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Environment

Former Civil Servants Ask President to Halt ' Undesirable Development' of Great Nicobar Island

They said that the project will "destroy one of the most pristine habitats in the country, one which is home to various rare and endemic species, as well as to an extremely vulnerable tribe, the Shompens of Great Nicobar".

New Delhi: A group of 87 former civil servants have written to President Droupadi Murmu, asking her to advise the government to “immediately stop the commencement of destructive projects” in Great Nicobar Island.

There are plans for a massive development project on the island, including an international container transhipment terminal, a large green field international airport, a township, and a solar and gas-based power plant to be set up over 16,610 hectares.

This will “destroy one of the most pristine habitats in the country, one which is home to various rare and endemic species, as well as to an extremely vulnerable tribe, the Shompens of Great Nicobar”, the former civil servants, under the Constitutional Conduct Group, said.

They added that the idea of replacing the “virgin forests of Great Nicobar with planted forests in Haryana would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic: 13075 acres of rich, evergreen, rain forests teeming with extraordinary flora and fauna species to be compensated with newly planted trees in the dry Aravalli hills of Haryana”.

The civil servants said that the change in the climate of India is palpable: “unbelievably hot temperatures in summer, erratic rainfall, repeated cyclones, mild winters in most of the country but sharp falls in temperature in the north, should also have sent alarm signals to the government”. They also said that the subsidence of land in Joshimath is a “glaring indication of the damage that unthinking development can do to the country”.

“We earnestly request you to advise your government to immediately stop the commencement of destructive projects in Great Nicobar,” they told the president.

The full letter, with the list of signatories, is reproduced below.

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CCG Open Letter to Hon’ble President of India – Undesirable Development of Great Nicobar Island

22 January 2023

Hon’ble Rashtrapatiji, Smt. Droupadi Murmu,

We are a group of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of our careers. As a group, we have no affiliation with any political party but believe in impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Constitution of India.

We are heartened by your recent words at the Human Rights Day celebrations on 10 December 2022, wherein you stated that the concept of justice should be expanded to include the environment. You said “just as the concept of human rights exhorts us to consider every human being as no different from ourselves, we should treat the whole living world and its habitat with respect”.

However, even as you say this, the Government of India is all set to destroy one of the most pristine habitats in the country, one which is home to various rare and endemic species, as well as to an extremely vulnerable tribe, the Shompens of Great Nicobar.

The plans for a massive development project on the island of Great Nicobar consist of an international container transhipment terminal, a large green field international airport, a township, and a solar and gas based power plant, to be set up over 16610 hectares. Considering that the entire island of Great Nicobar covers 103870 hectares, almost 16% of the island will be given over to the project. Of the total area of the island, 75100 hectares have been statutorily notified as a Tribal Reserve for the Shompen tribe, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). These shy and isolated tribal people, who are almost on the brink of extinction, need to be handled with extreme care and sensitivity, not carelessly removed from their existing home territory and resettled elsewhere on the island to make room for the ‘development project’. The Shompens have, from time to time, experienced serious incursions by outsiders into their area. The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes is aware of this matter and has instructed the government to prevent such intrusions. Instead of taking heed of this, the government itself is now all set to make a major intrusion.

Apart from the human dimensions, there is no denying the immense adverse impact that the project will have on the ecology of the island. Great Nicobar covers a variety of unique and threatened eco systems – tropical, wet evergreen forests, mountain ranges reaching 642 metres above sea level and coastal plains. It is home to myriad species of angiosperms, gymnosperms, ferns and bryophytes, as well as to hundreds of species of fauna, many of which are rare and threatened species, not found anywhere else in the world. These include endemic or endangered species such as the crab eating macaque, the Nicobar tree shrew, the dugong, the Nicobar megapode, the salt water crocodile, the Nicobar cricket frog and several others. All these are seriously threatened and will quite possibly be rendered extinct by the enormous ‘development project’ proposed to be taken up.

Although an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out for the project, it is clear from the published reports that the scope of the analysis was limited. The persons involved with the environmental appraisal were reportedly advised that the project was a “given” and were asked to try and minimise the impact. The airfield, being a defence project, was not even part of the mandate. No one was authorised to check if alternative arrangements and/or relocation of the project were feasible. The entire exercise seemed to presume that the project would be good for the islands and the country and lead to rapid development. We strongly believe that this presumption may not be valid.

