Beyond its ceremonial value, what is the status of biodiversity in India and what are the safeguards in place? Let us look at the issue from the prism of rivers. Rivers are an apt indicator as they connect terrestrial, riparian, aquatic, estuarine, even marine biodiversity as they flow and are a reflection of the issues faced by these ecosystems. Although it is difficult to believe, Indian Rivers are the richest repositories of biodiversity and can be classified as Endangered Species themselves! We are the 8th richest country in the world and third in Asia when it comes to fish diversity: a megadiverity hotspot. Indian rivers hold about 50% of all aquatic water plants and are home to thousands of species of migratory and resident water birds, amphibians, reptiles, riparian plants, phyto and zoo plankton, etc.
So how are we treating our rivers?
Just three days ahead of the International Day for Biological Diversity, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued Environmental Clearance to 3000 MW Dibang Hydropower Project on Dibang River, one of the important tributaries of Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh. The project will submerge more than 4700 hectares or 11,624 acres of rich forests under its reservoir. The EIA of the project done by National Productivity Council (Guwahati) was so flawed that it included exotic fish species never found in the river in its list, while omitting Rare, endangered and threatened species. These forests harbor endangered species such as tiger, leopard, serow as well as the critically endangered takin, all of which are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The grasslands in the area are home to endangered Bengal Florican. Other species include the critically endangered white-rumped vulture, the slender-billed vulture and the white-winged wood duck. The project site lies in an area identified by the Bombay Natural History Society as a Ramsar site and an Important Bird Area. The habitat of six endangered plants (Aconitum ferox, Coelogyne mossiae, Dendrobium aurantiacum, Paphiopedilum fairieanum, Paphiopedilum venustum and Vanda coerulea) will be submerged by the reservoir. The project will also impact aquatic species; the dam will block the breeding migration of several endangered fish species.
The Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley and Hydropower Projects (EAC) which gives Environmental Clearance to dam projects in two stages has a flawless rack record of 100% project clearance. Never in the past has this committee rejected a proposal, based on merits or for its irreversible environmental impacts. Nor has it recommended strict action against EIA agencies which churn out compromised, cut & paste EIA reports. SANDRP has pointed out several instances where projects have been started without environmental clearance and at times even finished, but the EAC does not seem particularly bothered.
In its upcoming meeting on the 4th June, just a day ahead of World Environment Day, the EAC will discuss 3097 MW Etalin HEP by Jindal Power also in Dibang valley in Arunachal Pradesh, which is set to submerge 1165.6 hectares of forest. The EIA of this project has been remarkably poor in recording the rich biodiversity of the region. SANDRP has pointed this out to the EAC. For the region where species like Tiger are recorded, the EIA study mentions only 45 mammal species. This region is being marked for its importance even by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
The Siang Basin Study conducted by RS Envirolinks Pvt Limited to understand the impacts of over 44 Hydropower dams in Basin which the EAC cleared in 2014, involves submergence of more than 18,000 hectares of virgin forests also in Arunachal. The regions is rich in orchids (more than 100 species!), holds 16 species of rhododendrons, 14 species of Bamboos and 14 species of canes and overall 27 RET species and 46 endemic plant species. 25 (18%) mammalian species found are Schedule I of WPA (Wildlife Protection Act), while 26 are under Schedule II! There are 447 species of birds, of which 31 are Schedule I species. The single basin consists of 5 Important Bird Areas!! (IBAs)
The Subansiri Basin Study done by IRG System South Asia to study impact of over 19 dams in this basin, does not even mention the presence of Gangetic Dolphins in the river, which is India’s National aquatic animal and will be severely impacted by the dam. Subansiri is one of the only tributaries of Brahmaputra with a resident population of the endangered Gangetic Dolphin (Baruah et al, 2012, Grave Danger for the Ganges Dolphin (Platanista ganegtica) in the Subansiri River due to large Hydroelectric Project).
