Much to the chagrin of the conservationists, the Union Environment Ministry's Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (SC-NBWL) has cleared the controversial 1750MW Demwe Lower hydroelectric project on Lohit river in Arunachal Pradesh. The green activists have warned that the proposed dam which is just is 8.5 kilometers from the Kamlang Wildlife Sanctuary in the State is a disaster in waiting.
Up in arms against the approval, they have pointed out that it is also extremely close to cultural heritage site Parshuram Kund, a major Hindu pilgrimage and it would submerge parts of the Parshuram Kund Medicinal Plant Conservation Area that has been identified by the Government for protecting "globally significant medicinal plants".
Bimal Gogoi, a green activist based in Assam's Golaghat district, has written to SC-NBWL chairman and Union Environment Minister, Dr Harsha Vardhan, protesting the construction of the 124-metre high dam to be jointly constructed by Athena Energy Ventures and the Arunachal Pradesh Government.
"I am shocked to see that your committee has granted wildlife clearance to the 1750 MW Demwe Lower project based on a seriously flawed report of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII)(Dehradun Based)," said Gogoi who had also filed an appeal in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) challenging the 2010 clearance to the project by the Ministry.
He pointed out that the NGT had in October last year had cancelled the final forest clearance to the project, citing ecological threat.
In 2014, director of Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and NBWL member, Asad Rahmani had studied the site and said the project would submerge parts of the Parshuram Kund Medicinal Plant Conservation Area.
The NGT had sought a peer review of the project, but the Ministry commissioned a short study by a Wildlife Institute of India (WII)-led team, which acknowledged downstream concerns while saying upstream submergence would not be much of an ecological issue. The team admitted the site needed to be studied over three seasons, but its survey in February this year took just for 20 days.
Based on the team's report in May, the project was cleared at the recent 50th meeting of SC-NBWL. The minutes said that that the SC-NBWL has accepted the WII's report on the rapid ecological assessment of impacts (EIA) of Lower Demwe project on wildlife.
The WII report said: "In the light of the history of this dam site, wherein the submergence zone has been studied and an environmental impact assessment was approved to give environmental clearance, we feel that the creation/construction of the dam per se would not be critical in undermining the biodiversity values of the region. The submergence zone of the dam is a habitat which is available elsewhere within the region and is not critical for the conservation of any known threatened, endangered or critically endangered species population. This hydroelectric project is run of the river type water which is released. Hence, the amount of river flow quanta is not likely to be altered once the dam is filled and power generation is based on an inflow-outflow regime."
However, Gogoi argued that based on a rapid foot survey, the WII team could not conclude that the wildlife affected by direct dam construction is not critical for conservation.
He said they had not even surveyed the full submergence area for the rapid survey (at least 35 per cent of submerged river length left out).
Jagdish Krishnaswamy, a hydrologist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, an NGO, felt that 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.