Days after its in-principle or Stage 1 Forest Clearance for the Great Nicobar project on October 27 that will involve felling approximately 8.5 lakh trees in pristine rain forests, the Union Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change on November 4 granted final Environmental Clearance for the Rs 72,000-crore initiative.

With this, the decks have been cleared to start construction of a port, an international airport, a power plant and a township spread over more than 160 sq km of land. At least 130 sq km of this is primary forest on the ecologically rich island, which was declared a biosphere reserve in 1989 and included in Unesco’s Man and Biosphere Program in 2013.

The final environmental clearance was granted by the environment ministry’s impact assessment division. It was issued by Amardeep Raju, member secretary of the Ministry’s Environment Appraisal Committee – Infrastructure 1. The forest clearance is granted by the Ministry’s Forest Conservation Division.

The Forest Clearance and the Environmental Clearance are independent approvals and follow separate processes. Though the project envisages a compensatory afforestation programme to balance the estimated 8.5 lakh trees that could be cut, the new trees will be planted in faraway Haryana.

While the debate about infrastructure development and a port in environmentally sensitive Great Nicobar has gone on for many decades, the current phase was kicked off in September 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic with a request for proposals by the Niti Aayog for the “Preparation of Master Plan for Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island”.

AECOM India Pvt Ltd, a consulting agency from Gurugram that got the contract, released a 126-page pre-feasibility report in March 2021. It was immediately taken up for discussion by the Environment Appraisal Committee – Infrastructure 1.

The five months between the request for proposals and AECOM’s pre-feasibility report saw hectic activity. In January 2021, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife denotified the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to free it as the port site. Two weeks later, the environment ministry declared a “zero extent” eco-sensitive zone for the Galathea National Park, allowing forest land along its south and south-eastern boundary to be made available for the project.

The Zoological Survey of India started a biodiversity survey here in February 2021 and it was revealed later in the draft environment impact assessment report released ten months later that Hyderabad-based Vimta Lab had already started field work in December 2020 for the assessment that is necessary for a project to get environmental clearance This was seven months before the Environment Appraisal Committee actually issued the terms of reference for the environment impact assessment to be conducted.

The coastline that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami of 2004 is the prime site for the mega project raising concerns about future risks and damage. The photograph is from 2006.Credit: Pankaj Sekhsaria.

After the draft environment impact assessment report by Vimta was released in December 2021, researchers and NGOs from across the country raised nearly 400 concerns related to ecology, rights of the indigenous communities and the tectonic volatility and disaster vulnerability of the island. Several people also questioned the urgency of pushing through such a huge project in the difficult times of the pandemic.

The mandatory public hearing was held in Campbell Bay, the administrative headquarters of Great Nicobar in January this year and the final environment impact assessment report published by Vimta in March. The project was then discussed by the Environment Appraisal Committee in its meetings in March and May and finally recommended for clearance in its meeting held on August 22-23.

A number of conditions were laid down by the Environment Appraisal Committee, which are seen in the 30-page-long final clearance letter as well. These conditions include:

*The Wildlife Institute of India will establish a long-term field research unit in Andaman and Nicobar Islands with one base each in Great Nicobar, Little Andaman and South Andaman Islands for sea turtle related research.

*The company implementing the project “shall have a well laid down environmental policy duly approved by the board of directors”.

*Trees with nesting holes of endemic owls should be identified and geo-tagged with the help of the Coimbatore based from Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Nature. “Such trees,” the clearance letter says, “shall be safeguarded, as far as possible.”

Many problems

Despite this, environmentalists have criticised the approvals for the project.

“The Precautionary Principle [which advocates an approach that prevention and caution is better than a cure, particularly when full evidence is lacking] as well as the requirements of the EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment] notification have been completely ignored in this clearance,” said Debi Goenka of the Conservation Action Trust, which submitted a detailed list of comments to the draft EIA. “The clearance has laid down more than 40 conditions that involve studies to be carried out but all of these should have been complied with before, not after, the clearance was granted.”

He added: “The clearance also does not stipulate any conditions for stopping work if negative impacts are seen, for instance, on the indigenous Shompen community, the leatherback turtle or the endemic Nicobari megapod [a bird]. These conditions are more in the nature of pious hopes rather than project clearance preconditions they ought to have been.”

The Nicobari Megapode, one of the many rare and endemic species that this project will affect. Credit: Pankaj Sekhsaria.

Galathea Bay, the site of the port, is one of the most important leatherback nesting sites in the Northern Indian Ocean. The breakwaters to be built for the port will restrict the opening to the bay by 90% , from the current three kilometres to only 300 metres. This will potentially have a disastrous impact on the nesting population.

A group of 16 researchers had written in June 2021 to authorities expressing concerns over the impacts on turtles, asking for the project to be reconsidered and for the Galathea Bay sanctuary to be reinstated.

There has been international concern as well because leatherbacks nesting in the Andaman and Nicobar islands have been satellite tracked to migrate as far as Madagascar to the West and to the Australian coast to the east.

For Janki Andharia, Professor at the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, the central concern remains that “the island lies on a major [seismic] fault line” and the risk this poses has not been accounted for even in the final Environmental Impact Assessment report now accepted by the environment ministry for clearance.

She and her colleagues had pointed out in their comments to the draft Environmental Impact Assessment that the islands had experienced nearly 444 earthquakes in the last 10 years and the plan for the container terminal here needs to be reconsidered.

Great Nicobar is not very far from Banda Aceh in Indonesia, which was the epicentre of the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that caused unprecedented damage. The coastline of Great Nicobar sank nearly four meters. This is evident from the fact that the lighthouse at Indira Point now stands surrounded by water.

Andharia has first-hand experience of dealing with the impacts of a disaster in these islands. She was the leader of an intensive four year on-the-ground Tata Institute of Social Sciences effort in partnership with the island administration to reach out to the island chain’s worst-hit communities in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

“Stating ‘that building standards and codes will be followed’ is inadequate,” she said commenting on the project authorities’ response to her observations on the draft Environmental Impact Assessment report. “The meaning of ‘making a structure earthquake proof’ needs to be revisited in this context. This cannot be the same as waterproofing a house because a post facto disaster response plan will not prevent a disaster from happening in the first place.”

Others have pointed to the irony of the situation and its timing: forest and environment clearances to a mega project in one of the country’s most sensitive and vulnerable ecosystems just before a global summit on climate action and even as November 3 was announced by Unesco as the first International Day for Biosphere Reserves.

Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He is also author of five books on the islands.