A group of 291 conservation scientists and allied professionals have expressed their concerns about “the lack of due diligence for environmental and forest clearances”, asking the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to hold off on all clearances till after the pandemic-related restrictions have been lifted.

The group, that includes 12 former members of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL)—considered the highest advisory board on wildlife—in their letter, referred to the decisions made during the 57th meeting of the Standing Committee of NBWL on April 7. These decisions relate to 31 proposals that affect 15 tiger reserves, sanctuaries, notified Eco-sensitive zones, deemed Eco-sensitive zones and designated wildlife corridors.

In light of the restrictions put in place during the lockdown, the Ministry has moved its meetings online. However, signatories to the letter state that video conferences are not an efficient means of assessing the environmental, livelihood and biodiversity impacts of projects.

They further highlighted that while Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) meetings usually last an entire day, meetings during the lockdown have lasted only two hours, with only 10 minutes to appraise each project proposal.

The reliance on digital documents uploaded by project developers leads to “fait accompli situations”, reducing appraisals and assessments for clearance to an “empty formality” lacking credibility and rigour, reads the press release.

“Reliance on only digital documents uploaded by project developers compromises the appraisals by the committees. Here, crucial safeguards and guidelines, such as site visits, public hearings, inputs from relevant experts and people on the ground are also difficult to implement, with travel and other restrictions,” Prerna Bindra, author, conservationist and former member of the NBWL said.

“These decisions have serious and far-reaching consequences, and need to be informed, knowledge-based -- and the lack of due diligence is worrying.The mandate of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), NBWL and EAC is to protect our forests and wildlife, safeguard the environment – such decisions have irreversible implications for our last remaining refugias of wildlife,” she stated.

“The MoEF&CC is under orders of the Supreme Court to strictly comply with the Lafarge Judgment Guidelines to tighten the clearance process. Shockingly, key guidelines are being ignored including the failure to appoint a National Regulator for appraising projects. The MoEF&CC appears to be abdicating its constitutional obligation of ensuring environmental protection. Granting fast-track clearances has now become the rule,” said Praveen Bhargav from Wildlife First and a former member of the NBWL.

Meanwhile, concerned citizens and scientists have been urging the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) to reject the controversial 3097 MW Etalin Hydro Electric Project, which would result in felling well over 2.7 lakh trees in Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) deliberated upon the matter in its online meeting held on April 23.

As per the recently uploaded minutes of the FAC’s meetings, a decision on the project has not been made, for now. Instead, the FAC has asked the Ministry of Power if it wants to consider the project for approval in its present form.

The Citizen recently reported on the letter written by conservation scientists, asking that the Committee make a decision keeping in mind the rich biodiversity of the region, the natural hazard risks in the region and the local Idu Mishmi community’s involvement in protecting the global biodiversity hotspot.

According to the minutes of the meeting, the Committee has invited comments from the Ministry of Power in view of the fact that the project has been delayed for over six years and the country’s energy plan might have changed during this period.

It further stated that the tariff structure of the project was already high in 2014, when the project was first proposed. The Committee has also asked the state government of Arunachal Pradesh to submit a cost-benefit analysis.

A recent Bloomberg Quint article reported that Jindal Power Ltd.—which is developing the Etalin project in a joint venture with Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Limited—is seeking investors to complete what they deem to be a “risky bet” for the company.

The article quoted Bharat Rora, the CEO of Jindal Power Ltd. as stating, “In the current situation, the project doesn’t look like an attractive investment in view of the huge investment. Further, it is a large project and we feel we’ll struggle to find long-term buyers for the entire capacity but policy support from the government can make the project viable and draw investors.”

Recently, thousands of emails were sent to the FAC by concerned citizens, urging them to reject the project. The minutes of the Committee’s meeting also recognised the “large number of representations received through email, against the commissioning and approval of the project at the proposed location”. However, it dismissed these emails stating they were all “similar or same in content” and “general in nature”.

On May 4, 26 scientists from 16 institutions released a peer review of Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) Etalin Wildlife Conservation Plan, stating that “incomplete and inaccurate data lead to an erroneous and inadequate assessment of the impact potential of the proposed HEP on biodiversity”.

In its meeting in 2017, the FAC had recommended a multi-seasonal study be conducted to assess the biodiversity in the proposed project area. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) conducted only a four month study, according to the scientists, surveying limited sites using “biased sampling methods”.

How the FAC’s recommendation for a “biodiversity assessment” was converted into a Wildlife Conservation Plan remains unclear to the scientists.

The peer review suggests that methodological flaws have resulted in an incomplete report. Despite WII allegedly overlooking and underestimating several species, their report still found evidence of 159 butterfly, 230 bird, 31 reptile, 112 spider and 21 mammal species, among others.

While highlighting various technical issues with the report, the peer review simultaneously suggests that WII has underestimated the number of families affected and even the size of the project’s ‘Zone of Influence’, which would be much larger than the proposed area due to road construction, quarrying and debris dumping along with the area’s high susceptibility to landslides.

While the group that contributed to the peer review included botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, mammalogists, herpetologists, aquatic fauna specialists, geographers and social scientists, the FAC, in its minutes, did not mention the peer review, instead stating “no new detailed scientific, economic or sociological evidence was provided for specific analysis/deliberation.”

While the next move on the Etalin Hydro Electric Project now lies with the power ministry, conservation scientists remain concerned about the process that seems to be speeding up forest and environment clearances, especially during the lockdown. The signatories to the letter have called for fresh appraisals, postponing further meetings and holding all clearances till after the restrictions are lifted.

“I thought this pandemic will teach us a lesson that playing with nature can result in catastrophic consequences to humankind but sadly the MoEF&CC has used this lockdown opportunity to bulldoze major forest and environmental clearances,” said Dr Asad Rahmani, former Director of the Bombay Natural History Society.

Cover Photo: Upper Dibang Valley/Photo credit: Dhritiman Mukherjee