Arunachal hydropower project halted to save black-necked cranes

The decision by the National Green Tribunal is likely to lead to more comprehensive impact assessment studies for other hydropower projects proposed in the Brahmaputra basin

Black-necked cranes on the Naymjang Chu riverbed near Zemithang village of Pangchen valley in Tawang district. [image by Lham Tsering]
Black-necked cranes on the Naymjang Chu riverbed near Zemithang village of Pangchen valley in Tawang district. [image by Lham Tsering]

Hopes have resurfaced on saving the nesting grounds of endangered black-necked cranes in the northeastern Indian state of 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 kilometres northwest 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.

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.

Naymjang Chhu - 6

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 (SMRF). 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. See: Two anti dam activists killed by police in Arunachal.

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. Then, of the 13 planned, we can go for at least one, less than 100 MW project, and see the impact,” Gyatso said. “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. See: Private dam builders back out of Brahmaputra dams.

Inadequate ecological studies

The federal environment ministry in New Delhi had asked the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) to conduct environmental and cumulative impact assessments for the Tawang Basin. Arunachal Pradesh’s chief conservator of forests C.D. 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 due 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 (NOC) – 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 (SANDRP) 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. All projects on Naymjang Chhu should to be included in the cumulative impact assessment for Tawang,” he said.

Way forward after the green judgement

While suspending the environmental clearance granted on 19 April 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 story was first published by The Third and can be read here

Are we going to wait till nature says — ‘I told you so’ !!!

Amid clamour for development, there are warnings for even the blind persons to see and deaf to hear. But is the government hell bent on pursuing a “wrong model of development”?

Garhwal Himalayas witnessed widespread destruction in June 2013 deluge (Photo:

Suddenly all the headlines of the stories I had done and read cautioning about a looming earthquake to hit the Valley flashed right in front of my eyes. What we had dreaded for years but only gave thought on Earthquake Safety Days and anniversary of the great earthquake of 1934 was unfolding right in front of us now.”

Bhrikuti Rai, my journalist friend from Nepal wrote this on April 25 in the middle of the night as she kept vigil with her brother in wake of the 7.8 magnitude disastrous earthquake that had hit the Himalayan Kingdom. “This was the big earthquake we had all dreaded for years,” she had written in her blog.

It was a déjà vu moment for me. In June 2014 – a year after the devastating 2013 cloudburst followed by flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand – I had exactly these thoughts swell up in my mind as I drove up the winding road parallel to the Bhagirathi. Travelling towards Gangotri, as I passed the site of the now-stopped Lohari Nagpala hydro-power project, the rubble that still lay strewn along the approach road to the project site still reminded of the last year’s fury. The scratched mountain faces as portions were swallowed by flash floods made for a horrible spectacle in the otherwise scenic Bhairo Ghati, one of the worst affected areas around Harsil, near Gangotri, as the vehicle made a steady climb up on the precariously narrow newly built road.

As if, the nature was mocking at every passing human being: “I told you so.” It was during June 15-17, 2013 when Uttarakhand, especially the Kedarnath region witnessed massive flash floods and landslides due to cloudburst leading to large-scale devastation downstream killing more than 5,000 people, destructing properties worth crores of rupees and above all, altering the topography of the region in a large scale.

Much water has flown down the Bhagirathi and the other tributaries of the Ganga. Post Nepal earthquake, the debate of having hydro-power projects in the seismically sensitive Himalayas is being re-ignited, mostly by environmentalists, who want the authorities to take cognizance of the empirical evidence available to prevent similar disasters even as the powers that be choose to ignore the warnings and pursue pro-hydro-power companies’ policies.

The free-flowing rapids of the Himalayan rivers bring down with them muck, debris and varied flora along with it. The existing series of hydro-power projects have already reduced the carrying capacity of the rivers and anthropogenic activities in and around the reservoirs only add to the potential of the possible disaster. It is nobody’s guess as to why should the government pay heed to the numerous studies and committees that have time and again suggested how more hydro-power projects can be suicidal for the ecologically fragile Himalayas, how these are destructing the aviral (continuous) flow of the rivers.

April and May’s Nepal earthquakes have only added to the list of don’ts for the hill state. As per a report published by The Third Pole, the 110 MW Rasuwagadhi Hydropower project on the Nepal-China border was destroyed by the Nepal quake prompting China to evacuate more than 200 of its construction workers stranded at the site. The incident had prompted fresh doubts and debates about the viability of hydro-power projects in the seismic zones.

The Expert Body (EB) lead by senior ecologist and director of the People’s Science Institute, Dehra Doon, constituted in October 2013 in wake of the June devastation earlier in that year, had in its report ‘Assessment of environmental degradation and impact of hydroelectric projects’ submitted in April 2014 had clearly said the existing and the under construction hydro-power projects had indeed increased the proportion of the disaster.

Devastation like these would be common if we fail to respect nature (Photo:

The Centre has changed its stand much often on the issue of allowing hydropower projects in the Himalayan belt. The Uttarakhand government too has been a partner in crime, if not for anything else, for a simple reason of not having a clear policy on the issue. It is high time the state took a call and made public its stand about what kind of development model it wishes to pursue?

The state would do good to recall another Himalayan disaster that had unfolded in the Kashmir valley in September 2014. Excessive rainfall over a week had led to one of the worst floods of the century killing more than 150 people and causing huge losses to property and goods as large areas remained inundated for more than one month. Even though the government authorities, especially the India Meteorological Department, were reluctant to term it as an impact of climate change, the fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already talked of changes in precipitation in high altitudes, which it warned is set to increase.

Intensified hydrological cycle means fewer rainy days but those with more intense rainfall. Same is applicable for Uttarakhand. There are warnings for even the blind persons to see and deaf to hear, but the government seems to be hell bent on pursuing a wrong model of development.

So, do the hills which reverberated with the pioneering Chipko Andolan few decades ago, want to continue on the self-destructing path of ‘power’ oriented development model as pursued by conventional logic leading to pro-Corporate policies? Or, does the relatively younger state wants to vote for an ecologically sustainable model, which may not bring in the green notes for the cash-strapped economy (tourism and pilgrimage have suffered because of these natural disasters) but will help live up to its moniker of Devbhoomi.

This article first appeared on September 1, 2015 on and it can be read here