Experts pan Wildlife Institute of India plan that could pave way for Arunachal dam project

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A group of experts has panned a ‘flawed’ conservation plan by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) that could pave the way for a mega hydroelectric project in an ecologically fragile part of Arunachal Pradesh.

The flaws, they said, include overlooking several endemic species of flora and fauna, reporting animals not found in Asia, transporting butterflies from elsewhere in India and ignoring the WII’s own report on the existence of the Royal Bengal tiger in Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh.

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Environment Ministry on April 23 accepted the WII Wildlife Conservation Plan for the impact zone of the 3097 MW Etalin Hydroelectric Project “in toto”. The Ministry’s Wildlife Division and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) will be taking the WII plan into account for its inputs on the project.

The WII study was conducted from February to June 2018.

In their peer review titled ‘The devil is in the detail’, 29 scientists have picked holes in the conservation plan, indicating the members of FAC and of its sub-committee either did not study the WII report carefully or were in a rush to green-signal the project that environmentalists have termed as a disaster in waiting.

The study was published in Zoo’s Print, a leading Indian journal, on May 21.

The scientists wondered how the WII’s study team reported the Long-tailed House Bat, a species found only in the semi-arid savannah of southern and eastern Africa, in Dibang Valley. Among the other bloopers is the mention of 12 species of butterflies not known to exist in northeast India.

These butterflies include the Eastern Blue Sapphire, Indian Sunbeam and Common Banded Peacock distributed in the Western Himalayas or peninsular India.

Fresh study sought

“If the FAC members claim to have read the WII report, they have to explain why they accepted the occurrence of an African bat species in Arunachal Pradesh. If they have not read it, they would still need to answer how they accepted it in toto. The report should be scrapped immediately and a fresh study commissioned in Dibang Valley,” said Chintan Sheth, the lead author of the study.

Biswajit Mohanty, a former member of WII’s governing body, said he was appalled that a premier wildlife professional body such as the WII prepared a shoddy, error-filled and misleading conservation plan. He added it should have gone for a longer all-season study of the site instead of preparing a report in less than five months.

“It is also awful that non-official members of the FAC who are not government servants accepted this report in toto without any objections. FAC is not upholding the interests of forest and wildlife, for which statutory powers have been bestowed on them. It is surely a betrayal of unprecedented proportions,” Mr. Mohanty said.

WII Director Dhananjay Mohan did not respond to calls and messages on whether the institute would fix responsibilities for the report that the experts have panned as flawed.

W. Longvah, the Inspector-General of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), and a member of the FAC sub-committee, said he did not go through the WII report. “There are so many species yet to be discovered in Arunachal. The State wildlife officers would know better. Besides, that area is not a tiger reserve,” he told The Hindu on Friday.

The peer reviewers said the WII contradicted its own report in 2016 about tiger presence in Dibang Valley to claim the Striped Cat does not exist in the zone of influence (ZoI) of the project. “They have basically found species that don’t exist there and obliterated those that do on paper, apparently to promote the project,” said one of the northeast-based reviewers.

The WII report focusses on a ZoI of 112 sq km around the project site, which the peer-reviewers said was too inadequate.

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