Contentious hydro electric project gets govt nod, FAC approval awaited

Updated on May 28, 2022 01:32 AM IST

Several environmentalists and scientists have raised concerns over the 3,097MW hydropower project as it involves the diversion of 1165.66 ha of forest land and the felling of around 2.8 lakh trees in dense subtropical evergreen and subtropical rainforests.

The proposal for the Etalin project was earlier considered by the FAC on January 28, 2015, February 28, 2017, October 17, 2019 and April 23, 2020. However, following widespread criticism by scientists and environmentalists, the committee deferred its final decision.
The proposal for the Etalin project was earlier considered by the FAC on January 28, 2015, February 28, 2017, October 17, 2019 and April 23, 2020. However, following widespread criticism by scientists and environmentalists, the committee deferred its final decision.
ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi

The contentious Etalin hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley has been cleared by the power ministry and impact assessment division of the environment ministry and is awaiting approval of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC).

Several environmentalists and scientists have raised concerns over the 3,097MW hydropower project as it involves the diversion of 1165.66 ha of forest land and the felling of around 2.8 lakh trees in dense subtropical evergreen and subtropical rainforests.

A four-member committee has been formed by the FAC to address all apprehensions and representations by various environmental groups on the project’s impact on wildlife and biodiversity. It has been directed to submit a report in this regard within three weeks for the FAC to decide on the forest clearance for the project, according to minutes of the FAC meeting on May 11 which have been uploaded on the environment ministry’s Parivesh website.

The Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) have suggested that FAC take cognisance of certain safeguards for better conservation of wildlife in the area while considering the approval for the project, the minutes said, adding that the Arunachal government is insistent on going ahead with the project.

While several environmentalists and scientists continue to write to the FAC against the project in view of its rich biodiversity and evidence of the presence of tigers here, the state government has informed the committee that all concerns were examined at the state level before recommending the project for approval under the Forest Conservation Act 1980.

“Still, there are some apprehensions/representations received from some quarters concerning wildlife and other issues related to reported endemic flora and fauna of the area,” the FAC observed while recommending the constitution of a panel under the chairmanship of FAC member Sanjay Deshmukh and comprising assistant inspector general of forests, ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC); a representative of the regional office of MoEFCC; and a representative from Arunachal Pradesh government.

The FAC also directed the constitution of a second panel under the chairmanship of a regional officer and integrated regional office of MoEFCC, Guwahati, with a nodal officer of Arunachal Pradesh as a member to visit and monitor the compliance of conditions of various forest clearance approvals for hydro-electric projects in Arunachal Pradesh and submit their report within three weeks.

The proposal for the Etalin project was earlier considered by the FAC on January 28, 2015, February 28, 2017, October 17, 2019 and April 23, 2020. However, following widespread criticism by scientists and environmentalists, the committee deferred its final decision.

On May 10, scientists from 16 research institutes had written to the FAC, seeking a fresh assessment of the region’s biodiversity before approving the hydroelectric project.

“We find it pertinent to remind the committee of the need to conduct fresh, unbiased scientific studies to fully understand the impact of the country’s largest proposed hydro-project on this region’s fragile ecology and people. We believe that such decisions of national importance should not be based on faulty and erroneous science,” the letter signed by 29 researchers and scientists from Bombay Natural History Society, Nature Conservation Foundation, Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History among others said.

On May 5 last year, a group (of scientists) had released a peer-review of Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) report on the Etalin project, and claimed the report was “biased” in its findings.

The review highlighted that WII had not revealed crucial information on the area, particularly the presence of tigers and the impact of the project on the ecology and local residents.

Several conservationists have also written to Deshmukh on the ecological importance of the region.

On Tuesday, herpetologist Romulus Whitaker wrote to Deshmukh, saying “the proposed project has been mired in controversy and strongly opposed by members of civil society”.

“As you are aware, Dibang Valley lies in a Global Biodiversity Hotspot and is home to the indigenous Idu Mishmi community that is world-renowned for its culture of conservation…It is of grave concern that the Wildlife Conservation Plan prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) for the proposed project is totally inadequate in scope and depth,” Whitaker said.

“The respected members of the FAC are surely aware that we are in the throes of a climate crisis, and our best defence against its catastrophic impacts is the protection of natural landscapes, in particular primary forests that sequester large amounts of carbon,” Whitaker added.

Chennai-based Palluyir Trust for Nature Education and Research had also written to Deshmukh on May 2, saying the region (where the project is to be built) is home to a unique tiger population which has evolved to live at high altitudes and has behavioural and genetic attributes which are found nowhere else.

“We want to strongly recommend that the Dibang valley landscape is protected and more comprehensive studies are done of the biodiversity and eco-sensitivity of this place,” the Trust said.

On February 28, 2017, the FAC had met to discuss granting of forest clearance to the project but recommended a “multiple season replicate study on biodiversity assessment of the catchment area”.

Accordingly, the WII produced a technical report in 2019 funded by Etalin Hydroelectric Power Company at a budget of over 1.7 crore.

While WII was asked to do a multiple season study, it conducted its field observations only between February and June 2018. Based on a camera trap exercise, WII concluded that there are no tigers in the project area but recommended continuous monitoring of key mammalian fauna, including tigers in 10 km radius of the project.

According to a factsheet on the project uploaded on Parivesh website on April 21, 2020, 280,677 trees are proposed to be felled and that requirement of land is unavoidable and bare minimum for mining purpose.

HT had reported on May 12 that developers of the hydroelectric project are likely to change.

Public sector unit Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited is in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Arunachal Pradesh government to take over five hydropower projects in Dibang basin, including the Etalin project.

“We have to understand that we need clean energy in view of the climate crisis. Hydropower can provide that. India still needs to develop and energy is a must. First, we must think about the need for such a project. FAC is discussing the trade-offs and environmental impacts. We will soon have a decision,” an FAC member said, wishing not to be named.

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