of the area issued the NOC unilaterally."
For the greens, maintaining the flow of water on the Lohit after the project comes up is more of a concern.
"Lohit has a uniform flow of 400 cumecs throughout the day in January-February. But the post-project flow will fluctuate from a low of 34 cumecs for 18-19 hours daily in January to a high of 1729 cumecs for 5-6 hours (peaking power generation). This will drastically affect the natural flow regimes and the ecology of the area," said Pune-based anti-dam activist Neeraj Vagholikar.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) claims to have addressed this issue through "green conditions" for Demwe Lower.
"The project will release normal lean season flow for a period of seven days during mela (Sankranti) period at Parsuram Kund in January as per the condition stipulated by PKIC…The financial allocation for the protection of Parasuram Kund should be enhanced from Rs 2 crore to about Rs 10 crore…for creating appropriate amenities, infrastructure, structures and safeguards, etc., as decided by PKIC," said MoEF Additional Director S Bhowmik's letter to Athena Managing Director K Seethayya vis-à-vis the environmental clearance for Demwe Lower.
Greens also pointed out that the government of Assam - it would bear the brunt of Dewme Lower's impact - was not consulted during the environmental appraisal of the project.
The Assam Assembly had in December last year constituted a House Committee to study the downstream impact of various dams including Demwe. The Union Power Ministry was also intimated for scrutiny of various notifications leading to the setting up of hydropower projects.
"We will seek an explanation on how Demwe got environmental clearance without the House Committee submitting its report," said a government spokesperson declining to be quoted.