By Lakshmy Raman and Cara Tejpal
Here the land is the richest of the richest. Rugged mountains broaden into sweeping forests that taper into verdant valleys. Rivulets course or trickle, depending on the season; glass surfaced lakes reflect endless skies; waterfalls spring forth from hidden crevices. And everywhere, life abounds. Tigers patrol valleys and peaks, herds of enigmatic Mishmi takin nimbly navigate high passes, and rare Tibetan brimstones flicker like emeralds in the sunlight. In this most north-easterly corner of India’s most northeastern state, the old-growth forests of the Dibang valley hold unfathomable biodiversity – 555 species of birds, 50 mammals, 117 types of wild orchids, 90 species of amphibians and reptiles, unquantified insect and plant life; and who knows how many unknown life forms awaiting discovery.
A decade ago, few people had heard of Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang valley. Today, it lies at the fulcrum of a growing public movement to challenge poor environmental governance. On April 23, 2020, when India’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) met over video conference to discuss clearance for the Etalin Hydro Electric Project in the Dibang valley, they were leaning towards granting it. Nearly 20 days later, when the minutes of the meeting were released, it was revealed that the FAC had deferred their decision, and instead requested input from the Ministry of Power, Wildlife Division of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). It was a small victory for the thousands of Indians who had spent the better part of the past month protesting the project.
The old-growth forests of the Dibang valley hold unfathomable biodiversity – 555 species of birds, 50 mammals, 117 types of wild orchids, 90 species of amphibians and reptiles. The Etalin Hydro Power project, if approved, will require the axing of 2,80,000 trees. Photo: Sahil Nijhawan.
The Etalin Hydro Electric Project (HEP), a joint venture between Jindal Power Ltd. and the Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh, is proposed on two tributaries of the Dibang river. Envisioned as one of India’s biggest and most expensive hydro projects, it will take a toll of nearly 2,80,000 trees in the irreplaceable forests of the Dibang valley. Expert submissions to the FAC have underscored a catalogue of reasons to reject the project. There are the obvious environmental concerns – the destruction of forests in a Global Biodiversity Hotspot – and a plethora of lesser-known yet equally significant arguments. These include the risks of large-scale construction in the Eastern Himalaya, a seismically active zone prone to earthquakes and landslides; the rapid, climate change-induced, melting of glaciers that feed the rivers and which will likely reduce the production capacity of hydro projects in the region; and the cultural marginalisation and social displacement of the small, native Idu Mishmi community caused by the influx of thousands of migrant workers. The economic viability of the project is also under question, with Jindal’s own CEO admitting that “the project doesn’t look like an attractive investment” and that they’ll “struggle to find long-term buyers for the entire capacity”.
The FAC has depended on a biodiversity assessment compiled by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to inform their decision. But on May 4 this year, 29 scientists from 16 different institutions released a scathing peer review of the WII report, stating that “incomplete and inaccurate data led to an erroneous and inadequate assessment of the impact potential of the proposed HEP on biodiversity”. The reviewers also pointed out that WII has presented the FAC with a Wildlife Conservation Plan as opposed to the mandated biodiversity assessment, spent only four months in the field when the directive was to conduct a ‘multiple seasonal replicate study’, and did not account for the damage to the greater landscape from landslides and geological shifts due to large-scale tunnelling, and severe resource pressures from a large immigrant population.
Even as arguments against the project mount, a concerted attack has been sprung to discredit scientists and citizens that raise questions about the viability of the project. Most recently, three letters filled with baseless accusations that those who have raised concerns about the project are receiving “huge funding from foreign countries to sabotage developmental activities” were submitted to the FAC and widely circulated on Whatsapp. The slander of environmentalists, scientists, journalists and citizens is an old tactic in the playbook of vested interests; and one that needs firm redressal.
Navigating the climate and extinction crises are undeniably the greatest challenges of the 21st century. There is scientific consensus that halting the degradation and loss of forests is essential to mitigating its worst impacts and halting zoonotic pandemics such as COVID-19. As a signatory to innumerable international treaties and pacts on climate change, India should be committed to protecting her invaluable natural ecosystems not bulldozing through them.
