Listen to the Dibang Valley protesters

In the north-eastern edge of the country, a proposed hydroelectric project is sparking controversy. This newspaper reported on Thursday that the Union environment ministry sought the views of the Arunachal Pradesh government on the proposed 3,097 MW Etalin Hydroelectric Project after conservationists and indigenous peoples’ groups raised objections to the plan that will involve the diversion of 1165.66 hectares of forest land in the Dibang Valley. The environmental footprint of the project is substantial. Documents submitted to the forest advisory committee – which has to sign off on the project – say that around 280,000 trees will need to be felled in dense sub-tropical, evergreen, broad-leafed and sub-tropical rainforest for the project. The Valley is home to a genetically distinct population of tigers, 75 species of other mammals, and 300+ species of birds, including many endangered ones. It is part of the Eastern Himalayan Global Biodiversity Hotspot and plays host to mammals that include the clouded leopard, Asiatic golden cat, Asiatic wild dog and the red panda. This rich biodiversity and fragile ecosystem are likely to be irreversibly damaged by the project. A number of environmental and indigenous people allege that the ecological impact of the project has not been properly studied, and the objections of the local people not listened to with adequate attention. Even if their protests come too late in the day for the authorities, they deserve to be listened to, not only because the Valley is home to small indigenous communities with deep ties to the local ecology, but also because the bedrock of India’s environmental laws is allowing affected communities their say in a democratic manner.

The Dibang Valley row represents a conundrum that India will repeatedly face this decade as it attempts to balance the environment with development and preserving biodiversity (a pledge it made just days ago on the global stage) with the infrastructure needs of millions. It must carefully consider each project with a large green footprint, weigh its potential benefits with the irretrievable losses to biodiversity, and approve only if critical. How it strikes this delicate balance will determine the country’s environmental trajectory in the next decade.

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