Jaipur: Less than a month after the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Tarun Coomar, in a letter, pointed out that the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) widening project was being carried out without environmental clearance, his duties were taken away. As per the redistribution of work allocation order passed by the union territory administration on June 3, the work allocation against his name reads “nil”.
On April 29, Coomar had written to the secretary to Government of India, C.K. Mishra, saying that the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation (NHIDCL) – the agency that had been handed the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) widening project in 2018 – had not sought environment clearance before proceeding with construction work.
The ATR’s construction was carried out by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in the 1960s and ’70s and then handled over to Andaman Public Works Department (APWD) for maintenance.
It stretches from Chidiyatapu in South Andamans to Diglipur in North Andamans, and has various tribal settlements all along it, including of the endangered Jarawa tribe.
Instances in the past have demonstrated that the ATR amounts to an intrusion into the lives of the Jarawas. In 2013, after a video showing women of the Jarawa tribe being paid to dance for tourists went viral, the Supreme Court banned the ATR for tourists. The court reversed its order only after the union territory administration submitted a notification declaring that area up to five kilometres radius near the Jarawa Tribal Reserve – starting from the Constance Bay in South Andaman to Lewis Inlet Bay in Middle Andaman – would serve as a buffer zone where any commercial or tourist establishment would not be permitted.
Environmentalists had argued that the construction and widening of the ATR would result in a significant ecological impact on the spread of insects and weeds in the forest and would pose a threat to the Jarawa tribes.
Despite this, the ATR was later declared as a national highway and the task of its maintenance was assigned to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) for widening it to a standard of a national highway.
Coomar’s letter said that the ATR passes through two areas – tribal reserve declared under the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation and forest areas declared under Indian Forest Act, 1927 – that require environmental clearance.
The same was also communicated to the implementing agency (NHIDCL) in a meeting held on June 8, 2018, attended by the chief secretary of the Union territory, tribal and forest department, NHIDCL, district administration of South Andaman and department of environment and forests. However, the NHIDCL failed to pay attention to the clearance. “Despite several reminders and warnings, NHIDCL didn’t seek clearance and in 2019 and 2020, went ahead with the project,” the letter said.
The PCCF also stated in the letter that on February 20, 2020, the matter of the violation of the Forest Conservation Act was raised before the chief secretary in a meeting in which the managing director of NHIDCL was also present.
“There again, the Andaman and Nicobar administration completely ignored the fact that the law of the land had been blatantly and deliberately violated despite repeated warnings and intimations, including at the level of chief secretary. At that time, decision was to continue with the works. On insistence of PCCF, NHIDCL was asked to apply for clearance,” the letter stated.
The meeting concluded with the decision that NHIDCL could continue with the work and simultaneously apply for environmental clearance.
Senior officers in the Union territory, on the condition of anonymity, told The Wire that the NHIDCL has yet to apply for environment clearance.
In the letter, Coomar also said that the states must not be delegated the power to issue clearance through deliberations by a state forest advisory committee as it would be an attempt to legitimise the violation of the Forest Conservation Act.
V.K. Bahuguna, a retired forest officer associated with the Centre for Resource Management and Environment has written to the Supreme Court of India regarding the “nil” work allocation to the PCCF. “It is a case of removing an officer for not agreeing to allowing the road construction activities in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980,” Bahuguna’s letter read.
Bahuguna further requested the forest bench of the apex court to consider the matter.