Guest Blog by: : Karthik Teegalapalli(email@example.com) a researcher with the Nature Conservation Foundation
In April 2014, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) decided to deny clearance to the 3000 MW Dibang Multipurpose Hydro-electric Project, the largest capacity hydro project in the country proposed to be developed by the National Hydropower Power Corporation (NHPC) in the biodiversity-rich Arunachal Pradesh State (Saikia 2014). The project was also denied clearance in July 2013. More recently though, the project has been recommended forest clearance by the FAC and Environment Clearance by the Expert Appraisal Committee. Therefore it is pertinent to look at the impacts the project may have in some detail.
Ecological impacts The project, in its earlier version involved diversion of more than 5000 hectares of relatively undisturbed grassland and tropical forest habitat. These and the adjoining forests harbour 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 (these species are also listed as present in the area in the Environmental Impact Assessment report of the project, undertaken by National Productivity Council, Guwahati). The grasslands in the area harbour the critically endangered Bengal Florican, a grassland habitat specialist (Sinha et al. 2014). Other species recorded from the area 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 (Islam & Rahmani 2004). The habitat of six endangered plants (Aconitumferox, Coelogynemossiae, Dendrobiumaurantiacum, Paphiopedilumfairieanum, Paphiopedilumvenustum and Vandacoerulea) will be submerged by the reservoir (Chernaik 2007).
The project will also affect aquatic species; the dam will block the breeding migration of four species of fish: the Vulnerable snow trout Schizothoraxrichardsonii, Endangered golden mahseer Torputitora, Near-Threatened mahseer Tortor, and chaguni Chaguniuschagunio. The recommendation of the Environmental Management Plan of the Project to establish fish hatcheries for these species is impractical and can have further damaging effects on the species due to collection of eggs and spawn from the wild population.
The project will have other collateral damages such as through Compensatory Afforestation (CA) that often involves converting an area with diverse native species into monocultures, as has been shown for other dams such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river (Bhatnagar 2004). The project involves CA of a relatively large area of over 100 sq. km (double the area of forest being affected by the project). The ill-effects of this conversion particularly for the project can be expected to be higher if tree-less natural grassland habitats in Dibang Forest Division, Namsai Forest Division and Anini Social Forestry that harbour grassland habitat specialists are planted with undesired native or non-native tree species. Perhaps the irreversible loss of biodiversity in the forests and grasslands that will be diverted for the project could never be ‘compensated’.
During the construction phase of the project, an estimated 32 lakh truckloads of boulders and 16 lakh truckloads of sand is to be extracted from the Dibang river basin. Unsustainable extraction of sand and boulders has significant negative effects on geomorphology, bank stability, flood character of the river, water quality, river flow, and the biodiversity in the river basin (Padmalal et al. 2008). The project during the construction is to generate 198 lakh cubic meters of muck which will be disposed in the river bank which will cause further loss of 120 ha of river habitat. Construction of new roads (64 km) and widening of existing roads (19.5 km) will also lead to removal of trees and increase the vulnerability of the region to landslides and erosion (Chernaik 2007).
Social impacts The Lower Dibang valley is currently a region of relatively low human population density (~14/km2); the entire population of the Idu-Mishmi tribe is about 12,000. The influx of approximately 6,000 project staff (which is very likely an underestimate) for a period of 8 years or more will affect their way of life, their culture and their tradition as well as open up access to relatively moderately disturbed habitat and biodiversity in the region.
Downstream effects include those on fisheries, agricultural lands and wetlands (beels) and the dam will also increase the vulnerability of the region to flash floods. For instance, in the year 2007, flash floods caused due to sudden release of water from the relatively smaller 405 MW Ranganadi project in the Lower Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh swamped 83 villages and caused huge loss of lives and property in the Assam State. The project will have a considerable impact on the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam which has not been studied in detail in the EIA.
On shaky grounds A critical issue with the project is that the site lies close to an active Fault Line in the Mishmi Thrust of the Mayudia Group in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh with a history of several seismic activities including the Great Assam earthquake of 8.6 magnitude in 1950 (Figure 1, Misra 2009). In the event of an earthquake, the project poses a risk of catastrophic submergence of several villages and vast areas of forests downstream. The recommendations of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the project are cursory and suggest further research on the natural seismicity of the region as well as reservoir-induced seismicity, which should be the basis for the decision about the project.
