Ecological concerns have always been sacrificed at the altar of development. The same will be the case of the Pancheshwar region, which is home to a variety of species
Thousands of hectares of broadleaf forests, dominated by sal and flanking small hamlets, that skirt meticulously carved out terrace farms in the valley of the Mahakali River, home to the giant golden mahseer — this is the defining image of the Pancheshwar region in the trans-boundary Mahakali valley of India and Nepal. Today, this region hosts the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project (PMHP), a multi-million dollar joint venture commissioned under the Mahakali Water Treaty of 1996. The present Indian regime has shown special interest in this project and is pushing its counterpart for talks.
It has been estimated that around 31,000 families in three districts of Uttarakhand will be displaced due to this project and this is stoking a lot of resentment in this area. However, there are other species, too, for whom the Mahakali basin is home: The incredible flora and fauna like the Indian butter tree, tigers and golden mahseer among others. Studies by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and the Foundation of Ecological Security (FES) have documented 227 mostly forest-dependent bird species in the Goriganga basin, upto where the submergence area extends. The basin is also renowned for its orchid diversity, harbouring more than 120 species. Mahakali River is known to be the abode for three dwindling otter species — Eurasian, smooth-coated and small-clawed. A study by Nepali scientists documented 72 fish species, including the endangered golden mahseer from River Mahakali. River flows, the first to be destroyed by the dams, are the mainstay for freshwater fish and riverine ecosystems.
The extent of biodiversity in the area is confirmed by the presence of two wildlife sanctuaries (WLSs), covering an area of 869.88 km on the head and toe of the proposed project site, a troublesome issue for project authorities, who would require additional clearances from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL). Within 300 metres in the north of the proposed project is the Askot WLS, which is home to several endangered species like the Himalayan musk deer, snow leopard, Assamese macaque and now, the tiger as well. In 2016, scientists from WII had recorded the presence of a tiger at an elevation of 3,274 metres from this Protected Area (PA). This is the first time a tiger has been found at this altitude in the country. This rare record further establishes the criticality of this landscape in terms of biodiversity as well as the existence of a unique habitat in India, after Bhutan, which is home to the three big Cats: Snow leopard, common leopard and tiger. Among other things, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports also forgot to mention about inhabitants of the region: A primitive tribal group, van rajis/van rawats, who have been co-existing with these forests for centuries.
Other protected areas in the impacted zone is the Nandhaur WLS on the southern side, just 10 km away from the Rupaligad and the re-regulating dam proposed as part of the PMHP. Mahakali basin has historical records of the tiger but owing to the lack of research, information is scanty. The intriguing tales of the tiger in this basin can be relished in books like Field Days: A Naturalist’s Journey Through South and Southeast Asia authored by AJT Johnsingh and also in Jim Corbett’s hunting tales. Recent studies have confirmed the long dispersal of the tiger, crossing all anthropogenic and natural barriers. Once constructed, the entire project will submerge 116 km of land, agriculture and forests, of which 46.87 km is under the category of forest land — reserved, protected and van panchayat forests. This scale of construction will cut off major connectivity between forests of these protected areas. More forests will be diverted for “relocation” of displaced families in the terai, a crucial habitat for the wildlife, including tiger and elephant.
A natural habitat that held the potential of serving as an epitome of conservation, from flood plains of the terai to the alpine meadows, is now being held to ransom. Plagued by the lack of scientific rigour, the EIA report goes on to make a blanket conclusion, “Due to the degradation of forest in the submergence and surrounding area, no major wildlife is found. Hence, no adverse impact on the terrestrial fauna is anticipated due to the project.” Hitherto, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change on river valley projects is yet to recommend this project for clearance owing to some of the lacunae in the impact assessment studies. However, we have seen over decades how ecological concerns have been sacrificed at the altar of development. There is no reason why it will be any different this time.
(The writer is a PhD candidate at the Wildlife Institute of India)