Briefing

Stop The Dibang Valley Project To Protect Indigenous Mishmi Peoples, Biodiversity and Ecology of the North East

On the occasion of the World Environment Day today (5th June) whose theme is ‘Time for Nature’, Indigenous Lawyers Association of India (ILAI) urged the Government of India and the State Government of Arunachal Pradesh to cancel the Dibang Valley Hydropower project, the 3097 MW project to be developed by Etalin Hydro Electric Power Company Limited, a joint venture between Jindal Power Limited and Arunachal Pradesh’s Hydro Power Development Corporation.

At a time, the destruction of the nature has been blamed for upheavals in the world including pandemic and green energy is being increasingly promoted, construction of outdated hydroelectric projects by destroying the nature must be abandoned.

The Dibang valley project will divert 1150.08 hectares of land, fall over 2.7 lakh trees, rare flora and fauna, and will further destroy the culture and heritage of local indigenous communities, particularly, the Idu Mishmi tribes in the region.

Apart from the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary being the habitat of the tigers including snow tigers, in 2017, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) had recorded that project location preserves luxuriant forests and plethora of flora and fauna, and about six globally threatened mammal species out of which three are endangered and three are under the vulnerable category. About 680 bird species were recorded, which is about 56 percent of total bird species of India. Out of the 680 bird species, 19 are globally threatened, 10 near threatened, four critically endangered, two endangered, 13 vulnerable species and three very rare restricted range endemic bird species. The area is critical for the conservation of globally threatened bird species and 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 Forest Advisory Committee had also stated in 2017 that “The land in which the project is proposed is in pristine forests with riverine growth that once cut cannot be replaced.” 

There are attempts to re-write the findings of the FAC of 2017 and compensate irreplaceable damage to bio-diversity and ecology with financial allocations.  The same must be condemned to save the mother earth.

1. Background of the project

The State Government of Arunachal Pradesh had sought prior approval of the Central Government under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for construction of the Etalin Hydro Electric Project (3097 MW) in Dibang Valley District of Arunachal Pradesh.

Also known as the Dibang Valley Hydropower project, the 3097 MW project is to be developed by Etalin Hydro Electric Power Company Limited, a joint venture between Jindal Power Limited and Arunachal Pradesh’s Hydro Power Development Corporation.

The project is located in Anini Social Forest Division, Dibang Valley District of Arunachal Pradesh.

The project seeks to divert 1150.08 hectares of land and is expected to result in felling over 2.7 lakh trees in the biodiversity-rich Dibang Valley. The area is rich in subtropical evergreen and rain forests and rare flora and fauna.[1]

The Proposal for forest clearance was earlier considered by the environment ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) on 28.01.2015, 28.02.2017 and 17.10.2019.[2]

Ecological concerns were raised by conservationists and scientist. The Idu Mishmi people also claimed that the project threatens the culture and heritage of local indigenous communities.[3] For the Idu Mishmi tribes in the region, tigers are revered as their brothers. The tribal folklore mentions that the tiger and the Idu Mishmis were born from the same womb.[4]

Environmentalists feel that the diversion of forest lands and felling of the trees could spell disaster for the ecology of the area. A site inspection report by the environment ministry’s regional office in Shillong noted that, “the land in which the project is proposed is in pristine forests with riverine growth that once cut cannot be replaced.”[5]

According to the FAC’s own factsheet, the project falls under the richest biogeographical 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 Paleoarctic, Indo-Chinese, and Indo-Malayan biogeographic regions with luxuriant forests and rich flora and fauna. It is also a “vital tiger area.”[6]

The Dibang Valley also hosts six different colour variations of the Asian golden cat; which is the highest colour variation of any wild cat species in the world.[7]

According to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), the project area is habitat of 25 globally threatened species – 19 birds and six mammals – among other flora and fauna that now face threat because of the proposed Etalin hydroelectric power project.[8]

The ministry of environment, forest and climate change’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for river valley and hydroelectric projects, during a meeting on 30-31 January 2017, recommended environment clearance for the project.[9]

However, the hydropower project has been awaiting forest clearance for years from the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). The proposal for prior approval/clearance had first come to the FAC in 2014 and since then it has been considered by the FAC on 28.01.2015, 28.02.2017 and 17.10.2019 without a decision on clearance.[10]

Without the forest clearance the project cannot go ahead.