Notwithstanding these, in Oct 2014 the project was cleared by the FAC constituted by the new Government, although the committee still had four of the six members who had earlier twice recommended rejection of clearance. Is this decision driven by changes made by NHPC in their project plan? Clearly not. Diversion of forests has now been reduced by a mere 9% to about 4600 hectares; instead of 3.55 lakh trees, the felling has been reduced to 3.24 lakh trees, the power generation capacity has been reduced by 2.3% and the height of the proposed dam reduced by 10 m. In fact, the FAC rejection of April 2014 was for this 10 m rejection proposal!
NHPC misleadingly and baselessly claimed that they ‘were not in a position to reduce the height of the dam any further, as it would significantly affect the power generation’. The decision to provide clearance to the project seems like a hasty one driven by the blinders of development and the consequences of such projects is evident from the fate of the Lower Subansiri Hydropower Project in the same State, also by NHPC. After 12 years since the LSHP was initiated and after an expenditure of over Rs. 5000 crores, the work has been on a standstill for the last 35 months as a result of India’s biggest anti-dam people’s movement (Dandekar & Thakkar 2014). Considering the economic, ecological, environmental and social costs of the project as well as the geophysical risk it poses, it would be prudent to withdraw the project till a credible, detailed cumulative study covering these aspects is undertaken in a transparent and participatory way. While the rest of the world is recognising the ill-effects of dams, with the largest dam removal project on the Elwha river in the United States completed just three months back, it is paradoxical that we are heading in the other direction; of building the highest dam in the country and largest capacity reservoir of the North East India without even basic studies, credible impact assessment and democratic decision making process.
Bhatnagar, D. (2004) Uprooting Forests, Planting Trees: Success of Compensatory Afforestation Measures Mitigating the Deforestation for the Sardar Sarovar Dam, India. University of California at Berkeley.
Islam, M. Z. & Rahmani, A. R. (2004) Important bird areas in India: priority sites for conservation. Indian Bird Conservation Network, Bombay Natural History Society and BirdLife International (UK).
Misra, D. K. (2009) Litho-tectonic sequence and their regional correlation along the Lohit and Dibang Valleys, Eastern Arunachal Pradesh. Journal of the Geological Society of India, 73: 213-219.
Padmalal, D., Maya, K., Sreebha, S. & Sreeja, R. (2008) Environmental effects of river sand mining: a case from the river catchments of Vembanad lake, Southwest coast of India. Environmental Geology, 54(4): 879-889.
Saikia, P. J. (2014). Six years after PM laying the foundation ston: No clearance, no work for 3000 MW Dibang Dam.
Sinha, A., Hoque, J., Pradhan, T., Bakshi, M. K., Pulu, J., Singh, A. K. & Ahmed, F. (2012) Sighting record of Bengal Florican Houbaropsisbengalensis (Gmelin, 1789) (Aves: Gruiformes: Otididae) in Lower Dibang Valley District, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 4(14): 3375-3376.
Reaching exasperating lows of environment decision making, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC is a statutory body of the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) formed under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. FAC appraises Forest diversion proposals) has recommended Forest Clearance to the 3000 MW Dibang Project on Dibang river in Arunachal Pradesh.
This was the very same NHPC proposal which was rejected twice by the FAC in the past, despite this token 10 meter height reduction. In fact in April 2014, the FAC said that 10 mt reduction does not take care of any pertinent impacts for which the proposal was rejected in the first place in July 2013! A 10 m reduction would still mean destruction of 3.24 lakh trees and submergence of 4577.84 hectares, nearly 12000 acres, of rich bio-diverse forest.
The usually reticent MoEFCC (Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, MoEF earlier) too had issued a strong-worded rejection to this scheme in August 2014, stating that 10 meters reduction is nothing in the face of what is being lost. The rejection letter stated: “Such a marginal reduction in requirement of the forest land (445 hectares reduction, reducing forest requirement from 5056 hectares to 4577 hectares) for the project may not be able to reduce the adverse impact of project on such a biodiversity-rich mature forest ecosystem to the extent which could make the project environmentally as well as socio-economically viable in forest dependent tribal society of Arunachal Pradesh”.
