- The Etalin project has been controversial because it is planned in an area highly rich in biodiversity.
- While refusing the Stage-II or final forest clearance, FAC pointed out that a ‘large number of representations were received voicing concerns.’
- Arunachal Pradesh’s recent expression of inability to declare a national park around another mega dam that’s received the green signal for construction in the same valley was also factored in while arriving at the decisions.
In a relief to environmentalists and local indigenous population concerned about India’s hydropower ambition in the Dibang river valley region of Arunachal Pradesh, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has refused Stage II or final forest clearance to the 3,097MW Etalin hydroelectric project. Arunachal Pradesh is a Himalayan state in northeastern India.
Additionally, the FAC also extended the discussion to other upcoming hydel projects in the Dibang Valley.
The environment ministry formally communicated the FAC’s decision to the state government in February 2023, listing out the recommendations before submitting a revised proposal.
The recommendations include a robust empirical estimate of the number of trees to be felled, to further carry out the multi-seasonal replicate study, a cumulative impact assessment in Dibang valley considering other projects, a revised cost and benefit analysis considering latest facts and figures, status report on all approved projects and constitution of a high-level empowered committee to look into the various concerns received and respond to them in totality.
Etalin, which requires diversion of 1,165.66 hectares of forest land and the felling of 2,78,038 trees, is the largest hydel project that India’s Central Electricity Authority has approved so far.
“(The) instant proposal cannot be considered in the present form and the revised proposal may be submitted for further consideration,” the FAC said, after discussing it on December 27, 2022.
The FAC pointed out that a large number of representations were received voicing concerns against the project and advised that the state government may “constitute a high-level empowered committee to look into the various concerns received and come up with resolution therein.” Questions regarding the cost-benefit analysis also needed to be addressed, it said.
Local residents and environmentalists welcomed the FAC’s decision. Bhanu Tatak, an environment activist from the indigenous Adi community in Lower Dibang Valley district, told Mongabay-India, “Local people like us have been writing to the FAC for over two years. FAC finally listening to our views comes as a pleasant surprise. Of course, we welcome it. But we are also apprehensive that the government will try to revive the project after taking some time to assess the situation on ground.”
Itanagar-based advocate Ebo Mili, who belongs to the indigenous Idu Mishmi community, agreed that the decision has given people more time to prepare for the next round of struggle. “We are happy with the decision,” Mili told Mongabay-India. “We now have more connections and a broader support network than before. This would help us in better understanding technical details.”
Environmental activist Himanshu Thakkar, convener of South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an activism and advocacy group, welcomed the FAC’s decision. “It’s the right decision they have taken,” he said. “The deliberations imply that the whole project needs to be reviewed, including the environment clearance. I hope this shows the state government the reality and also makes them rethink.”
The Etalin project has been controversial right from the time it was conceived, as the area is known to be ecologically and geologically fragile. The FAC had discussed the Stage II proposal multiple times earlier but did not come to a decision and recommended more assessments.
While discussing the proposal in February 2017, the FAC had pointed out that the “proposed project falls under the richest bio-geographical province of the Himalayan zone and falls under one of the mega biodiversity hotspots of the world.”
“In fact, this area has more biodiversity than any other part of the country,” the FAC had said, while terming the existing Environment Impact Assessment study as “completely inadequate.”
The December 27, 2022, deliberations show that an FAC sub-committee, headed by FAC’s member-chairperson Sanjay Deshmukh, suggested, among other things, that “the recommendations of the Wildlife Conservation Report prepared by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) may be reviewed.”
Increasing “the ambit of economic and social benefits to project-affected families” and including those living downstream of the dam, was also suggested.
In December 2022, prior to its meeting, the FAC received two letters, one from the Project Affected People’s Forum (PAPF) on December 6 and another from Idu Mishmi indigenous youth individuals from Lower Dibang Valley district on December 8.
