Ministry of Environment gives a go ahead to Great Nicobar plan

The Environment Appraisal Committee showed concern about the ecological impact of the project on the fragile eco system of the island, but still allowed a three-month baseline study

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide an ideal nesting site for primarily four species of marine turtles: the leatherback turtle, hawksbill turtle, green sea turtle and Olive Ridley turtle. Pic: Pixabay

The Niti Ayog’s ambitious plan for bringing about ‘holistic’ and ‘sustainable’ development of Great Nicobar Island has come under the scanner of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), which has shown concern about the environmental impact of the project on the fragile eco -system of the islands located in the Bay of Bengal.

The Environment Appraisal Committee (EAC) – Infrastructure I of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), while raising concerns about the Rs 75,000 crore ambitious project, has surreptitiously recommended “grant of terms of reference (TOR)” for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies. The EAC has okayed a baseline study of over three months.

The Hindu quoted documents uploaded on the MoEFCC’s Parivesh portal to state that a 15-member committee headed by marine biologist and former director, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Deepak Apte, recommended TOR following two meetings held in March and April.

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Niti Aayog is going ahead with the project based on a 126 page ‘pre-feasibility’ report titled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’, prepared by the Gurugram-based consulting agency Aecom India Private Limited.

The phase I of the Niti Ayog project is likely to take up almost 20% of the 910 sq km island. The plan would use about 244 sq km of the island’s pristine forest and coastal systems to construct a 22 sq km airport complex, a transshipment port, a parallel to coast mass rapid transport system and a free trade zone among other things. The total project cost is estimated around Rs 75,000 crore, 3.5 times the cost of the controversial Central Vista project in New Delhi.

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The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a biodiversity hotspot. The islands have a collective coastline of 1962 kms and the beaches provide an ideal nesting site for primarily four species of marine turtles: the leatherback turtle, hawksbill turtle, green sea turtle and Olive Ridley turtle. All of these have been declared endangered. Does the holistic development plan for Great Nicobar take conservation of turtles into consideration?

The Environment Appraisal Committee (EAC) had also asked specific questions on the number of trees that will be felled for executing the project, assessment report on seismic and tsunami hazards, fresh water requirement details and impact on Giant leatherback turtle, The Hindu reported.

One important question that begs an answer is: Why does the Niti Aayog want capital-intensive projects like airport complex, a transshipment port and parallel to coast mass rapid transport system to come up in the Great Nicobar? Among other things, the project includes a power plant and a township complex spread over 166 sq. km, which will come up at the cost of dense forests.

The Great Nicobar Island is one of the few ecologically rich and relatively untouched islands left in the country. The government needs to weigh economic gains against ecological damage, which will be very profound and long lasting.

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