Interview with the environmental lawyer, activist, author, and co-founder of advocacy group LIFE.
Ritwick Dutta, an award-winning lawyer specialising in environmental issues, is also an activist, author, and educator. Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), the environmental law advocacy group co-founded by him, received the Right Livelihood Award in 2021 for its “grassroots approach of empowering vulnerable communities to protect their livelihoods and claim their right to a clean environment.”
The Ashoka Fellow has been involved in litigation on issues relating to environment and forest clearance for years. He and his team have created a database of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports so that they can be examined minutely and their implications for affected communities can be understood fully. Dutta and Rahul Choudhary, co-founder of LIFE, have gone on record saying their aim is “power in the hands of the people”. Excerpts from an interview.
You have dealt with the Andaman and Nicobar administration when you were involved with litigation relating to the Andaman Trunk Road. What environmental challenges are the islands facing?
My involvement with the Andamans dates back to the beginning of my legal career when I was part of a Supreme Court litigation against large-scale felling of trees for timber on the islands. The case was filed by Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE), Kalpavriksh, and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). The islands today face a multitude of environmental issues ranging from forest degradation to unplanned and unrestricted development to meet the demands of the tourism sector. Marine plastic pollution has emerged as a major cause of concern which is not easy to solve given that the bulk of the plastic waste originates not from the islands but from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, among other countries.
Above all, climate change makes the islands particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, tropical cyclones, and increase in sea surface temperature. These are already having a profound impact. The Andaman and Nicobar islands is the only place where an entire wildlife sanctuary had to be denotified by the government two years back because it was fully submerged by the 2004 tsunami.
How has the government policy changed with regard to environment in the last three decades? There was a time when the administration discouraged visitors and demanded special permits. Have things changed under the present regime?
The islands once followed a hands-off approach with regard to their ecologically sensitive areas. This has given way to an intensive intervention approach wherein holistic development is seen not in terms of protecting the ecological integrity of the islands but in terms of changing the ecological character of the islands. What we are witnessing is a new wave of intervention which could put the islands at risk. We must not forget that the Andaman and Nicobar islands have tribal communities which are the only ones in India that truly qualify as “indigenous”. The policy of limited intervention from cultural and environmental standpoints was in the best interest of the islands given the fact that opening up and clearing pristine areas are going to make the islands more vulnerable to climate change.
What is the government planning to do on Great Nicobar Island (GNI)?
GNI, the southernmost island in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, has been chosen for “holistic” development to be undertaken in three phases. The overall plan aims to use around 244 square kilometres, of which 166.10 sq km has been targeted for Phase I. The majority of this area is composed of pristine forests and coastal ecosystems. The project will cover roughly a quarter of the island’s shoreline and almost 18 per cent of its total area of 910 sq km. It includes a deep berth port (with ancillary areas for an international transshipment terminal) as primary component, along with power generation and distribution networks, a township and an airport as interlinked projects.
Though the inclusion of an area of 244 sq km or 166 sq km for holistic development may seem small compared to the whole of the Andaman and Nicobar islands (only about 2 per cent of the total area), it is nearly 18 per cent of the total area so far as the GNI is concerned. Besides, the ecological footprint is not going to be limited to 18 per cent. At the very least, the diversion should have been limited to projects related to defence and related activities.
There is a process to be followed when it comes to granting environmental clearance. Has it been strictly adhered to in this case?
The environmental clearance process requires prior studies before the granting of approval. Unfortunately, in the present instance, most of the studies with respect to the impact of the project are to be carried out after constructions have commenced. This is completely against the precautionary principle. The GNI is a crucial habitat of the leatherback turtle, olive ridley, hawksbill and green turtle. The Supreme Court has highlighted the need for a “species’ best interest standard” and an “eco-centric approach” while dealing with flora and fauna. Yet, the EIA report admits that detailed studies on the likely impact on the endemic Nicobar megapode is yet to be done.
It is pertinent to point out here that the Wildlife Institute of India has sought for intensive research on leatherback turtles and its movements to methodically create site-specific mitigation strategies and suggested a 10-year roadmap for its implementation. At the same time, it says that the project may go on.
The most problematic aspect of the approval is that it marks a fundamental shift in the approach towards the protection of forests in the country. The policy till now has been to limit forest diversion for site-specific projects. Further, as a matter of policy, forestlands were not diverted for agriculture or housing. But in the present instance, the bulk of the diverted project area is going to be used for tourism and recreation, which include areas for commercial tourism and hospitality, housing, commercial coastal tourism and ecotourism.
Are any or all of these proposed projects strategic or defence related? Are specific clearances required for such projects?
There are projects related to defence which are essential in terms of national interest and have to be set up keeping in view strategic considerations. Of the total project area of 166 sq km, about 20 sq km is for defence-related projects. However, these projects are also subject to approval under environmental regulations which include Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, among others. The need for environmental and other clearances does not mean that projects are not to be allowed: all it means is that they must be subjected to careful ecological studies in order to assess their likely environmental impacts. It is important to point out that if the activities are limited only to 20 sq km for defence and related activities, the ecological footprint will be quite minimal. It is the non-defence component related to tourism, housing and commercial development which is problematic.
The government has said that it will compensate for the tree loss in GNI by carrying out compensatory afforestation in Haryana. What do you think about this?
The decision of the government to compensate for the loss of the forest in GNI by carrying out compensatory afforestation in Haryana needs to be understood holistically. First, the government is right in concluding that no compensatory afforestation can be carried out in the GNI or other islands for the reason that all areas in GNI are already dense forests and the law prohibits compensatory afforestation in such spaces since no purpose is served by planting more trees in densely wooded areas.
At the same time, planting trees in Haryana will not compensate for the loss of ecosystem services rendered by the more than eight lakh trees to be felled for the project. These trees serve ecological and social services in the area where they exist. Even assuming that more than 16 lakh trees are planted in Haryana, it will in no way reduce the impact of tropical cyclones on the coasts of GNI.
It will be good if the government accepts that the loss of forest and natural ecosystem is irreplaceable in the same way that no amount of compensation or technological intervention can make a dead person alive.
How closely are you involved with the current project?
My involvement is only limited to the legal analysis of the process leading to the granting of forest and wildlife clearances.
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