Dam Lawyers Don’t “Understand This Obsession With The Black-necked Crane”
A Sanctuary report on the irrational arguments made by the lawyers defending the clearance given to the Nyamjang Chhu dam project that will decimate one of the only two wintering sites of the Black-necked Crane in India.
While forest clearance is pending, the environmental clearance granted to the Nyamjang Chhu dam project on April 19, 2015 has been appealed against by the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF) on the grounds that the site that will be inundated by the dam / barrage is one of only two wintering sites in India of the vulnerable Black-necked Crane. The Appellants, represented by Advocate Ritwick Dutta, have made one round of arguments in the National Green Tribunal, and currently NJC Hydropower Ltd., represented by Advocate Sanjay Upadhyay and Senior Advocate Raj Panjwani are arguing the matter.
Published literature has references to this small stretch of three km. on the Nyamjang Chhu river being a wintering site of the Black-necked Crane (BNC) since at least 2000. The first person to report this in published literature was the renowned naturalist from Northeast India, Dr. Anwaruddin Choudhury. It has since been recorded in literature by a number of people and conservation groups, including the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). Local villagers with the support of WWF-India have for the past six years (2009-10 to 2014-15) documented the birds photographically. The documentation by local villagers clearly shows that the birds use the entire area in the three km. stretch, in the middle of which the barrage is proposed.
However, despite this evidence, Upadhyay and Panjwani, who have in the past represented wildlife and environment causes, have continued trivializing the importance of this area as a wintering site of the Black-necked Crane. Some quotable quotes by the lawyers for the company in ongoing proceedings include:
August 3, 2015
Raj Panjwani while arguing that the site is not a regular wintering ground of the Black-necked Crane and hence the dam/barrage should come up at the location said,
“This ‘once in a blue moon’ black-necked crane habitat.”
“The bird has been seen once long, long ago.”
“The bird has been seen nine years ago.”
August 6, 2015:
Raj Panjwani undermined the importance of this wintering habitat, implying that the number of birds is too few to matter:
“In any case the number of cranes is very few, do not come in large numbers.”
Fact: There are only two wintering sites of the Black-necked Crane in India. Sangti valley and Zemithang in Arunachal Pradesh, between which around 10 birds winter. Less numbers mean that every bird is of great importance to ensure that India does not lose its wintering population of the BNC.
August 18, 2015:
Raj Panjwani argued that the project proponent studied the area in two winter seasons and did not find evidence of the bird. He said,
“We covered two winters and did not find the bird. This is because the bird does not come there.”
Fact: Despite being asked, the lawyers failed to answer the query of the tribunal regarding details of their “effort” to record the bird, meaning how many days did the Environment Impact Assessment consultants actually spend in the field when claiming they studied the site during two winters. The BNC has been photographed for the last six years in a row. It has been photographed every year at the barrage site since the project got scoping clearance to conduct the EIA studies in December 2009.
Raj Panjwani on being asked what will be the impact of the barrage on life and living organisms, said:
“Living organisms includes me. It will impact my fan, my AC.”
Fact: The bench pointed out how there were clear contradictions in the data collected by the two EIA consultants, Water and Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS) and RS Envirolink Technologies Pvt. Ltd. (RSET). They also expressed surprise that in an area which is rich in wildlife only six out of 65 species were reported by EIA consultants to be in any Schedule of the WLPA, that too only in Schedule II!
September 1, 2015:
On being asked to explain the impacts of the project on the environment, the company lawyers chose to show a table from the EIA report which summarized the impacts in different phases of construction. On being asked how come there is no ‘tick mark’ for impact on Flora/Fauna with respect to “Site preparation including tree cutting”, Raj Panjwani trivialized the seriousness of this by saying that the tribunal can make the tick mark now!
The company lawyers also read sections of the Environment Management Plan (EMP). The EMP includes the setting up of artificial nest boxes.