We are pained to learn that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has not only granted environmental and coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearance with certain conditions, it has also given an ‘in principle’ clearance for diversion of 13075 hectares of forest land, with compensatory afforestation to be carried out in the State of Haryana. The idea of replacing the virgin forests of Great Nicobar with planted forests in Haryana would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic: 13075 acres of rich, evergreen, rain forests teeming with extraordinary flora and fauna species to be compensated with newly planted trees in the dry Aravalli hills of Haryana!

Several recent occurrences should have discouraged the government from undertaking such a major environment-destroying project. The first is the decision taken on 19 December 2022 at the Conference of Parties for the Convention for Biological Diversity, at which it was agreed, among other things, to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030; also, specifically, to protect 30% of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans with emphasis on areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functioning and services. This decision which was ratified by nearly 200 countries, including India, specifically mentions ‘reducing to near zero the loss of areas of high biodiversity importance, including ecosystems of high ecological integrity’. Considering such a commitment, it is baffling how India can even consider the loss of such an enormously ecologically important area like Great Nicobar.

The all too palpable change in the climate of India – unbelievably hot temperatures in summer, erratic rainfall, repeated cyclones, mild winters in most of the country but sharp falls in temperature in the north, should also have sent alarm signals to the government. The changes in climate throughout the country and all over the world have made it apparent to even the casual observer that a warmer world is here to stay; and that urgent measures need to be taken by the government and the people to keep the increase in temperatures to a minimum. Stopping the denudation of existing forests, especially rich, virgin rainforests and adding to the existing forest cover are obviously the major steps needed.

The subsidence of land in Joshimath is a glaring indication of the damage that unthinking development can do to the country. Destroying the forests and the ecology of Great Nicobar to set up container terminals and airports would be a mistake of the same order. The frequent prevalence of undersea quakes that occur in the oceans of that region and the resultant subsidence of land in the islands is also a major risk.

Our opposition to the proposed development in Great Nicobar should not be construed as opposition to development or technology in general. It is because of the particular vulnerability of Great Nicobar that we are concerned. Experience has shown that what starts out as a small ‘development project’ in a vulnerable locality keeps expanding inexorably, leading to a total destruction of the environment in which it is situated. The ecology and tribal people of Great Nicobar are far too precious to India and the world at large to be sacrificed on the altar of “development”.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is a group of rare volcanic islands with among the very few surviving rainforests in the world. Its preservation, and the conservation of some of the rarest surviving pristine tribal communities anywhere in the world, has earned for our country and our government a standing as champions of the environment in an ecologically threatened world. This carefully nurtured reputation will be totally lost in one fell swoop if this project goes forward.

Having assumed the leadership of the G-20 group of nations this year, India should surely demonstrate that economic development does not, and should not, have to be at the expense of the environment, and that protecting the environment is the wisest of economic decisions.

We earnestly request you to advise your government to immediately stop the commencement of destructive projects in Great Nicobar.

SATYAMEVA JAYATE
Yours faithfully,
Constitutional Conduct Group (87 signatories, as below)

