The Demwe project gives a damn about dolphins, or conservation

On Valentine’s Day, the Ministry of Environment and Forests uploaded on its website the wildlife clearance accorded to 1750 MW Lower Demwe Hydroelectric Project across the River Lohit in Arunachal Pradesh. Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee wanted it cleared and so did Nabam Tuki, the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh. For weeks press reports suggested Jayanthi Natarajan would bow to these powerful entities.

Of the three approvals needed, the dam project has already received the environmental one, while the Forest Advisory Committee is deliberating on the forest clearance. The majority of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (SC-NBWL) strongly recommended against giving the project wildlife clearance, and Natarajan has disregarded its objections.

Lower Demwe is to be located where the Lohit plummets from the hills to the plains, near a site called Parasuram Kund. Such geographical transitional zones are critical ecological locations. Perhaps this is the reason the location is sacred to the Hindus and various indigenous tribes of the state such as Mishmi, Deori and Khampti.

Asad Rahmani of the Bombay Natural History Society was asked by the SC-NBWL to evaluate the project’s impact on wildlife reserves in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Read an account of his report in Down to Earth. Rahmani reported the dramatic repercussions likely to affect the ecology of river islands, Dibru-Saikhowa Wildlife Sanctuary, the foraging grounds of the Asian buffalo and hog deer, and the Bengal florican. Most critically, the dam will act as a bulwark against any attempt by fish like, golden mahseer, to migrate upriver.

Pratap Singh, Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department, was the other member tasked with assessing the dam’s effects on wildlife. He argued since much of the impact is unknown, studies should be conducted in tandem with the project. If these studies report an unacceptable impact on severely endangered species, say, five years from now, would the state ensure the company complies with any recommended least-damage practices?

 The Demwe project gives a damn about dolphins, or conservation

A representative image of dolphins. Reuter

Jagdish Krishnaswamy, a hydrologist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, says capturing water in the reservoir for several hours a day will leave the water level so low that the river “will become inhospitable” for the Ganges dolphin, a critically endangered species.

It’s not only the wildlife fraternity that opposes the project, the people of Assam downstream of the dam, who fear their livelihoods will be severely affected, are against it as well. But the authorities want this project so badly that they’re not playing by the rules. The proposal to the SC-NBWL states that the Lower Demwe project is not sub judice, when it most certainly is. An appeal challenging the environmental clearance was filed at the National Environmental Appellate Authority, now transferred to the National Green Tribunal, where the case is being heard.

Additional misinformation includes the estimated distance of the reservoir from Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary. The application to the SC-NBWL said 0.5 kilometres, while its submission to the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) said 50 metres. To the SC-NBWL, it mentioned 43,000 trees will be cleared, but to the FAC, 1,24,000 trees. A 26 per cent stake in the power project makes the State Government a project promoter, not an impartial administrator of the state.

The Arunachal Forest Department claims the people of the state are frustrated by the delay caused to this project. It appears to have ignored the August 2010 appeal by an indigenous group, Arunachal Citizens Rights, to save its people and their livelihoods from mega-dams. At the same time, the Arunachal State Government has no qualms about blithely recommending the displacement of people, not only from two villages in Dibru-Saikhowa in Assam, but from river islands within its own state.

In February 2011, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, an activist group fighting for farmers’ rights, wrote to Jairam Ramesh, the former Minister of Environment and Forests, accusing Athena Demwe Power Ltd., the company building the dam, of violating the Forest Conservation Act. The Ministry forwarded the complaint to the Arunachal State Forest Department for enquiry. The state appears to have merely asked the company for clarifications and the resulting verdict: there were no violations. In December 2011, the group wrote again to Natarajan with evidence; it enclosed photographs of the company constructing roads on forest land for which approval had not been obtained.

As Tseten Lepcha, the Honorary Wildlife Warden of North Sikkim, pointed out in a letter to Ramesh in April 2011, the same company has already been accused of violating the Wildlife Protection Act (it killed a serow, a goat-like antelope that enjoys the highest protection) in Sikkim. Besides, the dam promoters ignored the law and did not apply for wildlife clearance for three years after starting the Sikkim project. Although it is now two years since they finally did, it hasn’t even figured in the agenda of the SC-NBWL although the dam is more than 60 per cent complete. Instead the Ministry has given the wildlife clearance to a later project, the Lower Demwe dam.

In a blatant case of conflict of interest, the Ministry allowed P. Abraham, who served on the Board of Directors of several power companies as well as PTC Ltd., one of the promoters of Athena Demwe, to chair the Expert Appraisal Committee when the environmental clearance of Lower Demwe was being considered. A Ministry-commissioned Lohit Basin study was to assess the cumulative impact of all the dams coming up on that river and its tributaries. Abraham’s Committee dissociated the results of this study from affecting the environmental clearance process of Upper and Lower Demwe dams. After six organizations filed a complaint, Abraham resigned from the Committee. Instead of placing all the projects he approved under review, the Ministry has allowed the damage he wrought to fester.

Arunachal Pradesh claims Lower Demwe is crucial for its development. It is one of 147 dams (as of July 2011 and more are on the way) to be built across the state. These identified projects will produce more than 57,000 MW of power. The 1750 MW Lower Demwe will produce less than three percent of that total.

There is now another bogey, China, being used to ram this project through the approval process. India and China do not have a treaty on water sharing and, therefore, India wants to build dams quickly across the Siang, the Dibang and the Lohit rivers to claim “first user rights.” A similar argument was used in April 2010 to appeal for the construction of the 2700 MW Lower Siang Hydroelectric project. Lower Demwe is one of seven dams scheduled to come up on the main Lohit river and compared to the rest, its ecological impact is the greatest. If India wants to pip China in asserting first rights, any one of the other six dams will do the job.

However, is damming a river the only way to use it? Don’t centuries of irrigating, navigating, fishing and drinking its waters count as “use”? As far as can be ascertained, the principle of “first user rights” has its roots in the American Wild West. This could arguably be the Wild East, but both Tibet and Arunachal have been settled for centuries. Besides, China claims all of Arunachal Pradesh as its territory. Would it respect any Indian assertion of “first user rights”?

Instead of acting like cowboys in a lawless world, India ought to talk to China and negotiate a treaty. This is an action favoured by the people and government of Assam as well as groups such as Arunachal Citizens Rights and South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. But China is only a feint, there is much more at stake.

The Arunachal State Government has received an upfront premium of Rs. 93 crores in the year 2007-2008 for Upper and Lower Demwe, long before the projects received any clearances. In the meantime, Pranab Mukherjee wanted Lower Demwe cleared to safeguard financial investments. A system where companies have to borrow enormous sums of money from banks to pay the state, before the project is even cleared, brings tremendous pressure to bear on the Ministry of Environment and Forests to give its seal of approval. Abdicating their primary role of exercising due diligence on behalf of our forests, wildlife and people (see the Supreme Court judgment on the government’s constitutional duty), the State and Central Governments act as minions of banks and private companies.

It’s not enough to just declare the Ganges dolphin as India’s national aquatic animal, the Ministry and the Centre need to put their efforts where their mouths are. By approving this ecologically disastrous project, the State and the Centre have made a mockery of rule of law while drowning India’s avowed commitment to protect its wildlife with this misbegotten dam.

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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2012 11:11:18 IST