The jury is out on Rijiju but violations rampant in Arunachal hydel projects
In due course of time, we will know the veracity or otherwise of the alleged scam in the construction of the 600 MW Kameng hydroelectric project involving Union Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju. However, away from the national glare, the state of Arunachal Pradesh has been no stranger to controversies, legal violations and conflict-of-interest in hydropower development, as it unfolds an ambitious plan to become a hydroelectric powerhouse for the country.
As of May 2016, the state has signed Memoranda of Agreement (MoAs) for 143 hydropower projects, large and small, for a cumulative installed capacity of 46,442 MW. In February 2011, the BJP released a fact-finding report of a three-member committee on alleged scams in the Northeast by Congress governments including allegations of massive corruption and kickbacks in the signing of 137 MoAs for hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh. They alleged that the MoAs for projects worth 4 lakh crore rupees involved kickbacks worth 20,000 crore.
In April 2016, Lama Lobsang Gyatso, an opponent of hydropower projects in Tawang which are likely to destroy critical wildlife habitats and Buddhist cultural sites, was arrested. The police fired upon protestors demanding his release, resulting in the death of two people on May 2. Importantly, these series of events began with Lama Gyatso joining a group of people from Gongkhar village protesting the re-construction of the spillway in the under construction 6 MW Mukto Shakangchu hydroelectric project. The spillway had collapsed within three months of construction and locals blamed sub-standard construction and corruption allegedly involving sub-contractors and local politicians. Earlier, on April 7, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) responding to an Appeal by Lama Gyatso’s Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF) suspended the environmental clearance of the 780-MW Nyamjang Chhu hydroelectric project.The developers, in their Environment Impact Assessment report, had concealed the fact that the project site is a critical wintering ground of the Black-necked crane, a bird protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protect Act and considered sacred by locals.
SMRF had earlier exposed the illegal construction of the 7.5 MW Khangteng and 3.0 MW Shyaro Nala projects in dense forest areas, being built to provide construction power to the 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu project, without any clearances under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. Over the years, violations of forest and environment laws have also been recorded either by the state government or the Environment Ministry in several projects under construction in the state, including the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri project coming up on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border and the project embroiled in the current controversy, the 600 MW Kameng hydroelectric project. Although alignments of both the Bichom and Tenga dams as well as the Kimi powerhouse site in the 600 MW Kameng project were changed after environment clearance, mandatory fresh clearances have not been sought from the Environment Ministry to date.
The most under-reported but serious case of conflict-of-interest with respect to an Arunachal hydropower project was the 1750-MW Demwe Lower proposed to come up at cultural heritage site Parshuram Kund on the Lohit River. Former Power Secretary, Mr. P. Abraham, then a director of one of the project promoters, PTC India Ltd., chaired several meetings of an Environment Ministry committee which examined the Demwe Lower project for the vital ‘Scoping’ clearance under the EIA notification 2006. He did not disclose being on the board of directors of the project promoters. Shockingly, the Abraham committee took a decision to delink the environment clearance of the Demwe Lower and Demwe Upper project, both promoted by the same developers, from the results of the Lohit river basin study which was to look at the cumulative impacts of the multiple projects coming up in the Lohit river basin. This was a selective de-linking of the environmental clearance of only these two projects, not the others.
Read: A dam big scandal
When this conflict-of-interest was brought to the notice of the then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, he asked Abraham to resign. But he refused to review the conflict-ridden decisions taken by Abraham as demanded by many groups, including from the North East. When local groups from the North East challenged the environment clearance, the NGT arrived at a strange finding in its judgement absolving Abraham of conflict-of-interest: “As a non-executive director of PTC India Ltd. which was to supply certain materials to the project proponent in this case, it is not understood as to how Mr. P. Abraham can be said to sit in judgement over his case. Admittedly he is not connected with Demwe Lower HEP 1750 MW project…”
The Tribunal got its facts wrong in concluding that the project promoter company in question was only “to supply certain materials to the project proponent”. But even if that was the case, it is a case of blatant conflict-of-interest for the director of such a supplier to chair an environment ministry panel examining the same project. Unfortunately, the NGT dismissed the review application without a hearing on merits. Subsequently, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice T.S. Thakur also dismissed an appeal without any hearing on the merits which included critical issues such as the Abraham conflict-of-interest.
Neeraj Vagholikar works on environment, energy and water policy issues. He is a member of Kalpavriksh. The views expressed are personal.