With more than 80 percent forest cover, Arunachal Pradesh is one of the last repositories of virgin wilderness where new species are still discovered every few months. The state also faces a 15 percent power shortfall. So, a section of Arunachal’s political leadership is desperate to harness the vast potential of its numerous fast-flowing rivers. More than 140 MoUs have been inked to set up hydro-electricity projects (HEPS) in the state.
In Tawang district, this power rush reached an absurd high. Seven rivers flow through the Tawang basin, where as many as 13 HEPS have been proposed across just 2,085 sq km. There is hardly any agricultural land left in this hilly district where the armed forces and civic infrastructural facilities occupy more than half the area. Once the HEPS come up, even the remaining cropland by the rivers will be lost. Besides, 13 HEPS will require a peak workforce of more than 1 lakh people, double the population of the district. One can imagine what the influx will mean to the Monpa residents, whose indigenous rights are protected by the Constitution.
A part of the Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity hotspot, Tawang is also one of the 200 globally important eco-regions and the only place on earth that hosts all varieties of Rhododendron. It is also home to the red panda, snow leopard, mountain goat and 150 species of birds. The impact of intensive blasting, tunnelling and submergence required for building 13 HEPS in this pristine landscape will be an environmental disaster.
Only nine years ago, then chief minister Gegong Apang announced a plan to set up a 2,000 sq km bio-reserve. As political priorities changed rapidly in Itanagar and New Delhi, Buddhist monks from the Monpa community made the Tawang monastery the centre of resistance. Since April last year, Save Mon Region Federation has repeatedly defied Section 144 and clashed with the police to demand that all 13 proposed HEPS, including the 600 MW Tawang-I and 800 MW Tawang-II, be scrapped. As recently as Christmas Eve last year, a violent showdown led to several arrests and injured protesters.
While both Tawang-I and II already had the required green clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), the pressure from the local communities and the obvious irrationality of setting up so many HEPS in such a tiny basin made the Forest Advisory Committee recommend a cumulative impact study instead of evaluating each project on its own. That was last September. In just four months, the table was turned.
Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan came under strong pressure from various infrastructure ministries and the PMO. Her high-profile face-off with Finance Minister P Chidambaram on the proposed National Investment Board (NIB) forced the PMO to dilute the NIB’s overriding powers and rechristen it a Cabinet committee. But soon enough, it was time for quid pro quo.
The NHAI claimed the first pound of flesh by making the MoEF allow work along the non-forest parts of the projects, pending forest clearance. With the coal ministry already breathing down her neck, Power Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia paid Natarajan a visit. Then, China announced three new dams on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) along the border.
While construction of a 510 MW plant at Zangmu in the Tibet Autonomous Region is going on since 2010, the three new projects — at Dagu (640 MW), Jiacha (320 MW) and Jiexu (unspecified) — took the cumulative yield to beyond 1,470 MW. The Indian answer, insisted the power ministry, had to be fast-tracking Tawang-I and II and generate 1,400 MW.
So, the MoEF promptly wrote to Arunachal CM Nabam Tuki to proceed with the basin study and the Tawang HEPS were granted stage-I clearance without bothering for any cumulative or specific impact study. There is a rider of a consolation though: the other 11 HEPS will have to wait till their cumulative impact is assessed. That is until China decides to come up with a few more dams.