A New Delhi-based tribal rights group has asked the Arunachal Pradesh government to reject a move by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) that paved the way for a 2,880 MW hydropower project.
In February, the Centre approved the Dibang Multipurpose Project (MPP) on the Dibang River to be developed by the National Hydro Power Corporation Limited at an estimated investment of ₹1,600 crore. If completed, it will be India’s largest and the world’s tallest concrete gravity dam standing 288 metres tall.
The project would not be in the interest of the indigenous communities of the State’s Lower Dibang Valley district, the Indigenous Rights Advocacy Centre (IRAC) said in a letter to Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu and Chief Secretary Dharmendra on Wednesday.
The IRAC urged them to “outrightly reject” the recommendation of the MoEFCC’s Forest Advisory Committee for establishing a community reserve on the right bank of the project’s proposed reservoir.
In September 2014, the committee advised the State government to initiate the process of declaring a large swathe between the Dibang and Siang rivers as a national park.
The stage-II of final approval of the Centre for the diversion of 4,577.84 hectare of forest land was granted on March 12, 2020, based on the submission of the State government that the process of declaration of a national park has been initiated.
But on August 17, 2022, the State government wrote to the committee about its inability to provide the land for the national park as “the legal status of the land in question is unclassed forest or community forest on which the local people are enjoying customary rights since time immemorial”.
The local people, the government said, were reluctant to part with their land for declaring a national park.
In view of this objection, the Forest Advisory Committee suggested on October 17, 2022, that “the said land be considered for declaration as Community Reserve or Conservation Reserve under Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in consultation with the local people to safeguard the rights of indigenous community and the nodal officer may submit the report within three weeks to this Ministry for further perusal.”
The IRAC has cautioned the Arunachal Pradesh government against complying with the MoEFCC panel’s recommendation that is against the indigenous communities.
“This is nothing but a sort of a ploy to grab the community forest land of the indigenous peoples. The concept of Community Reserve was introduced in the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act of 2002. The Community Reserve is a protected area under Section 2(24A) of the WLP Act, 1972,” the IRAC pointed out.
“Once community-owned forest land is declared as a Community Reserve, it comes under the purview of the forest laws and ownership is effectively transferred from the community to the Forest Department,” the tribal rights organisaton said.
According to the India State of Forest Report of 2021, 57.28% of the recorded forest areas in the northeast are ‘unclassed’ forest, which are outside the purview of the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and are traditionally and customarily under the control of the region’s indigenous communities.
Despite the threats to the community forests which are owned by the indigenous communities, the northeast region has seen a mushrooming of Community Reserves since the first-of-its-kind was established in the region in 2011 in the name of joint management or conservation of the forests, the IRAC said.
As on January 2023, there are 220 Community Reserves across nine States, out of which 208 (or 94.5% of the total community reserves) are in the northeast. Arunachal Pradesh has so far established nine Community Reserves with a total area of 131.6 sq. km, the tribal rights organisation said.