Sanctuary Founding Editor's Submission to FAC

First published on October 16, 2022
On October 16, 2022, Sanctuary's Founding Editor Bittu Sahgal, previously a member of the Standing Committee of the erstwhile Indian Board for Wildlife as well as various Environmental Expert Committees, penned a letter to India's Forest Advisory Committee about the dilution of the conditions on which forest clearance is granted to infrastructure projects in Arunachal Pradesh. His letter is a direct response to the recent news that the Arunachal Pradesh state government is unable to declare a national park in Dibang valley, despite this being a condition on the basis of which forest clearance was granted to the ecologically destructive Dibang Multipurpose hydroelectric project in this biodiverse region. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change gave in-principle approval to the project in 2014 without the state declaring a national park. Now, eight years after the project was conditionally approved, after previously being rejected twice by the FAC, the state government has expressed that it can not declare the national park. 

Shri C.P. Goyal,
Director General of Forests & Special Secretary (DGF & SS) &
Chairperson, Forest Advisory Committee (FAC)
Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC),
New Delhi.

October 16, 2022

Subject: Diversion of 4577.84 ha (originally proposed 5056.5 ha) of forest land in favour of M/s NHPC Limited for construction of Dibang Multipurpose Project – Proposal should be examined afresh instead of dilution of conditions assuming project as a fait accompli

Dear Shri Goyal,

I write to you to express my serious concerns regarding what is now emerging as a trend for diversion of large swathes of forest land in Arunachal Pradesh for mega hydro power projects:

Projects involving diversion of large areas of forest land in biodiversity-rich areas are granted forest and/or wildlife clearances despite serious reservations of expert members in various committees (such as the FAC or the Standing Committee of the NBWL). The state government and project developers are often initially silent about the conditions imposed by these committees in lieu of the loss of forest and wildlife habitat at the time of recommendation. Once time has passed or the project is a fait accompli, the state government expresses its belated inability to implement the conditions, instead of doing so before clearances are granted. Faced with fait accomplis, the concerned committees then dilute the conditions (instead of examining the project afresh for clearance). 

This has sadly become the norm in Arunachal Pradesh, thus seriously undermining wildlife governance in the country and reducing the credibility of the various committees concerned. I say this with great responsibility, having personally witnessed this over the past two decades in the under-construction 2000 MW Subansiri Lower Project, while being a part of the decision-making process as a member of the Environmental Expert Committee.

I understand that the FAC will examine the diversion proposal for the Dibang Multipurpose project in its meeting to be held on October 17th 2022 since the Government of Arunachal Pradesh has expressed its inability to declare a national park as recommended by the FAC in September 2014. 

It is significant to note that this has been communicated to the MoEFCC eight years after the FAC gave its conditional recommendation. It is important to recall that this conditional recommendation was given after the proposal was rejected twice – both the original proposal of 5056.5 ha and the reduced proposal of 4577.84 ha. 

The Environment Ministry’s communication dated 28th August 2014 to the state government states that “the committee has recommended for rejection of the proposal on the ground that the proposed area is very rich in bio-diversity, sensitive ecosystem being at the edge of hills and floodplains and having large number of endemic and endangered flora and fauna etc. Moreover, such project is most likely to have considerable downstream impact including on the Dibru-Saikhowa NP in Assam which is yet to be studied.” 

However, on the immediate revival of the proposal in September 2014 after the intervention of the Ministry of Power, the project was recommended for forest clearance by the FAC on the condition that the state government should initiate the process of declaration of the national park. Yet the MoEFCC chose to give in-principle and final approval to the project without the state government having declared the national park and now eight years later the state government after much follow-up has stated it cannot declare the park. Why was this not stated upfront?

As per the agenda note uploaded in the current context for the FAC meeting, the Government of Arunachal Pradesh is stated to have communicated to the MoEFCC as follows:

“The State Government informed that the legal status of the land in question is unclassed Forest/community Forests whose (sic) the local people are enjoying customary rights since time immemorial and therefore not will (sic) to part away with their land by declaration of National Park.” 

