The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has granted an in-principle (Stage 1) clearance for the diversion of 130.75 sq km of forest in Great Nicobar Island for a massive infrastructure project. The Quint takes a look at why this move could prove to be disastrous.
Who's in charge of the project? The 'Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Islands in Andaman and Nicobar Islands' project is being spearheaded by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation under a vision plan conceived by the NITI Aayog, the Centre's public policy think tank.
What Are the Main Components of the Project? According to a pre-feasibility report for the NITI Aayog, prepared by AECOM India, a Gurugram-based consulting firm, the project has four components. They are:
An International Container Transhipment Terminal (ICTT), with the capacity to handle 14.2 million TEUs (unit of cargo capacity) eventually
A greenfield international airport handling a peak hour traffic of 4,000 passengers both ways
A 450-MVA gas and solar power plant spread over 16,610 hectares in Great Nicobar Islands
On What Basis Was the Project Given Clearance? A letter confirming the clearance was issued the ministry's forest conservation department on 27 October.
According to The Hindu, the letter is signed by Suneet Bhardwaj, Assistant Inspector General of Forests, the letter and states that permisssion has been granted following a “careful examination” of the island administration’s request for the same dated 7 October 2020 and “on basis of the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and its acceptance by the competent authority in the ministry”.
A key condition for the green signal is the submission of a detailed scheme for compensatory afforestation, which is to be done on “non-notified forest land” in Haryana.
Surprisingly, the final EIA report mentioned that the compensatory afforestation over 260 sq km (twice the diversion area) will be carried out in Madhya Pradesh and even carries a letter of the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Department certifying that the Government of Madhya Pradesh has submitted the details for the same. There is no clarity on how the switch was made to Haryana and what process, if any, was followed for the same, according to the newspaper.
How Many Trees Will be Felled for the Project? The project, which will see around 8.5 lakh trees in pristine rainforests being felled, and the loss of 12 to 20 hectares of mangrove cover, according to the minutes of the meeting of the Expert Appraisal Commitee (EAC) of the Union environment ministry held on May 24-25.
Spread over a little more than 1,000 sq km, GNI is home to an immensely rich ecosystem. The island is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, multiple forest types and one of the best-preserved tropical rainforests in the world.
It is also home to 648 species of flora and 330 species of fauna, including rare and endemic ones like the Nicobar wild pig, Nicobar tree shrew, the Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, Nicobar paradise flycatcher, and the Nicobar megapode (which is listed as 'vulnerable‘ in the IUCN Red List of threatened species).
'A Monumental Folly'
Environmentalists and biodiversity experts have objected strongly to this project as they fear it will put the island's ecosystem in peril.
As Pankaj Sekhsaria, author of the book Islands in flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story, who has closely studied the islands and written several research articles around it noted in his report A Monumental Folly, that the project is being sold under a very misleading framing of 'holistic development'.
"To go ahead with it will be to perpetuate a monumental folly the price paid for which cannot be even comprehended," he writes.
Red Flags Galore
Over the last two years, numerous concerns have been raised over the projects by activists, environmentalists, and even the EAC over the project. Some of the the concerns raised include:
The hazards of developing a township on a seismically volatile land.
The impact on coastal nesting sites of the vulnerable leatherback sea turtle.
The loss of forest cover.
But Wait, There's More
Last year, large swathes of coastal land area, including portions of the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve and Galathea Bay were de-notified (stripped of their protected status) to make way for the project.
The entire Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was denotified to make way for the ICTT. This bay is India’s most iconic nesting site for giant leatherback turtles (they are listed as 'vulnerable'in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species).
A few weeks later, another expert committee of the environment ministry approved a plan to declare a zero extent eco-sensitive zone (ESZ, an ecologically sensitive zone which is in effect non-existent) for the Galathea National Park, thus availing the entire low-lying coastal area along the island’s east coast for the project.
As Pankaj Sekhsaria points out that issues of the geological volatility of these islands have also not been factored in on in the project.
In December 2018, a tender document by WAPCOS Limited for a ‘Traffic Study for Creating Transshipment port at South Bay, Great Nicobar Island’ justified the ICTT by noting that “the topography of the island is best suited, which has not been damaged much even by the tsunami on 26.11.2004 (sic)”.
However a 2005 report by a multi-disciplinary team from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, recorded witness accounts of 8-metre-high tsunami waves hitting the Great Nicobar coast on 26 December 2004. “The lighthouse at Indira Point, the southernmost tip of the Great Nicobar Island, which was on high ground before the earthquake,” the report notes, “is now under water, indicating a land subsidence of about 3-4 m
What Other Concerns Have Been Raised?
The draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report also said the coral reef along the coast of the bay could be destroyed by dredging while the port is being constructed.
The township, airport, and thermal power plant will all come up in areas with dense forest cover, which will affect the biodiversity “significantly”, the EIA said.
What Have Environmentalists Said?
There has been strong criticism of the Centre's decision to go ahead with the project as environmentalists say it could be a death knell for the island's diverse ecosystem.
Dr Manish Chandi, a researcher who has been working in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the interface between communities and the natural environment for close to 20 years, told The Quint that though he is not against development it should not come at the cost of the environment and the rights of the indigenous people. He termed the decision "arbritrary".
"There are some issues in the proposal that i would like to address. It is true that connectivity in the GNI is an issue. The settler community who started settling in the island since the 1970s are in need of and have always demanded and requested development.
"In the EIA report, mitigation measures have been proposed such as translocation of coral reefs and the leatherback turtles that will be affected due to the consruction but my question is what about the reefs that will be destroyed forever."
He also pointed out that the project envisages that about 6.5 lakh people will inhabit the island in the future, up from the present 8,067.
"When the present population (which is small) is reeling under water shortage even though the island receives heavy rainfall, how will the water needs of 6.5 lakh people be met? I want to question the government on what exactly our priorities are," added Dr Chandi.
Displacement of Tribal Communities
The project has already displaced some indegenious communities like the Shompens and the Nicobarese, pointed out Dr Chandi.
"The Nicobarese people who were forcefully relocated want to go back to their homes as they have lost their source of livelihoods, have no jobs. They have even written two letters to the government about it but have not received any response. The tribes are of the opinion that the project is being carried out but not keeping their interests in mind and it is solely for the benefit of the people from the mainland," he said.
"If the government wants to carry out development, it should build better hospitals, schools and not resorts by infringing upon the lands of the tribals," added Dr Manish Chandi.
'India is Making Big Claims at COP27 Yet Has Given Clearance to Plan to Fell Over 8.5 Lakh Trees'
Leo Saldanha, founding trustee and coordinator of Environment Support Group, told The Quint that the move is a colossal disaster. "It is sheer madness." He equated it to Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro's policies that loosened laws and regulations meant to protect the Amazon forest from landgrabbers, miners and loggers.
He also said that the project makes a mockery of the Forest Conservation Act. "India is making big claims at the ongoing COP27 climate summit in Egypt yet it has given clearance to a project that makes a mockery of the Forest Conservation Act where the rights of the indigenous people who are supposed to have access to the use of forest land have been stamped out," he added.