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India’s Northeast Hydel Push Is in Spite of Environmental and Climate Concerns

A view of the Dzongu valley. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya

  • In 2019, India declared large dams to be a source of renewable energy, paving the way for a hydel push that is being extended now in the name of the climate crisis.
  • When the Dibang project got a forest clearance in 2014, the environment ministry imposed five conditions and two recommendations because of the area’s rich biodiversity.
  • One recommendation was for the Arunachal Pradesh government to classify a part of the dam’s reservoir as a national park. But the state government refused.
  • A 2016 study showed the exceptional biodiversity of the Dibang river basin., but the NHPC has been concerned only with the diversity inside sanctuaries in the basin.
  • Eja Pulu, a member of the indigenous Idu Mishmi community, said, “I am deeply confused trying to understand on what basis the project got forest and environment clearance.”

This second part of a two-part series examines the environmental and climate-related concerns that Indigenous people have accused governments of overlooking. Read both parts here.

Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Sikkim: When the 2,880-MW Dibang Multipurpose Project (DMP) got Stage I forest clearance in September 2014 – after rejections in July 2013 and April 2014 – the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of India’s Union environment ministry that gave the approval imposed five conditions and two additional recommendations.

This was because the rich biodiversity of the Dibang valley in the eastern Himalaya was a big concern.

One of the recommendations was that “the state forest department … initiate the process of declaring the right bank of the reservoir up to the ridgeline bordering the basin boundary between the Siang (river) and Dibang, up to Dri river to the north, as a national park for future preservation of ecological diversity in the river basin.”

Nevertheless, the stage II forest clearance came in 2020, only on the basis of the state government’s December 2019 letter stating they were “taking up the issue”.

In 2022, after the Union environment ministry sent the state government reminders in January and June, seeking information about the status, so that it could be placed before the FAC’s meeting in October, the Arunachal government finally informed the ministry that they would not be able to declare it a national park.

The state government said that the legal status of the land in question is unclassed forest/community forests, and of which “the local people have been enjoying customary rights since time immemorial and therefore not willing to part away with their land by declaration of national park.”

A national park is a protected forest where no human activity is permitted, except for the ones permitted by the chief wildlife warden of the state under specific conditions.

The state government’s inability shocked and irked several environmentalists, including those from the Dibang valley area. Bittu Sahgal, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife and the editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine, wrote to India’s director-general of forests, who also serves as the chairperson of the FAC, seeking re-evaluation of the DMP project. To quote from the letter:

“Since no work has started on the Dibang Multipurpose project as yet, I strongly urge the FAC to examine the proposal afresh and not merely dilute the condition and proceed with business-as-usual by treating the project as a fait accompli. If the FAC thought it fit to reject the proposal twice and then recommend clearance based on the national park condition, it cannot be the case that only the condition is modified, or diluted selectively without looking at the project afresh.”

Another group of five residents of the Dibang valley region, belonging to the Idu Mishmi and the Adi tribes, wrote to the FAC chairman seeking a fresh assessment of the project based on the state government’s response. This writer has seen the letter but its signatories are unwilling to disclose their identity at present. “We’ll be targeted locally if our identity gets publicly known,” one of them said.

Since the minutes of the October 17 meeting have not yet been uploaded in the public domain, we don’t yet know what the FAC members discussed about the new development.

The eastern Himalayan states of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim are the focus in the current phase, as discussed in the first part of this series. Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and upper Assam are part of the Himalaya Biodiversity Hotspot, while Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland are part of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot. These are two of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots: areas rich in biodiversity and threatened by habitat loss.

The whole of northeastern India also is part of seismic zone V, the most-active earthquake zone in India, while Sikkim lies in seismic zone IV, another quake-prone area.

Apprehensions around the Lower Subansiri project have mostly been on the potential for possible devastating consequences for areas downstream of the dam. But for the projects in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, the risk of impact on environment and biodiversity are bigger.

It is more so for projects in the Dibang river basin, encompassing the districts of Dibang Valley and Lower Dibang Valley. A plan to extract 9,973 MW of hydropower from 18 dams in this basin is in the pipeline. Each facility’s power generation capacity ranges from 22 MW to 3,097 MW.

