New Delhi: The environment ministry has deferred forest clearance to the 3,097 MW Etalin hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh in a site known as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
The forest panel of the ministry has recommended a biodiversity assessment of the project by an international institute.
The region is home to 680 bird species, about 56% of India’s total bird species, including many critically endangered and threatened species. The region is also home to six globally threatened mammal species and even endangered animals like tigers. The forest panel has also sought comments from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which is India’s nodal body for tiger protection and conservation in India, before taking a final call on the project.
The Etalin project, estimated to cost Rs25,296 crore, was first identified in 2003. The ministry of environment, forest and climate change’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) for river valley and hydroelectric projects, during a meeting on 30-31 January, recommended environment clearance for the project.
But without the forest clearance the project cannot go ahead.
The total land requirement for the project is 1,165.66 hectares and it involves felling around 280,000 trees. Environmentalists feel this could spell disaster for local ecology. A site inspection report by the environment ministry’s regional office in Shillong noted that, “the land in which the project is proposed is in pristine forests with riverine growth that once cut cannot be replaced.”
“The area proposed is mostly in thick forests that are truly irreplaceable. While treading through the forests, it is seen that many of the areas are inaccessible due to thick vegetation..,” the report said. As per the report the region has some huge trees which experts say could be 100-150 years old.
The project was considered by the ministry’s forest advisory committee (FAC) at a meeting on 28 February whose minutes have been reviewed by Mint.
“The proposed project falls under the richest bio-geographical province of the Himalayan zone and falls under one of the mega bio-diversity hotspots of the world. The proposed project location falls at the junction of the paleoarctic, Indo-Chinese and Indo-Malayan bio-geographic region having luxuriant forests and plethora of flora and fauna,” said the minutes.
FAC noted that about six globally threatened mammal species are found in this region of which three are endangered and three are under the vulnerable category.
“About 680 bird species have been recorded from this region which is about 56% of the total bird species of India. Among them 19 are critically threatened and 10 near threatened. It has four critically endangered, two endangered and 13 vulnerable species. This makes this area a very important place in terms of conservation of globally threatened bird species. It also has three very rare restricted range endemic bird species,” the minutes added.
The forest panel also observed that the, “area has more biodiversity than any other part of the country”.
Experts support the move to defer forest clearance.
“It is a welcome decision of the FAC to ask for fresh, credible studies before taking a decision on the forest clearance of this project” said Neeraj Vagholikar, a member of the environmental policy and research group Kalpavriksh