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Arunachal’s hydro project puts habitat of 25 globally threatened species, ancient trees at threat: BNHS to Centre

Hindustan Times | By Badri Chatterjee
UPDATED ON MAY 01, 2020 07:18 PM IST

The habitat of 25 globally threatened species – 19 birds and six mammals – among other flora and fauna, face threat owing to the proposed Etalin hydroelectric power project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley, the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has said.

Earlier this week, BNHS had submitted a letter to the chairman of the forest advisory committee (FAC), a body constituted under the Union environment ministry, strongly opposing the project and calling it “a fit case to be out rightly rejected”. BNHS has shared a copy of its letter with HT.

The proposed project site, 14km from the protected areas of the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, will require the diversion of 1,150.08 hectare (ha) forest land for the 3,097 megawatt (MW) hydroelectric project, which is expected to be one of the largest in India.

BNHS, which has carried out research across the Dibang Biosphere Reserve part of Mishmi Hill for more than two years, said over five lakh trees would be lost for the project, contrary to the current estimate.

“The regional office of the Union environment ministry in its site inspection report had not recommended the proposal in the present form for forest clearance. It had raised concerns that the enumeration of trees has not reflected the ground reality as huge trees (old-growth) are not identified in the final list,” the BNHS letter read.

Deepak Apte, director of BNHS, who drafted the letter, said, “The decision to grant forest clearance for this project is not just unprecedented but most tragic and unfortunate. We thought the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us lessons to respect nature but it isn’t the case. We request environment minister Prakash Javadekar to intervene, and not to grant final clearance for this project and save this pristine forest,” added Apte.

Though the minutes of last Thursday’s meeting on the final approval for the project is awaited, an FAC sub-committee had recommended it citing economic remuneration for wildlife conservation. “A decision will be taken regarding the feasibility of the project once we see the FAC minutes of the meeting,” an official from the Union environment ministry told HT on the issue.

Around 680 bird species have been recorded from the region, accounting for 56% of the total bird species in the country, BNHS has said. Among the 19 globally threatened species, four are ‘critically endangered’, including the Bengal Florican, White-rumped vulture, Slender-billed vulture, and Red-headed vulture, while two others – Greater adjutant and Black-bellied tern – are in the ‘endangered’ category. Thirteen ‘vulnerable’ species include three rare range restricted endemic birds (Chestnut-breasted partridge, Blyth’s Tragopan, and Sclater’s Monal). The habitat of six globally threatened mammals was also at risk, including the endangered Hoolock gibbon, red panda, and Bengal tiger, and vulnerable species such as the leopard, Mishmi takin, and Chinese goral.

Apte added that the entire region falls under two categories designating high protection by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Endemic Bird Area, Global Biodiversity Hotspot and Key Biodiversity Area, all indicating its importance at the global scale.

“It is not just about how many trees are felled, it is about the whole ecosystem and ecosystem services we take down with it,” said Apte.

Two dams will be built over two rivers (Dri and Talon) with an underground powerhouse downstream having turbine units. The letter raises an alarm that the project site was in a seismically active zone (Zone V) in the Himalayan belt which has reported four earthquakes in Talon River basin in 2008, 1997, 1993, and 1983 ranging between 3.7 and 5 on the Richter Scale. “This makes it vulnerable to natural disasters. It not only threatens life of people downstream but also threatens the larger landscape in Brahmaputra flood plains,” said Apte.

BNHS suggested that the FAC should protect the area in accordance with the National Forest Policy, 1988. “Since India is committed to the Paris Agreement for reducing deforestation and adding additional forest areas, in a biodiversity rich area such as this, the FAC should avoid diversion of forest land,” the letter added.

Meanwhile the Mishmi indigenous communities from Arunachal Pradesh have also placed their concerns before the Union environment ministry over the project.

“There are gross anomalies and contradictions in the Wildlife Institute of India’s study in clear violations of FAC’s recommendation. We want studies to be re-conducted in a transparent, factual, and scientific manner. However, such studies cannot be impartial unless there is a clear case of conflict of interest. We request ministry to look into these anomalies without bothering to decorate an environment management plan,” said Tilu Linggi, representing members of the Kera-Initiatives for Cultural and Ecological Security (KICES), a grassroots NGO and Mishmi indigenous communities.

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