Giving a Dam to Forests, Holy Site

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Wildlife and forest concerns are given a go-by as the MoEF plans to clear a mega power project close to a holy site citing strategic reasons. Ratnadip Choudhury reports

Pilgrims at Parasuram Kund take a dip in the Lohit river
Holy water: Pilgrims at Parasuram Kund take a dip in the Lohit river, Photo: Taw Nana

ON 15 JANUARY, on Makarsankranti, thousands of Hindu devotees from across the country descended on Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh to take a dip in the Parasuram Kund. Among the thousands of chanting sadhus, a few dissenting voices could also be heard. The object of dissent: the proposed 1,750 MW Demwe Lower Hydroelectric Project to be constructed barely 800 metres from the kund. “This kund is sacred to Hindus,” said Adhoksha Janandji Maharaj, Sankaracharya of the Goverdhan Peeth in Odisha, “If a dam were to come up here, the river will alter its course. The purity of the sacred waters would be disturbed, which is not acceptable.”

If Union Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan gives the forest and wildlife clearance to the project, downplaying the impact on biodiversity as expressed by the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), headed by none other than the minister herself, the “no big dam” cry in the Northeast might just acquire a new shrill. In November 2011, the NBWL had put the project on hold as its expert committee was examining a detailed impact study on the flora and fauna in the downstream Lohit floodplains. The project has already received environment clearance, but forest and wildlife clearances are also mandatory for starting a power project in a forest area.

The site inspection report, a copy of which is with TEHELKA, prepared by the two-member sub-committee of Asad Rahmani, Director, Bombay Natural History Society, and Pratap Singh, Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Arunachal Pradesh, paints a very contrasting picture. While Rahmani clearly says that the impact caused on wildlife and aquatic life in Arunachal’s Lohit district and further downstream in Assam is a critical concern, Pratap Singh tries to downplay it. Rahmani points out the threat to biodiversity in the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in downstream Assam, the submergence of the chapories (river islands) on the Lohit, which are important bird habitats, impact on grassland ecology in the areas that are home to the endangered Bengal Florican and the adverse effect of a change in the flow of the river on the Gangetic River Dolphin habitat.

More than 43,000 trees will be felled for the project; the submergence area would be no less than 1,131.09 hectares, including 969.44 hectares of forestland. The dam building process would involve heavy excavation, tunnelling and blasting over 100 lakh cubic metres of rock and debris very close to Parasuram Kund.

Locals from the area, particularly from the Mismi tribe, have already started crying foul. “The project is named Demwe lower, though it is right on Parasuram Kund and about 30 km from Demwe,” says Pradip Kri, a local resident from Wakro.

Highly placed sources in the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) say that contrary to the opinion of the Standing Committee of the NBWL, the environment minister is likely to give the necessary clearance within the first week of February. ‘Strategic reasons’ is reportedly being touted as the excuse to push greener concerns to the backseat. “Most members of the Standing Committee feel that wildlife clearance should not be given since it would have an adverse effect on the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary and the Dibru Saikhowa National Park. They also feel that aquatic life in the Lohit basin will be under threat,” says a MoEF official on condition of anonymity, “but the ministry has been told to go ahead with the project since it is at a strategic location. The argument is that these mega dams would counter China’s plans to come up with similar big dams on the Lohit upstream in their territory. India has to establish its first-user rights.”

THE “FIRST-USER rights” theory stems from the report that China has plans to build 21 mega dams on the Yarlung Tsanpo (the name for Brahmaputra in Chinese territory) and its tributaries. India is apprehensive that China might divert around 78 million cubic metres of water to its arid southern part, thus India wants to counter it by claiming first-user rights by building mega dams on its side. But, this, at best, is a specious argument. “Even if India establishes first-user rights, that won’t stop China from constructing dams on its side on any river if it wants,” says noted dam expert Himanshu Thakkar from the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). “The only viable option for India is to engage China in a dialogue that can lead to a proper water-sharing treaty between the two nations instead of coming up with projects that might turn disastrous in the future.”

If it cites transnational issues to justify the building of the dam, the MoEF would be contradicting the environment clearance letter issued to the project. The letter has no mention of ‘strategic reasons’ or establishment of ‘first-user rights’, which only goes on to justify that the majority of the standing committee of the NBWL feel the MoEF is trying to push through with the clearance on non-wildlife issues. With at least seven mega dam projects proposed on the Lohit, New Delhi will have a hard time justifying why the Demwe mega dam is required to establish first-user rights.

More than 43,000 trees will be cut; 1,131.09 hectares will submerge, including 969.44 hectares of forestland

The Rs 13,000 crore project, a public-private partnership between the Athena Energy Ventures Pvt Ltd and the government of Arunachal Pradesh, is scheduled to be commissioned during the 12th Five Year Plan. The Arunachal government has a 26 percent share in the project.

Danger ahead The proposed site of the 1,750 MW mega dam
Danger ahead: The proposed site of the 1,750 MW mega dam’ Photo: Urmi Bhattacharjee

“There is pressure from the finance ministry and the Arunachal government to push the project,” revealed a top MOEF official. “Chief Minister Nabam Tuki had recently met Jayanti Natarajan to discuss the way ahead. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has identified the project for fast-track clearance to remove uncertainties and prevent deterioration in the asset quality of financial institutions, particularly public sector banks, which have given huge loans to Athena Demwe Power Ltd, the company implementing the project.”

Even if it overlooks all these concerns, the Centre will still have to deal with the growing resentment of the public in upper Assam. If it goes ahead with the construction of the dam, it will have learnt no lessons from the ongoing fiasco with the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project, where the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) led by activist Akhil Gogoi has forced the authorities to keep the work on hold with continuous protests against the project due to its downstream impact. “If the downstream assessment is done, then it will be the same as the Lower Subansiri project,” says a furious Gogoi. “We warn the government not to be so insensitive. We also understand the country’s strategic requirements, but there are at least seven projects planned on Lohit. The Demwe site is sensitive.”

Some senior members of the Standing Committee of the NBWL might even resign if the Union environment minister overrules the majority opinion. The committee has also found that the state government had tried to mislead the NBWL by furnishing wrong information on various aspects of the controversial project. Perhaps the greatest irony that comes out from the site inspection report is that where on the one hand, the government claims the project is required for the development of the people, on the other, it suggests that people should be evicted from the riverine islands on the Lohit, and settlements along the Dibru Saikhowa National Park be removed.

While downstream impact assessment of the 1,750 MW Demwe Lower project on Lohit till Dibrugarh town in Assam has been ordered as a post-environment clearance by the MoEF, what is perplexing is why is the ministry pushing for the green signal, if not for a green cause?

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka. 
ratnadip@tehelka.com

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