Of late Northeast India has seen considerable investment for infrastructure growth and has received the blessings of the Union Government to hasten up already sanctioned projects which were moving at a snail’s pace for a long time. In its pursuit to become the gateway to South East Asia under the Government of India’s Act East Policy, Northeast India has now become the harbinger of the “longest”, the “largest”, and the “biggest” denominations of several infrastructure and energy projects in the country. Assam has the longest rail-cum-road bridge at Bogibeel, Dibrugarh as well as the longest road bridge, Dr. Bhupen Hazarika Setu connecting Dhola to Sadiya in Tinsukia district. These projects have attracted the awe of travel lovers and have eased up the movement of people and commodities to the hinterlands. Consequently, businesses have flourished, but it’s unclear whether State revenues have heaped up for Assam as it was perceived so.
Another one of India’s most lauded and unique ultra-high voltage direct current (UHVDC) projects is the North-East Agra transmission superhighway. The Biswanath Chariali-Agra bipolar transmission line is part of the Northeast-North/ West interconnector project. With a power carrying capacity of 6,000 MW zipping through the lines at a voltage of 800-kilo volts, this will become the biggest power transmission line to be built in the country in terms of capacity when commissioned.
The project was conceived in the backdrop of the 50,000 MW Hydroelectric Initiative, launched in 2003 for fostering the development of the 65,000 MW hydro potential of the Northeast. In order to harness this potential and make cheap power from hydro-rich Northeast India available to the central part of North India, robust transmission infrastructure was required to connect the north-eastern region with the northern and western regions. Thus, 12-15 high capacity transmission corridors of 5,000-6,000 MW each was envisaged by The Power Grid Corporation of India Limited while keeping in mind right-of-way constraints in the “chicken neck” area. Thus began the quest to tap the potential of the perennial rivers of Northeast India primarily of Arunachal Pradesh. Just like their counterparts in the road building industry, India’s hydropower generation companies have also joined the queue to construct the largest hydroelectric power project in Northeast India.
The issue at hand
Had Hindustan Times not reported on the latest developments regarding the planned Etalin Hydroelectric Power Project in Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, much of India including the affluent and privileged sections of Northeast India, would not have become aware of the making of the country’s largest hydroelectric dam. The 3097 MW project (as per the detailed project report), Etalin HEP is being executed through the Etalin Hydro Electric Power Company Limited, a JV company of Jindal Power Limited and Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Limited (A Govt of Arunachal Pradesh Undertaking) which was incorporated on 16 May 2009. This run of the river project envisages the utilization of the rivers Dri and Tangon for hydropower generation.
When reports on the MoEFCC’s Forest Advisory Committee’s consideration for a probable clearance to the Etalin HEP which would involve diversion of 1150.08 hectares of forest land and felling of more than 3 lakh trees came to light, protests and online-petitions erupted on various social media platforms and online portals from various environmental organizations, wildlife conservators, scientists, and activists. The FAC, however, in its last meeting held on 23rd April, 2020 has not given any clearance to the project.
A brief history
While some have argued and dismissed the fresh protests as opportunistic and unwarranted, but they might do well to remember that concerns were raised against the project by many when it was first conceived more than six years ago. Many would recollect the unprecedented protests against the 2000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project at Gerukamukh along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh in 2012. The All Assam Students’ Union which spearheaded the protests then, also raised serious concerns when a large number of permissions were being given out by the Arunachal Pradesh State government for setting up of large to very large hydroelectric projects in the State at the same time, one of which was the Dibang Valley HEP Project. While they were vilified as anti-development fringe groups by the government loyalists, the protestors or the activists had repeatedly asked for smaller capacity dams to be set up in the region and thus utilize the power generated to help industrial activities in the Northeastern region. Alas! Such opinions faded out when things became far too technical and academic for the common man to decipher and the government started to crackdown on the protestors. The AASU for many years now has remained conspicuously silent on the issue.
Acknowledging the issues related to the Etalin HEP, the FAC under MoEFCC in 2017 had recommended Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun to prepare and submit a wildlife and biodiversity conservation plan for the impact zone. The report which came out in 2019 has since become the basis for further discussions and arguments on the Etalin HEP.
