Dibang Controversy: Etalin Hydropower Project

In January 2008, former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, laid the foundation stone for the Dibang Multipurpose Project (Dibang MPP). This project’s main objective was to moderate the seasonal flood issues caused due to river Brahmaputra in Assam. It is supposedly the largest hydropower project in India. The increasing conflict between India and China considering the path of Brahmaputra river which originates in Tibet could also be resolved if this project is up and running. The National Democratic Government’s economic agenda resulted in its Act East policy which aims at increasing development of the eastern states of India. It has also increased the support to the northeastern states in financial terms. “On completion, the government of Arunachal Pradesh will get 12% free power from the project, 1,346.76 MU. About 1% free power, 112 MU, will be given in the Local Area Development Fund (LADF). The total value of benefit to Arunachal Pradesh from free power and contribution to LADF will be ₹26,785 crore over the project life of 40 years," according to the statement.

So everything seems good for the country as well as the state right? Then what’s this controversy and agitation going about regarding the Hydropower project? Well, along with the 2880 MW Dibang MPP there is also a proposed 2097 MW Etalin Hydropower Project which is planned on the same limb of the Dibang river. Both of these projects will result in adversely affecting the ecosystem of the Dibang valley. The very fact that the risk of zoonotic diseases like Coronavirus, Nippa, Zika etc. are linked with major biodiversity loss is a reminder that these projects, even though seems like a win-win situation for the state, will cause a major breakdown of order in the near future. Moreover, if this project is given a green signal by Prakash Javadekar, it will bring to light the hypocritic side of the NDA government as India is one of those states that is part of the Paris Agreement. Also, the whole idea of this project is sketchy as the rise in the rate of melting glaciers and the project being on a seismic zone makes it highly vulnerable. An earthquake will result in changing the entire Brahmaputra floodplain and threatening the lives of the people staying downstream. This project might bring more bad than good in the near future.

The Dibang Valley is one of the 36 Eastern Global Biodiversity Hotspots and the clearance of more than 2,70,000 trees in the region will prove to be a major blow to its high species diversity. The lesser the species diversity, the more vulnerable a population of organisms is to diseases (a classic example of Darwin’s theory of “Survival of the Fittest”). This results in the spread of these diseases to humans and causing endemics and pandemics. Dibang valley also hosts many endangered species and a genetically unique population of tigers.

Photo Courtesy - Bengal Florican- Nikita Khamparia,Bengal Tiger- Getty Images, White Rumped Vulture- Dubi Shapiro, Blyth's Tragopan- Carmelo de Dios

This valley is also one of the mega biodiversity hotspots of the world. According to the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), this project threatens the habitat of 25 globally threatened species which includes 19 birds and 6 mammals. 2,70,000 is just an estimated number, according to 2-year research done by BNHS more than 5,00,000 trees will be cleared as a result of this project. Loss of trees will result in loss of habitat of the birds and Dibang valley has over 680 bird species which is roughly 56 per cent of the total bird species found in India. Among the 19 threatened species 4 are critically endangered (Bengal Florican, White-rumped Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture and Red-headed Vulture), 2 are endangered (Greater Adjutant and Black-bellied Tern) and the rest are vulnerable. The birds in the vulnerable category have three rare range-restricted species, namely, Chestnut-headed Partridge, Blyth’s Tragopan and Sclater’s Mona. The 6 threatened mammal species include the endangered Hoolock Gibbon, Bengal Tiger, Red panda and the vulnerable leopards, Mishmi takin, and Chinese goral. The region has also Asian golden cats with six different morphs, which is found nowhere else in the world. When these species are affected the whole ecosystem is affected as most of them are Keystone species.

Six Morphs of Asian Golden Cat; Courtesy -

The loss of trees will be made up by plantations in the other regions of the Dibang Valley. But this is again a dodgy proposal. According to the proposed project, the loss of the trees will be made up by plantation in 24 different plots in the Anini town of the Valley. According to the Forest Conservation Act 1980, when forest land is used for a project the equal area of non-forested land is to be forested and the cost of plantation shall be born by the project developer. But the loss of ecological value cannot be compensated by reforestation of fragmented land patches.

“So far in India, we haven’t seen compensatory afforestation plots providing ecosystem and biodiversity services. There is also a concern that in many places monocultures have sprung up in the name of afforestation. There is no land to do such large-scale plantations either, so often public or forest lands are used. The spirit of compensatory afforestation is missing,” said NH Ravindranath, climate and forestry expert at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

Moreover, another set of issues will creep up while reforestation. This reforestation will result in the government claiming lands which are used by the tribal people for rearing domestic animals and farming. Also, the reforestation will only result in the plantation of pines which have no fertilising value.

The Dibang Valley has been conserved and protected by the Idu Mishmi community for generations. Their practices and customs have allowed nature to thrive and stay in coexistence with the people of the community.

“Tigers are our brothers. We are born from the same womb, the tiger and the Idu Mishmis. This is what our folktale says,” Aito Miwu told The Citizen. “Not only in our tribe, in maximum tribes, tigers are considered one of our own,”

According to the folklore explained in a post in April 2019, published in Sanctuary Asia, the first Idu and tigers were born of the same mother. Due to discrepancies between the tiger and the human, it resulted in the human killing the tiger. After that, the tiger was reborn and was sent to the top of the mountain where it stayed alone separated from the humans till now. “Other tribes in Arunachal also consider the tiger their brother. But the difference is, we don’t hunt them. The tiger is still safeguarded in our area because of our rituals, the taboos and restrictions,” Miwu explained. A report published by Wildlife Institute of India states that there are no tigers found in the area as there is no evidence of pugmark or scats and resulted in them declaring the absence of tigers in the area due to low prey base and human-related disturbances. However, Miwu insists that tigers can be found if a mere 1 km hike is done from his village, Maruli. It is evident in Dibang that these community-managed forest lands have much richer biodiversity compared to the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary.

Keeping all this in mind it is everyone’s responsibility to do their bit by simply sharing about the issue and persuading all the authorities related to this project to reject it. This will go a long way in protecting our pristine earth if not for the sake of conservation but for the prevention of another pandemic or who knows, worse.


- Hindustan Times

- The Citizen

- Livemint

- National Herald

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