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Respite for local communities as Etalin hydro project scrapped in current form

Published on Jan 17, 2023 11:55 PM IST

New Delhi The controversial Etalin hydroelectric power project in Arunachal Pradesh has been scrapped in its present form in a temporary respite to local communities and conservationists who were objecting to it

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ByJayashree Nandi

New Delhi The controversial Etalin hydroelectric power project in Arunachal Pradesh has been scrapped in its present form in a temporary respite to local communities and conservationists who were objecting to it.

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Union environment ministry has asked the Arunachal Pradesh government to go back to the drawing board on the 3097 MW project in Dibang Valley, a biodiversity hotspot.

FAC said the proposal cannot be considered in its present form and a revised proposal may be submitted for further consideration.

The proposal, which involved diversion of 1165.66 hectares of forest land and felling of over 280,000 trees in dense subtropical, evergreen, broadleafed, and subtropical rainforest, according to a fact sheet submitted to FAC (which has to sign off on the project) on April 21, 2020, is mired in controversy mainly because of environmental and biodiversity loss related concerns raised by experts.

FAC said in its December 27 meeting, the minutes of which were published on Monday, that the present proposal faces a large number of representations voicing concerns against the project. The original proposal was sent by Arunachal Pradesh back in 2014 and it is imperative to review the facts and figures presented by the state government especially with regard to the number of trees required to be felled, FAC observed.

“FAC opined that the instant proposal cannot be considered in the present form and the revised proposal may be submitted for further consideration by the state government,” the minutes, available on the Parivesh website, stated.

“Our concerns remain the same. We believe this dam, if built, will affect our ecology and culture. Why do we need more dams. Already some construction work related to Dibang Multipurpose Project is causing havoc. We should be very careful,” said Anoko Mega, environmentalist and member of Idu Mishmi community.

HT reported on May 5, 2020 that in the 58-page peer review of Wildlife Institute of India’s report titled “Wildlife Conservation Plan for Impact Zone of Etalin HEP”, 24 scientists from 14 scientific institutions in India said the report doesn’t reflect a true picture of biodiversity in Dibang Valley where the Etalin project will come up. The proposed hydropower development is likely to impact the habitat and the survival of several endemic and threatened terrestrial species such as the Snow Leopard, Red Panda, Clouded Leopard, Tiger, Arunachal Macaque, Black-necked crane, and the rare Mishmi Wren Babbler, among many others, the review said.

HT again reported on July 7, 2020 that after the environment ministry asked the Arunachal Pradesh government to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the controversial project, the government submitted the analysis — done, not by the state or an independent agency but by the developer of the project, Etalin Hydro Electric Power Company Limited.

Several discrepancies have come to light since. For example, HT reported on January 2, 2023 that indigenous communities living downstream of the Dibang Multipurpose Project and proposed Etalin Hydropower Project in Arunachal Pradesh have raised concerns with a 2016 cumulative impacts assessment study of the Dibang sub-basin in the Brahmaputra Valley, saying it has omitted assessment of impacts on areas immediately downstream of these projects. Communities living downstream of the Etalin project pointed out that the study has not assessed the impacts on Lower Dibang Valley district at all. The Cumulative Impact and Carrying Capacity Study, which was published in July 2016 and accepted by the environment ministry, is the basis for the Centre to take a call on the 3,097 MW Etalin Hydropower Project and 16 smaller hydro projects planned in the region.

The Etalin proposal was earlier considered by FAC on January 28, 2015, February 28, 2017, October 17, 2019, April 24, 2020 and May 11, 2022. The ministry of power and the impact assessment division of the environment ministry recommended the project for clearance. Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) suggested certain safeguards and mitigating measures for the better conservation and protection of wildlife in the area while considering the approval of the project.

In the FAC meeting held on May 11, 2022 two committees were constituted by FAC to review various aspects of the proposal. One committee was constituted under the chairmanship of FAC expert member, Sanjay Deshmukh to examine the content of all the representations made by conservationists and local communities against the proposal. The second committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Regional Officer, Integrated Regional Office, Guwahati and Nodal Officer (FCA), Govt. of Arunachal Pradesh as a member to visit and monitor the compliance of conditions of various forest clearance approvals for hydroelectric projects in the past. The second committee is yet to submit its report.

Desmukh’s panel said a project mitigation and wildlife management plan based on the recommendations of Wildlife Institute of India, with endorsement of the Wildlife Division of the environment ministry and FAC should be implemented by the project proponent. It also recommended an increase in the ambit of economic and social benefits to project-affected families and inclusion of affected areas of Lower Dibang district as beneficiaries.

The minutes also pointed to Arunachal’s “poor compliance” in meeting “conditions stipulated by FAC in the approval accorded for the earlier projects”.

“It was highlighted that in the earlier approved projects where in Forest Clearance has been accorded there is poor record of compliance w.r.t. conditions stipulated by FAC while according to the forest clearance. Further, FAC took note of the submission made by the State Nodal Officer that there are a lot of representations objecting to the present proposal and with regard to already approved projects as well. Due to this, already approved projects have not yet started and certain projects are not yet being completed. In view of the above, the FAC requested the State Govt. to review the status of all approved projects (operationalization/execution of the projects, commencing and completion of the project) and submit a status report to this Ministry at the earliest,” the minutes said.

“The minutes reflect the thorough consideration that the committee has given to various technical aspects and public response that has been brought to their notice. The precautionary approach in the present case can set an important precedent in how science and society can inform regulatory decisions,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at Centre for Policy Research.

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