Six years after Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister laid its foundation stone and twice denied environmental clearance, the 3000 MW Dibang hydel project in Arunachal Pradesh has been cleared by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), subject to a reduction in the dam height by 20 m from the originally envisaged 288 m.
This clearance for India’s largest hydro project and the world’s tallest concrete gravity dam came after a September 3 letter from Nripendra Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, to the Environment Secretary to “clear the project expeditiously” as per the decision of the Cabinet Committee on investment.
This despite the fact that on August 28, the MoEF wrote to the Arunachal Pradesh government rejecting the proposal for diverting more than 45 sq km of forest land to National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) for the project.
A day after Mishra’s letter, the Ministry revived the project by writing to the “project proponent that sensitivity analysis of reduction of dam height up to 40 m may please be submitted for further consideration”.
Incidentally, of the six FAC members whose meeting ended today, four were also part of the panel that had unanimously rejected the project in April 2014. It is not immediately clear if any of the six members registered any dissent to the clearance.
The 16,000-crore Dibang Multipurpose Project envisages a 288-metre-high dam that will submerge 40 sq km, with the reservoir extending to 43 km in Dibang river and its many tributaries. The project was rejected twice by the FAC – the original proposal in 2013 and a revised proposal with a 10-metre reduction in dam height this April.
According to a ministry note, NHPC held that it was “not in a position to reduce the height of the dam any further, as it would significantly affect power generation.” The project was first submitted for forest clearance to the MoEF in August 2011. After repeated site inspections by local forest authorities and much deliberation, the project was first rejected in July 2013 by the FAC on the ground that the ecological and social costs of diverting such a vast tract of forest land which is a major source of livelihood for the state’s tribal population would far outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project.
In August 2013, it was decided in a meeting between Power and Environment secretaries that the user agency would explore the possibility of reducing the requirement of forest land and a revised proposal would be submitted for forest clearance. In December 2013, the issue was discussed in the Cabinet Committee on Investment which decided that the MoEF “may grant the requisite clearance for diversion of forest land expeditiously”.
In February 2014, the Arunachal Pradesh government resubmitted the proposal by cutting the requirement of forest land from 5057 to 4578 hectare, a reduction of less than 9%. This new plan would reduce the power generation capacity by 2.3% and require felling of 3.24 lakh trees instead of 3.55 lakh estimated in the original proposal.
The FAC, however, rejected the revised proposal in April 2014, saying such a marginal reduction in the requirement of forest land would not reduce the adverse impact on such a biodiversity-rich, mature forest eco-system to make the project environmentally as well as socio-economically viable in the forest-dependent tribal society of Arunachal Pradesh.
Accordingly, the MoEF wrote to the state government on August 28 that “the ministry, after examining the recommendations of the FAC, has rejected the proposal”. The Power Secretary, however, had already written to the Environment Secretary in June to review the FAC’s decision and accord Stage-I forest clearance to the project.
The project was also discussed at a meeting attended by Ministers and Secretaries of Mine, Steel, Coal and Environment ministries the same month. On June 24, the Power Ministry submitted a two-page report on the implications of a 20-m reduction in dam height.