Ignoring precaution, MoEF clears a project which has been categorically rejected by majority Standing Committee of the NBWL

MoEF, which holds the mandate of safeguarding country's environment, has given a completely unjustifiable wildlife clearance to the 1750 MW Demwe Lower Hydroelectric dam on the Lohit river in Arunachal Pradesh (http://www.moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Demwe_Lower_Hydroelectric_project.pdf), in face of severe opposition from civil society, experts across country and all the independent members of National Board for Wildlife. This shocking decision has come at the heels of one more such clearance given by MoEF to 300 MW Alkananda project in Uttarakhand, which has been rejected twice by FAC and given a negative recommendation by WII.

Guest Post : Parineeta Dandekar and Himanshu Thakkar

With decisions like these, MoEF is proving that it is incapable to stand up against the tools used by the hydropower lobby even when overwhelming evidence points that impacts are unacceptably severe and even if some of the most threatened ecosystems are about to be destroyed.

The Demwe Lower project is the last dam on the Lohit river mainstem, which already has 12 dams planned on the entire river.

  • The project with dam height of 163.12 m will cause massive water level fluctuations in the downstream of the dam. In the winter (lean season) DAILY fluctuations will range from 70 Cumecs for 20-22 hrs, followed by a huge peaking flow of 1729 cumecs for barely 2-3 hrs. This immense unnatural fluctuation will wreck havoc with the downstream ecology and social systems.
  • Downstream consists of some of India’s most threatened ecosystems, the riverine islands ‘Chapories’, which are Important Bird Areas and Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Assam, which is the last refuge of globally threatened species like Bengal florican.
  • Even 105 kms downstream, the daily water level fluctuation will be 2-3 feet. Imagine the water level rise and fall closer to the dam. What safety measures do we have in place to protect downstream communities and wildlife from such a huge unnatural change daily in winter?
  • In the upstream Arunachal, the project will form a 23 kms long reservoir, submerge an important forest area and affect water supply to Parshuram Kund on River Lohit where thousands of pilgrims from all over the country come to take a holy dip. The project is barely a kilometre away from the site, but is still named as Demwe, to hide this fact.
  • A number of wildlife experts have severely criticised the project and have sent submissions to the National Board for Wildlife to reject wildlife clearance to this project for a number of varied reasons.
  • WAPCOS which was commissioned to study the impact of peaking water releases on Dibru Saikhowa National Park has completed its study in 6 days, without even bothering to visit the area. WAPCOS study has too many inherent contradictions and errors to be considered a fair study. WAPCOS, under Ministry of Water Resources, also has issues of conflict of interest.
  • Director of renowned institute like the Bombay Natural History Society, Dr. Asad Rahmani, member of the site assessment committee constituted by MoEF, has categorically said in his report that “Under no circumstances should wildlife clearance be given based on current information/impact assessment reports”.
  • Pratap Singh, CCF (Wildlife) of Arunachal Pradesh, a state too busy to keep its private hydel developers happy, has stated that the downstream impacts of the project can be studied simultaneously if the project is approved as corrective measures, including flow regime variation. He has blatantly canvassed for the project, knowing very well that once project is sanctioned and power purchase agreements are in place, there is no way that the Project proponent will agree to change in flow regimes, no matter what studies can say.
  • When these reports were discussed in the 24th meeting of the statutory body of National Board of Wild Life, ALL the independent members present have categorically rejected the project, stating a number of issues ranging from absence of studies, erroneous WAPCOS report, setting a wrong precedence, etc. Some have gone to the extent of saying "I cannot put my signature to this project".
  • However, the Minister, also Chairperson of NBWL went on to overrule this unanimous rejection to the project and has given it a clearance.
  • The clearance letter itself makes a very weak case for the dam. Precautionary principle is not even mentioned in the clearance. It further states that cumulative impact assessment and ecological impact assessment will go on concurrently and will be carried out by IIT Roorkie.
  • AHEC IIT R has done such a shoddy job of Upper Ganga CIA that even the MoEF or its Expert Appraisal Committee on river valley projects has not accepted its report, this recommendation here is beyond comprehension. (http://www.sandrp.in/hydropower/Pathetic_Cumulative_Impact_Assessment_of_Ganga_Hydro_projects.pdf)

All in all, the ministry whose mandate is to safeguard environment, people and biodiversity and uphold the precautionary principle has entirely bowed down to pressure from hydropower developers and gone to the extent of pushing a project which will have highly negative impacts on one of the most ecologically fragile areas of the country, disregarding unanimous decision of its own board.

We urge the MoEF to revoke this clearance immediately and live up to its mandate. Looking at the severe downstream impacts of this project in Assam, not doing so may lead to protests from the downstream state, even bigger than what Lower Subansiri is now experiencing. Assam Government has already asked MoEF to reject the project.

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