This letter from the same ministry certified that the 10 m reduction proposal still leaves the project environmentally, socio-economically unviable. So an environmentally and socio-economically unviable project has been recommended clearance by the statutory FAC (and also the separate recommendation a week earlier by the same MEFCC’s Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects)!
This shows that the decision of FAC is devoid of merits, will invite huge opposition from Arunachal Pradesh, Downstream Assam, North East India, and even beyond and will not pass legal scrutiny. The decision seems to have been taken under pressure from the political masters. Union Power Minister Piyush Goyal has been dreaming of clearance to this project, as is clear from his road map published on completion of 100 days of office for the new NDA government. He has also been pressurizing the MoEFCC to clear the project by hook or by crook. The FAC was reconstituted and the reconstituted FAC has obliged the minister in its very first meeting. In the process, the entire FAC has violated its mandate and should be held accountable for this.
Regrettably, MoEFCC seems to have become the willing punching bag of not only above-mentioned ministries, but even unrelated ministries like Ministry of Mines and Minerals, Ministry of Steel ,etc., whose ministers and Secretaries were present for the meeting: “to Expedite Clearances”. (Incidentally, when was the last time we heard MEFCC resisting such arm-twisting, or forthrightly suggesting any pro-environment measures to other ministries?)
Before the minutes of the September FAC meeting were out on Oct 22, 2014 (there was an inordinate delay this time, raising suspicion of negotiated minutes and again breaking all norms of conduct), there was discussion in media that Dibang was cleared, but even the hard-core skeptics believed that this recommendation must have come after a 20 meter or 40 meter height reduction, for obvious reasons.
But the FAC seems to have outdone itself. As stated above, the recommendation has come at 10 mts height decrease, for which the FAC had rejected the project and MoEF had issued a rejection letter in the past.
As we discussed in detail in our last blog on Dibang project, the twice-rejected project was up for discussions again in Sept 2014 only after considerable arm-twisting of the MEFCC by the Cabinet Committee of Investment, Ministry of Power, Project Developer NHPC and Arunachal State Government. This time it was for a supposed sensitivity analysis (done by the developer!)for studying the feasibility of reducing the height of the project upto 40 meters from its original height of 288 meters.
This sensitivity analysis was not shared with anyone, not even the FAC members till the day of the FAC meeting, breaking all codes of conduct of transparency, participation and informed decision making in governance. SANDRP wrote about this to the Minister and Secretary of MoEFCC as well as the Member of the FAC, but received no response.
Looking at the minutes, it is clear that the FAC members have lapped up the logic presented by the developer and the Ministry of Power which in a nutshell says that “10 meters reduction is sufficient as the ratio of forest land required per MW is lowest at 10 meters reduction.” This twisted logic reduces all decision making related to forests, even biodiversity-rich forests supporting endemic, unstudied species, local protests, downstream impacts etc., to mere number crunching of forest per MW. This criteria alone cannot be the basis for decision for forest appraisal committee.
As per the sensitivity analysis by NHPC, the ratio forest land required per MW for 40 meters reduction is 1.67 MW/ hectare, which is same as no height reduction and 1.78 MW/ hectare in case of 20 meter reduction. In terms of tariff, for 40 meters reduction, the power tariff will be 6.24 Rs./unit while it is 5.66 Rs/unit 10 meters reduction, 5.94 Rs./unit 20 meters reduction and 5.64 Rs. at zero reduction. The installed capacity will reduce by 120 MW (4%) MW for 10 meters reduction, 600 MW (20%) for 20 mt reduction and 780 MW (26%) for a 40 meter reduction.
Forest land required
MW capacity per ha Forest lost
First Year Tariff: Rs per unit
Reduction in installed capacity
Nil (288 m)
120 (2880 MW)
600 (2400 MW)
780 (2200 MW)
The proponent said: “Decrease in dam height and consequent sacrifice of power generation beyond 10 mt is not commensurate with saving forest land.”
How did NHPC reach this conclusion? What is the value of the mature, old growth forest land considered by NHPC? Without knowing this, how can this conclusion be acceptable to the FAC? It has to be remembered that Dibang is not an exclusive hydropower project, but a multipurpose project with a flood moderation component and costs have to be borne for this.
