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Govt vision for Great Nicobar includes airport & township, some experts think it’s ‘nonsense’

New Delhi: A public hearing was held Thursday to discuss the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island in Andaman & Nicobar Islands’ — a project that seeks to transform the largely uninhabited and remote Great Nicobar Island into a transshipment port and tourist hub.

The public hearing is a step of the environmental clearance process for large projects with lasting environmental impacts. It is done to ensure local communities and environmental organisations are given a platform to adequately voice their concerns arising from the project.

Several environmental organisations, researchers, and citizens have made written submissions to the Andaman and Nicobar Administration Pollution Control Committee asking that the EIA report — by the Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs — be revised. ThePrint has obtained some of these submissions.

The EIA report said, “It can be concluded that with the strict implementation of the pollution control and mitigation measures, with proper environment management system in place, the proposed integrated project will be beneficial to the society and will contribute to the economic development of the GNIs in particular and the country in general,” a claim that was heavily questioned at the public hearing stage.

The project follows the NITI Aayog’s vision of building a Rs 72,000 crore International Container Transshipment Terminal, airport, thermal power plant, and township — which is expected to house up to 6.5 lakh people — on the island. Currently, the island has a little over 8,000 inhabitants. Among them, 237 are from the aboriginal Shompen tribe, and 1,094 from the Nicobarese tribe.

The project vision

In early 2021, the NITI Aayog circulated an undated vision document titled ‘Sustainable Development of Little Andaman Island’, which proposed developing both Great Nicobar Island, as well as Little Andaman, “for economic and strategic benefits to the country but at the same time ensure conservation of the rich bio-diversity and primitive tribal groups in the core of these islands”.

According to the vision document, the plan had four objectives: Building two new Greenfield Coastal Cities for India, developing the cities as Free Trade Zones, having the two cities to compete with global cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai, and leveraging the strategic location and natural features of the islands to present a unique experience to the visitors.

A Haryana-based infrastructure firm, AECOM, was hired by NITI Aayog and prepared a “pre-feasibility report” in March 2021. It scouted locations and planned the development of the island across the edges of the southern coast, saying the “projects will add considerable socio-economic value at a relatively low social and environmental cost”.

Following this, the Central government-appointed Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) had, on 25 May 2021, noted that the proposed sites had been selected with “primarily the technical and financial viability”, of the project in mind, while “the environmental aspects were not given much weightage”.

The Great Nicobar Island is known to have over 1,700 species of animals, and is one of the most biodiverse parts of the country, with large areas of natural, dense forest.

The EAC granted the Terms of Reference for the project, emphasising the need to assess it “in terms of environmental sensitivity”. The Terms of Reference outline the criteria the EIA needs to follow. The 1,200 page EIA report was completed and uploaded on the Andaman and Nicobar state government website, on 27 December.

Also read: Won’t dilute safeguards’, Modi govt defends environment clearance ranking system for states

What the EIA report says

The project is spread over 166 square kilometers of the 910 square kilometer island, for which at least 130.75 square kilometers of dense forest will have to be diverted, according to the EIA report. A large chunk of this land — 84.1 square kilometers — is reserved for the tribal population that will need to be denotified.

Among the most contentious aspects of the project is the establishment of the transshipment terminal, which will be located in Galathea Bay, where the endangered giant leatherback turtles go to nest.

According to the EIA report, the terminal was moved from the western flank of the Bay to “the eastern flank where leatherback nesting is not known,” and that “The breakwater was also designed in a way so that the turtles can enter to the nesting site without any hinderance [sic].” While proposing a deflector be put in place to keep the turtles out of harm’s way, it also recommended a pilot study be conducted to observe how effective this deflector will be.

Construction of the terminal will reduce the passage of entry for the turtles “substantially”, since the mouth of the Bay is only 3.8 kilometers wide, according to the EIA report. It suggested that construction be halted from November to February (the nesting period of the turtles) and that dim lights and sound mufflers be used, so as to not “interfere” with the nesting of the turtles. It further justified construction of the port by citing other instances of development around turtle nesting sites. None of the sites mentioned, however, are that of the giant leatherback turtle, as this is the only such site in India.

