Diversion of large tracts of forests,impact on wildlife and people’s livelihoods cited as main reasons; ball now in minister’s court
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Union environment ministry has rejected two very controversial hydroelectric projects in the Northeast—Tipaimukh and Dibang—in its meeting held on July 11 and 12. The 1,500 MW Tipaimukh project was to be built near the Manipur-Mizoram border while the 3,000 MW Dibang project was to come up in Arunachal Pradesh.
FAC used strong words to reject both the projects, citing reasons like large-scale tree felling, loss of critical forest stretches and wildlife habitat and abnormally large tracts of forestland diversion proposed.
Considering the projects are part of the prime minister's package, this decision comes as a surprise. A member of FAC said the committee only looks at the ecological importance and forest conservation side of a project. “We do not look at where the project comes from. The committee found it unfeasible and hence gave its recommendations; now it’s for the MoEF (Union Ministry of Environment and Forests) to decide.” The final decision on the projects now lies with the environment and forests minister Jayanthi Natarajan.
Tipaimukh: biggest forest diversion proposed
The state government had initially submitted a proposal for diversion of about 20,500 ha forestland for the Tipaimukh project but later revised it to 25,822 ha. This was revised to 22,778 ha, based on the recommendation of the north-eastern office of MoEF. The Mizoram government has submitted a proposal for diversion of 1,552 ha of forestland for the same project that is being assessed separately. The forestland proposed for diversion has over 7.8 million trees and 0.03 million bamboo clumps. The project is a joint venture of National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) Limited (69 per cent), SJVN Limited (26 per cent) and government of Manipur (5 per cent). The project also involves displacement of 12 villages with a population of 2,027 scheduled tribes in Manipur. The employment to be generated out of the project would be for a meager 826 people.
The FAC minutes state that the principal chief conservator of forests of Manipur has observed that “no compensatory measure would help in mitigating the adverse impact caused by loss of such large forest tracts on the habitat, flora, fauna, biodiversity and micro-environment unless additional non-forest areas in affected districts or adjoining districts are taken up for compensatory afforestation.” FAC recognised that forestland diversion proposed for the project is one of the largest ever for a single project. From 1981 (when the Forest Conservation Act was introduced) till April 2013, about 0.12 million ha of forestland has been diverted for hydropower (15 per cent of the total forestland diversion for development projects in the country).
This single project would constitute more than 20 per cent of the forestland diverted for hydropower projects since 1981. FAC minutes also state that the forestland required for this project is more than 100 times the average rate of diversion of forestland for hydel projects for which MoEF has granted clearance so far. The chief conservator of forests at the regional office of MoEF also stated in his report that this diversion involves a huge stretch of “critically important forest and wildlife habitat where compensatory measures may not prove to be effective, and may not be advisable.”
In January 2012, FAC had recommended that a sub-committee of the panel along with experts, including ecologists, wildlife conservationists and hydrologists should visit the site and assess the impact of the project on flora, fauna and socio-economic conditions of the local residents. MoEF constituted a committee under Mohammad Firoz Ahmad, non-official member of the FAC, but this committee could not inspect the forestland proposed to be diverted because of “unavoidable reasons”, states the FAC minutes. MoEF then referred the proposal back to FAC after repeated requests from the Union Ministry of Power and the user agency. FAC then decided to consider the proposal without a report from the sub-committee, given the delay in inspection.
After detailed deliberations, FAC concluded that the requirement of forestland for the project is large and is disproportionate to its power generation capacity. It further states that the project has very high ecological, environmental and social impact/cost of the diversion which will outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project. The FAC strongly recommended that approval for diversion of forestland should not be accorded. The committee advised the user agency to explore the feasibility of constructing smaller dams involving diversion of smaller forest area commensurate with their power generation capacity.
Jiten Yumnam, an environmental activist from Manipur who has been fighting against the project for long, is happy with the decision. “We welcome that FAC has respected so many opinions and views and taken the right decision. The alternative suggested by FAC should be discussed with project affected people to determine its feasibility,” he said.
Dibang: high ecological an social impact
The project involves diversion of 5,057 ha of forestland for the project to the user agency, NHPC Limited. The compensatory afforestation area of 10,113 ha of forest has been identified in Namsai and Anini social forestry divisions. But the regional office has raised questions about suitability of many of the identified sites “due to inaccessibility to site or due to encroachment in the area or due to considerable density of vegetation”.
The FAC minutes state that even though the proposal does not state that the area is important from wildlife point of view, the regional office considers it an important habitat of scheduled flora and fauna. The regional office had informed MoEF last year that part of the project area falls within 10 km radius of the Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary. The project proponent thus went on to discard about 34 ha of the project area that allegedly fell within this 10 km buffer. The regional office said that even after dropping this area, 137 ha of project area fell within the buffer. MoEF then directed its regional office to carry out a site inspection to determine the area falling within 10 km radius of the sanctuary. The regional office carried out the inspection on February 16 and 17 and submitted the report on February 25 but said that the site inspection could not be completed.
But the regional office made some important observations: forestland to be diverted could not be identified properly on the ground; compensatory afforestation land could not be located even though it was depicted on a map by the divisional forest officer.
The state again requested for an inspection which was carried out between April 18 and 25. This time the report pointed out that the proposed colony is within four km of the Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary. The project also involves displacement of about 68 families in five villages.
FAC noted that the felling of more than 350,000 trees is likely to have adverse impact on the ecosystem of the area, recovery of which may not be possible by mitigative measures. FAC has also pointed to one of the most critical aspect of hydroelectric projects in the country today—lack of a cumulative impact assessment. The minutes state that there are several hydroelectric projects proposed in the same river valley but “there is no study conducted to assess the cumulative impact of all these reservoirs and its upstream and downstream impacts”. The Committee also said that ecological, environmental and social costs of diversion of such a vast tract of forestland, which is a major source of livelihood of the tribal population, will far outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project. FAC thus rejected the forestland diversion proposal for this project also.
Akhil Gogoi of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti welcomed the decision. “The Dibang project would have caused havoc in downstream Assam, not just in terms of forest but also agriculture and livelihoods. I am happy that FAC has talked of cumulative impact assessment and I urge the MoEF not to grant any clearances till such a study is conducted.”