V.S. Ailawadi, IAS (Retd.) Former Vice Chairman, Delhi Development Authority
S.P. Ambrose, IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Secretary, Ministry of Shipping & Transport, GoI
Anand Arni, RAS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
J.L. Bajaj, IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Administrative Reforms and Decentralisation Commission, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh
G. Balachandhran, IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
Vappala Balachandran, IPS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
Gopalan Balagopal, IAS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
Chandrashekar Balakrishnan, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Coal, GoI
T.K. Banerji, IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Union Public Service Commission
Sharad Behar, IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
Aurobindo Behera, IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Odisha
Madhu Bhaduri, IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Portugal
Ravi Budhiraja, IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, GoI
Sundar Burra, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
R. Chandramohan, IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Secretary, Transport and Urban Development, Govt. of NCT of Delhi
Rachel Chatterjee, IAS (Retd.) Former Special Chief Secretary, Agriculture, Govt. of Andhra Pradesh
Kalyani Chaudhuri, IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
Gurjit Singh Cheema, IAS (Retd.) Former Financial Commissioner (Revenue), Govt. of Punjab
F.T.R. Colaso, IPS (Retd.) Former Director General of Police, Govt. of Karnataka & former Director General of Police, Govt. of Jammu & Kashmir
Anna Dani, IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
Surjit K. Das, IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Uttarakhand
Vibha Puri Das, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GoI
P.R. Dasgupta, IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Food Corporation of India, GoI
Pradeep K. Deb, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Deptt. Of Sports, GoI
Nitin Desai, Former Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, GoI
M.G. Devasahayam, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Govt. of Haryana
Sushil Dubey, IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Sweden
A.S. Dulat, IPS (Retd.) Former OSD on Kashmir, Prime Minister’s Office, GoI
K.P. Fabian, IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Italy
Prabhu Ghate, IAS (Retd.) Former Addl. Director General, Department of Tourism, GoI
Arif Ghauri, IRS (Retd.) Former Governance Adviser, DFID, Govt. of the United Kingdom (on deputation)
Gourisankar Ghosh, IAS (Retd.) Former Mission Director, National Drinking Water Mission, GoI
Suresh K. Goel, IFS (Retd.) Former Director General, Indian Council of Cultural Relations, GoI
S.K. Guha, IAS (Retd.) Former Joint Secretary, Department of Women & Child Development, GoI
H.S. Gujral, IFoS (Retd.) Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Govt. of Punjab
Meena Gupta, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forests, GoI
Wajahat Habibullah, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, GoI and former Chief Information Commissioner
Siraj Hussain, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Department of Agriculture, GoI
Kamal Jaswal, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI
Sudhir Kumar, IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Central Administrative Tribunal
Subodh Lal, IPoS (Resigned) Former Deputy Director General, Ministry of Communications, GoI
Harsh Mander, IAS (Retd.) Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
Amitabh Mathur, IPS (Retd.) Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
Aditi Mehta, IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Rajasthan
Sonalini Mirchandani, IFS (Resigned) GoI
Avinash Mohananey, IPS (Retd.) Former Director General of Police, Govt. of Sikkim
Deb Mukharji, IFS (Retd.) Former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and former Ambassador to Nepal
Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, IFS (Retd.) Former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
Gautam Mukhopadhaya, IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Myanmar
Surendra Nath, IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Finance Commission, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
P. Joy Oommen, IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Chhattisgarh
S.K. Pachauri, IAS (Retd.) Former Director General, National Productivity Council, GoI
Amitabha Pande, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI
Maxwell Pereira, IPS (Retd.) Former Joint Commissioner of Police, Delhi
G.K. Pillai, IAS (Retd.) Former Home Secretary, GoI
Gurnihal Singh Pirzada, IAS (Resigned) Former MD, Punjab State Electronic Development & Production Corporation, Govt. of Punjab
Rajesh Prasad, IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to the Netherlands
Rajdeep Puri, IRS (Resigned) Former Joint Commissioner of Income Tax, GoI
S.Y. Quraishi, IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Election Commissioner
T.R. Raghunandan, IAS (Retd.) Former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, GoI
N.K. Raghupathy, IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Staff Selection Commission, GoI
V.P. Raja, IAS (Retd.) Former Chairman, Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission
K. Sujatha Rao, IAS (Retd.) Former Health Secretary, GoI
M.Y. Rao, IAS (Retd.)
Satwant Reddy, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Chemicals and Petrochemicals, GoI
Vijaya Latha Reddy, IFS (Retd.) Former Deputy National Security Adviser, GoI
Julio Ribeiro, IPS (Retd.) Former Adviser to Governor of Punjab & former Ambassador to Romania
Aruna Roy, IAS (Resigned)
Manabendra N. Roy, IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
A.K. Samanta, IPS (Retd.) Former Director General of Police (Intelligence), Govt. of West Bengal
Deepak Sanan, IAS (Retd.) Former Principal Adviser (AR) to Chief Minister, Govt. of Himachal Pradesh
G.V. Venugopala Sarma, IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Odisha
N.C. Saxena, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Planning Commission, GoI
A. Selvaraj, IRS (Retd.) Former Chief Commissioner, Income Tax, Chennai, GoI
Ardhendu Sen, IAS (Retd.) Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
Abhijit Sengupta, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, GoI
Aftab Seth, IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Japan
Ashok Kumar Sharma, IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Finland and Estonia
Navrekha Sharma, IFS (Retd.) Former Ambassador to Indonesia
Raju Sharma, IAS (Retd.) Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh
Tara Ajai Singh, IAS (Retd.) Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Karnataka
Tirlochan Singh, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary, National Commission for Minorities, GoI
Parveen Talha, IRS (Retd.) Former Member, Union Public Service Commission
Anup Thakur, IAS (Retd.) Former Member, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission
P.S.S. Thomas, IAS (Retd.) Former Secretary General, National Human Rights Commission
Geetha Thoopal, IRAS (Retd.) Former General Manager, Metro Railway, Kolkata
Ramani Venkatesan, IAS (Retd.) Former Director General, YASHADA, Govt. of Maharashtra