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Says environmental and social impacts too few as compared to potential for generating clean energy
Overruling the recommendations of the expert members of the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), the Union environment ministry, has given its nod to the controversial Demwe Lower Hydro Electric Project in Arunachal Pradesh. The Board is a statutory body that assesses the impacts of development projects on wildlife. In its meeting in December, the members of the standing committee of the Board argued, on the basis of a site inspection report prepared by one of the committee's members Asad Rahmani, that the project would have devastating impact on wildlife.
Keeping aside the findings of the site inspection report and the concerns of the expert members, the ministry on behalf of NBWL issued the order on February 11, recommending clearance for the project. The order says the project was cleared because it has huge potential for generating clean energy (mitigating 50 million tonnes of CO2 every year), which far outweighed environmental and social impacts.
The 1,750 MW project is being executed jointly by Athena Demwe Power Ltd, promoted by the India-based Athena Energy Ventures Pvt Ltd, and the Government of Arunachal Pradesh in Lohit district. It is to be built in an area of 1,590 hectares and involves felling of around 43,000 trees. The project had received environmental clearance in February last year. The forest advisory committee of the environment ministry, which is yet to decide on the forest clearance for the project, had referred the project to NBWL last year as it was in the vicinity of the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary and the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. In November last year, the standing committee of NBWL sent a two-member team—Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society, and Pratap Singh, chief conservator of forest (wildlife) of Arunachal Pradesh—to the project area to assess the possible impacts of the project on wildlife.
Impact on environment ignored
Rahmani, in his report pointed out that the project will have harmful impacts downstream, especially on the grasslands of Dibru Saikhowa National Park and the chapories (riverine islands) of Lohit river. Both the areas are identified as Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International and are the remaining limited habitats of the critically endangered Bengal Florican. The report also highlighted the project's impact on the Gangetic River Dolphin, the national aquatic animal in the Lohit river in downstream areas in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, and on Asiatic wild buffalo and hog deer present in Dibru-Saikhowa National Park.
However, the ministry, went by the claims of the state government and said the chapori islands do not get submerged even in monsoons and are not good habitats for birds. It also said there were no reports of sighting of Gangetic Dolphins in the vicinity of the proposed dam site. On the other hand, Rahmani, in his report had specifically mentioned that the resident population of dolphins has been seen at seven locations downstream of the dam. It even questioned the views of the expert members and stated: “Any impact on the life forms to such environmental changes also depends upon their tolerance and resilience towards the changes and their adaptive potential. These aspects have seemingly not been taken into consideration by the non-official members while highlighting the threats to life forms.”
While the site inspection report highlighted the project will submerge parts of the Parshuram Kund Medicinal Plant Conservation Area, identified for the conservation of Globally Significant Medicinal Plants, the ministry went by the state government’s claim. It said the area was 150 metre above submergence level. Rahmani said the environment impact assessment (EIA) was inadequate to analyse the impacts of the project downstream and had recommended comprehensive studies for the same before the project was cleared. The ministry had commissioned Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Roorkee to conduct studies on the ecological impacts and cumulative impacts of the project. However, it said the studies will be conducted post clearance along with the construction of the project and mitigation measures proposed by these studies will be implemented concurrently.
Justifying its decision, the ministry said: “The spirit of the clearance system basically demands evaluation of trade-offs for balancing the developmental needs with environmental sustainability, examination of scope of mitigation and capacity of the ecosystems to withstand the impact.”
Neeraj Vagholikar of non-profit Kalpavriksh said it was a dangerous order. “How can you legitimise post-clearance EIA in the name of a trade-off for the benefits of the energy generated from the project? Trade-offs imply decisions to be made with full comprehension of both the upside and downside of a particular choice,” he says. The downstream impacts of the project are yet to be ascertained and serious concerns raised by an overwhelming majority of the wildlife experts on the NBWL Standing Committee have been over-ruled, he says. Vagholikar also questioned the ministry’s stand that there are relatively fewer environmental and social impacts as compared to the benefits of supposedly clean energy. “In addition to the freshly commissioned studies as a condition of wildlife clearance, ongoing studies on ecology, riverine production systems and livelihoods in the downstream are yet to be placed before decision-makers and the public. What is the basis of the ministry’s claim of fewer impacts?” he asked.
An expert member of the standing committee of NBWL agrees. “If the ministry had made up its mind to clear the project, what was the need of commissioning a site inspection? They have just gone by the official views of the state government. I wonder what is the need of having non-official members in the standing committee then?” asked the member, who did not wish to be named.