Of them, the DMP and the 3,097-MW Etalin Hydroelectric Project require the diversion of 4,577 ha and 1,165.66 ha of forest land and felling of 3.2 lakh and 2.7 lakh trees, respectively. With a 278-metre-high concrete gravity dam, DMP will be India’s highest dam.

Anatomy of a decision

The 2,880-MW Dibang Multipurpose Project has been planned on the Dibang river in the Mishmi Hills in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya

The DMP did not require much human displacement – 68 families from five villages were to be relocated and rehabilitated. While rejecting the project in 2013, the FAC said:

… the “felling of more than 3.5 lakh trees [is] most likely to have adverse impact on the general ecosystem of the area, recovery of which may be very difficult through any type of mitigative measures. Ecological, environmental and social cost of diversion of such a vast tract of forest land, which is a major source of livelihood of the tribal people of the state, will far outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project.”

Following this, a revised plan proposing 10-metre reduction of the dam height, from 288 to 278 metres, and resultant reduction of forest land requirement by 478.6 ha (taking the requirement to 4,577.84 ha from the 5,056.5 ha originally proposed) was submitted. The number of trees to be felled was reduced from 3.5 lakh to 3.2 lakh.

This, too, was rejected, as the FAC considered the reduction to be “marginal” and which “may not be able to reduce the adverse impact of the project on such a biodiversity-rich mature forest ecosystem to the extent which could make the project environmentally as well as socio-economically viable in forest-dependent tribal society of Arunachal Pradesh.”

It added:

“All the major Schedule I species like elephant, hoolock gibbon, clouded leopard, tiger, leopard cat, fishing cat, [Drung ox], slow loris, snow leopard and Himalayan black bear etc are found in the area.”

However, the September 2014 meeting of the FAC which gave the go-ahead — held only six days after the project was given environment clearance by the environment ministry – considered economic viability of the project to be an important factor. Further reducing the height of the dam to save more forests would turn the project economically unviable, it held.

Two important changes had happened between the FAC’s April 2014 meeting and the September meeting: Narendra Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to India’s power in May and reconstituted the FAC in August.

Treasures of Dibang and Dzongu

A study conducted at the behest of the environment ministry in 2016 shows the exceptional biodiversity of the Dibang river basin. It documented 1,548 higher plant species of 186 families, 199 orchid species, 27 species of rhododendrons, 23 species of bamboo and 12 species of cane. Thirty plant species are threatened to various degrees; 53 plant species are endemic to Arunachal Pradesh.

As for faunal diversity: there were 158 mammals, including 25 species of rodents, 19 species of microbats, 12 species of small rodents, nine species of moderately large bats, nine species of mustelidae (small to medium-sized carnivorous animals like badgers and otters), and nine species of cats. There were also more than 650 species of birds, 373 species of butterflies, 74 species of fish, 17 species of reptiles and six species of amphibians.

In a statement issued in February 2022, the National Hydro Power Corporation ruled out that the project could have any impact on the two wildlife sanctuaries nearby, as the Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary and the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary are located about 14 km and 35 km away from the periphery of the project.

Lower Dibang Valley-based conservation activist Eja Pulu, who is from the indigenous Idu Mishmi community, however, pointed out that even forests outside wildlife sanctuaries were biodiverse. He cited the case of the Elopa-Etugu Community Eco-cultural Preserve, a community conservation area over 65 sq. km between the dam site and the Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary. Here, camera traps have recorded 45 mammal species.

“There are high possibilities of such species vanishing,” he said. “I, as a local, am deeply confused trying to understand on what basis the project got forest and environment clearance.”

Speaking of hydel projects in Sikkim’s Dzongu valley, Gyatso Lepcha, secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta and a resident of Passingdang village, pointed out that the area comes under the Khangchendzonga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The national park “displays an unsurpassed range of sub-tropical to alpine ecosystems,” is “acknowledged to be one of India’s most significant biodiversity concentrations,” and has “one of the highest number of plant and mammal species recorded in the Central/High Asian Mountains,” the UNESCO listing says.