2. Statutory clearances required to start a project

Clearances of different kinds and under different statutory laws are required for development projects like the Dibang Valley project, such as “forest clearance” under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, environmental clearance under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1985 and its various Rules and guidelines, and other clearances. These laws are, accordingly, regulatory in nature.

2.1 Environmental clearance

The environmental clearance process is required for 39 types of projects and covers aspects like screening, scoping and evaluation of the upcoming project. The main purpose is to assess impact of the planned project on the environment and people and to try to abate/minimise the same.[11]

The Environmental Impact Assessment Notification (EIA) notification 2006 regulates the environment clearance given by the government for projects such as dams, mining, thermal power plants, infrastructure projects like highways, ports, airport and big construction projects.[12]  The process includes screening, scoping, public consultation and appraisal by the EAC of the environment ministry which then either rejects clearance to a project or recommends clearance along with certain stipulated conditions.[13]

The main purpose of Environmental clearance is to assess the impact of the planned project on the environment and people through a detailed EIA report and to try to minimize the same with alternatives and preventive measures.

The project proponent submits an application for environmental clearance with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) if it falls under Project A category or the state government if it falls under Project B category. 

The EAC is the recommendatory body for environmental clearance. It is a multi disciplinary sectoral appraisal committee comprising of various subject matter experts for appraisal of sector specific projects. Based on the recommendations of the EAC, environmental clearance is accorded or rejected to the project by MoEFCC.

2.2. Forest clearance

Under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, forest land can be diverted for non-forestry purposes like dams, mining and others but requires prior approval under Section 2 of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

The FAC recommends or rejects projects seeking forest clearance.

The FAC is a statutory body constituted under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. It advises the ministry on any activity that requires the diversion of forestland for non-forest use. The FAC, with seven members — three of them independent — is headed by the director general of forest.[14]

As per the para 4.2 of the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 forest clearance is given in two stages. Stage-I, or “in-principle” approval is given by the FAC, which assesses a project on its merits and impact on forests. Once the project submits proof of meeting the conditions imposed by the FAC, the ministry gives the final go-ahead.[15]

The in-principle agreement and formal approval under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 are commonly referred to as stage-I and stage-II approval.[16]

The MoEF first issues the in principle forest clearance and then after fulfilment of conditions in the in-principle clearance, it can issue final clearance. 

The final forest clearance is given when the state government issues order to divert forest land after central government gives stage – II forest clearance.[17] After the FAC recommends or rejects clearance to a project, the ministry takes the final decision. 

3. Present status of clearance for the Dibang Valley project

On 23 March 2020, The Hindustan Times had reported that the FAC has considered granting forest clearance to the project at its meeting on 23 April 2020. However, the minutes of the meeting are yet to be released.  Reportedly, the FAC members were in favour of granting clearance to the project.[18] In the meeting on 23 April 2020 the report and recommendations of the sub-committee of the FAC was also reportedly discussed for final recommendations on the grant of the forest clearance to the project.[19]

However in a subsequent report on 4 May 2020, The Hindustan Times cited senior environment ministry officials as saying that the FAC hasn’t taken a decision on whether to reject or allow the project yet.[20]

In October 2019, the FAC constituted a sub-committee to visit the project site to check if the land requirement for the project can be reduced after the ministry’s regional office in Shillong raised several concerns about the diversion of a large area as well as potential biodiversity loss and conservative estimation of trees to be felled. The sub-committee was asked to look into tree enumeration for felling and the project’s biodiversity impact.

Reportedly, the FAC sub-committee in its report dated 21 April 2020 has recommended that Etalin Hydroelectric Project be allowed with a condition that the developer deposits money for wildlife conservation in the area.[21]

4. Why the Dibang valley project must stop

Scientists and independent experts opposing the project have written to the FAC asking it to withhold clearance of the project. They have drawn attention to the absence of an assessment on the cumulative ecological impact of the multiple large hydro-power projects that have been planned on Dibang River. They have warned that the project poses multiple risks to not only the rich biodiversity and ecology of the region, but also the indigenous community that has protected the forests and wildlife for generations.

