Lungs of a nation
Details of this Project being appraised for environmental clearance was not made available in the public domain maintained by the Environment Ministry.
NEW DELHI: In pursuit of advancements in trade, infrastructural development and national security, the Centre has proposed a Rs 72,000 cr Great Nicobar Project, set to come up over 130 sq km of forests on the Great Nicobar island. Close to 9.64 lakh trees will need to be chopped off to enable the construction of a transhipment port, an international airport, a township, as well as a 450 MVA gas and solar-based power plant, as part of this Project, which had been given environmental clearance.
However, this green signal had been challenged in the National Green Tribunal (NGT), in the aftermath of which another committee was constituted, and it was tasked with analysing aspects of the clearance given to the Project.
Details of this Project being appraised for environmental clearance was not made available in the public domain maintained by the Environment Ministry. The reason offered by the Union home ministry was that the Project was categorised as a strategically important one. Ecological experts and parliamentarians have objected to this initiative, which will exact an irreparable toll on a fragile natural ecosystem, which is vulnerable to seismic hazard. The evergreen tropical forests in the region boast of high biological diversity, and the island is home to as many as 650 species of flora and 330 species of fauna. The location of the upcoming port will also disturb the prevalent turtle nesting sites in the region.
In a logic-defying move, compensatory afforestation is being planned, not in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, due to the ‘limited’ scope of plantation, but in the dry Aravalli hills of Haryana. There are even recommendations to relocate coral reefs, which pushes this exercise into the theatre of the absurd. The repercussions of the 2004 tsunami on the island and the risk of future disasters finds no place in the discourse involving this new Project.
The impact is wide ranging and even tribes located in the region will be affected by the deforestation. In November 2022, the Tribal Council of Little and Great Nicobar withdrew the NOC given in August for diversion of forest land, roughly half of which is tribal reserve land, for this Project. The communities argued that the extent of tribal reserve area (84.10 sq km) that fell under this Project was not communicated to the tribes. Legal experts have drawn attention to the recent legislation amending the Forest Act, which has given people the impression that the Centre is just about happy paying lip service to concepts such as carbon neutrality and conservation. Other plans to build defence and security installations in ecologically sensitive regions will gradually follow suit after the Nicobar Project takes off.
India has promised to reduce emissions by 2 billion tonnes by 2030 as a signatory to CoP-2022. The nation had also agreed to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by the same year. There was also an assurance by world leaders to protect 30% of the ecologically significant regions with high biodiversity levels (inland waters, coastal areas, oceans).
Ironically, our leaders do not seem to be learning their lessons, especially in the aftermath of the gradual sinking of the Joshimath town in Uttarakhand, and the numerous cases of landslides and slippages being witnessed in Kullu, HP. It seems more than evident that the current dispensation’s core strengths do not lie in environmental management, but in employing a cut and paste logic to solve complex ecological issues.