New Delhi: The expert forest panel of the environment ministry has deferred clearance to the 600 megawatt (MW) Tawang hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh until a study is conducted on it, noting that the location is a vital wintering ground of the black necked crane, an endangered species, and other birds.

The decision came at a 16 May meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC). 

The Arunachal Pradesh government had sought a diversion of 187.20 hectare of forest land for construction of the Tawang hydroelectric project stage-I (600 MW) on Tawang Chu River in Tawang district by the NHPC Ltd.

The project, whose estimated cost is about Rs4,824 crore, would also result in about 200,000 trees being felled. The trees include threatened plant species.

“FAC after thorough deliberation observed that BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) had represented to the members of FAC that Tawang valley in Arunachal Pradesh is very high in biodiversity having several critically endangered species as well as several endemics. The particular location of the project is also vital wintering ground of Black Necked Crane," noted the minutes of FAC’s meeting, which were reviewed by Mint.

Black Necked Crane, an endangered bird, is a protected bird under India’s the Wildlife Protection Act 1972. It is also counted as a ‘vulnerable’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international NGO working on environment and conservation issues. 

“These birds require quality wetlands. The proposed project (even if it is river run off project) has an ability to significantly alter the wetland characteristics thereby significantly affecting habitat of Black Necked Crane and in worst case scenario losing one of the finest wintering habitat of the species," FAC held.

The expert committee also noted that the proposed area has been identified as an important birding area by BNHS.

“The view point of BNHS was taken into consideration and same was discussed with user agency. After detailed deliberation and discussion with user agency it is recommended that a study in this regards shall be conducted through Wildlife Institute Dehradun at the cost of user agency. The case shall be deferred till the study is conducted," said FAC.

Not just birds, the area is also home to important animals like barking deer, sambar, wild yak, serow, goral, wild boar, red panda, clouded leopard, snow leopard and musk deer.

The project is among the 11 proposed hydropower projects totalling 2802.20 MW capacity in the ecologically sensitive Tawang River Basin (TRB) in Arunachal Pradesh. This particular project had first come to FAC in 2011 but has been pending since then for varied reasons.

Harnessing of hydro power potential has been on top of the central government’s agenda for nearly a decade now. The government wants to establish prior user rights on rivers that originate in China and fast-track overall development of north-east India.

As per official estimates, north-east India has a hydropower potential of about 65,000 MW and of that nearly 50,000 MW is in Arunachal Pradesh, which is claimed by China in almost its entirety.

But environmentalists have repeatedly opposed such large-scale projects, saying that they could severely hit the biodiversity-rich north-eastern region, resulting in irreversible environmental damage.

“Arunachal Pradesh is the richest biodiversity area in whole of India. But the destruction has already started and is getting faster now. Whatever little dissent people have expressed has been squashed," said ornithologist Bikram Grewal. “They (government) are pushing everything in name of national security, defence and progress...Sadly it is anything but progress. If conservationists can stand their ground it will be a major achievement. But this seems difficult at the moment."