Nicobar project gets assent for diversion of 130 sq km of forest

It is nearly a quarter of all the forest land diverted in the past three years across the country; 8.5 lakh trees will have to be cut for the ₹72,000-crore project

November 08, 2022 08:45 pm | Updated November 10, 2022 03:39 pm IST

Great Nicobar Island has among the best preserved tropical forests in the world.

Great Nicobar Island has among the best preserved tropical forests in the world. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has granted an in-principle (Stage 1) clearance for the diversion of 130.75 sq km of forest in Great Nicobar Island for the mega ₹72,000-crore project that includes a transshipment port, an airport, a power plant and a greenfield township. The project implementation agency is the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO).

Ecological wealth

The area is nearly 15% of the thickly forested Great Nicobar Island that is spread over 900 sq km. This is one of the largest single such forest diversions in recent times: it is nearly a quarter of all the forest land diverted in the past three years across the country (554 sq km as per information provided in the Lok Sabha in July ) and 65% of the 203 sq km of forest land diverted in the three year period 2015-18.

The Ministry’s own estimates suggest that 8.5 lakh trees will have to be cut in Great Nicobar for this project. This is doubly significant because these are primary evergreen tropical forests with high biological diversity and also high endemism; Ministry documents themselves state that the island has among the best preserved tropical forests in the world, is home to nearly 650 species of flora and 330 species of fauna, including 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.

Compensatory afforestation

A letter confirming the clearance was issued on October 27 by the Ministry’s forest conservation division. Signed by Suneet Bhardwaj, Assistant Inspector General of Forests, the letter states that the permission has been granted following a “careful examination” of the island administration’s request for the same dated October 7, 2020 and “on basis of the recommendations of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and its acceptance by the competent authority in the Ministry”.

A key condition for the clearance is the submission of a detailed scheme for compensatory afforestation, which is to be done on “non-notified forest land” in Haryana. It also states that an amount of ₹3,672 crore needs to be earmarked for the environment management plan (EMP) for the construction and operation phase of the project. The final environment impact assessment (EIA) report of the project that was prepared in March 2022 and accepted by the Ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) had calculated the cost of this compensatory afforestation to be ₹970 crores.

Great Nicobar is home to nearly 650 species of flora and 330 species of fauna. Special Arrangement

Great Nicobar is home to nearly 650 species of flora and 330 species of fauna. Special Arrangement

Interestingly, the final EIA report mentioned that the compensatory afforestation over 260 sq km (twice the diversion area) will be carried out in Madhya Pradesh and even carries a letter of the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Department certifying that the Government of Madhya Pradesh 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 for the same. Though the permission letter mentions the “recommendations of the FAC”, no details or minutes are available on the Ministry’s website of the FAC meetings where these decisions were taken.

Communications (and reminders) seeking details sent to the official email addresses of all the members of the FAC that granted the forest clearance also did not evoke any response. A right to information (RTI) application filed in October seeking the details of the compensatory afforestation scheme in Madhya Pradesh was in fact rejected under Section 8.1(a) of the RTI Act that cites security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state.

Haryana stands out for having one of the highest rates of diversion of its own forest land even though the forest cover in the State is minimal. The State diverted nearly 80 sq km of its forest between 2014-15 and 2016-17, the highest for any State in the country for that period. The State was also chastised in May for unwise use of compensatory afforestation funds, too much focus on plantations and failure to raise the forest area, by Ashok Khemka, steering committee member of Haryana’s Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA).

“It is not clear,” says Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Act Trust (CAT), “how ANIIDCO, the project proponent, will compensate for the loss of these virgin tropical forests teeming with endemic and endangered species with artificial tree plantations in the faraway State of Haryana.”

“It is also apparent,” he continues, “that it will be almost impossible to get 130 sq km of forest land in Haryana that are contiguous and undisturbed.”

He points to a number of other legal issues in this in-principle forest clearance. These include 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”.

Also read | NITI Aayog’s megacity plan for Little Andaman alarms conservationists

“It is unfortunate,” says another senior researcher on conditions of anonymity, “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.”

(Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He has authored five books on the islands)

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