Wildlife biologist Dr. Aparajita Dutta in her critique of the EIA-EMP stated:
“The plan to provide artificial nest boxes for avifauna is also not scientific, andprovides no reference while mentioning that these nest boxes are very 'successful'.The EMP assumes that breeding sites for hole-nesting birds are limited and require to be augmented. The EMP in this section makes completely incomprehensiblestatements that show absolute lack of any ecological knowledge such as “Therefore,first strategy of improvement of habitat for birds is avoiding nest predation or broodparasitism through maintenance of large contiguous forest tract.” Without any priorunderstanding of bird communities and their ecology in the area and an assessment of the needs of specific hole-nesting bird species in the area, there can be no purpose to suddenly introduce artificial nest boxes in the area. In addition, only some forest bird species are hole-nesters and scientific studies show that often forest-dwelling bird species may not use artificially introduced nest boxes and most such programs have been failures or seen limited and mixed success. Artificial nest boxes are normally used for augmenting breeding sites for particular endangered bird species in some countries with specific planning that is done after detailed ecological studies and with continuous monitoring. It is not carried out in an ad-hoc manner as suggested by the EMP.
Lastly, even if artificial nest boxes were at all necessary, nest boxes have to bedesigned with specific bird species in mind according to their size and individualhabitat requirements. This activity will also possibly lead to further habitatdestruction/modification since the nest boxes, several in number (1000) are proposed to be built using native trees in the project site.”
September 3, 2015:
After being in complete denial for two months that the site is a wintering habitat of the Black-necked crane, the lawyers for the company changed their strategy a bit and produced a watered-down (but still misleading) admission by the PCCF, Arunachal Pradesh (while submitting the forest clearance application) that: “Black Necked Crane, a migratory bird has been sighted once in September – October of 2010 by local people at a place in the downstream of barrage site which is not in the project area.”
The company lawyers further tried to cherry-pick the scientific literature on the BNC to argue that their project does not impact the habitat.
There are only 10 wintering sites of the BNC in the world and India has two of them. The BNC is an extremely territorial bird and we do not know exactly why they have chosen to come only to these sites. For example, Sangti has elements of a modified human landscape (e.g. paddy fields) while, as described by BNHS earlier, Zemithang is a completely natural habitat:
“The valley suitable for the Black-necked crane has been found to be from Brokenthang (27 degrees 43 minutes 51.04 seconds North, 91 degrees 42 minutes 51.08 seconds East) to Zemithang (27 degrees 42 minutes 38.47 seconds North, 91 degrees, 43 minutes 39.69 seconds East) which is nearly 3 km in length with average altitude of 2,000 msl. The average width of the valley has been found tobe 0.30 km and the flow of water in this part of the river is gentle with many small seasonal islands and also grassland on both banks.”
However, the company lawyers picked on the term ‘paddy fields’ (which is indeed part of the landscape in some wintering sites) and applied it to Zemithang (where paddy fields are not part of the wintering site). They argued that since paddy fields are found in this area are only downstream of Zemithang and at elevations above the river level, the project is unlikely to impact the BNC. This has no relevance in this case.
Sangti valley (in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh) has been an important wintering habitat of the Black-necked Crane reported first by Prakash Gole. As stated earlier there are complex reasons, not all known to us, why these territorial birds choose only some areas to winter in. What we know definitely is that they come. Despite being aware that the bird winters in only two sites in India (around 10 birds) the lawyers sought to trivialize the importance of these sites while reading the description of the habitat in Sangti valley. One of the descriptions had mentioned the birds being found in paddy fields near a school. The lawyers sought to trivialize the importance and uniqueness of these sites by stating that the birds are coming to the area despite the noise in the school (thereby implying the major hydroelectric project will not impact the wintering site in the other site Zemithang).
When questioned further about likely impact on BNC by the Tribunal, Panjwani said
“I do not understand this obsession with the Black-necked Crane. Even when there is one bird in five years. Maybe it comes at night and goes in the morning.”
When asked further about impacts on the food chain and insects in particular, Panjwani quipped:
“If required we will import insects for the birds.”
September 7, 2015:
The lawyers tried to mislead the Tribunal that the author of the NCF critique, leading wildlife biologist, Dr. Aparajita Dutta, had herself not reported the Black-necked Crane in another report of which she was a co-author: 'The High Altitude Wildlife of Western Arunachal Pradesh - A Survey Report (2004)'. But the lawyers for the Appellants pointed out to the Tribunal that the report clearly states that the survey was conducted from 'August to October 2003', therefore the possibility of the author reporting a wintering population of the Black-necked Crane does not arise as the survey was not done in winter!
Author: Sanctuary Asia.
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