Kochi: The proposed 3,097-megawatt Etalin hydroelectric project in Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh cannot be considered for implementation in its current form, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) told the state government in its recommendations made on December 27, 2022. The reasons include non-compliance with conditions stipulated by the FAC in previous approved projects, and the huge number of representations that the FAC received against the implementation of the project.
The Etalin project will displace local communities in the Dibang Valley, cause 1,165 hectares of forest land to be diverted and 2.7 lakh trees to be cut. It has faced stiff resistance from local communities and conservationists. The impacts it could trigger downstream, including on people and biodiversity, have not yet been assessed entirely. Moreover, the project is also located close to eastern Himalayan glaciers, and in a highly active seismic zone that is prone to earthquakes, floods and landslides.
Locals and scientists welcomed the decision of the FAC to scrap the Etalin project in its current form. Though temporary, this will buy enough time to plug several knowledge gaps – including understanding the hazard risks that such a project could trigger – that need to be addressed before the implementation of the project, and make information available to the public, they said.
The Etalin project
The Etalin project, proposed in 2008, involves constructing two dams over the Dri and Tangon rivers situated in the Dibang catchment zone in Arunachal Pradesh. The project is a joint venture of the Jindal Power Limited and a state government undertaking, the Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Limited. The mega hydropower project could be India’s largest if it is implemented. However, the costs are many, and conservationists, scientists and residents have raised numerous concerns.
One of them is that 1,165 hectares of forest land (listed as “unclassified state forest” land) will have to be diverted for the project, and at least 2.7 lakh trees will need to be logged.
The area is highly biodiverse. It is home to six globally threatened mammal species, and around 680 bird species which include near threatened, critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable ones. The area is also the habitat of the tiger, a fact that India’s premier government wildlife research institute – the Wildlife Institute of India – omitted in its survey of the area, conservationists have pointed out. The WII survey report has also come under fire because it not only underestimated biodiversity in the area as per conservationists, but its teams also spent only four months on field while compiling a “multi-seasonal” study to determine the biodiversity that would be affected by the project. A subcommittee appointed by the FAC had accepted the wildlife study in toto, as The Wire Science reported in 2020.
The Etalin project will also affect 285 families in 18 villages, wrote environmental lawyers Abhishek Chakravarty and Hemant Kumar Neopaney for The Wire Science in 2020. Though official estimates claim that only 3,800 workers will be hired for the Etalin project once it is operational, locals have contended that a cumulative influx of about 27,000 workers might occur into the region for work at both the Dibang Multipurpose Dam (which is also being constructed on the Dibang river) and the Etalin project. Such a “sudden population explosion” will possibly affect the local communities who have always led a secluded lifestyle and balanced their consumption levels with whatever resources are locally available, the researchers wrote.
Seismic activity and knowledge gaps
The Etalin project is to be located in the district of Dibang Valley. The area – including the districts of Lower Dibang, Dibang and Anjaw – is geologically and geomorphologically very different compared to the surrounding areas, said Chintan Sheth, a scientist who has worked in the landscape for several years, and with district authorities in the East Kameng district and State Disaster Management Authority on the natural hazard risks in the area.
Some of the valleys and slopes in the Dibang region are comprised of unconsolidated mass, composed of glacial debris since glaciers covered these landscapes a few thousand years ago, said Sheth. The area, incidentally, has already witnessed several earthquakes in the past. One measured 8.6 on the Richter scale occurred in Assam-Tibet in 1950, and not only caused the terrain to collapse (claiming the lives of at least 1,530 people in India alone) but is also considered to have denuded the surrounding hills of their trees. It was the largest instrumentally recorded earthquake in the Himalaya as per the United States Geological Survey.
Earlier, in 1947, an earthquake of around 7.7 in magnitude occurred just north of Upper Subansiri district (300 km from Anjaw district) but hadn’t caused the ground to rupture. The pent up energy is likely what caused the 1950 earthquake, said Sheth.
That’s cause for worry because a similar, no-surface-rupture earthquake occurred in 2015 in Gorkha in Nepal, near the northeastern border. Strain could be building up, and may even “fuel a future earthquake starting nearby”, according to researchers who studied the phenomenon in 2016.
The area is therefore prime for natural hazards both in the short and long term geological scale, Sheth said.
Ongoing climate change could be double whammy, due to the impacts it can cause on people and the local ecosystems. Warming will mean loss of ice in the glaciers, and higher water flows for decades. Monsoons may bring with them more intense rainfall events that could trigger flash floods in the mountains as well as downstream, Sheth added. “These can lead to mass wasting events, such as landslides and debris flow events,” he said.
Glaciers are already receding rapidly upstream of the Dibang, he added. There are several knowledge gaps too, Sheth told The Wire.
“There is no study on the resilience of these ecosystems,” he said. “There’s a knowledge gap with regards to the rates of displacement of the mountain, and its subsidence too.”
Subsidence is the phenomenon of the displacement, or sinking, of land. Joshimath, a hill town in Uttarakhand, is currently in the news due to buildings developing cracks as the land sinks. Experts have said that the construction activities undertaken for infrastructure projects such as the 522 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad hydro project could be contributing to the subsidence.
The FAC, then and now
The FAC heard the proposal for the diversion of forest land for the Etalin project in 2015, 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2022. In 2020, a sub-committee of the FAC had also visited the area and submitted a report recommending the project. Recommendations for the project have come in from all fronts, including from the state government and the Ministry of Power.
Conservationists have repeatedly written to the FAC to reconsider the approvals being given for the Etalin project. In May last year, a team wrote to the FAC highlighting that apart from the ecological and environmental threats the project poses, there is also a “lack of transparency” in the approval process. Other conservationists and organizations, including the Bombay Natural History Society, have also written separately to the FAC highlighting similar concerns. Local communities, including a collective of locals under the banner of the Save Dibang Campaign, have also written numerous times to the FAC in the past. In a letter as recent as December 8, 2022 that was accessed by The Wire, several residents of Dibang Valley including students, researchers, farmers and businessmen wrote to the FAC highlighting the impacts the project could have on their livelihoods, safety and the wildlife they protect downstream of the proposed project.
A “large number of representation voicing concern against the project” is one of the reasons cited by the FAC for not permitting the Etalin project in its current form in its meeting conducted on December 27, 2022. As per the minutes of the meeting, the FAC’s state nodal officer also noted this. The FAC has recommended that the state government constitute a high-powered committee to look into these concerns and resolve them. The FAC also noted that in earlier projects where forest clearance was accorded, there has been a “poor record of compliance w.r.t. conditions stipulated by FAC”. Moreover, since the original proposal was sent by the state government “way back in 2014” it is “imperative” to review the facts and figures presented by the government especially with respect to the number of trees that need to be felled, the FAC noted. It also added that a cumulative impact assessment is needed for the area, considering the several other hydropower projects in the Dibang Valley.
It is “good news” that the Etalin project in its current form will not be implemented, and this is due to the several representations they made over and over again to the FAC, said a resident of the Lower Dibang Valley, who did not want to be named.
Though the FAC’s order gives only temporary respite, it gives more time for the public to access critical information about the project which can be used to make the decision-making process fair and transparent, the source, who is also a member of the Save Dibang Campaign.
According to Sheth, the FAC’s decision to scrap the project in its current form is an “excellent” one.
“They have taken heed to the people’s advice and demands, for example including people from Lower Dibang Valley as the project affected families. This gives the state government an opportunity to start bridging the knowledge gaps particularly on hazard and climate change vulnerability of Dibang river basin,” he told The Wire.