But, as in the past at disturbingly regular intervals, the MoEFCC is fast losing credibility, and in May 2020, some 291 conservation scientists and allied professionals, including 12 former members of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL), expressed their serious concerns about the cavalier manner in which environmental and forest clearances are being approved. This during the nation-wide lockdown spurred by a pandemic that the MoEFCC itself acknowledged has emerged as a result of large-scale destruction of natural ecosystems.
The Etalin Project is one of several projects that threaten to tear apart the natural fabric of the country. Dangerous plans continue to be in play at many levels. The 2020 EIA draft has introduced several changes, introducing the concept of post-facto clearance. This would allow projects that did not apply for EIAs and environmental clearances – and subsequently started construction – to be appraised and given clean chits. They could be allowed to apply for clearance if they are found to be “sustainable” for the environment. Meanwhile, in the midst of the nationwide lockdown for COVID-19, the NBWL has approved 16 ‘development’ projects in wildernesses via videoconferencing. These include a highway through the Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa, a railway bridge cutting through a crucial tiger corridor near the Kawal Tiger Reserve in Telangana, the Nagpur- Mumbai superhighway cutting through 48 villages, and felling 32,000 trees, and a hydroelectric power project in Uttarakhand that will take a toll of 768 ha. of forest, close to the biodiversity-rich Benog Wildlife Sanctuary. All this, while the NBWL has not held a single meeting since 2014, and yet its Standing Committee urgently met during a lockdown, to clear projects (instead of working to strengthen its mandate… environmental protection).
How is it possible to get a clear idea of the project locations and impact on wildernesses through a video conference? An anonymous source who was part of the process, confirmed to The Hindu that “In a virtual conference, it’s difficult to scrutinise maps that show the location of the proposed projects. There was also no occasion to ask officials for clarifications”.
In yet another blow, the Central government has given in-principle (Stage-I) clearance to PSU major Coal India Limited (CIL) to mine 57.20 hectares inside the Dehing Patkai forest. This at a time when the coal, oil and gas industries are facing economic collapse because cheaper, cleaner, more lucrative (for investors and consumers) options were available in the form of solar and wind energy and efficiency investments.
North Eastern Coal Fields, a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd. (CIL), to continue mining in the Saleki Proposed Reserve Forest (PRF), that is part of the larger Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in upper Assam. Photo: Bitupan Kolong.
It would seem that the nation’s apex body for wildlife protection has forgotten why it was set up.
The climate crisis reveals that India is probably among the most vulnerable nations in the world. It is conceivable that India’s next challenge could be social unrest, triggered by climate-driven internal migrations. These are the threats we need to prepare against, together with predictable water and food shortages, floods, unmanageable diseases and economic erosion. All these have direct roots to the ecological degradation that has been passed off as development in India these many decades. The worry now is that the traumatic Syrian migration, and the more recent pandemic and locust swarms could be repeated on the unprepared people of the subcontinent who will neither have working solutions, nor escape. It is time now for leaders who do not deny climate change… to stand up and be counted, and help to reverse course, or be clubbed with the deniers as collaborators in the dismantling of life on the Indian subcontinent.
India is not alone in being forced to confront disciplining at the hands of the biosphere.
According to the Global Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), “75 per cent of the land surface of our planet has been significantly altered, 66 per cent of the ocean area is experiencing increasing cumulative impacts, and over 85 per cent of wetlands (area) has been lost.” In terms of our forested habitats, “32 million hectares of primary or recovering forest were lost between 2010 and 2015.” The report also highlights that approximately half the live coral cover on coral reefs has been lost since the 1870s, with accelerating losses in recent decades due to climate change, wild vertebrate species populations have declined over the last 50 years on land, in freshwater and in the sea and rapid declines seen in insect populations in some places. Around one million species face extinction including domesticated plants and animals. This loss of diversity, including genetic diversity, the report says, poses a serious risk to global food security by undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems to threats such as pests, pathogens and climate change.
