WII’s Dibang Valley Project report biased and incomplete, says peer review
A peer review of the Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) report on the Etalin Hydropower Project in Arunachal Pradesh has called it biased.
In the 58- page peer review of Dehradun-based institute’s report titled “Wildlife Conservation Plan for Impact Zone of Etalin HEP,” 24 scientists from 14 scientific institutions in India have said that it doesn’t reflect a true picture of the biodiversity of Dibang Valley where the Etalin Hydropower Project of 3097 MW will come up.
The review, seen by HT, suggests that WII hasn’t revealed crucial information about the area and impact of the project on ecology and local people.
On February 28, 2017 the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the environment ministry had met to discuss granting of forest clearance to the project but had recommended a “multiple season replicate study on biodiversity assessment of the catchment area.” The Wildlife Institute of India accordingly produced a technical report last year funded by the Etalin Hydroelectric Power Company at a budget of ₹170.36 lakhs.
Based on WII’s technical report, an FAC sub committee which visited the project area in February this year has approved the project which will involve clearing of at least 2.7 lakh trees in sub-tropical evergreen and rain forests and in a vital tiger area. FAC had again discussed granting forest clearance to the project on April 23 and is likely to publish the minutes of the meeting this week.
The 24 scientists who have studied Dibang Valley closely specialise in different areas and include botanists, ornithologists, mammalogists, entomologists, social scientists and others. “Overall, the review encountered considerable deficiencies and scientific biases in the Report which have compromised the quality and the veracity of its findings and conclusions,” the review released late on Monday night said referring to the WII report.
While WII was asked to do a multiple season study, it conducted its field observations only between February and June 2018. The peer review said these months do not represent seasonal patterns in Arunachal which has at least three seasons with distinct rainfall and weather regimes: October to February: relatively dry season/winter; March-April: spring/premonsoon; and May to September: summer/monsoon season.
Even before the FAC clears the project, WII’s technical report has an entire chapter dedicated to mitigation and conservation measures for the impact of the project. The peer review states that it is not clear on what basis FAC’s singular mandate of biodiversity assessment was converted into a wildlife conservation plan. The WII report doesn’t refer to any peer reviewed scientific papers on social, ecological, physical and geomorphological aspects of the study region instead relies on outdated material the review states.
The WII report seems to contradict its own findings at several points. For example, the peer review states that WII has omitted several species in its biodiversity documentation yet collected direct evidence of 230 bird, 159 butterfly, 112 spider, 51 moth, 31 reptile, 14 amphibian and 21 mammal species. At various points, the WII eport states that species and habitat specific conservation plans are not possible due to species diversity and their diverse dietary and foraging patterns, yet recommendations are still made for butterfly parks, reptile parks, and habitat restoration that clearly will not replace the loss of natural habitat, points the review.
The Report broadly defines the ‘Zone of Influence’ (ZoI) as the farthest influence of the HEP. But this zone of does not consider areas upstream and downstream of the dams that will be severely altered due to storage of sediments and changes in flow regimes.
Based on camera trap exercise WII concludes that there are no tigers in the project area and yet concludes that continuous monitoring of key mammalian fauna including tigers in 10 km radius of the project is crucial. WII also recommends long-term monitoring and conservation efforts are planned particularly for species such as Mishmi Takin (endemic species), Alpine Musk Deer, Red goral, Clouded Leopard, Snow Leopard, Spotted Linsang, in and around the study area.
The peer review found that WII has ignored traditional ecological knowledge and the intricacies of nature-human relations of the local people in Dibang Valley completely.
The WII report, also seen by HT, recommends a mitigation plan but also states that Arunachal Pradesh has been recognized as one of the 34 global mega biodiversity hotspots It is also a geologically fragile area. It is apparent that the aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity of Arunachal Pradesh is in peril. The proposed hydropower development is likely to impact the habitats 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, Mishmi Wren among many others.
“These developments will significantly alter the river systems thereby impacting important aquatic species,” it states.
Asked about his reaction to the peer review of the WII report, the former director of the institute VB Mathur refused to comment, saying he was no longer associated with the institute.
“Our report is in public domain. People are free to interpret it and critique it. I cant respond on behalf of WII because I am no longer with WII,” said Mathur who was the project leader of the 2019 WII report.