In a series of developments that have unfolded with uncharacteristic speed and coordination over the past two years, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has cleared the decks for a mega infrastructure project in Great Nicobar Island situated at the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar Island group in the Bay of Bengal. Two crucial approvals were granted recently—the stage-1 (in-principle) forest clearance on October 27, 2022, and the environmental clearance on November 11. The NITI Aayog piloted the project, with the project proponent being the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO), based in Port Blair.
The centrepiece of the project, euphemistically labelled by its proponents as the “Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island”, is a Rs.35,000 crore transshipment port at Galathea Bay along the island’s south-eastern coast. Other components are an international airport, a power plant, and a greenfield township on more than 160 square kilometres of land, including 130 sq km of primary forest. The island has a total area of a little more than 900 sq km, with nearly 850 sq km designated as a tribal reserve under the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, 1956. The ecologically rich island was declared a biosphere reserve in 1989 and included in UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme in 2013.
The Rs.72,000 crore project will be implemented over 30 years and is expected to bring more than three lakh people to the island during that time. This is roughly equal to the current population of the entire Andaman and Nicobar Island chain. As for Great Nicobar, the island will see a 4,000 per cent increase in its current population of about 8,000. The project also involves the cutting of nearly a million trees in a largely pristine and untouched rainforest ecosystem.
Flawed environmental clearance
The idea of constructing a large port in Great Nicobar has been in discussion for many decades, but the current plan was initiated at the height of the COVID pandemic in late 2020. It is also much larger in scale and investment than anything that was proposed earlier. The process started in September 2020 with the NITI Aayog issuing a request for proposal (RfP) for preparing the master plan for the project. In March 2021, AECOM India Pvt. Ltd, a Gurugram-based consulting agency, released a 126-page pre-feasibility report (PFR). The MoEFCC’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC)-Infrastructure I began the environmental clearance process in April and the project proponent contracted the Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs to prepare the environment impact assessment (EIA) report. In December 2021, the Ministry placed the draft EIA report in the public domain for comments and discussion, marking the completion of the first stage.
In the 14-month period between the issue of the RfP and the publication of the draft EIA report, there was also hectic activity to ease clearance procedures. First, in January 2021, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) denotified the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to free it as the site for a port. This was despite the fact that the beaches on either side of Galathea River as it empties into the sea are among the most important nesting sites in the northern Indian Ocean for the giant leatherback turtle, the world’s largest marine turtle.
India’s National Marine Turtle Action Plan, released in February 2021, names Galathea Bay in the list of “Important Marine Turtle Habitats in India”. Although the plan identifies coastal development, including construction of ports, jetties, resorts, and industries, as major threats to turtle populations, the NBWL and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) went ahead and denotified the sanctuary for allowing the port. Two weeks after the denotification, the MoEFCC declared a zero- extent eco-sensitive zone for the Galathea and Campbell Bay National Parks, thus making pristine forest land along the central and south-eastern coast of the island available for the project.
It was later revealed that Vimta Labs had started gathering data in December 2020 itself for an EIA report for which it had not yet been contracted. In fact, all the above-mentioned developments began even before AECOM released the final project proposal in March 2021, implying both “pre-judgement of clearance outputs and a clear violation of due process” as noted by the coastal researcher Aarthi Sridhar.
The draft EIA report itself has many problems, and researchers and NGOs from across the country have raised nearly 400 concerns relating to ecology, rights of indigenous communities, and the tectonic volatility and disaster vulnerability of the island. In numerous submissions, the urgency of pushing through such a huge project in the difficult times of the pandemic was also questioned.
The mandatory public hearing was held in Campbell Bay, the administrative headquarters of Great Nicobar, in January 2022 and the final EIA report was published by Vimta in March. The project was then discussed in multiple meetings of the EAC, which finally recommended the project for clearance in August 2022. The Ministry accepted the recommendations and granted the final environmental clearance in November vide a letter signed by Amardeep Raju of its Impact Assessment Division.
Forest clearance too
While all this was happening, a parallel process was going on in the MoEFCC for the stage-1 (in-principle) forest clearance. On October 27, the Ministry’s forest conservation division granted clearance for the use of 130.75 sq km of pristine forest for the project, making it one of the largest single forest diversions in recent times. It is nearly a quarter of all the forest land diverted in the past three years in the country (554 sq km, according to information provided in the Lok Sabha in July 2022) and 65 per cent of the 203 sq km of forest land diverted in the three years from 2015 to 2018.
The clearance is riddled with contradictions and lack of transparency. According to the clearance letter, permission was granted following a “careful examination” of the island administration’s request dated October 7, 2020, and “on [the] basis of the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and its acceptance by the competent authority in the Ministry”.
“How is it possible,” asks a senior researcher who preferred to remain anonymous, that “the island administration knew exactly where forest clearance is needed in October 2020 itself when AECOM presented the project proposal only in March 2021?” The MoEFCC’s website has no details of the minutes of the FAC meetings where these decisions were supposed to have been taken. Communications (and reminders) sent in November to FAC members regarding this clearance did not evoke any response.
A Right to Information (RTI) application filed in October seeking details of the clearance, including the proposed compensatory afforestation scheme, was rejected under Section 8.1(a) of the RTI Act that cites security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests of the state. Significantly, not a single document pertaining to the forest clearance has been made available on the Ministry’s Parivesh portal to date, contradicting recent claims by Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav that “the entire scientific report (related to the project) is out there that has all the analysis”.
