Researchers tear apart WII report on Etalin HEP, question authenticity of study

[ Tongam Rina ]
ITANAGAR, May 4: Twenty-four Indian scientists, including botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, mammalogists, herpetologists, aquatic fauna specialists, geographers and social scientists, who have multiple years of research experience in the state, have peer-reviewed the wildlife conservation plan prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) for Jindal’s Etalin Hydropower Project (HEP) in Dibang Valley district.
“There are considerable deficiencies and scientific biases in the report which have compromised the quality and the veracity of its findings and conclusions,” read the peer review as it tore apart the findings of the WII, exposing how the institute comprised with the quality of the study by ignoring several important environmental as well as social aspects.
As reported earlier by this daily, the WII spent less that four months in the project area, even though it was mandated to carry out a “multiple seasonal replicate study on biodiversity assessment of the catchment area,” as recommended by the forest advisory committee (FAC) of the union ministry of environment, forests & climate change (MoEFCC).
Questionably, the FAC and the ministry itself did not ask any questions as to how the study was compiled, even though one of its own reports states that four months’ study was carried out. Instead, the FAC formed a subcommittee to look into the “concerns related to tree enumeration process and the aspects highlighted in biodiversity assessments study by WII.”
The wildlife study done by the WII is accepted in toto by the subcommittee, the subcommittee report says.
The subcommittee included a member of the WII who was part of the team that cheated its way to compile a questionable report on Etalin.
The project is being executed through a joint venture of the Jindal Power Ltd’s EHEPCL (74 percent) and the Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Ltd (26 percent). The latter is a state government undertaking.
The review said that “the report is a wildlife conservation plan with the final chapter dedicated to mitigation and conservation measures. It is not clear on what basis the FAC’s singular mandate of ‘biodiversity assessment’ was converted into a wildlife conservation plan.”
Questioning the period of the study, the reviewers said that the “short period of under five months cannot be considered a ‘multiple seasonal replicate’ study. February and March have been taken as winter/pre-monsoon and April to June as summer/monsoon. These do not represent seasonal patterns in Arunachal, which has at least three seasons with distinct rainfall and weather regimes.”
“Studies that inform high-level decision-making on historically significant projects, such as the Etalin HEP, which would be the largest hydropower project in the country, must go through a transparent and scientifically recognized peer-reviewed process, given the pitfalls, numerous discrepancies and gaps highlighted in the review. Such decisions have irreversible impacts on lives, livelihoods and the environment,” read the review, which will be submitted to the FAC.
“Report segregates the impacts of the project neatly between ‘physical’, ‘biological’ and ‘social’ components. Such a categorization represents a highly narrow, misinformed and flawed understanding of the interconnections between physical, biological and social processes. In developing this schema, where the assumption is that the construction of many components of the HEP will only have biological but no knock-on social impacts, the report seems to have entirely ignored vast and widely-popular multi-decadal literature on the interconnections between social and ecological systems.
“If changes in ecology indeed have no knock-on impacts on people’s social lives, then how does the report envisage explaining the devastating social, cultural and economic impacts of decidedly natural/ecological phenomena such as climate change, locust infestations, and zoonotic diseases such as the ongoing Covid-19, to name a few,” the review read.
It further said that even in the short survey, conducted using biased sampling methods, within a limited a study area, the report provides clear evidence of the existence of rich biodiversity.
“Dibang Valley lies in Zone V of the earthquake hazard zone, making it highly prone to earthquakes and its associated effects, like landslides. The report undermines the severity of risks entailed in carrying out massive infrastructural projects in fragile landscapes and presents a myopic perspective that the HEP’s impacts on biodiversity are unrelated to human wellbeing. It further says that there was incomplete documentation of floral wealth, inadequate sampling of endemic orchid diversity and under-reporting ethnomedicinal knowledge, underreporting fish species from Dibang Valley, underassessment of threats to aquatic fauna and inadequate mitigation plan for hydrology and underestimation of species, abundance and threatened species, contradictions and inadequate mitigation plans,” the review read.
It also questioned the sampling methodology. Among other things, it said that there is no mention of the minimum distance between two camera trap locations, and therefore it is not possible to determine whether spatial autocorrelation in the photo-capture data skewed estimates of the species richness and relative abundance.
“Despite serious methodological flaws, the report recorded 21 species of mammals, including the critically endangered Chinese pangolin,” the review read.
It questioned the flawed understanding of local livelihoods and using outdated perspectives on jhum agriculture: “The report asserts that ‘jhum agriculture or shifting cultivation is known for causing loss of forest cover and associated biodiversity values.’ This is an outdated and flawed statement that is not supported by research within the last 50 years. For communities practising shifting cultivation, it is not merely a system of cultivation but a socio-cultural activity that provides meaning to land and reifies individual and group identities,” the review said.
It also questioned the undermining of the impacts of migrant labour.
“There appears to be a minimization of the negative impacts of the project and local concerns about them throughout the report. The expected increase in the local population from the influx of an estimated 12,000 additional in-migrants during the construction phase is incorrectly reported to be 150 percent, given that the entire population of the district is 8004. The many serious socio-cultural, economic and safety issues resulting from such enormous and sudden demographic changes are lumped under ‘cultural issues’, leaving the mitigation up to ‘high-level village committees.’
“By not accounting for a large influx of labourers and their impacts on the landscape, the wildlife habitat, and on the cultural identity, health and wellbeing of the local people, the report undermines the impact of this project on multiple fronts,” the review read.
Responding to this daily, the WII had earlier admitted that reports from earlier research were incorporated in the final report.
An MoU signed between the WII and the EHEPCL on 22 November, 2017 for the study stated that the MoU “provides broad understanding to mutually engage into the specific assignment based on the needs of the EHEPCL. Whenever solicited, WII shall render its expertise in the best possible manner as per the needs of the EHEPCL at mutually agreed commercial terms.”