A senior forest officer in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, was left with no work allocated to him, after he highlighted to the Indian government’s environment ministry that the construction of some parts of the Andaman Trunk Road, or National Highway 4, was going on without forest clearance, in violation of the country’s Forest Conservation Act or FCA 1980.
The officer had also highlighted several other incidents where violations of the Act in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands area were recorded.
On April 29, Tarun Coomar, who is the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration, wrote to the then secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change CK Mishra. Coomar, in his letter to Mishra – reviewed by Mongabay-India – discussed forest clearances under the Forest Conservation Act 1980, under which any forest land that is diverted for any non-forestry purpose like a dam, mining or highway project requires clearance.
He stated in his letter that rampant violations of FCA are happening in the A&N Islands, which have been reported from time to time to the A&N administration but have yielded no result, as no action has been taken. “Regretfully, developmental agencies of both appointed administrative, as well as elected representatives, exhibit scant respect for the Forest Conservation Act,” he wrote in the letter.
In response to the letter, MoEFCC’s Deputy Inspector General of Forests Brijendra Swaroop in May informed Coomar that the ministry has sought “certain factual information” from the Andaman and Nicobar administration on the cases of violation of FCA highlighted by him.
However, soon after, on June 3, the Andaman and Nicobar administration issued an order that redistributed the work amongst the forest officers of the state wherein work allocation to Coomar was stated as “NIL”.
The documents are reviewed and in possession of Mongabay-India. Coomar was unavailable for comment.
The Andaman Trunk Road
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a group of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal and more than 80% of its total geographical area of 8,249 sq km is recorded as forest land. These forests, which includes nine national parks, 96 wildlife sanctuaries and one biosphere reserve, are rich in biodiversity. The India State of Forest Report 2019 report had observed that about 2,200 varieties of plants have been recorded in the A&N Islands and of that about 200 are found nowhere else in the world and about 1,300 do not occur in mainland India.
The forests in different regions of Andamans are also diverse. For instance, south Andamans have a lot of ferns and orchids, while the middle and North Andamans mostly have deciduous and wet evergreen forests. Similarly, in Nicobar islands, the evergreen forests are dominant in the central and Southern Islands of the Nicobar group along with grasslands.
Coomar in his letter stated that there is a violation of the FCA 1980 due to delay in forest clearance of road projects of the National Highways authority, largely executed through the National Highways and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited or NHIDCL, which is under the Indian government’s Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. He noted that “one such project is being implemented for the last several years in the A&N islands also, which is Andaman Trunk Road from Chidiyatapu in South Andamans to Diglipur in North Andamans” – a vital link connecting south, middle and North Andaman islands with various settlements all along.
He highlighted that the project had been planned and executed a long time back by the Border Roads Organisation and handed over to the Andaman Public Works Department for maintenance. But in recent years, a decision was taken to declare the Andaman Trunk Road a national highway and its maintenance was given to the National Highways Authority of India and execution was assigned to the NHIDCL. Work on the road has been going on for decades but 15 years ago, in 2005, it was designated as a national highway by the central government.
According to the NHIDCL, the total estimated cost for construction of bridges, widening, rehabilitation and maintenance of NH-4 is Rs 21.04 billion. “A total disrespect to the provision of FCA 1980 is very clearly exhibited in this case,” said Coomar. “The road was to be subjected to repair and maintenance to raise its standard to that of a national highway. The road passes through two kinds of areas requiring special clearance.”
One of the two kinds of areas is the tribal reserve declared under Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation while the other kind is the area declared as forest under Indian Forest Act 1927 which require clearance under the FCA 1980.
Coomar, who is the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in his letter recounted a meeting led by the then chief secretary of the islands administration in June 2018, wherein he highlighted that it was “clearly directed” that clearance under the FCA 1980 was required for the project.
The meeting was attended by tribal and forest departments of the island administration along with the NHIDCL. “As can be ascertained from the later correspondence, the NHIDCL did not bother to apply for clearances although various authorities even up to the level of the head of the department kept reminding and warning the implementing agency not to violate FCA and seek clearance under the relevant provisions,” wrote Coomar. The NHIDCL, in 2019 and 2020, went ahead with the works in blatant violation of the FCA, Coomar alleged.
“The matter finally was brought to the notice of the current chief secretary, A&N Administration who took a meeting on February 20, 2020, which was also attended by the Managing Director, NHIDCL. There again, the A&N administration completely ignored that the law of the land had been blatantly and deliberately violated despite repeated warnings and intimations for 2 areas including at the level of the Chief Secretary. At that time, decision was to continue with the works. On the insistence of PCCF, NHIDCL was asked to apply for clearance,” Coomar highlighted in his letter to Mishra.
In his letter to the ministry, Coomar highlighted several cases of violation of the FCA 1980. For instance, he highlighted the case of construction of a medical college in Port Blair without forest clearance which included the cutting of 157 trees, construction of a two-lane bridge over Humphrey Strait Creek which involved violations of the conditions stipulated in forest clearance, construction of two labour barrack inside the reserved forest in Baratang Island and use of forest land for construction of lighted beacon at Patrie and Sister Island.
In the latest development in this case, on June 6, VK Bahuguna, a retired Indian Forest Service officer and the Chairman of the Centre for Resource Management and Environment, a non-profit trust working on environment issues, wrote to the Chief Justice, Supreme Court of India, highlighting this case. Bahuguna, who is also the retired director general of MoEFCC’s Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, in his letter, stated that the events appear to be a case of removing the officer for not agreeing to the road construction activities in violation of the FCA 1980.
“As a law-abiding nation, everything should happen in accordance with an in perfect harmony with the law and it is the absolute power of the government to reshuffle the work among its officers. However, the tenor of this order does not reflect this and gives rise to serious doubts about the intention of the people occupying high positions in the administration in lawfully discharging their duties,” wrote Bahuguna in a letter to the Supreme Court where he urged the forest bench of the course to look into the case.
Email queries sent to the NHIDCL, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Andaman and Nicobar administration regarding this case have remained unanswered.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.