Environmental concerns versus big dams
With the Central government giving environmental clearance to the 2,880–MW Dibang multipurpose hydropower project, the stage is set for another battle of attrition over the big dam issue. The mammoth project to cost above Rs 25,000 crore will be executed by the NHPC in Lower Dibang Valley district of Aruchal Pradesh. A huge 278 metres tall concrete gravity dam will be built, and more than 45 sq kms of forest areas will be submerged. Major chunks of community forests inhabited by the Idu Mishmi tribe will also be submerged when the river is dammed up. In public hearings carried out in Aruchal, the Idu Mishmis opposed the project while their community forest rights have still not been settled under the existing law. In fact, the Forest Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forrest and Climate Change, before recommending the project for clearance, had reportedly rejected it twice earlier on the ground that the adverse ecological impacts of the project will outweigh its benefits. The question turally arises as to what made this committee change its mind so drastically. Was it due to stern directives from the Prime Minister’s Office? As far as downstream areas in Assam are concerned, no public hearing on the project was carried out, because the Environment Ministry has not even considered Assam as a stakeholder. This is surprising because around 13 student and youth organisations from Tinsukia district alone had written to the PMO in December last, expressing serious concerns over environmental clearances being recommended to large hydropower projects in Dibang, Siang and Lohit rivers in Aruchal Pradesh.
Considering the stiff opposition to NHPC’s Lower Subansiri project in Assam, the Central government’s recent actions point to anxiety in speedily clearing big hydro–power projects in the Northeast. The perception has grown stronger in the past year that the Environment Ministry is dropping its hitherto watchdog role on ‘green’ issues in response to the ‘ease of business’ policy being pushed by Prime Minister. While campaigning in Assam and Aruchal last year, rendra Modi had pushed for small hydropower projects and renewable energy vis–a–vis large dams. So has he changed his stance on this issue, considering that India is a chronically power deficient country? However, it helps to recall that on the issue of raising the dam height in Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat, the ruling BJP and opposition Congress and other parties had all stood united. That same dovetailing of views is somewhat evident at the Centre too. The Environment Ministry has begun liberalising environment, forest and wildlife norms to facilitate clearances for various projects, including big hydropower projects. Environment minister Prakash Javadekar while recently claiming that the NDA government believes in ‘development without destruction’, even took a dig at the previous Congress–led UPA government — saying that the practice of paying ‘tax’ for environmental clearances has now been ended. This is an obvious reference to the allegations against Javadekar’s predecessor Jayanthi tarajan about blocking files for months and giving environmental clearances only in exchange for a ‘consideration’, which the BJP had then dubbed ‘Jayanthi tax’. Interestingly, such allegations against tarajan were freely raised within the Congress party itself, with its high command unceremoniously relieving her of the Environment portfolio. A deeply hurt tarajan while quitting the Congress had publicly questioned why she was ‘pelised’ for following the high command’s earlier directive to her to be strict on environmental issues!
The Dibang hydropower project site lies on an active fault line, close to the mountains on the Assam–Aruchal border which was the epicentre of the cataclysmic 8.6 magnitude earthquake of 1950. Apart from high seismic vulnerability, the prospect of submergence of the site threatens the existence of the Mehoa wildlife sanctuary nearby and Dibru Saikhowa tiol park farther down, both home to a diverse variety of rare flora and fau. While giving clearance, the Environment Ministry specified in its notice that study of the environmental and downstream impacts will be undertaken five years after commissioning of the project. This goes against the demand of environment activist groups that such studies should be conducted much before undertaking a project, because what is the use of corrective measures after the damage is done? The issue of big dams in the Northeast has assumed urgency with Aruchal Pradesh Chief Minister bam Tuki revealing in March this year that his government has signed agreements with power developers to execute 160 hydropower projects in the State, with a projected total installed capacity of 46,948 MW. This announcement has to be put in perspective against the recent order by the tiol Green Tribul (NGT) to conduct a scientific study of the downstream impact of 135 proposed dams in seven major river basins of Aruchal. Set up four years ago through an Act in Parliament, the NGT’s activist role and fast disposal of cases has given much hope to environment protection groups. The fear is that the Central government may yet clip its wings by bringing about an amendment, a move that is sure to raise an outcry in the country.