There are attempts to alter the facts and compensate the damage to biodiversity and ecology, which are indeed irreplaceable with money.

4.1 Threats to region’s biodiversity and ecology

In fact, the FAC itself had in 2017 had admitted as much when it recognized the areas/region’s rich biodiversity that could be threatened by the proposed dam when it stated that “The land in which the project is proposed is in pristine forests with riverine growth that once cut cannot be replaced.”[22]

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. 

It acknowledged that the project location preserves luxuriant forests and plethora of flora and fauna and about six globally threatened mammal species are found in this region of which three are endangered and three are under the vulnerable category.[23]

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.   The area is critical for the conservation of globally threatened bird species and 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.”[24]

4.2 Threats to tiger reserve including India’s first snow tigers

The Dibang Valley reportedly is home to six different colour variations of the Asian golden cat, “the highest colour variation of any wild cat species in the world.”[25]

The Dibang valley hydroelectric project site is located near a tiger habitat and is a vital tiger area. In 2017, the proposed project has been kept on hold by the FAC of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate change, citing a large presence of tigers and the country’s richest biodiversity zone.[26] The 2017 FAC report also stated species of tigers are abundant and widespread in the region.

Thereafter, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) was commissioned by the FAC and the report found that there are no tigers in the community forests outside the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary.[27] It was in contradictions to the FAC’s earlier reports. The WII Report was used by the sub-committee for recommending clearance of the project.[28]

A camera based study spotted, India’s first ‘snow tigers’ spotted in the upper reaches of Dibang Valley. One of the 108 camera traps deployed in and around the protected area for the study captured a tiger wading through thick snow in January 2017 at an altitude of 3,630 metres. Though Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary (DWS) is not a designated tiger reserve and is the highest site for the 2018 tiger census. The 2014 census reported 201 tigers in the northeastern hills and the Brahmaputra plains out which five were reported in DWS, which extends over the Mishmi hills.[29]

4.3. No cumulative impact assessment of all the hydropower projects in the region

Arunachal Pradesh had signed agreement for constructions of dozens of hydro-electric projects. On 15 September 2018, Chief Minister Pema Khandhu stated the State government terminated agreements for 22 projects worth 3,800 MW while 46 projects worth 8,000 MW had been served notices.[30]

After it has been reported that the panel is considering granting forest clearance for the project, many scientists and experts have written to the FAC with withhold/withdraw forest clearance to the project.[31]

Two of the country’s biggest hydel ventures, namely the 3,097 MW Etalin and 2,880 MW Dibang multipurpose projects are located in the same region. The impacts of multiple projects placed in close proximity on the same river limb must be assessed together because these impacts will be cumulative and not independent.

In a petition to the FAC dated 24 April 2020, several scientists have sought, among many others,  a cumulative impact assessment of all the hydropower projects in the region, and demanded that the impacts of multiple projects placed in close proximity on the same river limb must be assessed together.[32]

4.4 Non compliance with the Forest Rights Act

In the Factsheet considered in the deliberation by the FAC, there was no indication of whether Gram Sabha consent has been obtained. If the Gram Sabha’s consent was not obtained, this would result in non-compliance of the Forest (Rights) Act of 2005, given that forest diversion under the Forest (Conservation) Act, of 1980 requires Gram Sabha consent for “compensatory and ameliorative measures”.[33]

4.5. Non compliance with international commitments

India is a signatory to several key international commitments for the protection of biodiversity. Most notable amongst these are the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Animals (CMS) that are relevant to the protection of species found in Dibang Valley.

Dibang Reserve Forest and its adjacent areas, along with Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary are officially recognised as globally Important Bird Areas (IBAs) harbouring globally threatened range-restricted species. The destruction of the habitat of the many species of migratory birds that utilize the project area is likely to undermine India’s commitment to CMS.

Dibang Valley, which will be impacted by the project, has been globally recognised for its rich biodiversity that has been protected and managed by the indigenous Idu Mishmi community for generations.

India is not only a signatory to the Global Tiger Initiative (GTI) but also one of its founding members.

4.6 Threats to indigenous Mishmi people

Idu Mishmi people occupy the northeastern tip of the central Arunachal Pradesh in Upper and Lower Dibang Valley, Lohit and Anjaw Districts. There population as per 2011 census was 32,219.[34] The project could displace over 100 families and over 700 families will lose land to the project.[35]

In the light of these facts, Dibang Valley Project must stop.


