The Union environment ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee has given its nod to the development of a strategically crucial, multi-component mega project in the Great Nicobar Island which will involve felling of around 8.5 lakh trees in pristine rainforests, loss of 12 to 20 hectares of mangrove cover and considerable coral translocation.
The project involves the development of a military-civil, dual-use airport; an international container trans-shipment terminal; a gas, diesel, and solar-based power plant, and a township.
The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) recommend granting environmental and coastal regulatory zone clearance to the project in a meeting on August 22-23.
According to a Union home ministry letter dated March 30 to the environment ministry, the airport proposed at Gandhi Nagar-Shastri Nagar area would be a joint military-civil, dual-use airport, under the operational control of the Indian Navy.
“This project is for defence, strategic, national security, and public purposes. In view of this, the portion of deliberation made for the airport component may not be made public,” it said.
The Great Nicobar Island (GNI), which is the southernmost part of the Indian territory, is one of the most strategically important areas.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands provide India with a commanding geostrategic presence in the Bay of Bengal and access to South and Southeast Asia.
The project is likely to affect 1,761 people, including the indigenous Shompen and Nicobarese communities.
The island is home to rare flora and fauna including the leatherback sea turtles, Nicobar megapode — a flightless bird endemic to the Nicobar islands; Nicobar Macaque and saltwater crocodiles.
The project site is within a 10 km radius of the Galathea Bay National Park and the Campbell Bay National Park but is outside the ecologically-sensitive zone notified around the two national parks.
Three premier institutes — Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) — provided scientific inputs to the EAC on the impact of the project on the flora and fauna of the GNI.
“While the ZSI categorically stated in its recommendation that the proposed project will not have impact on the flora and fauna of GNI and can be mitigated through stringent mitigation measures, the WII provided cautious inputs very specific to leatherback sea turtles, only suggesting that it has less site fidelity and can move to other suitable nesting areas in GNI,” the minutes of the meeting read.
The WII said the project can be undertaken but more intensive assessment and research is required on leatherback sea turtle and its movements to craft site-specific mitigation strategy, and suggested a 10-year roadmap to systematically implement mitigation measures.
The EAC said it is clear that about 30 of the 51 active nests of Nicobar megapode within the proposed project areas will be permanently destroyed.
SACON and WII have provided a 10-year mitigation plan in this regard.
The Department of Environment and Forests, Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Administration has prepared a mangrove conservation and management plan.
The coral cover required to be translocated from the proposed site is around 10 hectares. Approximately 16,150 of the 20,668 coral colonies will be translocated.
The EAC has also directed the setting up of three independent committees to oversee pollution related matters, biodiversity and welfare and issues related to Shompen and Nicobarese tribes.
The panel also asked the project proponent to not cut trees in one go.
“These will be done in a phased manner and depending on the progress of the work on an annual basis. Trees with nesting holes of endemic owls to be identified and geo-tagged with the help from SACON. Such trees shall be safeguarded, as far as possible,” it said.
The committee said safe wildlife corridors at eight locations along the eastern side of the island connecting forest and seashore through via-ducts (elevated crossings) on the north south arterial road should be provided.
Also, culverts and canopy crossings will be provided at appropriate locations for movement of wildlife.
The use of vehicles or any recreational means on sea turtle nesting beaches will be strictly prohibited.
The A&N administration has been directed to establish a special medical unit having state-of-art infrastructure, medicine and qualified medical staff at GNI within six months to monitor human-induced diseases due to the expected influx of large domestic and international populations.
“All mechanisms must be in place to ensure that Shompen and Nicobarese are not exposed to the risks related to introduced diseases,” the EAC said.
The committee said the disposal of hazardous waste material, including batteries, pesticides, organochlorines etc, would not be allowed in the GNI.
The waste generated during the construction and operation of the project should be recycled and reused and all rejects must be transported to the mainland for safe disposal.
No municipal landfills will be allowed on the island, it said.