Birds vs hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh: Who will win?

  • The proposal for the 3,097 megawatts Etalin hydropower project in the biodiversity-rich Dibang valley of Arunachal Pradesh for diversion is once again postponed for lack of clarity on its environmental impact.
  • At least 680 bird species, which are about 56 percent of total birds recorded in India, are found in the region. It is also home to tigers and clouded leopards.
  • An expert forest panel of Indian government’s environment ministry recently discussed the project in its meeting in October 2019 and formed a committee to look at the biodiversity concerns and see if the area required for the land can be reduced.

The proposal for 3,097-megawatt Etalin hydropower project in Dibang valley of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s northeast region has been pushed back yet again as questions regarding the project’s impact on biodiversity are yet to be answered before it gets clearance. 

Considered among the most biodiversity-rich areas of the world, the region where the project is proposed is reported to have 680 bird species – more than half of India’s total bird species. Rare birds, as well as other important animals like the tiger, are found here.  

The hydropower project, which has been awaiting forest clearance for years from the Indian government’s ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) was once again discussed during the meeting of ministry’s expert forest panel, the forest advisory committee (FAC), on October 17, 2019. It had first come to the FAC in 2014 and since then it has been discussed by the committee in 2015 and 2017. 

First envisaged in 2008, the Etalin hydropower project is proposed to be developed as a combination of two run-of-the-river schemes and involves the construction of concrete gravity dams on the Tangon and Dri rivers. It seeks diversion of about 1,165.66 hectares of forest area from the environment ministry. However, the area that is sought for diversion is classified as an “inviolate areaas prescribed by the environment ministry which is an area where no developmental project is allowed. Of the total forest area proposed for diversion for the Etalin project, 134 hectares are very dense forest and 267 hectares are moderately dense forest. If the project gets clearance, it would result in the felling of at least 280,677 trees. 

In the minutes of its 2017 meeting, the FAC had noted that the proposed project falls under the richest bio-geographical province of the Himalayan zone and one of the mega biodiversity hotspots of the world. 

“The proposed project location falls at the junction of the Palaearctic, Indo-Chinese, and Indo-Malayan bio-geographic regions having luxuriant forests and plethora of flora and fauna. About six globally threatened mammal species are found in this region of which three are endangered and three are under the vulnerable category,” the minutes noted. 

Project area is home to rich biodiversity

The FAC observed that about 680 bird species have been recorded from this region which is about 56 percent of total bird species of India and among them, 19 are globally threatened and 10 near threatened. It has four critically endangered, two endangered and 13 vulnerable species. It also has 3 very rare restricted range endemic bird species.  

“This makes this area a very important place in terms of conservation of globally threatened bird species,” noted the FAC while adding that the entire region falls under “the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management categories III and IV, Endemic Bird Area, Global Biodiversity Hotspot, and Key Biodiversity Area indicating its importance at global scale.” 

The project envisages a concrete gravity dam on Dri river in Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo by Goldentakin/Flickr.

It is also a vital tiger area of the region and FAC had noted that the area has more biodiversity than any other part of India. 

The forest panel quoted a study that used camera traps and captured “a total of 12 individual tigers and eight individual clouded leopards at various locations in Dibang Valley.” 

“A large majority, above 60 percent, of the camera traps were placed outside Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary which shows that both species are not only abundant but also very widespread in the district,” FAC had noted in 2017. At that time it had recommended conducting multiple seasonal replicate studies on biodiversity assessment by an internationally credible institute noting that the current environmental impact assessment study was “completely inadequate” in this regard.

The minutes reveal that during the last few years, FAC had sought views of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), India’s nodal body to ensure protection and welfare of tigers, several times – in 2017, 2018 and 2019 – but has not received a response so far. 

A subcommittee formed to check further assess the project

In its meeting on October 17, 2019, the FAC once again discussed the issue and noted that the “recommendations of last FAC meeting has not been complied with fully and the replies submitted in compliance of all observations are not satisfactory.” 

Moreover, the FAC could not obtain viewpoints of representatives of user agency or state government, as no one was present at the meeting for consultation and clarification of doubts, the minutes said. 

The FAC, therefore, recommended that a subcommittee “shall visit the site and check if the total land requirement could be further reduced.” 

“The subcommittee may also look into the concerns highlighted by regional office in its site inspection report especially related to tree enumeration process and the aspects highlighted in biodiversity assessments study by the WII (Wildlife Institute of India). Report of subcommittee shall be exhaustive with appropriate recommendation so that the FAC could take appropriate decision,” observed the minutes. 

One of the concerns raised by the FAC in its 2017 meeting was that the project proposes a huge area for construction and dumping and thus had noted that the Arunachal Pradesh government shall explore the possibility to reduce area. 

Tiger, which is India’s national animal, is also found in the region. Representative picture of a tiger in hills. Camera trap image by Global Tiger Forum/World Wildlife Fund/Sikkim Forest Department.

Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta said that the “principal concern with the recommendation of the FAC is the fact that the mandate given to the subcommittee is only to look at whether the area can be reduced or not.” 

“In a biodiversity-rich area the entire thrust of the forest advisory committee should be to avoid diversion of the forest land. The subcommittee’s mandate is extremely limited and all that you can do is to reduce the area. Given the fact that India is committed to the Paris Agreement for reducing deforestation and adding additional forest areas, the first task of the forest advisory committee should be to protect the area in accordance with the National Forest Policy 1988,” Dutta told Mongabay-India.

The regional office of the MoEFCC 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 the trees has not reflected the ground reality as huge trees (old-growth) are not reflected in the final list. 

The project’s estimated cost is about Rs. 252.96 billion (Rs. 25,296.95 crores) and it has already been recommended environment clearance in January 2017. The MoEFCC’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for River, Valley and Hydroelectric Power Projects in its meeting in January 2017 had recommended the environmental clearance to the project, which is being developed by the Etalin Hydro Electric Power Company Limited which is a joint venture company of the Jindal Power and Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Limited (HPDCAPL).

Hydropower development is of significance in Arunachal Pradesh with its hydropower development potential estimated to be about 50,000 MW. However, not even 10-20 percent of the potential has been realised so far as the biodiversity-rich state attempts to balance out infrastructure projects with environmental concerns. 

The development of hydropower in the northeast has been on the agenda of the central government. In July 2019 the government had approved various clearances for the 2,880 MW Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh. In the past six months, it has also declared that large hydropower projects have renewable energy status and pushed for the enactment of a dam safety bill.

Read more: Hydropower projects come back in focus with Dibang dam push and the dam safety bill

Banner image: Great Hornbill, a bird whose population is categorised as vulnerable, is found in the project area. Photo by Febrookbee/Wikimedia Commons.

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