Endnotes:

[1]. 2.7 lakh trees to be felled for hydropower project in Arunachal’s Dibang Valley, Hindustan Times, 22 April 2020,  https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/2-7-lakh-trees-to-be-felled-for-hydropower-project-in-arunachal-s-dibang-valley/story-i0GVuHt8nHF4JbxeM4birM.html

[2]. F. No. 8-20/2014-FC, http://forestsclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/AdditionalInformation/AddInfoSought/0_0_411211210121318-20-2014.pdf

[3]. Forest panel to share its views on Etalin Hydropower Project soon, Hindustan Times, 4 May 2020,   https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/forest-panel-to-share-its-views-on-etalin-hydropower-project-soon/story-ohYk0xwKdSh0V0tkPUQmDP.html

[4].  ‘Etalin Hydro Project Threatens Our Existence’: In Conversation with an Idu Mishmi , The Citizen, 1 May 2020, https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/13/18684/Etalin-Hydro-Project-Threatens-Our-Existence-In-Conversation-with-an-Idu-Mishmi

[5]. Environment ministry defers forest clearance to Etalin hydropower project, 20 March 2017, https://www.livemint.com/Politics/Yg5zcnNKYarHaCujdnjZBK/Environment-ministry-defers-forest-clearance-to-Etalin-hydro.html

[6]. Over 4,000 petition environment ministry on hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Valley, Hindustan Times, 29 April 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/4-000-petition-environment-ministry-on-hydropower-project-in-arunachal/story-12tsC1CFegMhAki3ovDmcI.html

[7]. In the midst of COVID-19, forest ministry deliberates on controversial Etalin project in AP, National Herald, 24 April 2020  https://www.nationalheraldindia.com/india/in-the-midst-of-covid-19-forest-ministry-deliberates-on-controversial-etalin-project-in-ap

[8]. Arunachal’s hydro project puts habitat of 25 globally threatened species, ancient trees at threat: BNHS to Centre, Hindustan Times, 1 May 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/arunachal-s-hydro-project-puts-habitat-of-25-globally-threatened-species-ancient-trees-at-threat-bnhs-to-centre/story-Mn5GImPBM53CIpRMMie18O.html

[9]. Environment ministry defers forest clearance to Etalin hydropower project, Livemint, 20 March 2017, https://www.livemint.com/Politics/Yg5zcnNKYarHaCujdnjZBK/Environment-ministry-defers-forest-clearance-to-Etalin-hydro.html

[10]. Birds vs hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh: Who will win?, Mongabay, 7 November 2019, https://india.mongabay.com/2019/11/birds-vs-hydropower-project-in-arunachal-pradesh-who-will-win/

[11]. Environmental Clearance – The Process, Centre for Science and Environment, https://www.cseindia.org/environmental-clearance—the-process-403

[12]. India’s proposed overhaul of environment clearance rules could dilute existing regulations, Mongaybay, 18 March 2020,  https://india.mongabay.com/2020/03/indias-proposed-overhaul-of-environment-clearance-rules-could-dilute-existing-regulations/

[13]. Government comes out with standard conditions for environment clearances, Mongaybay, 16 August 2018, https://india.mongabay.com/2018/08/government-comes-out-with-standard-conditions-for-environment-clearances/

[14]. Forest advisory committee turns toothless, Business Standard, 20 January 2013,   https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/forest-advisory-committee-turns-toothless-111122000058_1.html

[15]. Govt now set to bypass tribal rights to fast-track mining projects , Business Standard, 20 December 2018, http://mmpindia.in/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/FRA-news-20-12-2018.pdf

[16]. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) Related to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980,  http://forestsclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/Frequently%20Asked%20Questions.pdf

[17]. Centre approves 2880 MW Dibang Multipurpose Project without final forest clearance, Arunachal Times, 18 July 2019,https://arunachaltimes.in/index.php/2019/07/18/centre-approves-2880-mw-dibang-multipurpose-project-without-final-forest-clearance/

