As per NGT’s October 16, order, the Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF) was asked to set up a “neutral” panel to objectively consider conflicting recommendations that have stalled the 2,000-MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project (HEP) on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border and come up with an “independent opinion” in three months.
The NGT said this was the only way to break the six-year logjam that has stalled a project vital to the “national interest.”
Contrary to this, MoEF on November 16, 2017 has set up a three-member panel with experts -who or their organisations- have all backed NHPC’s positions on the project in the past: Prabhas Pande, I D Gupta and P M Scott.
May 22 has been proclaimed as the International Day for Biological Diversity by the United Nations (https://www.cbd.int/idb/). The theme for this year’s celebration is Sustainable Development.
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.
Year-end provides a wonderful opportunity for us to take stock of siatuations. If we look at India’s water sector, the above-average rainfall in 2013 monsoon would mean good agricultural production.
But the water sector as a whole is showing increasing signs of trouble.
Let us take few examples. The most striking crisis of 2013 was the unprecedented flood disaster in Uttarakhand in June where thousands perished. Experts and media called it a man-made disaster with a significant role played by existing and under construction hydropower projects and other unsustainable infrastructure. (SANDRPs Report) The Supreme Court order of Aug 13, 2013 directed the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to set up a committee to look into the role played by existing and under construction hydropower projects in the disaster and also directed that no further clearance to any hydropower projects be given till further orders. This order was possibly the only hopeful sign since Uttarakhand government, other Himalayan states or the central agencies including NDMA and MoEF, seem to have learnt no lessons from the disaster.
Earlier in 2012-13 we saw triple crisis in Maharashtra in the form of worst drought in 40 years, worst irrigation scam in independent India and agitation against diversion of huge quantity of water from agriculture to non agriculture sector without any participatory process. In Andhra Pradesh too, a massive irrigation scam was exposed by the CAG report. In fact inequity in the distribution of costs and benefits related to water sector project lies at the heart of the bifurcation of the troubled state.
In Chhattisgarh and downstream Orissa, thermal power plans of massive capacities are going to impact the water situation so fundamentally that big trouble is likely to erupt there, which may impact several other sectors. Madhya Pradesh government is on a big dam building spree in all its river basins, including Narmada, Chambal and also the water scarce Bundelkhand. All of these projects are for canal irrigation when canal irrigation has failed to add any area to the total net irrigation at national level for over two decades now. We could see a new massive irrigation scam in MP in coming years, in addition to agitations and interstate disputes. Gujarat too saw a very bad drought in 2012-13, and there is increasing perception that Gujarat government is by design not building the distribution network to take the Narmada Dam waters to Kutch and Saurashtra, for whom the project was justified and built.
In North East India it is now two years since massive agitation has led to stoppage of work at ongoing 2000 MW Lower Subansiri hydropower project. This is India’s largest under construction hydropower project on which over Rs 5000 crores have been spent without putting in place basic studies or participatory decision making process. Similar fate awaits if the government goes ahead with other hydropower development projects in the region without learning lessons from this episode. During the year, Forest Advisory Committee’s rejection to grant forest clearance to 3000 MW Dibang and 1500 MW Tipaimukh projects in the region was a good sign, so is the stoppage of work at Maphithel dam in Manipur by the National Green Tribunal.
But we have seen no sign of improvement in environment governance. The year saw the questionable appointment of former Coal Secretary as chairman of the Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Committee, by Union Ministry of Environment and Forest. In fact, several of the new appointees in the committee do not have any background in environmental issues. The year also began on the wrong note with the environment clearance to the 620 MW Luhri hydropower project in Himachal Pradesh, designed to destroy the last flowing stretch of SutlejRiver in the state. In April 2013, the Forest Advisory Committee took the most shocking decision of approving the completely unjustifiable Kalu dam for Mumbai Metropolitan Region, without any assessments. The same FAC had rejected the proposal one year back and the reasons for that rejections stand even today.
In Western Ghats, the decision of the Union government of dumping the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel Report (Gadgil Report) and instead in principle accepting the-much criticized Kasturirangan committee Report has already led to full blown crisis in Kerala and is threatening to engulf more areas. This crisis was completely avoidable if the MoEF, in stead had used last two years to encourage public education on the need for implementing the Gadgil panel recommendations.
While relatively poorer states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa has shown big jump in agriculture growth rates in recent years, these have come at the cost of huge depletion in groundwater levels. As Vijayshankar of Samaj Pragati Sahyog said at a conference in Delhi recently, in Rajasthan, the level of groundwater development (ratio of annual groundwater draft to annual utilizable recharge) increased alarmingly from 59% in 1995 to 135% in 2009, indicating that Rajasthan is now in the overexploited category. Of the 236 blocks in Rajasthan, massive 164 (69%) were in over exploited category in 2009. In Madhya Pradesh, while the state groundwater use has moved from 48 to 56%, about 89 blocks out of total 313 (28%) are using unsafe levels of groundwater.
This fresh news of groundwater depletion in new areas is bad sign in medium and long range. “Over the last four decades, around 84 per cent of the total addition to the net irrigated area has come from groundwater. India is by far the largest and fastest growing consumer of groundwater in the world. But groundwater is being exploited beyond sustainable levels and with an estimated 30 million groundwater structures in play, India may be hurtling towards a serious crisis of groundwater over-extraction and quality deterioration”, said Planning Commission member Mihir Shah at a recent meeting in Delhi. 12th Five Year Plan has started the new scheme of mapping groundwater aquifers of India, which is a useful step, but we have yet to crack the puzzle of how to regulate groundwater use to ensure its equitable and sustainable use for priority sectors.
The state of our rivers as also the reservoirs and other water infrastructure is deteriorating but our water resources establishment has shown little concern for that. The IIT consortium report on the Ganga River Basin Management Plan is due soon, but if the pathetic interim report is any sign, there is little hope there.
The year 2012 ended with the National Water Resources Council approving the National Water Policy 2012. At the end of 2013 we have yet to see a credible plan in place for implementing the policy provisions. The year saw proposal from Union Ministry of Water Resources for a new Draft National Water Framework Law, Draft River Basin Management Bill and draft National Policy Guidelines for water sharing/ distribution amongst states. None of them have reached finality and all of them are likely to be opposed by states as an encroachment on their constitutional domain. In fact the interstate Mahadayi River conflict has reached a flashpoint with upstream Karnataka and Maharashtra starting dams in the basin without even statutory clearances from the centre or consent from downstream state of Goa.
While all this looks rather bleak, increasing agitations and informed protests all over India on water issues is certainly hopeful sign. More community groups are challenging inadequately done environmental impact assessments, cumulative impact assessments, basin studies, downstream impact assessments, concepts like eflows etc, raising very informed and pertinent questions. Most of these studies have been the monopoly of select, fraudulent EIA agencies. Critical questions indicate that these studies cannot be done excluding local communities, their knowledge and their concerns. Among other hopeful signs include some of the decisions of the National Green Tribunal on Yamuna and other rivers.
The underlying theme of these events is the increasing trend of state in India working for the interest of the corporate interests to the exclusion of people, environment and democracy. It is a challenge for us all to see how to reverse this trend.
The year 2013 also marks the end of the current term of the Union government. While there is little to hope from the two main political parties ruling the centre and the states mentioned above, perhaps the emerging political alternative in Delhi will grow and move in right direction. Let us hope for the best.