DIRECTOR of the Bombay Natural History Society and ecologist Deepak Apte, who insisted on more studies to gauge the impact of projects such as Ken-Betwa river linking and Etalin hydropower in Arunachal Pradesh has quit the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) barely five months into his two-year tenure.
His resignation comes days before the FAC, a statutory body under the Environment Ministry, submitted its report on the Ken-Betwa project’s potential impact on the Panna tiger reserve.
The FAC team visited the Ken-Betwa project site in January but could not furnish its report in time for the FAC meeting held on February 28. Further, say sources present at the February 28 meeting, Apte insisted on more studies on the proposed diversion of forestland for the 3097-MW Etalin hydel project in Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh.
As a result, the FAC recommended “multiple seasonal replicate studies on biodiversity assessment by an internationally credible institute” for Etalin “as the current study (Environment Impact Assessment) is completely inadequate.”
S S Negi, director general of forests (MoEF) and chairperson of the FAC, confirmed Apte’s resignation. “Yes, he resigned a few days ago, possibly due to time constraints. Apte is the head of a big institution and must have many commitments,” he told The Indian Express.
As reported by The Indian Express, at a closed-door meeting on January 5, minister Anil Dave had told a gathering of around 40 expert members of the ministry’s different panels — Apte was one of them — not to delay project clearances by repeatedly asking for different studies.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Apte denied he was under any pressure to resign. “I am still the chairman of the ministry’s environmental appraisal committee on CRZ. But I felt I wouldn’t be able to devote enough time to FAC matters. There are so many meetings, so much on the agenda and also urgency. If one can’t do justice to one’s responsibilities, it’s like holding a ceremonial post,” he said.
Asked if his insistence on more studies went against the ministry’s no-delay policy, Apte maintained that “studies necessary for correct assessment” could not be bypassed. “As experts, we are supposed to provide professional recommendations which are anyway not binding on the Ministry. And it requires time to examine voluminous details on so many projects and also go for on-site inspection if necessary. Otherwise, we will not be doing our job,” he said.
While Apte said it would be improper for him to comment on the findings during the visit to the Ken-Betwa site, Negi said the report would be taken up at the next FAC meeting on March 30.
At its first meeting in November 2016, the FAC set up a team, comprising all three expert members, additional director general of forests and senior state forest officials, to visit the Ken-Betwa project site “to have correct assessment of the various issues involved”.
Already cleared by the National Board for Wildlife last August and by the Expert Apparel Committee (Environment) last December, the Ken-Betwa project now awaits only a forest clearance. Based on the recommendations of the FAC, the Environment Minister decides on clearances for projects requiring forest land.