[18]. FAC members are in favour of hydropower project in Dibang Valley: Environment ministry, Hindustan Times, 23 March 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/fac-members-are-in-favour-of-hydropower-project-in-dibang-valley-environment-ministry/story-AXEBlEsufgjKgWC85dbq6N.html

[19]. 2.7 lakh trees to be felled for hydropower project in Arunachal’s Dibang Valley, Hindustan Times, 22 April 2020,  https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/2-7-lakh-trees-to-be-felled-for-hydropower-project-in-arunachal-s-dibang-valley/story-i0GVuHt8nHF4JbxeM4birM.html

[20]. Forest panel to share its views on Etalin Hydropower Project soon, Hindustan Times, 4 May 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/forest-panel-to-share-its-views-on-etalin-hydropower-project-soon/story-ohYk0xwKdSh0V0tkPUQmDP.html

[21]. 2.7 lakh trees to be felled for hydropower project in Arunachal’s Dibang Valley, Hindustan Times, 22 April 2020,  https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/2-7-lakh-trees-to-be-felled-for-hydropower-project-in-arunachal-s-dibang-valley/story-i0GVuHt8nHF4JbxeM4birM.html

[22]. Diversion of 1165.66 ha (including 91.331 ha underground area) of forest land for construction of Etalin Hydro Electric Project (3097 MW) in Dibang Valley District of Arunachal Pradesh by M/s Etalin Hydro Electric Power Company Limited, Arunachal Pradesh,http://forestsclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/AdditionalInformation/AddInfoSought/0_0_411211210121318-20-2014.pdf

[23]. Birds vs hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh: Who will win?, Mongabay, 7 November 2019, https://india.mongabay.com/2019/11/birds-vs-hydropower-project-in-arunachal-pradesh-who-will-win/

[24]. Birds vs hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh: Who will win?, Mongabay, 7 November 2019, https://india.mongabay.com/2019/11/birds-vs-hydropower-project-in-arunachal-pradesh-who-will-win/

[25]. ‘Etalin Hydro Project Threatens Our Existence’: In Conversation with an Idu Mishmi, 1 May 2020,  https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/NewsDetail/index/13/18684/Etalin-Hydro-Project-Threatens-Our-Existence-In-Conversation-with-an-Idu-Mishmi

[26]. Etalin project kept on hold, The Telegraph, 18 March 2017,   https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/north-east/etalin-project-kept-on-hold/cid/1429058

[27]. Forest panel to share its views on Etalin Hydropower Project soon, Hindustan Times, 4 May 2020, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/forest-panel-to-share-its-views-on-etalin-hydropower-project-soon/story-ohYk0xwKdSh0V0tkPUQmDP.html

[28]. Minutes of the Meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) held on 23 April 2020, available at http://forestsclearance.nic.in/writereaddata/FAC_Minutes/51111121912211FACminutes23April20_compressed.pdf

[29]. Camera traps capture tigers at 3,630 metres in Arunachal’s Dibang Valley, The Hindustan Times, 30 November 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/camera-traps-capture-tigers-at-3-630-metres-in-arunachal-s-dibang-valley/story-hHcZDdl4a29awDlS04ahuJ.html

[30]. After years of hydro push, Arunachal begins scrapping dam projects, The Hindu, 15 September 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/after-years-of-hydro-push-arunachal-begins-scrapping-dam-projects/article29422880.ece

[31]. A letter dated 24 May 2020 addressed to the FAC members by experts and scientists is available at https://www.sanctuarynaturefoundation.org/article/conservation-scientists-oppose-etalin-hydro-electric-project

[32]. The petition is accessible at https://www.sanctuarynaturefoundation.org/article/conservation-scientists-oppose-etalin-hydro-electric-project

[33]. MoEF F. No. 11-9/1998-FC, 3rd August, 2009, available at http://www.sruti.org.in/sites/default/files/FRA%20and%20FCA%20circular%20by%20MoEF,%2030.7.2009.pdf

[34]. Arunachal Pradesh Population, http://www.populationu.com/in/arunachal-pradesh-population

[35] . How consent for Dibang dam was manufactured by terrorising the people of Arunachal Pradesh, Scroll.in, https://scroll.in/article/931504/how-consent-for-dibang-dam-was-manufactured-by-terrorising-the-people-of-arunachal-pradesh

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