There is no consolidated estimation of the impact of all the dams in Arunachal on rare and endangered species or their migratory routes or the biodiverse habitats in the downstream including the Memorial D Erring Sanctuary, where Lower Siang HEP and all the projects in the upstream will lead to water level fluctuation of more than 22 feet in a single day! Most of the aquatic as well as riparian species are sensitive to flow changes, but so far there has been no study to understand the impacts of water level fluctuation, peaking, damming, erosion and changes in silt pattern, etc., on any species, before clearing these projects. Similarly, the impacts of peaking of all these projects on Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Assam, which is a habitat of the critically endangered Bengal Florian, Gangetic Dolphin and a number of RET species is again left to imagination.
In case of 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu Hydropower project in Tawang basin in Arunachal Pradesh, the EIA did not even mention that the dam site itself was at the breeding and wintering grounds of Black Necked Cranes, which are not only rare, but worshipped by local Buddhist Monpa Communities. No questions were asked either by the EAC or the MoEF about this omission. Environmental Clearance was granted to this project without considering these aspects. It is only now that Tawang Basin Study, of which Nyamjangchhu is an important tributary, is mentioning this issue strongly. Will the MoEF and CC act on it or will the recommendation be stifled?
In case of Uttarakhand, a state with an unprecedented flood of hydropower projects and associated tunneling, blasting and disasters, Wildlife Institute of India had clearly recommended way back in 2012 dropping 24 HEPs in Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin being planned and constructed, for their irreversible impacts on land and aquatic biodiversity and protected areas. This recommendation was also upheld in 2014 by the Committee (headed by Dr. Ravi Chopra) appointed under Supreme Court orders following the Uttarakhand Disaster in June 2013. The MoEF did not act on this report, and even presented contradictory affidavits on this report to the Hon. Supreme Court and the PMO itself has pressurized that 24 projects cannot be dropped. Even the IIT Consortium, working on Ganga River Basin Management Plan gave an ambiguous report to push these projects! These projects are affecting even protected areas like Valley of Flowers, Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve, etc. Same is the case with Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
Why are biodiversity issues so chronically neglected in our river governance?
It is darkly ironical to note that erstwhile Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan pushed Wildlife Clearance for Lower Demwe Dam in Arunachal even when its impacts on Dibru Saikhowa National Park were not completely studied, stating that such studies should be carried out “Concurrently” with dam construction! The present regime has gone a step further. The Environments Clearance letter of Dibang issued four days back (19th May 2015), which did not pay heed to critical issue raised by several groups, has stated that a study on downstream impact and ecosystem has to be undertaken “5 years after commissioning of the project”. Needless to say, no comprehensive downstream impact assessment for Dibang has been carried out before issuing this EC letter.
There is a member from the National Biodiversity Authority, formed under the National Biodiversity Act 2002 at all times in the EAC on River Valley Projects. Till now, we have not seen a single project being rejected because of its impacts on biodiversity. In fact, biodiversity issues are not even discussed in the EAC minutes. As per the National Biodiversity Act 2002 (Section 4), the National Biodiversity Authority or the Central government is empowered to conduct biodiversity impact assessment and public hearing for projects which endanger biodiversity, but it has never done that in the past! In effect, there has been no Biodiversity Impact Assessment of any dam projects till date.
The National Board for Wildlife, through its Standing Committee recommends Wildlife Clearance to projects within Protected Areas, or within 10 kms radius of Protected Areas. The constitution of Wildlife Board was by the new government has made the Board ineffectual. The New National Board for Wildlife constituted by the government included only a fraction of members against the clear provision of this Law. It has no NGO representation, only 2 experts in place of 10 and incomplete state representation. Despite huge opposition to this blatantly illegal constitution, the NBWL conducted its first meeting and cleared almost all projects before it, including Teesta IV Hydropower project in Sikkim. Shockingly, the members from the earlier NBWL had actually visited the region and had prepared an extensive report on violations by Teesta IV as well as other HEPs in Sikkim which encroached in various protected areas of the State. But the new NBWL did not even mention this report while clearing the project! In tandem, the ministry severely reduced Eco-sensitive zoning around Protected Areas in Sikkim, leaving it to mere 25 meters in most cases! Incidentally, Sikkim is the most species-rich state in the country, which is facing the maximum impact of hydropower dams by private and government dam lobby.