What do the data reveal?
The WII study has documented 413 plant, 159 butterfly, 113 spider, 14 amphibian, 31 reptile, 230 bird and 21 mammalian species within study area which is referred as the Zone of Influence (ZoI). Five species of mammals ae listed as threatened under different categories of the IUCN Red list while three other species are listed as Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. The ZoI is defined as the farthest possible distance of influence of the HEP emanating from various impact sources. The authors have also acknowledged that the study was limited to the ZoI because of time constraints. While there is no reported presence of tigers in the study area, the WII report also made it point to mention that tiger presence and movement could not be ruled out completely based on a few months’ survey as they are long ranging species. Dibang valley has seen an increase in tiger population since 2010 with India’s first ‘snow tigers’ being spotted  via camera traps in the upper reaches of the Valley. The 2018 Status of Tigers in India  estimated a total of 29 tigers in Arunachal Pradesh in spite of not having a designated Tiger Reserve in the State. Such rich biodiversity of the region cannot be undermined at any cost.
Though the WII report has recommended for compensatory afforestation in the impact zone, it will never have the same value as the natural forests of the area. The stakeholders might divert their CSR funds for the afforestation activities but that does not guarantee the revival of the lost biodiversity once the project is commissioned. Moreover, given the large quantity of commercially valued trees that would be felled and the lack of media presence in these remote areas, one could only imagine how few corrupt officials might end up making the pockets heavy by selling the timber in the black market.
Dibang Valley is inhabited by the Idu-Mishmi tribe. The community has less than 15,000 individuals and they call the Dibang Valley their homeland, and rightly so. Despite mass protests from the community leaders, the 2880 MW Dibang Multipurpose Project has already been approved on the Dibang river. Between both dams i.e. the Etalin HEP and Dibang Valley Dam, it is expected that 6 lakh trees will be cut down. The Idu Mishmi community reserves high regard for tigers in their cultural and traditional practices. They consider tigers as next to human kin. Probably because of this cultural belief regarding tigers in the Idu-Mishmi community, otherwise known for their hunting skills, the tiger population has flourished in the region. Moreover, the Tangon river, where the project would be set up, is considered sacred to the community and the souls of those departed. Arunachal Pradesh should not only be seen as the powerhouse of India’s hydroelectric dream but it is also a confluence of many small tribal communities, each having their own unique linguistic and traditional beliefs, who have inhabited the land since time immemorial. With the exploitation of the Dibang Valley the Idu-Mishmi community might have very little of their ancient pagan rituals and beliefs to hold on to for their future generations.
Why the need for such projects?
The proposition for such large hydroelectric dams or the countless road infrastructure projects in India’s Northeast is designed for two specific reasons. Firstly, while the Southern, the Western and the Northern regions of the country have almost fully exhausted the hydropower potential, the potential of the Northeast region has largely remained under-utilized. Arunachal Pradesh holds most of the potential with its countless perennial rivers crisscrossing the entire State. Given the rising demand for electricity coming from the power hungry industrial regions of the country, the Government of India has envisioned to ramp up hydroelectric capacity in Northeast India exponentially since it is seen as a clean-source of electricity rather than setting up dirtier coal powered thermal power plants. The longest bridges of the country built in Assam have further eased the transportation of materials and manpower to the remotest parts. While the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy does not consider dams which are larger than 25 MW as renewable source of energy , a favorable twist in the definition in the coming future cannot be ruled out. As India in its INDC targets  have mentioned to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (35% reduction from 2005 levels) and achieve about 40% cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030, large to very large hydroelectric dams may soon become the easy way out.
Secondly, India’s response to China’s repeated attempts to claim Arunachal Pradesh under its territory as Southern Tibet, has come in the shape of several large infrastructure projects to claim its rightful entitlement over the State’s natural resources, thus cementing India’s claim on Arunachal once and for all. Ramping up development projects in Arunachal Pradesh is a part of India’s overall diplomatic strategy to deal with China.
