ITANAGAR: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on October 24 suspended the clearances given to the 1750-megawatt Demwe Lower Hydroelectric Project planned to be built on the Lohit river in Arunachal Pradesh.

The project is part of a two-stage project- Demwe Lower and Demwe Upper (1080-MW)- and undertaken by M/s Athena Demwe Power Ltd, formed by Athena Energy Ventures Pvt Ltd following the signing of a memorandum of agreement with the state government in July 2007.

The Demwe Lower project in Lohit district envisages the construction of a gravity dam of 163.12 metres above the deepest foundation level (124.8 metres above average river bed level) across the Lohit river near Parshuram Kund, a culturally significant site of Hinduism.

The Southern Bench of the NGT gave its judgement in response to a PIL filed in 2015 against the Stage-I and Stage-II forest clearances given by the Centre and the permission given by the state government in 2013 to divert 1415.92 hectares of forest land. The project involves felling of around 43,000 trees.

An appeal against the Stage-I forest clearance (FC) for the project was disposed of by the NGT, while granting the appellants to make another appeal after the Stage-II FC was given.

Environmental clearance for the project was given by the Union environment ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for river valley and hydroelectric projects back in 2009. An in-principle forest clearance for the Lower project was given in February 2012 and agreed upon in 2013.

However, the in-principle clearance of the project was opposed by a majority of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) but subsequently cleared by the then-environment minister of state (independent charge), Jayanthi Natarajan, who was also the chairperson of the Standing Committee.

Natarajan is currently under the CBI’s scanner for alleged anomalies in clearance given for diversion of land in Saranda forest in Singhbhum district, Jharkhand to mining company Electrosteel during the previous UPA regime.

One environmentalist not wishing to be named said that the judgement has more bearing in light of the fact that Natarajan is being investigated by the CBI.

“The judgement has more to do with procedural lapses than environmental concerns,” he said, noting that the project has not been scrapped but that the clearances have.

The NGT said that it is “of the view that either the Chairperson (Natarajan) should have given a proper reason for rejecting the objection of the majority of the non-official members or the decision ought to have been arrived at based on the opinion of the majority of the members. Even though the Standing Committee is a recommendatory body, the same being a statutory committee, is bound by the laudable principles of justice and fair play”.

Suspending the clearances given by the Centre and the state government, the NGT order added that “the decision taken by the Standing Committee is not in accordance with established principles of law and hence the Standing Committee shall reconsider the issue and pass appropriate orders within a period of six months from the date of the judgment”.

The NGT had recently directed the Centre to form a three-member committee to review the 2000-MW Subansiri Lower Hydro Electric Project in Arunachal Pradesh, the construction of which has been stalled since December 2011 following sustained protests over its downstream impact in Assam.

(Note: Teesta Urja Limited, a special purpose vehicle (SPV), formed by a consortium led by Athena Power Developers was earlier involved in the construction of the 1200-MW Teesta-III project in Sikkim but the project was completed only after the state government took over 51 percent equity and fresh injection of funds from the Centre.)