Dibang-based NGO appeals to FAC to reject Etalin Project
First published in Sanctuary Asia,
On May 1, 2020, the Kera-aa Initiatives for Cultural and Ecological Security (KICES), an NGO established by members of the Idu Mishmi community, wrote a detailed letter to India's Forest Advisory Committee. In their missive, KICES listed a staggering 20 points of concern about the proposed Etalin Project in the Dibang Valley, and concluded with the following:
"There must be a limit. We on behalf of our affected community of the greater Dibang region, spirits of holy ancestors and hundreds of unspeakable wild creatures which will be affected irreversibly by this project urge you to take up our cause, protect ecology and present our example as an opportunity towards the country’s commitment to international legal obligations. Please do not approve this controversial project, which is filled with faulty, inadequate and contradictory studies, and set a negative precedence in the annals of environmental disasters."
The letter is reproduced in its entirety, and without edits, below.
The Director General of Forests
Chairperson, Forest Advisory Committee
Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change
Government of India
Subject: Concerns about diversion of forest land for Etalin Hydro-Electric Project (3097 MW, Dibang Valley District, Arunachal Pradesh)
With reference to the aforementioned subject and as a grassroots local NGO we would like to draw your kind attention towards the growing concern about the environmental and ecological impacts in our district due to the proposed dam. Your good office is well aware that Arunachal Pradesh, in particular, and the entire eastern Himalayan belt, in general, is one of the richest repositories of biodiversity in the world. The loss of such richness cannot be offset through any financial, ecological, social, cultural or legal means. Therefore, after our perusal of the Fact Sheet (F. No. 8-20/2014-FC) based on findings of the Forest Advisory Committee’s (FAC) Subcommittee we wish to place before you the conclusions we have made:
- There has been no transparency in circulation or dissemination of any information whatsoever in the public fora regarding any deliberations or discussions since the time of formation of the FAC’s sub-committee assigned to assess the impacts of the project and study carried out by Wildlife Institute of India (WII). It was only through electronic media that we got to know that this project is mostly being favoured. This clearly violates cardinal principle of natural justice and all norms of effective participation and consultative provisions falling under various laws. The local community can place their concerns only when they are given a fair chance to do so.
- There is direct conflict of interest between WII assigned to carry out the field study and submit a report, and the FAC’s Subcommittee that is constituted to verify the veracity of the impact of the project and provide an unbiased opinion of the project. There can be no scope for impartiality and independence when one is part of the committee that approves its own findings, as has been the case here.
- There are several omissions and contradictions in the findings of WII. Arguing that tigers are not found in the community forest outside of Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary is a total disrespect of our community’s knowledge and traditions. In reality it is a fact that parents and elders in the indigenous Mishmi (Idu) have always narrated to their children how they have witnessed tigers with their own eyes. It is we the locals who have experienced, known and managed this land for centuries.
- To make a theoretical distinction of boundary between state notified protected area (Dibang WLS) and community land or Unclassed State Forest (USF) in order to give an impression that animals like tigers would not be affected by Etalin project is actually denying the fact that the project is going to submerge the vital tiger area which FAC itself recognizes. Tigers know no boundaries. Denying that there would be no loss of habitat based on wrong analyses also amounts to inviting the very possibility of human-animal conflict.
- While the Fact Sheet clearly provides scope to carry out multiple studies of several vulnerable birds that thrive on Mathu, Talon (incorrectly named as Tangon in the Fact Sheet) and Dri rivers and forests in the Mishmi Hills, the study WII has conducted is grossly inadequate and in violation of FAC’s own recommendation. As inadequate and poor research cannot be a basis to approve the project, let there be a fresh study with adequate participation of local people including people from different fields.
- There is complete lack of transparency and contradiction in Subcommittee’s decision as reflected from its own report. While it has acknowledged that there has been non accounting of big trees in Enumeration book to the Ministry of Environment regarding 10 percent sampling intensity, it abruptly concludes that ‘after detailed discussion’ it finally accepted the justification of state government’s version merely on ground of ‘difficulty of establishing veracity’ by the Subcommittee. It does not provide any transparency as to what was discussed and what transpired (See, Report of the site visit of FAC Sub-committee on Etalin HEP, Paragraph 2 (i) and (iii)). The study conducted certainly does not reflect the same zeal as there is for the project clearance. There are no public records of the minutes of the Subcommittee’s meeting to ascertain the facts.
- While enormous old trees will be felled and natural river flow will be destroyed permanently it is unintelligible and impractical to think that imposing an urban idea of conservation, including artificially created parks, will bring back the same aura and harmony that exists in natural ecology. Such an idea is financially not viable and ecologically unsustainable.
- There are no places in Dibang Valley which actually require afforestation owing to wide coverage of forests. However, misleading facts in the Fact Sheet have been provided saying that PCCF, Government of Arunachal and DFO, Anini Division have identified 1841.32 ha of Village Reserved Forest (40 (ii)). Which and where exactly government claims to have found such huge area of land in Anini for such activities is not clear. We suspect that the recent notification (August 2019) of the Forest Department for creation of two VRF (Village Reserved Forest) under Anini Forest Division is a ploy to declare those VRFs for Compensatory Afforestation. If it turns out to be true, then it amounts to cheating and betrayal of the local community by the Forest Department.
- While on one hand the factsheet claims that vulnerability of forest area will be minimum and no important species of wildlife are recorded here, on the other it says forest is ‘thick’ belonging to Subtropical Evergreen forest and Subtropical rain forest, and ‘truly irreplaceable’. Thick forest is usually home to diverse creatures, birds and animals. Just because one has not seen it with naked eyes does not completely allow denial of their existence.