Such petty ambitions from all sides have come at a very high cost. The Northeastern region is endowed with rich forest resources and is one of the 17 biodiversity hotspots of the world. The region, with just 7.98 per cent of the geographical area of the country, accounts for nearly one fourth of its total forest cover. Though the 2019 India State of Forest Report showed an overall increase of 3,976 sq. km (0.56%) of forest cover, 1,212 sq. km (1.29%) of tree cover and 5,188 sq .km (0.65%) of forest and tree cover, the Northeast region saw a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 765 sq. km which is 0.45% of the total geographical area of the country compared to the 2017 assessment. Except Assam and Tripura, all the States in the region showed a decrease in forest cover with Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur losing 276 sq. km and 500 sq. km of forest cover respectively . Given the spate of “development” activities which have recently been awarded environmental clearances, this figure might further deteriorate during the next assessment.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg-Quint, the CEO of Jindal Power Limited had said that the current situation (read COVID-19) could deter the energy company from making such huge investments on the Etalin HEP as they might struggle to find long-term buyers for the entire capacity of 3097 MW. However, with proper policy support from the government, the project might see the light of the day. Meanwhile, the FAC in its latest meeting on 23rd April, 2020  recommended for the reduction of 15.58 ha of area from the proposed project area and handing over of an area of 424.83 hectares to the State Forest Department after the commissioning of the project. The FAC also directed the State government to submit a cost benefit analysis of the project and further requested for clarifications from the Ministry of Power whether they wished to consider the project for approval besides directing the stakeholders to abide by the compensatory recommendations provided in the WII report in regard to conservation of biodiversity in the proposed ZoI. For now, it will be safe to conclude that the final status of the Etalin HEP remains only speculative.
Development vs Environment: The Argument
The debate over development versus environmental sustainability has been a long drawn one without much progress. There are merits and demerits on either side of the table. However, now that the world is living through an unprecedented time in history, we may soon have a winner in this seemingly never-ending debate. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing for sure – never underestimate Mother Nature. Destruction of natural habitat has forced exotic mammals and birds closer to human settlements thus making communities more vulnerable to many yet-to-be discovered viruses and diseases. If you had watched the 2011 film Contagion, which recently became a favorite for many because of its strange resemblance to the current COVID-19 situation, you would do well to remember how and what made the virus spread in the first place. If you don’t, watch it again.
While infrastructure projects have come up in large numbers, many industrial units in the Northeast have actually shut down at the same time. The two defunct paper mills under Hindustan Paper Corporation Limited in Assam only have the last rites remaining to be conducted. Neither any Central assistance scheme has been able to revive these industrial units nor have the power from these hydroelectric dams been able to light up the hopes of the few remaining employees struggling to make ends meet.
Large hydroelectric dams are not the future. While we should do all that is possible to make our energy systems “green” and less polluting, proper consideration should be given to the sustainability factor as well. Northeast India lies in the Zone 5 of seismic activity and the region has already seen many high magnitude earthquakes (above 8 on the Richter scale) in the past. Another one of such scale cannot be ruled out. Arunachal Pradesh periodically reports extreme cloud bursts and is infamous for unpredictable weather conditions. The risk of hydropower projects upstream closer to glaciers and glacial lakes is extremely high due to the unpredictable nature of the volume and flow rate during glacial lake outburst floods (remember the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand). Big energy companies and financial institutions simply ignore or refuse to factor in the role that forests, rivers, and land in rich biodiversity hotspots can play to help deal with the impending climate crisis. If the government wishes to reduce or mitigate its GHG emissions by clearing virgin forests to set up gigawatt scale large hydroelectric dams, then I believe this is a road we must not take. The paradise we like to call unexplored and exotic will soon become a “paradise lost” if we continue to impose business as usual scenarios even in these unprecedented and uncertain times.
Born in Guwahati, Assam, Himangka is an Energy Analyst by profession based in New Delhi. He holds a Masters’ degree in Renewable Energy Engineering & Management from TERI School of Advanced Studies His articles and write-ups on various issues affecting the Northeastern region have been published in many distinguished regional and national dailies. Readers may reach him via email at [email protected] The following article responds to the author’s views and not of Inside Northeast
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