While the proponent and Ministry of Power did their best for pushing the project, the FAC did not do its duty of stating that the sensitivity analysis put forth by NHPC is a sham as it does not consider the worth of the forest being lost.
In this sabji-mandi haggling, when FAC had all the watertight justifications for rejecting the project, it did not bat for even a 40 meter reduction, which could have saved nearly 1355 hectares of forests and would have had a marginal impact on other factors. Its unclear why this happened.
Only one of the FAC members tried to battle the case saying that 10-40 meter reduction still does not address the upstream and downstream impacts, especially considering the biodiversity rich area. The minutes do not disclose the name of this member, but it seems the brute majority (majority of FAC members are govt officials) took the official line, alleging “subjectivity” and said that “To reduce subjectivity, it is important to analyse the issue objectively on objective parameters”. Forgetting that this is Forest Appraisal committee, not Power Developer Committee.
This is ironical. It was indeed the duty of the FAC to appraise the project “objectively” based on issues like destruction of 3.24 lakh trees, invaluable forests, unstudied biodiversity, rich wildlife and several Schedule I species, community dependence, traditional rights, downstream impacts, climate change impacts, options assessment, etc. But it did nothing of that and has in fact recommended the project “subjectively”, bowing to pressures outside their ambit.
Clearly, per MW forest land required and per Unit Tariff from a project are anything but objective criteria for FAC. FAC is supposed to apply its mind to a number of issues like the ones above. If FAC was not supposed to apply its mind to these aspects and its judgment, there was no need for an FAC, Power ministry and developer could have taken the decision independently.
The FAC decision does not address any pertinent issues raised by the same FAC while rejecting the project, it also does not address downstream impacts on Assam or assume any value for a rich forest. There is no discussion why 20 meters or 40 meters reduction is not seriously considered by FAC. Decision-making based on such biased, proponent-driven criteria is bound to be open to legal challenge and public protests.
Sham consideration of Downstream Impacts About Impact of the project on Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, the User Agency said that the issue was considered by EAC in its meeting on the 16th September (Please note this is just 6 days and 5 working days back from FAC meeting. There is no chance of minutes being firmed up by then. They were not in open domain in any case) and the EAC has recommended clearance based on the fact that there is less than 1 meter level fluctuation at DSNP.
This claim in any case is patently incorrect, again a case of project-friendly, anti-environment decision-making. The level fluctuation at DSNP can go way higher than a meter, anywhere from 7-8 feet every day in lean season, according to the studies considered by the EAC of the MEFCC itself. This has been pointed out by SANDRP to the EAC as well. There has been no study of the impacts of this project on downstream Arunachal Pradesh or Assam. The developer seems to assume that Dibru-Saikhowa is the only part of Assam worth considering.
There is no compliance under Forest Rights Act (2006) for such a massive project and despite this, FAC under some supposedly progressive members working on tribal issues, does not bat an eyelid before recommending clearance!
To conclude, pricing mature, biodiversity-rich forests in terms of per MW terms is an insult of those forests, the communities that depend on them and to the mandate of FAC. Downstream impacts of Dibang project are not studied, the impacts on Dibru-Saikhowa are based on compromised studies.
There is no merit in this decision from the newly appointed FAC which includes members also from reputed environment protection organizations in North East and from Tribal Welfare groups like Friends of Baripada. It is also sad to see that there is no dissenting note from a single member. The unnamed member who expressed dissent in the meeting has not written anything about this in public domain.
Decisions like Dibang lay further foundations for poor, pro-developer, anti-people, anti-environment decisions taken due to pressure from proponent and other ministries. Such decisions will not be legally tenable, nor acceptable to affected communities, nor good for sustainability and equity. In fact, by such reversals, FAC decisions are losing their sanctity. FAC has done this in the past too in case of Kalu Dam in Western Ghats which would submerge 18 villages and 1000 hectares forest.
Isn’t it ironical that the new government changed the name of the MoEF to MoEFCC but is sanctioning massive projects like Dibang which will have far reaching impacts on Climate Change as well as adaption and mitigation abilities of the affected communities? Without even considering these aspects or even mentioning them?