In a bizarre example of quid pro quo, an agency under the Environment Ministry has asked for a vehicle -- preferably a Toyota Innova -- in lieu of recommending forest clearance for a transmission line through a reserved forest for extracting power from a hydropower project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border.
Not just this, against the conventional practice of asking beforehand for a study about an elephant corridor in the area, from where the diversion of the forest was needed, a post-clearance site inspection report by the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam has also been sought.
And this is not the first time that the Regional Empowered Committee (REC) under the Integrated Regional Office (IRO) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has asked for a vehicle from what is called the user agency, i.e., the agency that is seeking forest clearance for an infrastructure project.
The Power Grid Corporation of India had sought diversion of 34.32 hectares of forest land for the construction of a 400 KV transmission line from NHPC Ltd's 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri Hydro Electric Project at Gerukhamukh to Biswanath Chariali in Subansiri reserve forest under the Dhemaji division in Assam.
This is an area along the Assam-Arunachal border with the hydropower project just inside the Arunachal side, but on the border. The total length of the transmission line is 7,463 metre and 23 towers are expected to be passing through three districts of Dhemaji, Lakhimpur and Biswanath.
The proposal mentioned that the enumerated number of trees is 7,987, but the actual number of trees to be felled is 1,041.
The REC meeting on November 2 had discussed the proposal wherein it was mentioned that the proposed area is 187 km from the nearest boundary of Dibru-Saikhowa National Park. When the REC asked about the presence of an elephant corridor in the proposed alignment, the Assam Forest Department official informed that no such information was submitted.
The REC then sought a site inspection report from the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam with respect to the presence of an elephant corridor in the proposed alignment.
The minutes of the meeting also show that the user agency -- here the Power Grid Corporation of India -- agreed to follow the necessary measures imposed/suggested by the Chief Wildlife Warden if there is indeed an elephant corridor.
The measures would include increasing the height of the transmission line. After thorough deliberation and discussions with the Chief Conservator of Forests, Assam, the REC recommended the proposal for diversion of 34.32 hectares of forest land with two special conditions apart from the other usual ones.
The first condition was the site inspection report from the Chief Wildlife Warden of Assam in respect of the presence of an elephant corridor in the proposed alignment along with the names of all Schedule I species with appropriate mitigation measures. The second one, as per the minutes of the meeting, was:
"The user agency, Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, will provide one vehicle (preferably Toyota Innova) to the Integrated Regional Office, Guwahati, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, for monitoring of projects in Assam and other official purposes."
The REC also mentioned the post-clearance condition of a report about elephant corridor for another proposal of diverting 32.78 hectares of forest land for transmission lines of the same project by the Power Grid Corporation of India Limited. Incidentally, in an earlier such meeting, when the REC considered a proposal from 2019, again for diversion of forest land for laying transmission line from Likabali to Niglok in Arunachal Pradesh, it had demanded a vehicle (again, preferably Toyota Innova) for the North Eastern Regional Office of the Environment Ministry in Shillong.
In that case, the government of Arunachal Pradesh had conveyed that being the implementing agency, the Power Grid Corporation of India "had also provided hired vehicle before and will do so for monitoring of projects in Arunachal Pradesh to IRO, Guwahati, if and when required". With this assurance, the REC revoked the condition during its November 2 meeting .