In the year 2003, Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee launched an ambitious Hydropower project that aimed at adding 50,000 MW of installed capacity of hydropower across 16 states in the country by the end of 2017. The center of this project was the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the north east, where out of 162 hydropower sites identified for 50,000MW initiative, Arunachal Pradesh accounted for more than half of the installed capacity.
One such site, located in Arunachal’s lower Dibang valley is prepping up itself in becoming India’s largest hydro power project with an estimated cost of 28,080.35 crores. The project involves diversion of 1150.08 hectares of forest land. The proposed project location is at the junction of the Paleo-arctic, Indo-Chinese, and Indo-Malayan bio-geographic regions having luxuriant forests and a plethora of Flora and Fauna making it an ecological sensitive zone. The region is reported to have 680 species of birds, that is more than half of India’s total birds species. Wildlife Institute of India has recorded 413 plant species, 159 butterflies, 113 spiders, 14 amphibian, 31 reptile, and 21 mammalian species within the project area. There has also been reported sightings of tiger around the area. About 6 globally threatened mammal species are found in this region of which 3 are endangered and 3 are under the vulnerable category. The proposed site is a prime habitat for animals like hoolock gibbon, elephants, Mishmi Takin, clouded and snow leopard, fishing cat and mithun among other species. The site is also close to Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary. Arunachal’s Dibang valley is also a home to miniscule Idu Mishmi tribe, that borders China and Tibet. Idu Mishmi consist of 1.3% of state’s population, and the tribe has a historic link to Lord Krishna’s wife Rukmani.
The foundation for the project was laid in 2008 by the then Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh in the state capital Itanagar. However, there has not been any progress since then due to massive protests between 2008 to 2013 by local tribe population over their displacement, deforestation, loss of community land and mainly because of irreplaceable damage that will occur in richest Himalayan Bio-geographical area. The project site is an earthquake prone region, massive drilling in the valley can cause severe landslides endangering lives of people and animals. What will happen if the dam breaks? Because there are chances that it can. There have also been discrepancies in Environment Impact Assessment reports and Detailed project Reports given by the company.
The developer, Etalin Hydro-Electric Power Company which is a joint venture of Arunachal Pradesh’s Hydro Power Development Corporation with Jindal Power Limited (JPL) stated that total 2.7 lakh tress have to be felled for the construction of concrete dam. These are subtropical evergreen broad leaved and subtropical rain forests. Though Minister Prakash Javedkar said that there will be compensatory afforestation which is mandatory as per Forest Conservation act 1980, but there is not enough land to assure that. Moreover, the project would displace several members of the Idu Mishmi tribe from their community land, which includes both rice fields and forest land that provides them with a source of livelihood. According to studies, 115 families of 5 villages are likely to be displaced and 744 families of 39 villages are to be affected due to acquisition of land. The Idu Mishmi population is about 12,000 and it will affect 2000 people directly.
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) is an apex body of the Environment Ministry tasked with deciding whether forest land can be diverted for industrial projects. The center has been pressing FAC to grant clearance to the project, which is mainly due to three reasons, through this project the government would dam River Dibang along with small river named Ashu pani, and able to harvest 3,097 megawatts providing uninterrupted electricity to the state and make profit by selling a certain amount to other states as well. Secondly, the dam will also help in controlling floods caused by overflow of monsoon waters of Brahmaputra in Assam and parts of Arunachal. And thirdly some media reports stated that it is a reactionary measure by Indian Government against Chinese damming Brahmaputra at its source, and this will provide India its rights over River system.
The authorities say that the the Dibang valley project will help the state economically, but what about ecological concerns? Can it subdue the cost of diverting huge forestland in a highly bio-diverse area, the impact on tribal community, and impact on a wildlife sanctuary and a national park? Through years, FAC has ruled that the Environment Impact Assessment report placed by the power company has not properly accounted for the impacts the project will have on environment. In 2019, the FAC again reviewed the progress of the environment appraisal and said neither of its recommendations had been fully complied with, though a wildlife assessment was done by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. A sub committee of FAC visited the Etalin Hydropower project site this February and recommended that the project will be allowed only if the developer deposits money for wildlife conservation in the area. Scientists have also been continuously warning government about the climate change induced hazards that the hydropower dams will not be able to withstand.
FAC has again deferred its decision on the controversial project. The 3097 MW Etalin Hydropower project has been delayed for over six years. The FAC on April 23 this year held a meeting and decided that it is prudent to get input from Ministry of Power, Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) and National tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The decision has surely been delayed for sometime again but we need to show the government that we are against this Project. Common people can do this by writing to the ministry, FAC and expressing their concerns for such destructive project, they can also sign petitions by various NGO’s. No money in this entire world can compensate for the ecological loss we will face if this project is granted clearance. Haven’t we humans already learned our lesson from Corona Virus outbreak that nature fights back when we mess with it?