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Guess who made our green panel stall an Arunachal hydel project

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

The species

  • The black-necked crane is a migratory bird that breeds in Tibet and \'winters\' in Arunachal and Bhutan
  • It is a \'vulnerable\' species, with less than 11,000 specimens remaining in the wild

The project

  • A 780 MW hydel project was supposed to come up near the Nyamjang Chhu river, where the bird is found in winter
  • With the presence of the bird confirmed after a long debate, the NGT has suspended the clearance to the project

More in the story

  • The significance of the bird in nature, and to Buddhist monks of the region
  • How the environment ministry ignored advice from its own regional office to grant clearance

For a long time, large hydroelectricity projects in the Himalayas have attracted opposition from locals and environmentalists. However, for the first time, the question mark has been put up not by a human being, but a migratory bird.

On 7 April, the National Green Tribunal suspended environment clearance to a 780 MW hydroelectric plant because of the black-necked crane, which 'winters' in a 3-km stretch of the Nyamjang Chhu river in Arunachal Pradesh's Tawang district.

Read: Why aren't 'threatened' migratory birds flying to Odisha?

The presence of the bird in the project area was debated before the NGT for over four years. A recent sighting of the bird led the NGT to pass a final judgement on the matter. Lawyers say this is the first time a single species has led to the entire clearance being suspended.

The Central govt had denied the presence of the black-necked crane, ignoring its own regional office

It also turns out that the central government, which denied the presence of the bird during court proceedings, has been ignoring letters about the bird's presence from its own regional office in the North East for years.

The bird and its significance

The black-necked crane is a five-foot tall bird, classified 'vulnerable', with a population of 11,000, which is decreasing. While it breeds in the Tibetan plateau, it spends its winters in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.

Members of the Monpa community consider the crane an incarnation of the sixth Dalai Lama, also a Monpa. It is said the seventh Dalai Lama was found by tracing the flight of one such crane after the sixth leader passed away.

The crane is known to be sensitive to its habitat. Threats to the bird's population include loss of habitat, like the wintering areas in Arunachal. It is among the species accorded the highest protection under Indian wildlife law.

The clearance

In 2007, Noida-based Bhilwara Group applied for environmental clearance for a three-phase 900 MW hydro power project. In 2008, the group revised its plans to a single-phase 780 MW plant.

A three-kilometre river stretch, where the plan was to come up, is also the wintering grounds of the crane.

Although the crane has been sighted almost every year at the location, especially since 2001, Bhilwara did not mention it in its application, even though it mentioned other wildlife present in the vicinity. The environment impact study of the project too did not mention the bird.

The crane had been sighted almost every year, but the developer didn't mention it in its application

The environment ministry's expert committee - which is supposed to offer scientific opinion on whether a clearance should be given - recommended the project for clearance in September 2011. The environment ministry, under Congress leader Jayanthi Natarajan, issued the clearance in April 2012.

Soon, Buddhist monks - organised as the Save Mon Region Federation - filed an appeal in the NGT. Their appeal questioned the environment impact study, and also alleged that the mandatory public consultation (carried out by the Arunachal state pollution control board) was 'farcical'.

The appeal also accused both the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and its expert committee of a "lack of application of mind" during the appraisal of the project, and "and thereafter by MoEF."

Also read- In the red: 5 reasons why India is the most dangerous place for birds

While the case was heard, the MoEF as well as the project contested the claim that the crane arrives at the spot. But as the cranes arrived during the 2015-16 winter, a report in The Times of India cemented the monks' case, according to their counsel Ritwick Dutta.

On 7 April, the NGT suspended the 2012 environment clearance issued by the UPA government, and asked for the process to begin all over again - with a fresh environment impact study, a fresh public hearing and a fresh appraisal of the project by the ministry's expert committee.

The NGT also ordered that the Wildlife Institute of India conduct a study of the crane.

Disappearing act

The project developer has pleaded before the NGT that it was not aware of the crane. The tribunal has also absolved the ministry's expert committee, saying that because the crane was never mentioned by the developer, "consequently, inevitable aberration creeps in the appraisal done by the [committee]".

But the MoEF cannot feign ignorance of the crane. When the project was being considered for forest clearance, the presence of the bird was mentioned.

The ministry's regional office for the North East had also written to it in January 2012, saying the question about the crane is important.

But while the ministry sat on the letter, it accorded environmental clearance in April of that year.

Read more: This is how an incredible journey of 6000 kms was recorded

After the clearance was granted, Natarajan wrote to the regional office, saying they should have raised the issue before the clearance was granted.

In fact, a year before issuing the clearance, the MoEF co-organised an international conference to raise awareness about black-necked cranes, and mentioned among its wintering sites the Zimithang Valley, where the project is proposed.

A year before issuing the clearance, the ministry organised a conference on the black-necked crane

Besides, in January 2011, two scientists from the Zoological Survey of India - which the environment ministry funds - had written in a scientific paper that the black-necked crane was 'reported' to be sighted in Arunachal Pradesh.

"Serious violations of the Forest Conservation Act were also detected in the project area. Following a compliant by locals and a site inspection by the regional office of the MoeFCC, the regional office recommended final (Stage II) approval not be granted to the project," said Neeraj Vagholikar, member of the environment NGO Kalpavriksh, who has researched on dams in North-east India.

In August 2015, the ministry's expert committee recognised that the dam site is home to the crane. This was the first official recognition from the ministry.

Discussing the cumulative impact of dams in the North-east, the committee took cognisance of a study by the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU) from 2014, which said the cranes arrive at the site. It also recommended that the environment ministry commission a study to the WII to study the cranes and how dams in Arunachal are impacting it.

Bleak future

The crane's victory is not absolute. The NGT's order only suspends the clearance and doesn't cancel it outright.

According to the order, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) should study the amount of water flow from the dam that can sustain the crane. This indicates that the dam may eventually be allowed on condition that it maintains this flow.

Garu Village in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: EyeOn/ UIG via Getty Images

"The wording of the judgement is definitely a point of concern," said a person associated with the applicants in the case.

"The NEHU report had made several recommendations on how to preserve such a flow. But the truth is, if these are followed, the project will become unviable," the person added.

There are two ways the project may not go through:

One, if the WII - as an expert body - can take a stand against going ahead with the dam in its study.

Two, opposition from the locals in the fresh public hearing may prevent the project from going ahead.

Both possibilities - of a government-run institute going against the government, and a public hearing actually stopping a project - may seem improbable. But only they can determine the crane's final plight.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 12 April 2016, 2:30 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.