Today, the world is in an unprecedented and catastrophic health and economic existential crisis whose end is yet unknown. However, what we see as a health emergency is more than that. It is a planetary health emergency. We must acknowledge the runaway capitalism is a causative factor that has inflicted and aggravated our climate crisis. Initially it was thought that the negative impacts would be limited to floods, droughts and hurricanes that could be solved by technical solutions such as sea walls, dams and technologies yet to emerge… the very stuff of science fiction. We now know that the greatest impact of climate change, is turning out to be the loss of biodiversity at the micro and macro level. The COVID-19 pandemic is one stark, dangerous result of the imbalance caused to the biosphere by human actions. Few credible scientists and doctors now dispute the fact that the overexploitation of resources is now a key driving factor in the emergence and spread of new infectious diseases. As we cut down forests for industrial agricultural practices, we push pathogen carrying wildlife in closer proximity to human communities; as human-induced global warming rises, polar ice glaciers containing viruses frozen within the permafrost over millions of years, are melting… potentially releasing them.
We should be afraid. Very afraid.
Scientists, virologists and evolutionists suggest that more such pathogen spillovers are inevitable, unless we rebuild our relationship with nature, which could, for instance, begin by closing down wet markets, severely curbing the commercial trade in wild species across the planet. If we do not simultaneously rethink the current dogma of destroying natural ecosystems for short-term financial gains and calling it development, more than human health, human existence on Planet Earth will be in question.
The greatest impact of climate change is the loss of biodiversity at the micro and macro level. Unless we rethink the current dogma of destroying natural ecosystems for short-term financial gains and calling it development, we could lose species such as the Himalaya flying frog Rhacophorus bipunctatus, forever. Photo: Jayanta Kumar Roy.
At one time, it was only ‘environmentalists’ who expressed such views, which were easily written off as the utterances of doomsday merchants. No longer.
Today, visionary economists are sounding the alarm against the destruction of the biosphere. Lord Nicholas Stern, author of The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics (LSE) went so far as to label climate change as “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen.” Speaking to Paul Abraham, President, Hinduja Foundation as part of a high-level, online series of “Seek Sanctuary” talks, Lord Stern said:
“Our changing climate is intimately related to the pandemic as well as being profoundly destructive in its own direct ways. It is important to recognise the links between the climate and the pandemic viruses. Animals, human animals and domestic animals – these three interact and of course they interact amongst themselves and as a result of climate change, we find that birds from different continents are meeting where they didn’t meet before, in ways they didn’t meet before, and that can breed new viruses. As the great biologist Lucy Shapiro from Stanford has shown, those new viruses can come in new forms of bird flu. We’ve seen what happens through swine flu. We can have all kinds of interactions between wild pigs and domestic pigs and so on. Those are the kinds of interactions which profoundly change when we change biodiversity, when we change the climate, when we change our environment. That means that one of the dangers of our old system was indeed that this kind of pandemic has become more likely. There will be more. We must act to reduce the probability and severity of future pandemics. And we must act in much better ways of managing a pandemic; we do that in part through better anticipation and in part through changing that probability by changing our relationship with biodiversity and environment. This should be a fundamental part of a strategy to manage pandemics and of course, even more importantly, to deal with the damage that we have done, and will do, to our climate.”
Global food security specialist, particle physicist and Founder of Navadanya, Vandana Shiva, further added in the same series that:
“New diseases are being created because a globalised, industrialised, inefficient food and agriculture model is invading the ecological habitat of other species and manipulating animals and plants, with no respect for their integrity and their health. The illusion of the Earth and her beings as raw material to be exploited for profits is creating one world connected through disease.”
It is now beyond doubt that Homo sapiens has been exploiting nature’s bounty to the point where the biosphere’s processes, which hold the web of life together, are becoming unravelled. The COVID-19 virus may have originated in Wuhan, China, but unbridled capitalism with scant respect for any creature on the planet has disrupted our ecological balance and this must now be refashioned into equitable and diverse economic systems that acknowledge the true joint origins of the word “Eco” (see box below).
It’s not ecological concerns that will end business as usual. The coup de grace for the mismanagement of Planet Earth is being dealt by sinking stocks, mega unemployment and the death of factory farming. All a result of the narcotic-like abuse of fossil fuels, coupled with bad biosphere housekeeping.
