New Delhi: The Union environment ministry has in principle granted its permission for the diversion of nearly 130.75 sq km forest area in the Great Nicobar island for a developmental project, where a transshipment port, an airport, a power plant and a greenfield township will come up. The environmental costs of the project, however, are massive, The Hindu reported.
Estimated to cost Rs 72,000 crore, the project by Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO) will see the felling of nearly 8.5 lakh trees. About 15% of the 900 sq km of the thickly forested area – which serves as habitat to rare flora and fauna on the island – will be affected. The proposed diversion of forest land is the largest in recent times, for it is about a quarter of all the forest land diverted (554 sq km) in the past three years across the country as per the information revealed by the government in Lok Saba in July.
According to the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) own estimates, the proposed deforestation exercise will affect what is primarily evergreen tropical forests with high biological diversity and also high endemism. The official document of the ministry states that the island is home to the best-preserved tropical forests in the world, where about 650 species of flora and 330 species of fauna are found. What’s more, it is also home to endemic species such as the Nicobar shrew, the Nicobar long-tailed macaque, the Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, the Nicobar paradise flycatcher and the Nicobar megapode, among many others.
The clearance for the project came from the Union environment ministry’s forest conservation division on October 27, after a “careful examination” of the October 7, 2020 requisition submitted by the island administration. Assistant inspector general of forests, Suneet Bhardwaj, who processed the requisition at the Union environment ministry level said the permission was “on basis of the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and its acceptance by the competent authority in the ministry”.
According to the available details, the application was processed after an elaborate plan for “compensatory afforestation” was drawn up by the project authorities involved in the matter. The “compensatory afforestation” will be taken up on a “non-notified forest land” in Haryana, but not on the island where forested land will be affected. For an environment management plan (EMP), Rs 3,672 has been earmarked under the developmental project.
However, the final environmental impact assessment (EIA) report of the project estimated the cost of this compensatory afforestation to be Rs 970 crore. The EIA was prepared in March 2022 and was accepted by the Union environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee.
The final EIA report, however, said the compensatory afforestation will be taken on 260 sq km of land in Madhya Pradesh. No details are available as to why it was changed from Haryana to Madhya Pradesh except for stating that it was due to “recommendations of the FAC”. However, no details or minutes of the meeting where such a decision was made at the ministry level are available on the website of the Union environment ministry. Currently, what stands, as of date, is a letter from the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Department certifying that the Government of Madhya Pradesh has submitted the details for compensatory afforestation.
According to The Hindu, no information is forthcoming from the officials in the Union environment ministry on what necessitated the change in the location of the compensatory afforestation programme. On the other hand, a right to information (RTI) application, filed in October, with the Madhya Pradesh government was also turned down under Section 8.1 (a) of the RTI Act, citing security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state.
Environmental activists, meanwhile, accused authorities involved in the matter of flouting norms pertaining to forest conservation. Debi Goenka, an executive trustee of the Conservation Act Trust, pointed to the news outlet the “neglect” of multiple clauses of the Forest Conservation Rules and Guidelines in the de-reservation process, and also the violation of a Supreme Court order of November 13, 2000 (reiterated on February 9, 2004) which ordered no further “de-reservation of forests/sanctuaries/national parks”.
“It is unfortunate that we hear of the destruction of some of the finest tropical forests in the country at the same time as our environment minister is telling the world at the ongoing United Nations climate conference in Egypt that India is ‘a part of the solution and not the problem’. There is a huge gap here, clearly, between words and deeds,” said a researcher on the environmental issues on the condition of anonymity, according to The Hindu.