A crucial requirement for forest clearance is a detailed plan for compensatory afforestation, which the clearance letter states would be carried out in Haryana. Interestingly, the final EIA report mentions that compensatory afforestation will be carried out on 260 sq km in Madhya Pradesh and even includes a letter from the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Department certifying that the State government 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. “The idea that cutting of tropical forests in an island system can be compensated by tree planting in a semi-arid zone many thousand kilometres away is preposterous and lacks any ecological basis,” says the researcher quoted earlier.
Tribal rights ignored
Another key concern is regarding the rights and livelihoods of the two tribal communities for whom Great Nicobar has been home for thousands of years: the Nicobarese (about a 1,000 people) and the Shompen (about 200). The latter is classified as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) and is a hunter-gatherer nomadic community critically dependent on the forests of the island for survival.
Apathy and complete lack of concern characterise the role of the institutions tasked with tribal welfare. An example of this is the August 2021 letter by the A&N Administration’s Directorate of Tribal Welfare.
It begins by stating that the island administration will protect the rights of the tribal people and then immediately adds that it will seek required exemption(s) from the competent authority “whenever any exemptions” are needed “for the execution of the project”.
At the national level, too, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and the NITI Aayog are seen as having abdicated their responsibility on the matter. In response to a recent RTI application seeking details on tribal issues in Great Nicobar, the PVTG division in the Ministry said it had no information on the matter and passed on the query to NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Home Affairs. On November 11, just four days later, NITI Aayog sent the query back to MoTA for further necessary action. The PVTG division responded on November 18, reiterating that it had no information on the matter and transferred it to the Ministry of Home Affairs “for providing information to the applicant directly”.
In a letter dated November 15 to Bhupender Yadav, E.A.S. Sarma, former Secretary to the Government of India, questioned the granting of clearances for the project without consulting the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. The Centre and States are obliged to consult the commission in matters relating to the Scheduled Tribes, he noted.
C.R. Bijoy, a Coimbatore-based tribal rights researcher and activist, cites several sections of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to emphasise that the “Shompens are the sole legally empowered authority to protect, preserve, regulate and manage this tribal reserve. What we are seeing in Great Nicobar is a blatant violation of the rights of the tribals. This is also a violation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.”
Sharad Lele, a senior researcher with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) and a former member of the MoEF-MoTA Committee on the FRA, concurred. “The FRA unambiguously vests rights with forest-dwellers,” he said. “What makes the violations here even worse is that these forests are particularly pristine, and PVTGs like the Shompen have (or should certainly have) even stronger rights under the FRA. The project and the projected increase of the population of Great Nicobar to 3.5 lakh amounts to a planned destruction of the Adivasi culture and lives.”
According to Janki Andharia, Professor at the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, the main concern is the project’s location on a major fault line. The risk this poses, she notes, has not been taken into consideration even in the final EIA report upon which the Ministry has based its clearance. In their comments to the draft EIA, she and her colleagues had pointed out that the islands had experienced nearly 444 earthquakes in the past 10 years and the plan for the container terminal here “needs to be reconsidered”.
Great Nicobar is not far from Banda Aceh in Indonesia, which was the epicentre of the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that caused unprecedented damage. The coastline of Great Nicobar saw permanent subsidence of nearly four metres as evidenced by the fact that the lighthouse at Indira Point now stands surrounded by water. Andharia has first-hand experience of dealing with the impacts of a disaster on these islands. She was the leader of an intensive, four-year on-the-ground TISS effort in partnership with the island administration to reach out to the island chain’s worst-hit communities in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.
“Stating that ‘building standards and codes will be followed’ is inadequate,” she said about the project authorities’ response to her observations on the draft EIA report. “The meaning of ‘making a structure earthquake proof’ needs to be revisited in this context. This cannot be the same as waterproofing a house because a post-facto disaster response plan will not prevent a disaster from happening in the first place.”
A critical juncture
Concerns about the project, discussions in the media, and questions in the just-concluded winter session of Parliament have thrust the remote, little-known, little-understood, and even less-visited Great Nicobar Island into the national limelight like never before. The only other time it made it to national headlines and primetime news was following the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004. It has not even been two decades since then and it can only be viewed as Great Nicobar’s great betrayal and great misfortune that this pristine island, its invaluable biodiversity and original human inhabitants, thousands of crores of valuable investment, and more than 3,00,000 outsiders are knowingly being put in harm’s way. There cannot be a folly more monumental than this.
Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching and writing on issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He is also the author of five books on the islands.
- The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has cleared the decks for a mega infrastructure project in Great Nicobar Island—the stage-1 (in-principle) forest clearance were granted on October 27, 2022, and the environmental clearance on November 11.
- The project has a Rs.35,000 crore transshipment port at Galathea Bay, an international airport, a power plant, and a greenfield township on more than 160 square kilometres of land, including 130 sq km of primary forest.
- Researchers and NGOs from across the country have raised nearly 400 concerns relating to ecology, rights of indigenous communities, and the tectonic volatility and disaster vulnerability of the island.
- A Right to Information (RTI) application filed in October seeking details of the clearance, including the proposed compensatory afforestation scheme, was rejected citing security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests of the state. Not a single document pertaining to the forest clearance has been made available on the Ministry’s Parivesh portal to date.