Hopes have resurfaced on saving the nesting grounds of endangered black-necked cranes in Arunachal Pradesh after the National Green Tribunal in April suspended the environmental clearance given to the proposed 780 MW hydropower project in Tawang district. The decision also indicates that other hydropower projects proposed in the sensitive region – part of the transboundary Brahmaputra river basin which straddles China, India and Bangladesh – might have to carry out cumulative impact assessment studies.

As many as 13 large hydropower projects with a total installed capacity of 2,900 MW have been proposed in Tawang district in western Arunachal Pradesh. The district has two main rivers, the Tawang Chhu and the Naymjang Chhu, that together have 10 main tributaries. These two rivers meet each other before exiting the district in a southwesterly direction.

The barrage for the 780 MW Naymjang Chhu hydropower project is proposed to be located near Zemithang village in Pangchen valley, about 90-km north west of Tawang district headquarters. It is near the international border, with Bhutan to the west and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the north. The location of the barrage coincides with the nesting site of the endangered black-necked cranes. The tribunal was critical of the fact that the environmental clearance made no mention that the project will have an adverse impact on the habitat of the black-necked crane.

These birds migrate from Tibet during the winter and lay eggs on the riverbed. They are classified as vulnerable in the list of endangered species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and figure in India’s schedule I list under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India of 1972.

Posing a threat

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, which runs a conservation project in the area, the Pangchen valley is one of the few places in India that is a wintering habitat for the black-necked crane. These birds, a flagship species in the Himalayan high-altitude wetlands, are found only in Bhutan, India and China. Already affected by climate change – their nesting habitats require river levels to be stable and low during the winter – such disturbance to their habitat would have heavy consequences.

In 2007, the government signed a slew of agreements to build hydropower projects. The state-owned National Hydro Power Corporation Ltd would construct some of these projects and private firms will build the others. The proposals ran into a wall of protests by the Monpa, an indigenous tribe with a population of some 50,000 in Arunachal Pradesh. The Monpa constitute about 97% of Tawang’s population. After initial protests at different places, eight lamas (Buddhist monks) and two villagers came together to lead the social movement and formed the Save Mon Region Federation. They started creating awareness across the district, protested at public hearings and approached the green tribunal to challenge the environmental clearance given to the Naymjang Chhu project.

SMRF has members and volunteers from all villages likely to be affected by hydropower projects. They get information from the government using the Right To Information Act, and hold meetings and protest rallies. “The establishment tried to break our movement. Bribes were offered, members were lathi-charged and I was sent to jail,” said lama Lobsang Gyatso, general secretary of SMRF.

Questioning hydropower rationale

The Tawang district has a total of 31 mini- and micro- hydropower projects. Most of them are either dysfunctional or running below capacity because of poor maintenance or changing river flow. “We are not outright against all projects. But first let these (existing) projects run smoothly," he said. "Then, of the 13 planned, we can go for at least one, less than 100 MW project, and see the impact. Given the fragile seismic zone, there needs to be checks and balances.”

The protesters say that the entire district’s power requirement, including those needed by the army and paramilitary forces, who have a substantial presence, is currently less than 10 MW. The aim is to eventually export the power to others states, but Tawang currently is not connected to the central grid. As many as 80% of the 378 villages and hamlets in the district do not have electricity, official data from 2013-14 show.

In fact, as electricity prices have come down and solar power has become more cost-effective, a number of private firms have backed out of their agreements to build hydropower projects. The uneven rain patterns over the last few years, attributed partially to climate change, have also led to low efficiency of hydropower dams, bringing into doubt the economic logic of investing in large dams.

Inadequate ecological studies

The federal environment ministry in New Delhi had asked the North-Eastern Hill University to conduct environmental and cumulative impact assessments for the Tawang Basin. Arunachal Pradesh’s chief conservator of forests, CD Singh, admits that Naymjang Chhu was not part of the cumulative impact assessment for the Tawang basin.

Tawang is a hilly district with deep gorges, beautiful valleys and lofty mountains. There is limited land for farming or grazing. The local villagers and activists feel threatened by the possible damage owing to tunnelling for transporting water from the barrage to the power house. The proposed tunnel locations run right below the most fertile stretches of the agricultural land and some of the more populated villages. Local villagers have given a no-objection certificate – mandated by law for all new projects – for the New Melling (90 MW) and Mago Chhu (95 MW) hydropower plants. In these cases, little grazing land and no agricultural land would be affected, and the project sites are far from human habitation.

“Why isn’t the government going ahead with these two projects where the people have no objections? Why is the government pushing the (Naymjang Chhu) project to be run by NHPC which will directly affect 75 villages?” asked Tashi Lama, another activist monk.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People points out how the argument that the Naymjang Chhu is not part of the Tawang basin is faulty. “Tawang and Naymjang Chhu rivers meet downstream and hence the basins are the same," he said. "All projects on Naymjang Chhu should to be included in the cumulative impact assessment for Tawang.”

Way forward

While suspending the environmental clearance granted on April 19, 2011, the National Green Tribunal asked for a fresh appraisal of the project, and a separate study by the central environment ministry to determine the flow requirement for protection of the black-necked crane and for their conservation by the Wildlife Institute of India headquartered in Dehradun in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

There has been no official reaction from either the state government’s forest department or the federal environment ministry after the tribunal’s decision. The people in Tawang district are jubilant but cautious.

In the meantime, the SMRF and its volunteers have conducted meetings in two villages, Kharman and Kyaleteng, near the proposed barrage site and one at Kumba, a village near the proposed powerhouse. The villagers passed a resolution to not allow the project in their areas. The state government’s pollution control department too is likely to conduct a fresh public hearing, the date for which has not yet been announced.

“We suspect the company might go to the Supreme Court. If it does, we are ready to take our fight there too,” Gyatso said. “This is just one project. We are fighting for the entire district.”

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.