WII Rebuked in Peer Review of Etalin Report

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 40 No. 5, May 2020

On the night of May 4, 2020, 26 scientists from 16 institutions released a peer review of the Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) Etalin Wildlife Conservation Plan. This Plan itself was the result of a 2017 recommendation by India’s Forest Advisory Committee to conduct “a multiple seasonal replicate study on biodiversity assessment of the catchment area” of the 3097 MW Etalin Hydro Electric Project (HEP) in Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh.

The proposed Etalin HEP is awaiting clearance from the Forest Advisory Committee. If approved, the project will cause the destruction of over 2,70,000 trees in the extraordinarily biodiverse Dibang Valley, which is also the ancestral homeland of the Idu Mishmi community. The project has been mired in controversy because of its irrefutable environmental and social implications, and is facing growing opposition from the Indian public. Local views on the issue have remained divided on the matter.

The WII report assesses the status of various taxonomic groups including mammals, avifauna, entomofauna, herpetofauna and flora in the HEP site, and forms the basis of any decision taken by the FAC on the Etalin Project. However, this crucial report has received a scathing peer review that states “incomplete and inaccurate data lead to an erroneous and inadequate assessment of the impact potential of the proposed HEP on biodiversity”.

The group of Indian scientists that contributed to the peer review includes botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, mammalogists, herpetologists, aquatic fauna specialists, geographers and social scientists, who have multiple years of research experience in Arunachal Pradesh, including in the Dibang Valley. Amongst the list of contributors to this peer review are well-known scientists such as M. Firoz Ahmed, Ph.D., Scientist F, Head, Herpetofauna Research and Conservation Division; Aparajita Datta, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation; Sanjay Molur, Ph.D., Zoo Outreach Organization; and Anindya Sinha, Ph.D., National Institute of Advanced Studies.

Independent peer review is part and parcel of any robust scientific undertaking. Unfortunately, the image that has emerged from this one, rings alarm bells on the state of India’s environmental governance. Grave concerns arise when reports produced by the nation’s premier wildlife research institute are found to contain “considerable deficiencies and scientific biases… which have compromised the quality and the veracity of its findings and conclusions”.  The Wildlife Institute of India is an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Here are some of the key points made in the peer review:

  • WII’s report is a Wildlife Conservation Plan with the final chapter dedicated to mitigation and conservation measures. It is not clear on what basis the FAC’s singular mandate to conduct a ‘biodiversity assessment’ was converted into a Wildlife Conservation Plan.
  • Despite clear directives to conduct a multi-seasonal study, WII only spent four months in the field, and surveyed a limited number of sites using biased sampling methods. As a result their report hugely under-assesses the biodiversity of the region.
  • The Biodiversity Conservation Plan does not account for the damage to the greater landscape by the construction of over 50 km. of new roads and widening of an additional 30 km. of existing roads.  The true ‘Zone of Influence’ due to road construction, quarrying and debris dumping is likely to be much larger on account of the extensive slopes on either side of the steep river valley, and their very high susceptibility to landslides.
  • By suggesting mitigation measures, the WII report presumes the project to be cleared and presents it as a fait accompli. This implies that the report’s finding has no bearing on the FAC’s decision on the project, ultimately making it an exercise in futility.

Read the full peer review here. For highlights from the peer review on the WII report, click here. To learn more about the movement to protect the Dibang Valley, check out our Campaign Tool Kit.

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