The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has ruled that the Environment Ministry cannot reject the majority view of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) without any proper reason. Assam-based conservationist Bimal Gogoi had challenged before the Tribunal the forest clearance issued in 2013 by the Environment Ministry to 1750-MW Demwe Lower Hydro Electric project, in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit district.
In 2012, then Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan overruled the views of the expert members of the NBWL standing committee — who opposed the project for its potential downstream impact on Dibru-Saikhowa National Park in Assam — and granted it wildlife clearance. This “formed the basis” of the forest clearance (FC) issued subsequently.
In its detailed order, released on October 27, the NGT ruled that the Environment minister as chairperson of the NBWL, a statutory body constituted under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, could not “just brush aside” the views of the majority of NBWL standing committee members.
“In the absence of any reason but only to reject the majority of the non-official members who happened to be experts in the field….we have no hesitation to hold that the decision of the minister as if it is the decision of the Standing Committee of NBWL, which forms the basis of the granting of FC in this case under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, is not sustainable in law,” the NGT ruled. The judgment directed the NBWL to reconsider the issue and pass appropriate orders within six months. Until then, stages I and II forest clearances issued in March 2012 and May 2013, respectively, and the consequential order of the state government allowing diversion of 1415.92 ha forest land for the hydel project, will stand suspended, the Tribunal stated. Being executed jointly by Athena Energy Ventures and the Arunachal Pradesh government, the Demwe Lower hydel project was granted environment clearance in 2010.
“We are happy that the illegal wildlife clearance issued by overruling the NBWL standing committee has been struck down,” petitioner Bimal Gogoi told The Indian Express. “We hope the fresh clearance process takes a precautionary approach while examining this mega-dam proposed to come up on Lohit river at an ecologically and culturally site, Parshuram Kund.”
In December 2015, as reported by The Indian Express, then Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma had asked the Environment Ministry to “kindly place on record the objection” of the Tourism Ministry to the Demwe Lower project and also convey it to the NGT hearing a case filed by “local stakeholders against the project”, which would “generate 23 lakh truckload of debris (and) destroy the holy site of Parashuram Kund.”