Featured image: The Dibang Valley. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Experts are clear: putting places with high biodiversity under pressure paves the way for pandemics. But in India, the lockdown caused by one pandemic is used to pave the way for the next, by pursuing a controversial plan to clear extremely valuable forests. The plan to build two enormous dams in one of only 36 mega biodiversity hotspots in the world is causing a stir all over India.
The Dibang valley is very remote, even for the remote standards of India’s most Northeastern state. From birds to clouded leopards to indigenous communities: these tropical mountains are brimming with life. The threat posed by two dams was enough to make #StopEtalinSaveDibang a nationally trending hashtag on Twitter.
Dibang valley is both the largest district of Arunachal Pradesh and the least populated district of the country. The valley is named after the Dibang river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Aside from housing a vast variety of flora and fauna including that of six globally threatened mammals and four critically endangered birds, it is also the home of the indigenous community of Idu Mishmi. The community has been preserving tigers for generations, according to their cultural beliefs and traditions.
In 2008, the massive 3,097 MW Etalin hydroelectric project became one of three proposed projects in a joint venture between the Hydropower Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Ltd. and Jindal Power Limited. Estimated cost: $3.3 billion. Jindal Power Limited, which has a 74% stake, is still seeking investors. It is proposed to be developed as a combination of two run-of-the-river schemes, involving construction of dams on the Talo (often misspelt as Tangon in official documents) and Dri rivers – two tributaries of Dibang river.
The Etalin project would involve chopping at least 2,80,000 trees of subtropical evergreen broad-leaved forest and subtropical rain forests in an area of more than 1,160 hectares.
In January 2017, the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) Expert Appraisal Committee for River, Valley and Hydroelectric Power Projects recommended the environmental clearance of the project, but the Forest Advisory Committee in February 2017 “recommended conducting multiple seasonal replicate studies on biodiversity assessment by an internationally credible institute”. The study, made by Wildlife Institute of India, has been under fire ever since.
Amidst the countrywide lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) debated on granting forest clearance to the project on April 23, 2020, resulting in many scientists and experts writing to the MoEFCC to warn about the consequences of this project. Aside from the biodiversity and indigenous peoples, there is also the risk of creating a mega dam in a region that has high seismic activity and 350 glacial lakes upstream that can create flood waves towards the dam.
This conflict is also linked to very differing views on the traditional ways of the conservation of biodiversity. In 2018, the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society had written to the director of National Tiger Conservation Authority to suggest a new “cultural model” of conservation that takes into account “a culture so far proven to be effective in saving the tigers”. This clash between conservationist organisations who marginalise indigenous communities for political reasons and traditional ways of protecting biodiversity has been a hot topic in India for years, as some of our team wrote about earlier.
However, in this conflict there are also “project-affected” families who support the project in the name of development, stating that the project will allow the state to be “economically self-reliant, independent and vibrant at parity with other developing states of northeastern region”. Members of the Idu Mishmi community who are against the project claim that this is because some members of the community have been offered large amounts of money as compensation.
On May 4, 2020, 26 scientists from 15 institutions released a peer review of the Wildlife Institue of India’s Etalin Wildlife Conservation Plan. They point to a gap in the mandate for the study and say that despite clear directives to conduct a multi-seasonal study, Wildlife Institute of India only spent four months in the field. They only surveyed a limited number of sites using biased sampling methods. As a result, their report hugely under-assesses the biodiversity of the region. By suggesting mitigation measures, the report authors also presume the project to be cleared and presents it as a fait accompli. This implies that the report’s finding has no bearing on the FAC’s decision on the project, ultimately making it an exercise in futility.
In the last few weeks there have been a lot of online mobilisations – letters written to the government, peer reviews of the troubled study, Twitter storms etc. On May 9, 2020, netizens participated in a nationwide tweet-storm demanding that Etalin hydropower project should be stopped, with the hashtags #StopEtalinSaveDibang and #SaveArunachalBiodiversity.
On May 11, 2020, the minutes of the meeting of April 23 were made available, according to which forest clearance wasn’t given yet, but rather sought inputs from the ministry of power on the feasibility of the project as well as a detailed cost-benefit ratio analysis.
It is too soon to tell whether the project will be granted forest clearance despite all the mobilisation, the nationwide Twitter storm and a still deepening pandemic illustrating how connected the health of our natural world and the health of all people are.
Brototi Roy is a researcher for the EnvJustice project, that currently manages the Environmental Justice Atlas. This article was edited by Nick Meynen, who also works for EnvJustice and the EJAtlas. More details are available in the Atlas of Environmental Justice.
A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Ecologist. It has been republished here with permission.