What does the Environment Ministry do when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) asks it to re-evaluate a hydel project in the middle of the rare black-necked crane’s wintering site and conduct a study “as expeditiously as possible”? It sets out to determine the water flow requirement at the wintering site in just 45 days — during the monsoon months of May and June.
Under scanner is the proposed 780 MW hydro-electricity project (HEP) at the wintering site — a 3-km stretch along the Nyamjang Chhu river — of the rare bird in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang. The Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), a Tawang-based group led by Buddhist lamas, had moved the NGT against the environmental clearance.
On April 7, NGT suspended the environmental clearance granted in 2012 and directed the ministry to conduct a study of environmental flow (E-flow) requirement at the wintering site “as expeditiously as possible” through the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and make the report available for public consultation for a fresh appraisal of the project.
On April 28, the ministry wrote to NJC Hydro Power Ltd, the project developer, to “immediately” conduct a study through WII and “submit the report to the ministry within 45 days for further consideration”. The Tawang river basin study report accepted by the ministry also sought a water flow assessment, it said.
When contacted by The Indian Express, top ministry officials refused to comment on how a rapid study during May-June would prescribe the water flow required during the lean season to protect the crane’s wintering site. During winter, migratory birds fly south (for warmer clime) to specific sites, where they spend a few weeks. The stretch along Nyamjang Chhu river is one of two such sites in Arunachal for black-necked cranes.
On several occasions, officials and experts have gone on record accepting that the wintering site was never studied in the lean period and a four-season study was necessary to determine its E-flow requirements. Consider these:
- Noting that the “E-flow for this HEP has been indicated based on only one season study”, the ministry itself in its letter dated February 3, 2016 to the Arunachal Pradesh government recommended that “the E-flow values for Nyamjang Chhu project may be finalised with a four-season study with recommendations of the EAC (Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley and Hydroelectric projects).
- The Tawang river basin study was discussed in meetings of the EAC in July and August 2015. The minutes of the July 2015 meeting noted: “The developer of Nyamjang Chhu joined the study late. The sites could be visited only for one season i.e. pre-monsoon season. In absence of the data for three seasons, it was not possible to conclude and recommend on all aspects of the project. During the present study, the team could not directly observe or camera-trap the bird, as winter season was already over by the time the developer joined the study.”
- The minutes of the August 2015 EAC meeting noted that the E-flow for the project was “recommended based on only one-season study”. Therefore, it recommended that “the E-flow values for Nyamjang Chhu project are to be finalised by a four-season study to be undertaken by WII or equivalent”.
Since it was mooted in 2009, the Rs 7,000-crore Nyamjang Chhu hydel project has faced stiff resistance from locals who consider the black-necked crane an embodiment of the 6th Dalai Lama who was from Tawang. On May 2, two villagers were killed in police firing during a protest against the arrest of SMRF secretary Lobsang Gyatso.
NJC Hydro Power Limited is a Special Purpose Vehicle of Bhilwara Energy Limited (BEL) for development of Nyamjang Chhu HEP. In a letter to the Arunachal Pradesh government in December 2013, NHPL expressed “concern” that the “outcome of the cumulative studies may affect the environment and forest clearance of Nyamjang Chhu HEP”.