New Delhi: India’s move to establish important first user rights to the waters of the Brahmaputra has received a modest leg-up, potentially posing a challenge to China.

The boost came on Tuesday, when the environment ministry granted in-principle forest clearance—approval of plans to use forest land for industrial projects—to the 800 megawatt (MW) Tawang-II hydroelectric power project on the Tawang Chu river in Arunachal Pradesh.

China has planned more than 35 projects on rivers upstream of the Brahmaputra, of which 30 have already been completed.

Two under-construction projects are located at Zangmu and Phudo Dzong; the remaining sites are Jiexu, Zhongda, Jiacha and the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra.

Of the 2,880km length of the Brahmaputra, 1,625km is in the autonomous Chinese region of Tibet, 918km in India and 337km in Bangladesh.

Experts said the forest clearance for Tawang-II was only a modest first step in establishing India’s first-user rights.

These rights flow from operational projects on shared rivers and are important to establish in case of disputes.

However, India’s claim to the rights has not been matched by action on the ground, said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

“This project, modest by Chinese standards, has only got forest clearance. How many years will it be before it is completed?" he said.

The stage-I forest clearance—there are two stages—comes with a rider. The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), which will build the project, will have to fulfil 32 conditions before the environment ministry considers the proposal for final approval.

The project involves using 116.62 hectares of forest land, of which 96.95 hectares is surface forest land and the remaining 19.67 hectares is underground.

The approval letter, reviewed by Mint, says that NHPC would transfer the cost of ‘compensatory afforestation’—the planting of forests in place of forest land that is used for a project—to the state forest department.

Compensatory afforestation will have to be twice the area of forest land being diverted, the letter says.

Another condition for the clearance is that NHPC will have to erect—at its own cost—four-feet-high reinforced cement concrete pillars to demarcate the boundary of the diverted forest land.

“Any tree felling shall be done only when it is unavoidable and that too under strict supervision of the state forest department," says the clearance letter.

NHPC will also have to maintain the flora and fauna in the vicinity of the project, follow guidelines on dumping debris and settle the rights of scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers who may be affected by the project.

Alka Acharya, director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, said it was time the Indian government saw the development of the North-East as a strategic objective.

“We have to move there proactively. The development of those areas is vital for development of India," she said.

The environment ministry had previously insisted on a cumulative impact assessment of all the projects that have been proposed for the Tawang basin.

But power minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, in a meeting with former environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan, had pushed for the project to be cleared without a cumulative impact assessment as it was the first project in the basin, a senior environment ministry official said.

“We decided to go forward with the power minister’s request," the official, who requested anonymity, said.

The forest clearance for the hydroelectric project, which had been pending for more than two years, came after M. Veerappa Moily, who took additional charge of the environment ministry in December, said he would clear all pending files within a month.

Environmental activists criticised the decision.

“It isn’t correct to say that it is the first project in the Tawang Chu basin to be cleared by the ministry," said Himanshu Thakkar, convenor of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a not-for-profit organization. The Nyamjang Chhu hydroelectric project had been cleared earlier, he said.

“The flora and fauna of the area will be affected immensely because of this project," he said, adding that the environment ministry seemed to have ignored evidence sent by local people to the ministry’s forest advisory committee, showing that NHPC had already done some work in the area before receiving the clearance.

Utpal Bhaskar contributed to this story.