Since no work has started on the Dibang Multipurpose project as yet, I strongly urge the FAC to examine the proposal afresh and not merely dilute the condition and proceed with business-as-usual by treating the project as a fait accompli. If the FAC thought it fit to reject the proposal twice and then recommend clearance based on the national park condition, it cannot be the case that only the condition is modified, or diluted selectively without looking at the project afresh. 

It is here that I would like to recall the experience of the 2000 MW Subansiri Lower project and state that we cannot keep repeating this farcical forest and wildlife governance. I was part of the sub-committee of the Standing Committee of the erstwhile Indian Board for Wildlife which visited the Subansiri Lower site in August - September 2002. Subsequently, in May 2003 the project was considered in the Standing Committee of the IBWL and despite strong opposition to the proposal in its present form and scale due  to the huge impact on forest and biodiversity, the committee went ahead with granting approval, on the condition that the reserve forests in the catchment area are declared a protected area, no dams upstream in the Subansiri valley among other conditions.

Both the state government and the developers NHPC Ltd., did not oppose the conditions at that time. It was only after the conditions were reiterated in April 2004 by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India and after pre-construction and construction work subsequently began that the court was approached for dilution of conditions. The court sent it back to the Standing Committee of the NBWL, which after a visit of a sub-committee diluted conditions, particularly those related to the declaration of the Protected Area and the restriction on dams upstream in December 2008. 

As you are aware, Asad Rahmani and Dr. Anmol Kumar had conducted a site visit and the conditions clearly included the declaration of a 168 sq. km. sanctuary and a 332 sq. km. conservation reserve. These were part of the modified order passed by the Supreme Court in 2009. The state government managed to get what it had sought... a dilution of the earlier conditions. Yet it appears the state government and developers were silent on the in toto implementation of even the diluted orders! 

Now according to a letter dated October 12, 2022 sent by MoEFCC to the Government of Arunachal Pradesh, it is clear that the state government has inexplicably expressed its inability to declare the conservation reserve! The timing cannot be missed. The project is now close to commissioning. 14 years after the NBWL Standing Committee imposed the diluted condition and 13 years after the Hon’ble Supreme Court reiterated these diluted conditions, the state government is now expressing an inability to comply with even the diluted conditions! Further, 18 years after grant of forest clearance, it is clear from various communications of the MoEFCC to the government of Arunachal Pradesh that bulk of the Compensatory Afforestation, a mandatory condition of forest clearance, has not yet been done in the Subansiri Lower project.

I can only hope that the MoEFCC goes beyond sending reminders and takes real and punitive action against project proponents for these serious violations of law, including orders of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. 

The 2000 MW Subansiri Lower project will be ‘dedicated to the nation’ in 2023. Along with the power it generates, it will also be a testimony of how the forest and wildlife governance process has been subverted by the state government and developers. Since the project will in all probability run for many years, I urge the FAC  to discuss the project soon and not only deal with the violations but also impose additional conditions based on the actual experience of the project construction. Earlier this year, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam, in the context of diversion proposals for transmission lines for the project, has unambiguously highlighted in his report the huge impact the project construction has had on wildlife including an important elephant corridor. 

The same story need not be repeated in the Dibang Multipurpose project. No construction has started on the project as of now. If the state government claims that it cannot implement conditions recommended by the FAC, the proposal should be examined afresh in terms of its impact on forests and biodiversity in upstream and downstream areas. If the FAC merely dilutes the conditions, it will be evident that no lessons have been learnt from Subansiri. Worse, despite the clear dangers posed by the impact of climate change on the glaciers upon which the cost-benefit ratios based on which project clearances for Himalayan dams are granted, must not become the accepted governance model.

Yours sincerely, 

Bittu Sahgal,
Editor, Sanctuary Asia


The Dibang Multipurpose project is one of 17 mega dams proposed in the Dibang river basin. Amongst these is the proposed Etalin Hydro Electric Project which is currently pending approval at the FAC. Since 2020, Sanctuary has been compiling and disseminating information on this contentious project, as well as the invaluable socio-cultural biodiversity of Dibang valley. We welcome readers to educate themselves on these issues by exploring our Save Dibang Valley FAQs page
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