Is Development that Important at the Cost of Millions of Trees and Destruction of Marine Life, One Wonders

Report: Sarpreet Kaur

Port Blair, May 17: Niti Aayog’s ambitious project “Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands” crossed the first hurdle as the green panel recommends a grant of Terms of Reference (TOR) for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies. The proposal was presented by a Gurugram based consulting agency Aecom India Private Limited- A Private firm involved in carrying studies for NITI Ayog’s mentioned project.

The proposal was first taken up by the committee in the 258th meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee held on 17th -18th March 2021. However due to loopholes and missing information the discussion was deferred. Later after the submission of requisite information, the proposal was taken up in the 260th meeting held on 5th - 6th April 2021. M/s AECOM India Pvt Ltd itself was the DPR consultant engaged during the proceedings. The proposal presented before the committee included a trans-shipment terminal, a Greenfield international airport, a solar power plant and a township. The estimated cost is to be around ₹75,000 crores. The recent proposal submitted to the green panel aimed at presenting solutions to many concerns promulgated by NITI Ayog in its first document as well as varied loopholes pointed out by the environmentalists. Many RTI’s were filed by concerned people demanding more details about the project.

The proposal submitted by the M/s AECOM India Pvt Ltd mentions that, as there is no IMD station in Great Nicobar Island, the relevant data was procured from INS Baaz which will be utilized in modelling 31 studies to understand the seismic effect on the upcoming township and entailing future hazards. It also mentioned that the data from National Centre for Seismology will also be gathered during the EIA study. According to the Bureau of Indian Standards, all the islands of this UT lies in the seismic zone 5 which is the Very High Damage Risk Zone with frequent occurrence of land and underwater earthquakes. The living case of such destruction was the 2004 tsunami in A&N islands. The panel strongly recommended a detailed study backed by strong historical data utilizing simulation studies that need to be done before moving forward. The question of whether the selected area can withstand the seismic activities and development pressure is still unanswered till this stage.

Another grave concern involves water scarcity in the region. Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been suffering from scarcity of water owing to their geographical location, climatic conditions and the manmade problem of overpopulation. The only source of water in most of the islands is rainfall which is already unpredictable owing to global warming. However, the area under consideration has a perennial river- Galathea but it hardly comes up to the mark as compared to the water requirements of the proposal. Concerning this, the proposal mentions the creation of rainwater harvesting reservoirs and the least dependence on the Galathea river. Around 2.5 sq km of the area has been identified for the formation of a rainwater harvesting reservoir. It further added that using mathematical modellings and detailed watershed studies a detailed design will also be submitted to EIA in future.

Though the approach of the proposal seems quite perfect on paper, its implementation is going to be hindered by many obstacles owing to shifting climatic pattern. But as NITI Ayog aims to make these islands at par with Singapore and Hong Kong in terms of trade, it’s high time to understand Singapore’s model of saving each drop.  A few decades back they were importing all of their drinking water but since then they have come a long way and have become one of the water self-sufficient countries of the world. Singapore has been spending billions of dollars in R and D for projects on the desalination of water.

The modern world is forever running and we hardly take time to stop and access our surroundings. But even in this fast-paced life, exists some regions where people live in their cocoons and have a self-sustainable and sufficient life. These are the rare gems – The Tribals. Threat to the tribals is the most prominent concern of the environmentalists around the islands. The effect of development on their culture and sustenance is yet to be measured and there is a need to find a common ground where both the development as well as the sanctity of tribes can flourish. To combat these concerns and provide special attention to the sensitive topic the committee has specifically recommended a public hearing on the land intended to be used to ensure that tribes such as Shompen and Nicobarese and anthropological organisations involved in the welfare of Shompen and Nicobarese. However, how effectively will the tribes be represented and heeded is yet a point of concord.

Beaches in Great Nicobar are a nesting ground for leatherback turtle and are home to Nicobar Magapod and Dugong. Rising sea temperatures leading to bleached corals have already poisoned the very source of the food chain of marine life making their existence tough. The dominating tropical rainforest in the islands has exotic permanent residents hidden in its lap which are merrily joined by migratory birds from all the continents around. What are the steps that will be taken to help flourish the meek creatures?

It was especially noted by the green panel that the selection of the site was done predominantly on the technical and financial viability of the place. The environmental aspects were not given much precedence. This point puts a big question mark on the sustainable aspect of the development project. Committee quite many times iterated the fact that there is a need to involve IIT, NIOT, NCCR, NIO etc for technical aspect while research institutes such as Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), SACON and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) for ecological assessment with expertise on Island ecosystems, its terrestrial and marine flora and fauna.

The panel was also of the view that the consultant agency for conducting the EIA study shall be independent of the agency involved in the preparation of DPR and should involve the experts from the organisations which were involved in assessing the impact of Tsunami on and its mitigation in the A&N Islands. Consultant agency should also involve senior scientists from WII or ZSI or IISc or SACON in ecological and biodiversity studies.

Many environmentalists and experts saw umpteen loopholes in the proposal which gave all the precedence to financial and technical aspect putting the environmental aspects in the backseat. However, the recommendations of the committee sure bring a respite to the concerned citizens and involved residents of the island. But the geographical location and complexities of entangled marine life and human life involved makes such studies much more difficult and equally important. The time frame of 3 months sought by the firm seems quite superficial as studying and mapping such a large terrain is next to impossible in such a short time frame.  These zealous aims and projects would bring laurels to the people and government, making India reach the heights of development but many people around still wonder if development is that important even when it is going to cost us millions of trees and destruction of marine life. Especially in this era of the pandemic which taught us how bizarre bank balances are when it comes to nature as our opponent.