On 7 April 2016 the judgment of Justice UD Salvi and Professor Yousuf, expert member of the National Green Tribune, partially allowed the appeal filed in 2012 by Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a Buddhist monk, on behalf of the Save Mon Region Foundation, an organisation representing the community in Arunachal Pradesh, against the grant of environment clearance, on 19 April 2012, by the Union ministry of environment and forest for construction of the Rs 6,400-crore 780-MW Nyamjangchu hydroelectric Project by NJC Hydro Power Ltd, a company under the Noida-based Bhilwara group. 

This should be well received in Arunachal and elsewhere as an instance of the practice of good governance. The NGT, having noted the infirmities in due process of environmental clearance, such as faulty project scoping, meaning inadequacy in terms of reference for environment assessment as evident from the non-inclusion of the 7.5-MW hydel poject at Khangteng, in terms of reference. 

Also, misleading data on vital conservation concerns like the Niyam Jang Chhu river — one of the few wintering sights in the world visited by the black-necked crane, listed as vulnerable by International Union for Conservation of Nature and lack of transparency in public hearing. It ordered the suspension of the environment clearance till further studies as directed by the NGT are completed. Though the latter has not cancelled the project, it has emphasised the need that even development of hydro power, a renewable source of energy, is sustainable only if it does not cause any irretrievable loss to the environment. 

This NGT view is in line with the Rio Declaration of 1992 by world leaders on the environment which constituted the legal and scientific basis of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification of the government of India of 14 September 2006. 

Guidelines issued there under has laid down the law, procedure and practice of scrutiny of any project proposal from the environment angle, and provides for public hearing, field studies and the appointment of an expert appraisal committee for reporting to the Union ministry to take a final view on the grant of environment clearance. 

This requires clear satisfaction on the part of the government on the issue that the execution of the project would cause only minimal damage or even that could be retrievable. In this background, the arrest of the appellant, Lama Lobsang Gyatso, on 20 April, and the public protest that followed on 2 May leading to violence and the death of two persons in police firing — probably for the first time in Tawang — and the subsequent resignation of Guru Tulku Rinpoche, the abbot of Tawang monastery, a Bhutanese who is said to have prevented monks of the monastery from participating in the anti-dam campaign, are most unfortunate. 

Nobody should really feel aggrieved with the NGT judgment as it is consistent with the EIA notification issued under the Environment Protection Act 1986 based on the principle that the environment impact studies must be thorough and scientific while the report, which formed the basis of the EAC&’s clearance, did not mention the fact that a three-kilometre stretch of the Nyam Jang Chu is the wintering sight of the black-necked crane, which, apart from being listed in Schedule 1 as an endangered species, is also sacred to the Monpas because it helped the Tawang-born sixth Dalai Lama to identify his successor in Tibet. 

In promoting hydel projects, Arunachal Pradesh has initiated steps to build 125 of these, of which 13 are proposed in Tawang, because of the prospect of getting 12 per cent free power plus one per cent extra power for the local development authority from the power generated by each project which would make electricity the main component of the state&’s own revenue, presently insignificant. 

The World Bank too, in its 2006 strategy report on the development and growth of the North-east, has pointed out that hydro power development could double the GSDP of the Northeast, and as Arunachal&’s hydro power potential is about 50,000 MW, the incentive to exploit it on a fast track basis is high, notwithstanding the fact that hydel projects bring in a “contractor-led project execution mode’’ that does not create local skills or technical competence but thrives on a nexus with the political class. 

This, as Acemoglu and Robinson have argued in Why Nations Fail? invariably turns the state “extractive”, characterised by gross inequality, loss of common property resources, displacement of people, denial of human rights and results in political unrest; and it seems as if the state is set to prove “the resource curse” hypothesis right, that resource rich areas in the Third World are always afflicted with misery, violence and instability for these very reasons. 

Though the NJC project does not involve any displacement, the social tension it has generated in sensitive border terms is enough for the authorities to take a hard look at the viability of the hydel-led development model. The other dimension of the matter is the present state policy of empowering the gram sabhasunder the Forest Rights Act to examine the implications of projects affecting their habitats and livelihood in order to give “free and informed consent”. This is a part of global movement of “Development without conflict” based on the premise that the right to participate is central to the idea of development; rather it is an expression of development — the way Amartya Sen viewed development as freedom. 

The “Save Mon Region Movement” is not only a protest against a hydel project but also a demand for environmental justice and rejection of the idea of development solely in terms of GDP growth or incremental state review. Significantly, the NGT judgment, delivered by Justice Sonam Wangdi on 4 May in a matter relating to the Kashang hydro-electric project in the Kannaur area of Himanchal Pradesh, recognised the role of the gram sabhas and held that ‘‘the state government should ensure that a proposal for diversion of forest land for the hydel projects is placed before the gram sabhas of villages in Kannaur district for their consent before according any forest clearance”. 

Together, these two NGT judgments have established a case law for clearance of projects with far- reaching consequences and also signal the arrival of the non-political civil society environmental action groups capable of taking up the cause of the affected people in the courts with competence. 

One hopes that this would promote a system of governance in which the state shares power with the gram sabhas in matters vital to the livelihoods and ecological security of the communities and does not arrogate to it all the powers derived from elections. 

This was indeed the theme of Gandhiji&’s “Hind Swaraj”; and make no mistake that the object of “the ease of doing business” is not achievable either by alienating or inflicting miseries on the project-affected tribals. These unstated messages make the two NGT judgments truly landmark. 

 

(The author is a retired IAS officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre)