by Tongam Rina
The forest advisory committee (FAC) of the union ministry of environment, forests & climate change (MoEFCC) has recommended setting up a subcommittee of the FAC regarding diversion of forest land for the 3097 mw Etalin hydroelectric project (HEP) in Dibang Valley district by the Jindals’ Etalin Hydro Electric Power Company Limited (EHEPCL), as the FAC recommendation of February 2017 has not been complied with.
The FAC noted that the representatives from the EHEPCL and the Arunachal government were not present at the meeting it held in October this year, so their viewpoints for consultation and clarification of doubts could not be obtained.
The FAC has recommended that a subcommittee visit the site and check if the total land requirement could be further reduced.
The subcommittee, which will include representatives from the National Tiger Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), will also look into the “concerns related to tree enumeration process and the aspects highlighted in biodiversity assessments study by WII.”
Prior to the latest meeting, the proposal regarding the diversion of 1165.66 ha (including 91.331 ha underground area) of forest land for construction of the Etalin HEP was placed before the FAC in January 2015, and again in February 2017.
The ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) had recommended environment clearance for the project in January 2017.
In its February 2017 meeting, the FAC “had recommended conducting multiple seasonal replicate studies on biodiversity assessment by an internationally credible institute as environmental impact assessment (EIA) is completely inadequate in this regard.”
Omission of facts on flora and fauna
Following the February 2017 meeting of the FAC, the ministry had written to Arunachal’s principal forest secretary in March 2017, pointing out discrepancies observed, including omission of facts regarding the presence of flora and fauna.
The site inspection carried out by the state government’s forest officials did not mention about the biodiversity of the area in its report, the FAC had noted.
It said the proposed project falls under the richest bio-geographical province of the Himalayan zone, under one of the mega biodiversity hotspots of the world, besides being an important habitat of tiger and many other endangered species.
About six globally threatened mammal species are found in this region, of which three are endangered and three are under the ‘vulnerable’ category. About 680 bird species have been recorded from this region, which is about 56 percent of the total bird species of India. Among them, 19 are globally threatened, and 10 are near-threatened. It has four critically endangered, two endangered, and 13 vulnerable species.
The entire region falls under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Management Categories III and IV as an endemic bird area, a global biodiversity hotspot, and a key biodiversity area, indicating its importance on a global scale. The chief conservator of forests, however, mentioned a few mammal and plant species. “In fact, this area has more biodiversity than any other part of the country,” the FAC noted.
Conflict of interest
Even as the FAC asked for a fresh study, in September 2017 the MoEFCC, questionably and in clear conflict of interest, wrote to the WII, stating that the “ministry has decided that WII to conduct the study on mutually agreed terms and conditions with the user agency & WII and the report may be submitted to the state government/user agency for further consideration.”
Ideally, the ministry should have asked the report to be submitted to the FAC and not to the Jindals or the state government.
Following the letter from the ministry, the WII floated an advertisement seeking applications for subject matter specialists for preparation of a wildlife conservation plan for the impact zone of the Etalin HEP on a contractual basis, for a flexible period of 90/180/270 days.
Instead of carrying out multiple seasonal replicate studies on biodiversity assessment as recommended by the FAC, the WII changed the scope of the project from an EIA report to: ‘Preparation for wildlife conservation plan for impact zone of Etalin HEP, Dibang Valley district’.
The change in the topic of study clearly reflects that the WII is in collaboration with the Jindals.
The state government, according to the MoEFCC, had requested the WII “to conduct multiple seasonal replicate study for the preparation of wildlife and biodiversity plans and the WII submitted a proposal to conduct the study and requested the government of Arunachal to give administrative and financial approval, along with the provisions of funds.”
2,80,677 trees proposed to be felled
The project is located in the Anini social forest division, in Dibang Valley district, and an estimated 2,80,677 trees are proposed to be felled for the project.
The compensatory afforestation has been proposed over 1074.329 ha over an equivalent area, with a total financial outlay of Rs 19,64,56,700, in the degraded community forest land. However, the district administration said that suitable degraded non-forest land is not available in Dibang Valley to carry out compensatory afforestation activities.
In its October 2019 meeting, the FAC said the subcommittee may also look into the concerns highlighted by the environment ministry’s regional office in Shillong (Meghalaya) in its site inspection report (SIR), especially related to the tree enumeration process and the aspects highlighted in the biodiversity assessments study conducted by the WII.
The SIR noted that there would be five sites of stone/shoal quarries over an area of 27.856 ha. It suggested that option may be explored to reduce the area if the quarries are located inside the submergence areas.
It also suggested that the dumping areas which are proposed at 13 sites, amounting to 100.774 ha, may be reconsidered to save destruction of forests.
A huge area under construction has been proposed, which includes labour camps, a contractors’ colony and the owner’s site office, apart from other sites for the main office, the residential colony and the contractor’s colony, measuring about 64.99 hectares. This obviously has come under the scanner of the regional office as well as the FAC.
The SIR specifically noted that the enumeration has not reflected the ground reality because (a) huge trees have not been reflected in the enumeration list, (b) the size of the sampling plots were actually less than recorded and have been measured along the slope, and (c) the sampling intensity is too less for getting proper assessment of the composition and structure of the forests.
It suggested that enumeration needs to be redone on a sampling of minimum 10 percent sampling intensity after ensuring that the representative areas are taken in the sampling, and that all tree-size areas are recorded.
The report further noted that neither has the certificate of the chief secretary regarding unavailability of non-forest land been submitted, nor have the details of the land identified for compensatory afforestation and land suitability certificate been submitted.
The catchment area treatment plan and compliance with the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, have not been submitted.
The Etalin HEP is proposed to be developed as a combination of two run-of-the-river schemes, and the project envisages construction of concrete gravity dams on the Tangon and the Dri rivers, and diverting the water through two separate waterway systems to utilize the available head in a common underground powerhouse located just upstream of the confluence of the Dri and the Tangaon rivers.
The project is being executed through the EHEPCL, a joint venture company of the Jindal Power Limited, and the Hydropower Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Limited, at an estimated cost of approximately Rs 25,296.95 crore. (Arunachal Times)