A slew of infrastructure projects have been proposed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to give a major boost to tourism and business there, according to information released by the central government. While these will transform the islands substantially, experts are worried that this would cause loss of biodiversity and have a negative impact on the indigenous people in the ecologically sensitive islands.
Information uploaded on the Union environment ministry's Parivesh website suggests that multiple infrastructure projects are being considered by an expert appraisal committee (EAC) and a coastal regulation zone (CRZ) committee. Some of these projects include luxury tents and resorts on some islands; two water aerodrome projects in Shaheed and Swaraj islands (formerly Neil and Havelock islands, respectively); two major township and area development projects on the Great Nicobar Island and Little Andaman, one of which is also likely to involve denotification of a tribal reserve.
All of this will involve massive land use change in the islands. On May 28, the CRZ committee considered an application by Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO) to waive off a condition under the CRZ clearance granted to them for developing luxury tents in Aves Island on a public-private partnership mode. One of the CRZ conditions was that all large, medium, and small trees will be counted and geo-referenced and not felled. But now ANIIDCO is seeking an amendment to this clause so that trees may be felled if required.
"As a chairman of the committee, I cannot comment on what was discussed or what amendments are being made to the conditions," said Deepak Apte, chairman of EAC on CRZ.
Documents show that the Andaman and Nicobar Coastal Zone Management Authority (ANCZMA) has recommended that the condition be waived off. "ANCZMA is retracting its mandatory precaution by claiming that environment impact assessments do not include 'tree canopy issues'. Review of proposals under CRZ notification requires scientific rigour and legal basis. They cannot be turned into regulatory convenience resulting in the abdication of responsibility, as has happened in the present case," said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher, Centre for Policy Research, a think tank.
On Friday, the EAC on infrastructure projects also considered the development of a water aerodrome at Shaheed Island by the Airports Authority of India. Documents available on Parivesh say that a mangrove patch is present 0.9 km to the west of the project site. Only last month, the EAC had raised several concerns about the ecological impact of constructing a water aerodrome at Swaraj Island that would have resulted in the loss of 3,500 square metres of forest land transferred to ANIIDCO. The environment impact assessment report says that the site for the construction of the terminal building (1,568.9 sqm) and associated infrastructure (453.3 sqm) falls partly in mangroves.
Two township projects on the Little Andaman Island and the Great Nicobar region conceptualised by Niti Aayog will also be constructed by ANIIDCO.
Niti Aayog's vision document on sustainable development of Little Andaman, seen by HT, says that a certain portion of the 442.5 square kilometre area reserved for the Onge tribe will be de-notified for the Little Andaman township, and another area earmarked for the tribe. "The de-notification of the tribal reserve is being considered by the tribal welfare department," said a senior ANIIDCO official, refusing to be identified.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands chief secretary Jitendra Narain did not respond to HT's queries.
HT reported on May 12 that EAC recommended the Great Nicobar township proposal for grant of terms of reference. Documents revealed that the project was likely to impact turtle and megapode nesting sites and coral reefs. EAC also said that the environmental aspects of the site having many endangered species weren't given much weightage while selecting it.
Kartik Shanker, professor at the Indian Institute of Science's Centre for Ecological Sciences and a specialist in community ecology and macroecology, and turtle biology, said the islands host tremendous marine biodiversity. "Development is definitely needed in the islands, but it needs to be ecologically sensitive and culturally conscious. These are some of the most important repositories of our biodiversity and ecological heritage and any development must minimise ecological impacts and benefit local communities," said Shanker.
"Nowhere else in India would one find thriving tropical rainforests, mangroves, coral reefs, and other terrestrial and marine ecosystems within a hundred metres of each other. The main livelihood generators of these islands are tourism and fisheries and sustaining them requires maintaining healthy ecosystems," said Naveen Namboothri, director, Dakshin Foundation, a green NGO.
Great Nicobar is home to several endemic species such as the Nicobar megapode and the Nicobar tree shrew.