India's largest hydroelectric project has been given all the requisite clearances by the environment ministry in spite of repeated rejections by its own experts. The 3,000-Mw Dibang river valley mega dam in Arunachal Pradesh, once fully built, will wipe clean 4,577 hectares of forest that is also the homeland of a small community of 12,000, the Idu Mishmi.
The project worth Rs 25,000 crore was approved on September 22 last year without a study to understand the downstream impact. Instead, the ministry has asked that a study be carried out five years after the dam is commissioned. Likely to be completed in nine years, the study will be done, therefore, 14 years later.
According to norms, such studies are to be carried out cumulatively for all hydroelectric projects on the river concerned before clearance is given. The dam is only one of 17 planned on the river that flows through the Dibru Saikhowa National Park.
It was originally rejected by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in July 2013, the apex body advising the ministry on granting of forest clearances. Ultimately, talks between the environment and power ministries pushed the project by overruling earlier rejections. Repeated meetings and letters over the next one-and-a-half years between the two ministries finally succeeded in clinching the forest clearance, government records show. FAC, in spite of comprising some of the most senior forest officials in the ministry, cannot give non-binding recommendations.
Serious discrepancies in releasing accurate data were repeatedly seen on the part of the state government and project developer, National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), during the clearance process. This included failing to mention that chopping down 325,000 trees would critically endanger the refuge for animals such as elephants, tigers, fishing cats and snow leopards.
The original report from the divisional forest officer had said the region was not important from a wildlife point of view. Important documents such as forest cover map, toposheet map and recommendations from empowered officials were also not submitted initially.
The central government was told the project was 11 km from the Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary. This would have helped avoid an additional wildlife clearance as mandated by the Supreme Court. But the regional forest office of the environment ministry later clarified that it fell well within the sanctuary.
The number of displaced people were also misrepresented. Although being a principally forested area, the place is the primary homeland of the Idu Mishmi people, a scheduled tribe. Initially maintaining that 68 families were to be displaced, the toll finally reached 155 families from five villages. The details of the rehabilitation plan are still not finalised. A total of 9,155 hectares of degraded forest land had been identified for compensatory afforestation in neighbouring areas. However, in April 2014, FAC raised doubts about the land not being suitable. These concerns have still not been addressed.
But even when information was revealed through site inspections by the regional office, the decision granting clearance was upheld. An estimated 23.3 million cubic meters of muck will be generated during construction, of which 19.8 million cubic meters are to be dumped at designated places.
The ministry's expert committee appraising the project had concluded that "the ecological, environmental and social costs of diversion of such vast tracts of forest land, which is a major source of livelihood for tribal people, would far outweigh the benefits to accrue from the project."
Although NHPC reduced the originally proposed 5,349 hectares to 4,577 hectares, its subsequent offer of reducing the dam height by 10 meters served as the prime excuse by the government for allowing the project. A serious bone of contention among FAC, power ministry and NHPC, the original demand for reduction in the dam's height was scaled down from 40 meters to 10 meters.
A reduction of 40 meters from the proposed 288 meters would have saved more than a quarter of the forest land. But NHPC claimed that could reduce the power generating capacity by 25 per cent, which it claimed was not feasible. It also claimed that such a reduction would significantly raise power tariff.
Therefore, it concluded that a reduction in height beyond 10 meters would not significantly lessen the requirement for land as compared to the significant decrease in water holding capacity.
FAC finally settled for around 400 hectares of forest land being spared, although experts still rejected it for the damage it would cause. The site inspection report noted that state officials had misled by claiming the dam was far enough from the wildlife sanctuary to need clearance from the National Board of Wildlife. Later studies carried out by NHPC also claimed that proximity did not matter as far as impact was concerned.
Officials from the ministry, when contacted, agreed more hydro power projects were on the anvil. The Etalyn dam, planned to be larger than Dibang, is an example.
Arunachal Pradesh, with an estimated power generating potential of more than 50,000 Mw is witnessing construction of dams on an unprecedented scale. The state plans to build more than 160 dams in the coming years.