“Most of the villages in Dzongu are in its buffer zone,” he explained. “The whole stretch of the proposed dam is coming under the transition zone of the national park.” He added that the proposed dam was “going to be the last nail on the coffin of the state, the rich biodiversity and river ecosystem and to the Lepcha community.”

Climate crisis

Worldwide, many experts and organisations don’t consider large hydel projects to be a source of renewable energy for their adverse environmental, ecological and livelihood impact, apart from being identified as a contributor to global warming by releasing greenhouse gases.

India did not consider dams beyond 25 MW of installed capacity as a source of renewable energy. But in 2019, large dams were declared to be a source of renewable energy, paving the way for a hydel push – now extended in the name of mitigating climate change.

According to Manipur-based environment and hydro power researcher Jiten Yumnam, secretary of the Centre for Research and Advocacy, Manipur, India’s move to declare large hydel projects as a source of renewable energy seems to be aimed at meeting the country’s nationally determined contributions (NDCs), submitted under the Paris Agreement. In its NDCs, India needs to obtain 410 GW of power from renewable sources by 2030. Of this, India has determined that about 60 GW will come from large hydel projects.

“Declaring large dams as a source of renewable energy is not new. For more than 15 years now, large hydel projects in India’s northeast have tried to get carbon credits from the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change by declaring the dams to be a source of clean energy,” Yumnam said. “The new declaration of all hydel projects as sources of renewable energy is aimed at giving an impetus to that practice.”

None of the dozen large dams in the northeast that have attempted to get clean-energy funding have succeeded so far. Recently, the Arunachal Pradesh government decided to register 98 micro-, mini- and small hydel plants with a combined installed capacity of 50.295 MW for carbon credits.

The last free-flowing stretch of the Teesta river in Sikkim, where the government has planned the Teesta Stage IV project, is facing local resistance. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya

Yumnam questioned the concept on the grounds that the mechanism does not consider factors like submergence of large tracts of forest and farmland, use of large quantities of cement and steel, and the energy-intensive construction. “All these factors lead to carbon emissions. While declaring projects as sources of clean energy, they only calculate how less fossil fuel will be burnt,” he told The Wire Science. “We [also] need to include factors that contribute to increasing carbon footprint to come to the proper assessment.”

The 2022 ‘Global Carbon Budget’ report said emissions from deforestation were “the main driver of global gross sources” and that cement carbonation contributes 5% of global fossil CO2 emissions.

Also read: Numbers: Global Carbon Emissions at Record Levels With No Signs of Shrinking

However, Hemanta Madhab Gogoi, a resident of Lakhimpur district and an activist of the Raijor Dal political party, said one of the reasons they are opposing the Lower Subansiri project is the changing rainfall pattern.

“Heavy rains are coming in quick bursts following prolonged dry seasons. Droughts and floods have both increased. Playing with nature in this unpredictable period is like committing hara-kiri,” he said.

These changing patterns in northeastern India have been well-discussed in the Indian media. Sikkim is the only state in this region where rainfall has increased overall but whose local residents have also observed an increasing frequency of extremely heavy rainfall in quick spells.

According to Gyatso Lepcha, going ahead with large hydel projects amid changing rainfall patterns is a “recipe for disasters of Himalayan magnitude”.

“We have all the glacial lakes and glaciers above us. Putting up a dam in this region is like putting up a ticking time bomb,” he said.

While glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) have been a major concern in India’s Himalayan region, the National Disaster Management Authority’s October 2020 publication noted that “GLOF risk to the population is the highest in Sikkim and Jammu and Kashmir” and that “the threat to hydropower (from GLOF) is the highest in Sikkim.”

A 2022 study reported that Chungthang town in north Sikkim, where the 1,200-MW Teesta Stage III project is located, is “situated close to all the ‘highly susceptible’ lakes” and “lying at terrible risk to the future GLOFs in the entire upper Teesta catchment.”

“These are young, folded mountains. Building of dams, reservoirs, tunnelling of mountains will trigger more destruction, more natural calamities for sure,” Lepcha said.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.

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