Experts Reject Flooding Forests for Tipaimukh and Dibang Dams

by Samir Mehta

(UPDATE: In April 2014 a second attempt to get forest clearance for the 3000 MW Dibang multipurpose project was rejected by the forest advisory committee of the Ministry of Environment & Forests. The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation remodeled the project to clear 4577.84 ha of forestland from the earlier diversion of more than 5000 ha. But given the impact on the regions biodiversity, the committee came to the conclusion that the proposed measures to reduce loss of forestland were insufficient, yet. In July 2013 the FAC had earlier rejected the forest clearance application for the project (For more read the blog by SANDRP). 


The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has recommended against the clearing of forest land for the construction of two highly controversial hydropower projects in northeast India. These are the 1,500 MW Tipaimukh project– to be constructed at the confluence of the Barak and Tuivai rivers in the state of Manipur – and the 3,000 MW Dibang multipurpose project proposed on the Dibang River in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. The July 2013 decision of the FAC has an important bearing on what the future of these rivers will look like. More importantly, it sets a precedent for other such projects.

Local citizens gathered during the March 14, 2013 International Day of Action for Rivers on the Barak River in India to protest construction of the Tipaimukh Dam.
Local citizens gathered during the March 14, 2013 International Day of Action for Rivers on the Barak River in India to protest construction of the Tipaimukh Dam.

The FAC – constituted under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 – plays a critical role whenever a project involves the re-purposing of forest land for non-forest use. Such changes need approval of the MoEF. Popularly this process has come to be known as “forest clearance.” The FAC has the responsibility to screen these applications, seek additional information and subsequently recommend or reject granting forest clearance.

At this crucial juncture, before we break down the nitty-gritties of the current decision, it is important to recognise that in recent years both Dibang and Tipaimukh have been in the middle of conversations which envision and assess hydropower potential for India in general and in the northeastern states in particular. They represent interventions in the most ecologically fragile and socio-politically vulnerable landscapes in the country. The forest areas that would be lost are not lifeless and the enumeration of trees cannot be sanitized from the lived cultures they represent. The Dibang River, where the project by the same name is located, is a key tributary of the mighty Brahmaputra River. The river traverses through the Mishmi hills and takes along other large streams like Ahui, Adzon, Emra and Dri to flow southward to join the Brahmaputra River. The Barak – on which the Tipaimukh Dams seeks to set its feet – is one of the major rivers in the northeastern region. It rises in the hills of Manipur and flows into Mizoram and then into Assam. Crossing Assam it enters Bangladesh. Both these rivers have human settlements that have learnt to depend on its flow, not just in the hills but also the floodplains. The dams, if built, would compromise this mileu in more ways than one. It is not surprising then that the struggle against the Tipaimukh project has been intense. Evidence of this is the resolution passed in February 2013 at the official meeting of the Tipaimukh Dam-Affected People's Association, where they clearly resolved to intensify their struggle against the construction of the dam.

While in Tipaimukh's case the overall forest clearance is on the scale of 24,329 ha (60,118 acres) traversing the states of Manipur and Mizoram, the construction of the Dibang project requires giving up 5,056.50 ha (12,495 acres) of forests in Arunachal Pradesh. What was listed before the FAC in July 2013 in Tipaimukh's instance was the proposal for 22,777.50 ha (56,284 acres) in Manipur. The Mizoram portion is up for decision in mid-August.

Site of the proposed Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River in India.
Site of the proposed Tipaimukh Dam on the Barak River in India.

In its meeting the FAC notes that forest area required for the Tipaimukh project is extremely large and involves the felling of 7.8 million trees. The committee observed that the total area “is more than one-fifth of the total 118,184 hectares of forest land diverted for execution of 497 hydel project in the entire country after the Forest Conservation Act came into force.” It further notes that “the per-megawatt requirement of forest land (16 hectares of forest land per megawatt) for the above project of 1,500 MW installed capacity is much higher than the average per megawatt requirement of forest land for the existing hydel projects in the country.”

While strongly recommending rejection of forest clearance for Tipaimukh, the FAC based their decision on two core facts; one relates to the unique biodiversity and wildlife importance of the area and the other is the fact that the project would directly displace 12 villages consisting of 557 families, including indigenous people. It upheld the statement of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of the state of Manipur that no compensatory measure can replace what would be lost if the forests are submerged. The FAC – while acknowledging that they had received several objections to the project – concluded that the proposal for clearance of forest land “is disproportionate to its power generation capacity.”

In the case of Dibang project, many groups who have opposed it have for years highlighted the far-reaching impact it would have not just on the surrounding ecosystem, but also the ripple effects downstream. The Dibang River flows into the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Biosphere Reserve. It has been contested that both the Dibang floodplains within Arunachal Pradesh and the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park downstream would be affected by drastic fluctuations in the flow of the river post construction. This would also have serious implication for riverine ecology, as well as wildlife habitat and species. The forest-dependent lives and livelihoods of constitutionally protected indigenous communities like Idu Mishmis, Adis and others would be both demographically and socio-culturally impacted by project construction; there would be a large influx of migrant workers who would outnumber the indigenous communities.

For Dibang, the FAC's justification were not as detailed as in the case of Tipaimukh. While noting that the project involves “huge forest area, having very good forest cover,” the FAC recorded that more than 350,000 trees would need to be felled; its overall impact on the ecosystem would not be possible to mitigate. The public hearing for the project under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) process was cancelled several times in the past due to local objection, and was finally conducted in March 2013. At the hearing several concerns related to project impacts and necessary mitigation measures were raised by project-affected communities. The environmental clearance for this project is currently pending before another committee within the MoEF.

The final decision to grant or reject forest clearance now rests with the highest offices of the MoEF. In the backdrop is the strong push for these projects including from the Prime Minister's Office citing arguments of regional, transboundary and energy security of the country. Tipaimukh and Dibang's future hangs in a political balance, which can still tilt any which way.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013