Kochi: The National Green Tribunal (NGT), India’s apex green court, ruled that it would not “interfere” with the forest and environment clearances accorded to the Rs 72,000 crore-mega infrastructure project in India’s Great Nicobar Island, which conservationists have said will affect indigenous communities and damage the fragile ecology and biodiversity of the Island.
The mega project involves diverting 130 square kilometres of forest, to construct several developmental projects including a transshipment terminal, a township and an airport. It will also affect the indigenous Shompen and Nicobarese communities living on the island.
The NGT said that the existing environmental clearance has been stayed for two months until a High-Powered Committee (HPC) appointed by it “revisits” the clearance to address some “unanswered deficiencies” with the project (pertaining to threats to corals, incomplete impact assessment undertaken for the project and its location in a prohibited area as per the Coastal Regulation Zone rules). However, conservationists are disappointed by the green court’s stand for several reasons, including the fact that the NGT’s proposed HPC comprises government and other representatives that have already offered support to the project.
A mega project, controversies and clearances
The Rs 72,000 crore mega developmental project on Great Nicobar Island (located in the southernmost part of the Andaman and Nicobar island complex in the Bay of Bengal) proposes to construct an international container transshipment terminal, greenfield international airport, a township, and a gas and solar power plant on the eastern coast of the island.
The project has courted controversy several times, and not just for the impacts it would have on indigenous communities and local biodiversity. In January 2021, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife denotified the entire Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to allow for the port there. The Wire Science reported in January 2022 about how the EIA for the project was short, incomplete, cherry-picked data from biodiversity surveys, and ignored existing information about the island’s biodiversity.
In its order dated April 3, the Bench responded to appeals filed by an individual and NGO regarding the diversion of 130 sq km of forest for the mega project, and that the forest clearance had not taken into account the impacts on people (both Shompen and Nicobarese communities will be affected due to the project) and biodiversity. The Bench, however, refused to “interfere” with the forest and environment clearances accorded to the project.
The project has “great significance not only for economic development of the island and surrounding areas of strategic location but also for defence and national security”, the Bench noted. It further added that the project would help bridge the “infrastructural gap” in the island and “promote international trade saving [a] huge amount on transhipment cargo”. While forests are of “great significance in tackling air pollution and climate change, development cannot be totally ignored”, the Bench held. It, therefore, found no reason to “interfere” with the Forest Clearance, the Bench said.
The Bench took a similar stance regarding the project’s Environmental Clearance too.
The respondent – the Union environment ministry – is “committed to comply” with the Island Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2019 (ICRZ 2019) and tribal rights, per the Bench. “They have also planned compensatory afforestation and mangrove plantations,” the Bench noted. “Thus, by and large the project is compliant and EC does not call for interference.”
It is not necessary to adopt a “hyper technical approach” that ignores the “ground realities about [the] need of the country for development and national security”, the Bench said. “Every developmental activity is bound to have some adverse impact on [the] environment but if impact can be mitigated and advantages to the society are greater, such project[s] have to be allowed in larger public interest.”
Addressing “unanswered deficiencies”
The Bench chaired by Justice (Retired) Adarsh Kumar Goel noted, however, that there were three “unanswered deficiencies” with the mega project planned on the Great Nicobar Island.
Firstly, out of the 20,668 coral colonies that would be affected, the project proponent – the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation – proposed to translocate only 16,150 and does not mention the threats to the remaining 4,518 coral colonies, the Bench said. Any developmental activity that destroys corals is prohibited as per the ICRZ 2019.
Second, the impact assessment undertaken for the project was conducted only for one season when it should have been conducted across three, the Bench noted.
Third, part of the project area is within a Coastal Regulation Zone I A area, where constructing anything – let alone a port – is prohibited.
These factors, therefore, call for “revisiting” the environment clearance given to the project, the Bench said. It proposed to constitute a High Powered Committee to do so. The HPC will be headed by the secretary (MoEFCC) and members will include the chief secretary (Andaman and Nicobar), a nominee of the Vice Chairman of NITI Aayog, a nominee of the secretary of the Ministry of Shipping and the director of the Wildlife Institute of India. The committee is to give its recommendations in two months, during which time the project’s environmental clearance will be on hold, per the Bench.
Conflict of interest and more
However, the constitution of the members of the HPC points to a conflict of interest since the list comprises government and other representatives that have already offered support to the project.
For instance, the committee is to be headed by the secretary of the MoEFCC. The Union environment ministry is a respondent in the hearing, and has already defended its stand regarding clearances to go ahead with the project.
One of the members of the HPC will be an individual nominated by the vice chairman of NITI Aayog. Incidentally, the idea for the entire project stemmed from the NITI Aayog’s “vision document” for the ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island in Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ as The Wire Science reported in 2021. NITI Aayog later denied the existence of such a vision document in an RTI reply.
Another member of the HPC is to be from the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI). During the hearing on April 3, the director of ZSI, Dhriti Banerjee, explained that corals can be protected and that environmental impact can be “sustainably managed”.
The severe conflict of interest is indeed apparent, agreed scientist Manish Chandi, who has studied the links between local communities and the natural environment in the islands, and served as a member of the Research and Advisory Board of the Department of Tribal Welfare from 2011-2019.
“The committee constituted is completely against the principle of judicious, scientific and logical assessment given their existing association with pushing the project through,” he told The Wire.
It is also surprising how the NGT has sidelined both forest and environmental clearances for the project, commented Chandi.
The forests and coasts, which are part of a declared biosphere reserve comprising two national parks of high biodiversity value, are untouched by forestry or other forms of management, and managed by the indigenous Shompen and Great Nicobarese communities, said Chandi. The project would affect the people and the forest, he told The Wire.
“The entire space we’re concerned about is theirs to begin with,” he added. “They have managed it all these centuries. They are being displaced, their forests and swamps being cleared and destroyed and in the process all biological diversity is thwarted and put asunder as separate pieces of a jigsaw… when they all are part and parcel of the same.”
There is also a “glaring lacuna” in how the NGT has questioned the transplantation of coral without considering the humongous damage that the clear felling of trees and subsequent erosion is going to have, he said. According to Chandi, the coral reefs too have just recently recovered after the tsunami and will be destroyed for this project.
Pankaj Sekhsaria, who has chronicled the Andaman and Nicobar Islands extensively, told the New Indian Express that the NGT had “failed completely to even understand, leave alone acknowledge the scale of the ecological damage this project will cause”.
“The order is less about what the NGT is mandated to look at and reads more like the project proponents’ justification for going ahead with the project,” he said.