In 2012, the 1,750-megawatt Lower Demwe hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh received a highly contentious wildlife clearance. Jayanthi Natarajan, the then Environment Minister who was also the chairperson of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), gave the go-ahead disregarding the concerns of other members of the board on the impact the project would have on wildlife. Natarajan had also said wildlife studies could be conducted concurrently with construction. These studies were supposed to be carried out by IIT Roorkee.
The dam is proposed in an eco-sensitive zone on the Lohit river, 50 metres from the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary. It will directly impact the Ganges river dolphin, at least two critically endangered bird species, the Bengal florican, and the white-bellied heron and also impact Parshuram Kund, a Hindu pilgrimage site.
In February 2012, the Environment Ministry issued an office memorandum that said: “Studies by the IIT Roorkee will not precede construction of the project, but will continue concurrently, and mitigation measures proposed in the studies will also be complied with concurrently.”
This was against the well-established protocol of conducting assessments before construction and seeking mitigation of adverse impacts only as a last resort. In September 2012, speaking in the Rajya Sabha, Bhupender Yadav, the current Environment Minister, had sought answers regarding threats posed by “massive blasting and tunnelling for this mega project in the mountains close to Parshuram Kund”.
In December 2014, Mahesh Sharma, the then Minister of State for Tourism and Culture, raised concerns about the project, noting how lakhs of tonnes of debris would be dumped in the pilgrimage centre. On the threat to the wildlife habitat, Prerna Bindra, a wildlife conservationist who was also a member of the NBWL, said: “Robust scientific wildlife studies that take into account seasonal variations are absolutely essential, particularly for a project of this magnitude planned in such a critical wildlife habitat. Such a study has to precede any informed decision-making. What is the point of a study that is carried out during construction?”
As for the emphasis on mitigation measures, Bindra said such measures were usually “tick marks” that often do not take into account the ecology and ethology of the wildlife concerned.
Today, more than a decade later, wildlife studies for the project have still not been conducted. Construction has not begun either. The project developer, Athena Demwe Power Ltd, is undergoing insolvency proceedings, so there is no developer either.
In the entire episode, the precautionary principle was violated in “a perverse manner”, said Neeraj Vagholikar, a Pune-based researcher who has tracked environmental governance issues in Eastern Himalayan hydropower projects for over two decades. “Vital studies impacting these and other species have been postponed to be done concurrently with construction and not prior to construction as they should have been done,” he said.
In 2017, the National Green Tribunal set aside the wildlife clearance granted to the project, deeming it illegal because the chairperson of the NBWL pushed the project through even though all non-official members (that is, those apart from the Minister and all government employees) had unanimously rejected it.
The matter went back to the NBWL for reassessment, and it appointed a three-member committee for a site visit. The committee’s report sought prior studies. The NBWL then asked the Wildlife Institute of India for a rapid study, which the WII did in 2018 over 20 days. Even within that narrow time frame, it found numerous endangered species. The WII sought to conduct a more detailed study spanning at least two years to assess the impact of such a project on species like the Ganges river dolphin, the Bengal florican, the Assam roofed turtle, tigers, and elephants. But it said studies could be conducted at the time of construction.
- In 2012, the 1,750-megawatt Lower Demwe hydroelectric project in an eco-sensitive zone in Arunachal Pradesh received a highly contentious wildlife clearance, without any wildlife studies being conducted, which was extended in 2018. The environmental clearance was also extended in 2020.
- The dam will directly impact the Ganges river dolphin and at least two critically endangered bird species, the Bengal florican, and the white-bellied heron.
- Meanwhile, the project developer, Athena Demwe Power Ltd, is undergoing insolvency proceedings.
Fresh wildlife clearance
In September 2018, the project got a fresh wildlife clearance, with a reiteration that a wildlife study could be conducted concurrently with project construction.
Meanwhile, during the process of conducting a tiger census, the National Tiger Conservation Authority documented the presence of critically endangered species like the white-bellied heron in the region. In 2019, the Arunachal Pradesh government also documented the presence of the white-bellied heron in the Kamlang Tiger Reserve via camera traps.
In 2020, when the 10-year validity period of the environmental clearance granted to the hydropower project expired, Rohit Naniwadekar, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation, made a submission to the expert appraisal committee of the Environment Ministry against extending the clearance given the impact it will have on endangered species such as the white-bellied heron and hornbills.
Naniwadekar wrote: “In India, eastern Arunachal Pradesh is a critical area for long-term conservation of birds. The white-bellied heron is known to be extremely vulnerable to the loss and degradation of its preferred habitat (free-flowing natural river courses), and hydroelectric projects are known to modify water courses and pose significant threats to birds by potentially affecting their foraging habitat and food resources and causing direct mortality of birds through power lines. In our recent, systematic large-scale survey in Arunachal Pradesh, we failed to find the bird at any other site except eastern Arunachal Pradesh…. If the Demwe Lower Project is sanctioned, it will submerge a 4-km stretch of the Lang river, which is the left-bank tributary of the Lohit river and very close to where the bird was reported from. It will result in the loss of the preferred flowing habitat of the heron. Unfortunately, this area was not surveyed by the WII during its rapid study in 2018 when the project was considered by the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife. Given that the herons occur in relatively low densities and are rare, it is imperative that any habitat where the bird is found is preserved.”
Ranjan Kumar Das, an associate professor in the Department of Geography, Tinsukia College in Assam, raised similar concerns, asking the expert appraisal committee “to understand the gravity of the situation of this critically endangered bird which has a very restricted distribution range”. It is estimated that there are only about 250 white-bellied herons left in the world and only about 50 left in India and Bhutan. “We cannot afford to lose any more habitat,” Das said.
But in July 2020, the expert appraisal committee recommended the extension of the environmental clearance. Vagholikar, while opposing it, pointed out: “In the last five years, comprehensive multi-season studies could have been completed by the Central and State governments through agencies such as the Wildlife Institute of India multiple times. These studies would have given important insights into what should and should not be permissible vis-a-vis project siting, design, and operation regime. Instead, we are waiting to find a new developer as part of the corporate insolvency process.”
Rishika Pardikar is an environment reporter covering science, law, and policy. She is based in Dehradun.