To save an archipelago

Print edition : June 08, 2002

The Supreme Court issues landmark orders to ensure the preservation of the threatened rainforests and environment of the fragile Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

ON May 7, the Supreme Court of India, while hearing a matter relating to the environment of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, accepted the recommendations of a Commission it had appointed to look into the issues involved and passed a set of landmark orders.

Thick tree cover in South Andaman. The Supreme Court's set of landmark orders offer the best chance to save the rich but threatened tropical rainforests of these unique islands.-PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

The commission had made 25 major recommendations ranging from a ban on all tree-felling in the islands, except for the bona fide use of the local islander populations; a ban on transport of timber to any part of the country; removal of encroachments; steps to reduce immigration from mainland India; shut-down of the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Plantation and Development Corporation (ANFPDC) that had logged the forests of Little Andaman island for years; phasing out of the existing monoculture plantations of red oil palm, rubber and teak; closing down of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) in the Jarawa Tribal Reserve areas and a stop to sand mining from the island's beaches.

The court's orders offer the best chance to save the rich but threatened tropical rainforests and the vulnerable indigenous communities of these unique islands. The orders also have far-reaching implications for the immigrant populations that have settled here from the mainland.

The larger proceedings are part of the ongoing T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs The Union of India and Ors (Writ Petition 202 (Civil) of 1995), better known as the 'forest case'. The orders came in a specific intervention filed jointly before the apex court in 1999 by the Society for Andaman & Nicobar Ecology (SANE), the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the environmental action group Kalpavriksh, with the support of the Environmental Justice Initiative (EJI) and the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN).

During a hearing on November 23, 2001, the court had appointed the one-man Shekhar Singh Commission "to look into the state of the island's forests and other related matters," and submit its recommendations within six weeks (Frontline, January 18, 2002). Shekhar Singh, who has considerable experience in working on issues concerning the islands, submitted a voluminous three-part report to the court on February 18.

Understandably, there was strong opposition to some parts of the report. A flurry of activity followed, which saw a number of other parties including the Andaman Furniture Industries Association, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Small-Scale Wood-based Industries Association and the Member of Parliament from the islands, Bishnu Pada Ray, in addition to the local administration and the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) filing affidavits. The general opinion in the islands favoured the shutting down of timber extraction and export operations. However, recommendations to close down the ATR and phase out the sand-mining operations, both of which would affect a major chunk of the business operators here, were strongly opposed. The islands have a prominent sand mafia, that has great political and financial muscle. Today, the sand-mining industry that feeds the rapidly growing construction boom of Port Blair is posing one of the biggest environmental problems in the islands and drastic solutions are required to address the issue.

A lot of the coordinated opposition materialised in a call for a complete bandh in Port Blair by the Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) on March 12. All political parties including the Congress(I), the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and a number of trader and business organisations joined the bandh. That the bandh and the opposition to the recommendations did not have universal support became evident in the next few days. In their statements dated March 16 and March 18, the Local-Borns Association (LBA) (descendants of penal settlers) and the Bengal Association Andaman and Nicobar Islands (BAANI) strongly supported the Commission's recommendations. The BAANI statement said: "There has been some discontent and opposition to the recommendations of the Commission and a fear... that this will adversely impact the people and the socio-economic situation in the islands. We, on the other hand, feel that the recommendations are... in the best interests of the people and the environment here. The fears expressed are either out of a vested interest or an incorrect reading and interpretation of the recommendations..."

It was on May 7, just a couple of days before the Supreme Court went into vacation, that the matter came up before a Bench comprising Chief Justice B.N. Kirpal and Justices Arijit Pasayat and H.K. Sema. The Solicitor-General and amicus curiae in the case, Harish Salve, argued forcefully on the uniqueness and the importance of the forests and the islands that have been designated as a "global biodiversity hotspot" and the urgent need for their conservation.

Thereafter, the Bench issued orders accepting the report of the Shekhar Singh Commission, while making some "not very major" modifications (except in the matter of sand mining). While the commission had suggested that sand-mining be disallowed from September 2002, the final order of the court says that it should be phased out at a minimum rate of 20 per cent every year, so as to bring it down to 33 per cent of the present level in five years.

Families that have been identified as having encroached on forest land prior to 1978, and that had either not moved to their allotted sites or had occupied more land than they were entitled to were given one month to make the necessary corrections. The Commission had recommended that all post-1978 encroachments be removed within six months and that the displaced families be allotted homesteads on revenue land. The court order reduced this time limit to three months.

Further, the court ordered that the licences of all private saw mills and wood-based industries in the islands be terminated with effect from March 31, 2003. It ordered that the 'Working Plans' for limited timber extraction for local use be reformulated and submitted to the court within 12 weeks. In an important step that should set a precedent for the rest of the country, the court also directed that the Working Plans be formulated by a committee that has one ecologist proficient with the island's ecology.

Environmental and tribal rights groups from across the country and abroad too have welcomed the Supreme Court's orders. The timing of the orders is also significant. This summer, large parts of Port Blair were being supplied drinking water in the pipes for a mere 20 minutes once every three days. Evidently, the Supreme Court cannot rectify this situation, but part of the long-term solution to this critical problem may well be achieved through the sincere implementation of its orders. That, however, is much easier said than done.

In association with LEAD-India programme.

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