But old habits die hard. Several countries, including India nevertheless seem unwilling to give up old habits. David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and environment appealed to countries to desist from using the COVID-19 pandemic as a mask behind which environmental protection and enforcement is weakened. The actions of India’s Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change P. Javadekar are by now legend, but he is not alone. Several governments including China and Poland announced plans to lower environmental standards. “Such policy decisions”, said Boyd, are likely to result in accelerated deterioration of the environment and have negative impacts on a wide range of human rights, including the rights to life, health, water, culture, and food, as well as the right to live in a healthy environment”.
The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2020 Global Risks Report also underscored that the top five long-term risks likely to impact businesses across the globe in the next decade are all environmental. This includes extreme weather events, climate change mitigation failure, major natural disasters, extinction of species critical to the biosphere and human-caused environmental damage. If governments fail to work together across borders, the WEF report states, the results will be “catastrophic”.
The downstream impacts of hydroelectric projects in the Northeast such as the Lower Subansiri include loss of fisheries, changes in wetland ecology, loss of biodiversity, and increased flood vulnerability. This is a geologically-fragile and seismically active region. Photo: Neeraj Vagholikar.
Vance Martin, President, WILD Foundation asks us to contemplate how we boxed ourselves into this corner:
“We have a triad… climate chaos, species extinction and the COVID-19 pandemic. These are symptoms of the underlying issue – of the relationship between people and nature. We are being reminded who is in charge. We are reminded that human actions have consequences. If we live within the rhythms of nature – of sustainability, replenishment, of recycling, of enhancing life, of creating net-positive life, we prosper. If we don’t, we suffer. Human society at scale has been built on exploitation of nature. We need a new relationship. We need to give back to nature in a way that is respectful. If we don’t deal with the core issue, the symptoms will only get worse. We still have time, even if not much. We need to give nature the space she needs. One half of nature has to be protected so she can do her job. The commercialisation of wildlife for human consumption, pet trade, medicines and habitat loss including for agriculture must stop. To tackle a nature emergency like we never had, we need a survival revolution like we have never imagined. The Survival Revolution is a movement that needs a leadership that is informed and compelled to act for life, not for profit or position. We need life solutions modelled on nature.”
Clearly, solutions to the multiple traumas facing us all do exist, but these involve breaking away from our existing culture of nature-exploitation and uncontrolled material consumption. Global and national development will perforce need to gainfully, sensitively and effectively put people to back work, close to where they live, to restore our natural biodiversity. Ecologically restoring degraded lands will allow us to keep climate warming well below the terrifying 1.5°C level. Human rights groups and environmental groups, often at loggerheads, will perforce have to unite to fight the greater threat of biospheric disfunction, which would quite literally amount to throwing the baby out with the bath. Maybe it’s also time to change nomenclatures… the words sustainable, inclusive and adaptive development have become co-opted almost to the point where they have lost meaning.
Lord Stern goes on to suggest:
“What we must do is to plan ahead and think what kind of a world are we trying to build. We must commit ourselves to not going back, commit ourselves to building back better. The transformation to a new kind of development, sustainable, inclusive, resilient, could be enormously attractive. We must invest in new infrastructure, we must develop our energy, our transport, and our cities and the way we manage our water and communications. We will have to find new ways of doing this…. if we invest in our natural capital and our natural infrastructure the right way, we can have cities where we could move and breathe and be productive and we can have ecosystems which are robust and fruitful. That is an enormously attractive prospect, but we have to commit ourselves to that now. We must build our recovery with that vision in mind and take the recovery to the transformation, to this new story of growth and development. If we do that, we will reduce the likelihood of severe of pandemics, we will improve biodiversity, but above all, we will create a climate that is resilient and strong and not the deeply destructive climate which we are creating… and which will get much worse.”
His stern warning (pun intended)?
“(Unchecked) climate consequences would be long-lasting and far more damaging than even the profound damage caused by this COVID crisis.”
Lakshmy Raman is the Executive Editor at Sanctuary Asia magazine. Cara Tejpal leads conservation initiatives for Sanctuary Nature Foundation and is a commissioning editor for Sanctuary Asia magazine.