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.