- The Subcommittee’s finding is a skewed output. While it is apprehensive about exploitation and vulnerability of forests due to increase in population and local factors and recommends some logistical measures for forest protection, the same study also attempts to confuse stakeholders about its own responsibility of being sincere to what it is mandated to do – make accurate factual reports with an objective of protecting enormous chunk of forest and biodiversity in the region. This in effect only conveys precedent of bureaucratic stronghold, while vulnerable locals will be subjected to the aftermath of the projects.
- A high seismic hazard is another concern given the history of Arunachal and its geological and climatic studies. People in this region live in perpetual fear as the onset of such disaster is only a matter of time. Yet the Fact Sheet reads that the region has favorable geological conditions being oblivious to scientific concerns. Imposing the unsustainable ‘developmental’ Etalin Project is certainly a grave warning of advancing double jeopardy thrown upon the indigenous community. Stating that the region has ‘favourable geological’ conditions is contrary to the state government’s own acknowledgment in its Arunachal Pradesh Disaster Management Policy that the state is vulnerable to natural calamities including earthquakes and flash floods. The present handling of Covid-19 pandemic by the government has clearly questioned its capacity to handle the situation during the time of crisis. Even best efforts with best intention fails since the state lacks resources.
- Dibang Multipurpose Project was ‘forced’ down the throat of indigenous community by terrorizing them in October 2011. Dibang and Demwe projects had faulty studies. As if they were not enough this joint venture project is in pipeline again with repetition of similar trajectory – contradictory findings but with praise for how WII has worked.
- The rampant diversion of community land in Arunachal for several hydro power projects both approved in past and being considered in recent time questions the objective and intention of the dam proponents and studies conducted by committees sidelining the serious concerns of indigenous communities and their traditional conservation efforts. The intention of Government of Arunachal has not been in good faith since it has denied the implementation of FRA 2006 despite the Itanagar High Court order in Vijoy Tachang & Ors Vs State of Arunachal Pradesh & Ors,(WP (C) No. 20 (AP) 2009), followed by several other land policies.
- Several paragraphs refer to the term ‘degraded’ community forest for compensatory afforestation. The ‘degraded’ is purely an administrative construct not a legal term. This is a mountain terrain with primary forests that we are talking of! There are no such lands under community as ‘degraded’. Every land has its cultural and environmental significance. This presents itself as a tool for administrative control over community land in the guise of improvement.
- Diverting huge hectares of forest area by the government would also mean the undoing of its own conservation objectives framed under National Forest Policy 1988, FRA 2006 and Biological Diversity Act, 2002 leading to heavy pressure on available forest resources including for other minor forest produces (MFP).
- Ancestral and customary relationship with forests and rivers will be affected adversely or will be lost forever which cannot be remedied by any materialistic or pecuniary substitutes whatsoever. The only pilgrimage of the Mishmi (Idu) tribe, namely, “Athu Popu” is located north of the project site along the Talon (Tangon) River.
- While the factsheet over all provides favorable opinion for operation of project despite glaring contradictions it nowhere mentions any hint about the local participation, their approval or consent, due process required to be undertaken from the affected local communities. Instead, it merely mentions compliances under Forest Conservation Act on the part of the user agency and government. We understand that the Project Affected Families in the vicinity villages will support the dam project since they will gain money for land compensation. But beyond that every family understands the peril that they will be subjected to.
- The popular argument that such projects will bring jobs and ‘development’ has mostly increased issues of alcoholism and exacerbated social tensions. These ‘aftereffects’ are usually forgotten by project developers. Our vulnerable indigenous peoples are not designed to survive without rivers, forest and agricultural fields that they have sustained for centuries in harmony with nature. Windfall gains through land compensation cannot be equated with development. Development is supposed to be a part of the governments’ responsibility.
- India is a signatory to important conventions such as ILO Convention 167, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 (ICESCR) and Convention on Biological Diversity Act, 1992. By virtue of being party to such treaties, it should not subject its vulnerable indigenous community to existential threats by deviating from basic principles of right to life and culture. It must recall its commitment to Decision VII/16 to the Conference of Parties to CBD 1992, which provides for undertaking a thorough and unbiased cultural impact assessment (CIS) and social impact assessment (SIA) apart from EIA while undertaking any project.
- Whereas, the MoEFCC favors restrictive approach to projects within protected area but favours them adjacent to and outside the protected area arguably to save flora and fauna. We place our concern to know how exactly does the government envisage our survival? Within the wildlife sanctuary we have no land rights, outside it we are plagued by constant risk and health hazards near the project site.
Biodiversity is too precious to lose. Its consequences are widespread in nature and know no boundary. We urge policy makers and the project proponents to acknowledge that several dams on the same limb of rivers are going to choke this entire mega biodiverse, rich region of the world. All mighty rivers and forests in Arunachal Pradesh must not be sold for power. There must be a limit. We on behalf of our affected community of the greater Dibang region, spirits of holy ancestors and hundreds of unspeakable wild creatures which will be affected irreversibly by this project urge you to take up our cause, protect ecology and present our example as an opportunity towards the country’s commitment to international legal obligations. Please do not approve this controversial project, which is filled with faulty, inadequate and contradictory studies, and set a negative precedence in the annals of environmental disasters. We anticipate that our prayer will be heard and bear positive results.
Thanking you, sir.
On behalf of
Kera-aa Initiatives for Cultural and Ecological Security (KICES)
The Mishmi Hills, Arunachal Pradesh, India
Mr. Jibi Pulu
Mr. Tilu Lingi
Member, Legal Researcher
To learn more about the campaign to stop the Etalin Project, visit this page.