The NBWL is still in project clearing spree, having cleared Shirapur Lift Irrigation Project in its latest 33rd meeting in March 2015. The Shirapur project cuts right through the habitat of critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (it will take 93 hectares of the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary itself), despite the fact that the scheme had violated Wildlife Protection Act 1986, is half-complete already and is remarkably unviable!
In the 33rd Meeting, the NBWL also sanctioned one more water abstraction project inside the National Chambal Sanctuary, a 26 MLD Chambal Bundi Water Supply project despite the fact that Wildlife Institute of India had issued a strict warning against any further abstraction of water from the sanctuary, looking at its impact of critically endangered Ghariyal.
The Forest Advisory Committee, instituted under the Forest Conservation Act (1974) does not consider biodiversity issues while sanctioning forest diversion for projects. It has already issued a Stage I Forest clearance to the controversial Dibang Hydropower Project, bowing down to the pressures from Power Ministry and higher offices after rejecting it several times.
Similar is the case with Western Ghats where the Ministry shockingly rejected Western Ghats Expert Ecology Report by Prof. Madhav Gadgil. This was preceded by efforts of hiding the report as long as possible. In the meantime, the EAC considered and recommended 220 MW Gundia HEP in Western Ghats of Karnataka, despite a poor EIA by Karnataka Power Corporation Limited. The MoEF&CC has also stifled the Kasturirangan Committee report which was a severely diluted and flawed as compared to Gadgil Committee Report. In effect, Western Ghats does not have any protection from the Ministry at this time.
These are governance issues at a scale which can be hardly monitored by any single group. Actual issues related to compliance, implementation, people’s participation are independent of these issues and just as stark. But it is unfortunate to see that environmental governance of rivers, at this moment does not place any value on the biodiversity supported by rivers. One exception is the report on Environmental Flows recently brought out by the Ministry of Water Resources which at least attempts to give some importance to ecological integrity of rivers. This report needs to be implemented urgently.
In stead the government is pushing ill conceived project like the Ken Betwa River Link project that will not only submerge 4600 ha of Panna tiger Reserve, destroy the Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary in the downstream and thus also affected habitat of some rare and endangered fish species, destroy the habitat of rare and endangered vulture species, all for projects that have almost no justification.
In India, as in the world, biodiversity is closely linked with human well-being, livelihoods, cultural values and even mitigation of Climate Change. Riverine fish like Hilsa (Tenuolsa ilisha) are not only important for their biodiversity values, but are an important source of protein and livelihoods for millions of fishermen, who are today impacted by dams. Mahseer is not only an endangered fish as per the Wildlife Protection Act, it is also worshipped as a reincarnation of Vishnu in riverine fish sanctuaries. Black Necked Cranes are not only a rare specie, but believed to be a reincarnation of the 6th Dalai Lama by Monpa tribes, Khangchengdzonga National Park is not only a Protected Area as per the law, it is also a sacred mountain for the Sikkimese, Free flowing rivers, mangrove forests, riparian zones are not only an abstract value, but a robust mitigation measure against climate change. It’s not for nothing that Biodiversity is referred to as a “Fundamental building block for Sustainable Development”.
But in the race for short sighted projects in terms of irrigation dams, Hydropower projects, water diversion schemes, Interlinking schemes, embankments, riverfront development and even ill conceived “River Cleaning” drives, biodiversity values and all those who depend on it are suffering. The statement brought out by India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar on this daysays the same old things and provides no new direction. Perhaps the new direction lies with the people themselves.
– Parineeta Dandekar (email@example.com)
 https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/tragedy-of-errors-environmental-governance-and-the-sonthi-lift-irrigation-scheme/, https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/mohanpura-dam-in-madhya-pradesh/,
 https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/mockery-of-esas-in-sikkim-when-governments-collude-to-violate-laws/, https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/hydro-power-projects-violating-sc-order-in-greenest-state-of-india/,