The giant leatherback turtle is a globally endangered species, and the Great Nicobar Island is one of the few nesting sites in the world. The Indian government included it in the first schedule of the Coastal Regulation Zone when it released the National Marine Turtle Action Plan on 1 February 2021.

The EIA report also said the coral reef along the coast of the Bay could be destroyed by dredging while the port is being constructed. As a mitigation solution, it suggested the corals be transplanted to an alternate location, which it said can be done “easily”. It did not, however, provide information on an alternate site or any details for the proposed transplantation process.

The township, airport, and thermal power plant will all come up in areas with dense forest cover, which will affect the biodiversity “significantly”, the EIA said. Affected animals and birds will either be relocated or migrate towards thicker vegetation “on their own”, it added.

The thermal power plant is the closest to the Shompen habitation on the island. The EIA report said that any interaction between the Shompen people and outsiders is “totally undesirable”, as they are vulnerable to disease and have no intention of assimilating with the outside world.

As a mitigation measure, the EIA report suggested the dwelling for the construction labourers be located away from the reserve, and that the area “be guarded and even barricaded with barbwires if necessary”.

‘Lack of information, no risk assessment’

Janki Andharia, Dean of the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, made a submission to the pollution committee on 20 January, saying, “Whilst the draft EIA records the occurrence of earthquakes in this region at several places, a systematic risk assessment is missing in the draft EIA Report on the project, which merely states mechanisms for disaster response.”

Andharia had worked with the Island administration in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

Her submission added: “Should another major quake take place, the entire investment on infrastructure would be at risk and the resultant oil and chemical spill would create a major environmental disaster in an area that is renowned globally for its rich biodiversity, unrivalled on our planet.”

Conservation Action Trust, an NGO led by environmentalist Debi Goenka, also made a detailed submission, observing that “the draft EIA Report has been submitted without complying with several ToRs”. These include non-submission of a Coastal Zone Management Plan and an incomplete report on the presence of Megapodes on the island.

“It is also surprising that the Consultants have only one empaneled expert on Ecology and Biodiversity on their team for the purposes of preparing this draft EIA,” the submission added.

Of the 16 member team, only one, Prof. K. Bayyapu Reddy, had expertise in ecology and biodiversity. The rest were all engineers and geologists, according to the disclosure made available in the EIA.

A report published by environmental NGO Kalpavriksh in December 2021, also noted that the proposal for holistic development succeeded several other measures relaxing environmental norms across the islands, such as the denotification of Galathea Bay in January 2021, and the formation of a committee to denotify tribal reserves.

Manish Chandi, a social ecologist and conservationist who has worked in Andaman and Nicobar for two decades, called the EIA report “nonsense” and told ThePrint that the port would “most definitely” lead to erosion of the sea turtle nesting beach and potentially other species, given the seasonal tidal currents.

“The entrance of the turtles is going to be reduced by a huge margin, and it recommends halting operations during the nesting season, but how will this be enforced? Just halting work is not going to enable turtles to nest. The sanctity of the entrance to the nesting beach is of primary importance to sea turtles. It’s like having a widespread canopy over a helipad, and expecting helicopters to land safely. Who are we fooling? All of the mitigation measures are ad-hoc and do not guarantee the safety of the endangered leatherback sea turtles.”

Chandi has also worked extensively with the Shompen people and served on several Tribal Welfare Committees of the Union Territory government. “The proposal to put up barbed wire is ridiculous. Who are they trying to keep out? Are they wild animals? Remember it’s their forests, which they have categorically requested to leave alone and not enter,” he added.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: Lutyens’ Delhi a jungle? Experts refuse to buy govt claim that forest cover grew by 2,261 sq km

Source: The Print

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