Cancellation of forest clearances is not commonplace, making this decision a rare one
In a decision being hailed as rare and exceptional, the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal has suspended the Forest Clearance of the Demwe Lower Hydroelectric Project in Lohit District of Arunachal Pradesh on October 24.
The Demwe Lower Hydroelectric Project, with a proposed capacity of 1,750 MW, requires construction of 163.12 metre-high dam across River Lohit. For this project, the state’s Department of Environment and Forest had granted permission to divert 1415.92 hectares (1408.30 ha surface land + 7.62 ha underground land) of forest land on August 26, 2013.
An appeal against the Stage I forest clearance (FC) of the project was disposed by the NGT, while granting the appellants to make another appeal after the Stage II FC was given.
The main ground for the suspension of the FC, according to Ritwick Dutta, the counsel for the appellants was that the clearance was not given after due procedure. “According to a Supreme Court order, all projects within10 kms of national parks and sanctuaries need clearance from the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL),” Dutta said.
“In case of this project, eight non-official members of the 12 members NBWL standing committee rejected the proposal. The four official members did not comment on the proposal during the meeting. But finally the clearance was given by the minister, Jayanthi Natarajan,” Dutta added. Non-official members of the board are essentially non-governmental while their official counterparts are government. “We argued before the court that the law did not talk of a minister approving the project, but its clearance by the National Board for Wildlife. The tribunal has accepted our contention,” said Dutta.
“We are of the view that either the Chairperson (of the State Board for Wildlife) who happens to be the Hon’ble Minister of State should have given proper reason for rejecting the objection of majority of the non-official members or the decision ought to have been arrived at based on the opinion of the majority of the members of the Standing Committee of National Board. Neither of these acceptable principles are followed in making a decision under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 by the Standing Committee,” the order reads.
In their appeal, Bimal Gogoi and Rohit Choudhury, environmental activists in the region, told the green court that the Arunachal Pradesh state government gave inadequate and misleading information to the Centre. This information, according to the NGT order, was about the flora and fauna in the proposed project’s site. The appellants also dew the court’s attention towards violation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) in this clearance.
The NGT doesn’t usually cancel FCs of projects, so this case is more of an exception than a norm as per experts. “Suspensions of forest and environment clearances are not frequent. It happens in cases where the NGT is pushed to take a position on very persuasive evidence. The Kashang hydro power plant or the PEKB (Parsa East and Kante Basan) coal mine other such instances,” said Kanchi Kohli, a legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research.
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