Dibang Valley in Arunachal Pradesh has a decidedly other-worldly feel. “ Yeh kaunsi duniya hai ,” my colleague exclaimed as we climbed the towering mountains — home to the endemic goat-antelope Mishmi takin, the ‘bright-eyed’ butterfly Callerebia dibangensis, and the Mishmi wren-babbler. I had read about the cultural practices of the Idu Mishmi community in the valley — taboos around hunting species such as the endangered hoolock gibbon, for instance — but there was so much more to learn here.
The Imu-Aamra story on the strong cultural connection between humans and tigers, for instance, is reflected in the recent ecological finding of there being more tigers in Dibang Valley than other tiger reserves in Arunachal Pradesh. Or the practice where the Idu Mishmi people are buried with a seed kitty of many different seeds, to feed the souls of the departed on their long journey and to ensure they have seeds to grow in the afterlife. As a wildlife biologist, I also found research that shows how the Idu Mishmi land tenure system and nature-based practices may well have created multiple habitat mosaics that allow different species to thrive in these community-owned forest lands.
This ecologically and culturally rich valley is also the site of a proposed 3,097 MW Etalin dam, one of the country’s largest proposed hydropower projects. The project was brought up for green clearance during a virtual conference held on April 23 by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), confoundingly, in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. Views of the region’s residents are split, but the ecological costs of this project will involve the construction of two large gravity dams, diversion tunnels, penstock pipes, an underground powerhouse, and a road network of over 50 km, involves the felling of 2.8 lakh trees, some almost 8 metres in girth, and submerging over 1,178 ha of land. The phase, which will last a minimum of seven years, will involve mining, quarrying, slope undercutting, and muck disposal.
This rush to clear the project during the pandemic is a departure from what the FAC itself stated in 2017: that “the land in which the project is proposed is in pristine forests with riverine growth that once cut cannot be replaced.”
The news of the virtual clearance has unleashed public outrage. There are online campaigns with hashtags #StopEtalinSaveDibang and #SaveArunachalBiodiversity; songs, poems, letters and short films with voices from the Idu Mishmi community have been shared on social media; several scientists have written to FAC opposing the project. As this goes to press, FAC has asked for comments from the Ministry of Power, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, and the wildlife division of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
The Etalin dam is just one of more than 30 proposals that have been cleared or discussed over virtual meetings during the lockdown by India’s highest advisory bodies on wildlife — the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) and FAC. The proposals affect 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, eco-sensitive zones, wildlife corridors, and other forest areas. The projects include a coal mining proposal in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam, a highway through Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa, a limestone mine in the eco-sensitive zone of Gir National Park, and a geotechnical investigation in the Sharavathi Lion-Tailed Macaque Sanctuary in Karnataka.
A report in The Hindu quoted a meeting participant as saying, “In a virtual conference, it’s difficult to scrutinise maps that show the location of the proposed projects. There was also no occasion to ask questions of officials for clarifications.”
On May 12, a week after the minutes of the Dibang meeting were released, a group of 291 scientists and allied conservation professionals wrote to the Environment Minister, Prakash Javadekar, about the manner in which forest and environment clearances were being granted across India during the lockdown, and requested the Ministry to carry out its intended mandate, “which is the protection of India’s forests, wildlife and natural heritage and not fast-track clearance of projects.”
Site inspections are “a crucial component of project evaluation,” the letter said, and they are difficult to conduct during a pandemic. The scientists added that the Ministry “appears to be relying only on digital documents uploaded by project developers” during video conference calls, which is a departure from the Supreme Court’s guidelines in the Lafarge judgment.
During lockdown, public hearings are also difficult to organise and communities that are likely to be affected by the projects may not be able to give their consent officially “or take legal recourse as is their right”. The signatories requested that “the implementation of decisions taken by the NBWL via video conferencing be held in abeyance until pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted to allow in-person meetings and travel to project sites for fresh appraisals following due process.”
To make matters worse, the time spent on expert appraisal committee meetings — which usually last an entire day (and are still inadequate) — have now been packed into two hours. The signatories pointed out that such appraisals and assessments are reduced to an “empty formality”. Kishor Rithe, founder of Satpuda Foundation, and one of the signatories, said granting clearance to any project within a protected area or eco-sensitive zone should be the last resort, given that protected areas cover only 4% of the country’s total geographical area. It is therefore critical to check the authenticity of information provided by project proponents, which includes the status of forest land, notifications, maps, and court orders, and the verification of these through site inspections. “If projects are screened seriously, 40% of the proposals put up in every NBWL meeting would require a site inspection, which is not possible through video-conferencing,” said Rithe, a former NBWL member.
Forests in peril
Meanwhile, the forests of the Western Ghats in my home State of Goa, which inspired me to become a wildlife biologist, are also in peril. In December 2019, the newly constituted State Wildlife Advisory Board met for approximately an hour and discussed many projects, including a railway line, a transmission line and a highway expansion proposal that would affect the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, known for the spectacular Dudhsagar waterfalls and richly biodiverse evergreen forests in the middle of the Western Ghats. Two of these projects — the transmission line and the highway, which will require the felling of at least 91 ha of forest — were cleared during the lockdown.
Roads and power lines are known to fragment habitats, impacting flora and fauna in incalculable ways. The habitat where these projects are proposed have a newly discovered dragonfly species. There may have also been an elephant movement route between Dandeli and Goa, with tigers and leopards also likely to move through this area. While there are eight or nine underpasses proposed for wildlife, there is little information on where these will be constructed, and even less is known about their scientific efficacy.
Ironically enough, a few days after the Centre cleared these proposals virtually, Goa’s chief minister shared a camera trap picture of a black panther captioned “A great glimpse of Goa’s rich wildlife.” Even more ironically, these projects have been cleared at a time when COVID-19 has revealed dramatically how seriously the loss of forest land and biodiversity can increase zoonotic diseases.
In Dibang Valley, anthropologists tell us how the Idu Mishmi people manage their forests: animals, fish and trees are the property of the Higher Spirits and people must seek their permission before using them. Perhaps the Environment Ministry could learn a lesson or two from here.
The author is a researcher working on the human dimensions of wildlife management.