The first letter claimed the project was being wholeheartedly supported by people whose land is to be acquired and asked for speeding up of the project’s execution. The second letter urged not to progress with the project until all necessary parameters had been satisfied and reports made public.
After the FAC, in its December decision, mentioned the representations it received regarding concerns around the project, the PAPF members shot two letters to the FAC and Arunachal Pradesh state government, urging them to ignore the voices of those “who did not represent the interest of the project-affected families,” Tasku Tayu, chairman of PAPF and a resident of Eron, a village going to be acquired for the project, told Mongabay-India.
Speaking to Mongabay-India, Sadu Mihu of PAPF said, “The government acquired our land in 2014 but we have not been compensated yet because the project has not got stage II clearance. They don’t want to pay before they are sure the project is happening. But they are holding on to our land. We are unable to use it. It can’t be sold. And we don’t know when the compensation is going to come, or at all. We want the government to either ensure quick stage II clearance or back out of the project and return the land.”
The key takeaway for environmentalists was that the FAC did not limit its discussion to the Etalin project alone and involved other projects being executed and planned in the entire Dibang Valley.
Overall, 18 hydel projects with a cumulative capacity of 9,973 MW have been planned in the Dibang river valley, covered by the administrative districts of Dibang Valley and Lower Dibang Valley. The Etalin project is planned to be built about a 100-kilometre north of another mega project, the 2,880 MW Dibang multipurpose project (DMP). The latter got Stage-II forest clearance in 2020, but work is yet to begin, as approval from the Public Investment Board is still pending.
The FAC said that it took note of the fact that the state government had a “poor record of compliance with regard to conditions stipulated by FAC in the approval accorded for the earlier projects”. Noting the delay in starting and completing work of approved projects, the FAC suggested that the state government “review the status of all approved projects” – commencing, completion and compliance with regard to Stage-I and Stage-II conditions – and submit a status report.
“A cumulative impact assessment is needed considering other projects (hydropower) in the Dibang valley,” it said.
The FAC meeting’s minutes do not explicitly mention the DMP, but what it discussed as “poor record of compliance” refers to the Arunachal Pradesh government’s recent expression of inability to declare a national park around the DMP project area to safeguard biodiversity.
It (declaring a national park) was a recommendation the FAC made, while granting Stage I forest clearance to the DMP project in September 2014 and Stage II clearance in March 2020; but the state government in August 2022, following repeated reminders from the MoEFCC, said that landowners around the DMP project would not agree to allow their land to be declared as a national park.
The FAC has thereafter suggested that the state government may consider declaring the area concerned “as community reserve or conservation reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in consultation with the local people to safeguard the rights of indigenous community.” The environment ministry has given the state repeated reminders, the latest one being on January 2.
Tatak said that considering the ecological and geological fragility of the region, conducting a fresh cumulative impact and carrying capacity study for the whole of Dibang river valley was of utmost necessity.
“The FAC has now replaced the national park with a community reserve or conservation reserve. Since construction work is yet to start, the DMP project should not be treated as fait accompli and conditions stipulated should not be diluted. There is still time for good sense to prevail regarding DMP. Its clearance should be revoked,” Tatak added.
Commenting on the mention of a need for cumulative impact study, Thakkar said that he hopes the FAC means a fresh cumulative impact and carrying capacity study. “The existing study is highly inadequate and problematic,” he said, adding that it was time the Arunachal Pradesh government learnt lessons from the disaster unfolding in Joshimath, the pilgrimage town in Uttarakhand, a Himalayan state in northern India.
“It’s the same Himalayas both Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh are part of. In fact, Arunachal is seismically more active than Uttarakhand. The eastern Himalayas are where the world’s highest magnitude land-based seismic activities take place,” said Thakkar.
Banner image: Lower Dibang Valley. The Etalin project has been controversial because it is planned in a biodiversity-rich area. Photo by Jugal Bharali/Wikimedia Commons.