A leatherback sea turtle. Photo: US FWSSR
- The Andaman & Nicobar administration published an EIA for a port, an airport, a township and a gas-cum-solar power plant, all on Great Nicobar, on December 29.
- But the “comprehensive” EIA is short, incomplete, cherry-picks data from biodiversity surveys and ignores existing information about the island’s biodiversity.
- The project is certain to adversely affect the local ecology, and the mitigation measures the ZSI and the WII have suggested aren’t likely to suffice.
- The Andaman & Nicobar administration has scheduled the public hearing for the project on January 27, 2022.
Kochi: The Great Nicobar Island is remote and covered in lush forests. Two indigenous tribal communities, the Shompen and Nicobarese, and a host of animals and plants call this island their only home.
Great Nicobar is in the southernmost portion of the Andaman and Nicobar island complex in the Indian Ocean – and is today the site of a slew of infrastructure projects. The Indian government has plans for a transshipment container terminal, an airport, a township and a gas-cum-solar power plant to electrify the township on the 910-sq.-km island.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation, Ltd. proposed these ideas for an ‘Integrated Development Project’ with the NITI Aayog’s support. The corporation also published a comprehensive environment impact assessment (EIA) of the project on December 29, 2021.
But The Wire Science has found that this “comprehensive” EIA, on which the Rs-72,000-crore project rides, is short, incomplete, has cherry-picked data from biodiversity surveys, and ignores existing information about the island’s biodiversity.
The ‘Integrated Development Project’ on the Great Nicobar Island is a combination of four infrastructure projects: an international container transshipment terminal, the primary project; a greenfield international airport to handle 4,000 passengers per hour; a 450-MVA gas and solar power plant; and a township, all spanning 166 sq. km.
The first three projects are to be adjacent to each other in the island’s Shastri Nagar and Galathea Bay areas, on the southern and eastern coasts. The township will extend along the east to the north, along the Campbell and the Ranganatha Bays.
Construction for the project will involve several activities likely to adversely impact the island’s environment and ecology. These include dredging the ocean to create a harbour; constructing breakwaters 1; reclaiming land from the ocean; clearing forests; and more.
The project will be located in a Coastal Regulation Zone I area – 500 metres landward from the high-tide line, an ecologically sensitive area where developmental activities are strictly regulated. And it will require the diversion of some 130 sq. km of forest land.
In January 2021, the National Board for Wildlife denotified the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in its entirety for the port in the bay. A few weeks later, another expert committee of the environment ministry okayed a proposal to declare a zero extent eco-sensitive zone for the Galathea National Park – thus availing the entire low-lying coastal area along the island’s east coast for projects proposed under the plan.
In April 2021, an expert appraisal committee under the environment ministry reportedly noted that the site selection for the port had primarily accounted for the technical and financial viability.
“The environmental aspects were not given much weightage while selecting the site,” the committee had said, recommending that research institutes, such as the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, conduct an ecological assessment of the project vis-à-vis the island’s terrestrial and marine flora and fauna.
The Andaman and Nicobar administration has scheduled the public hearing for the project on January 27, 2022. This is technically one of the last stages towards obtaining an ‘environmental clearance’ for the project.
In a public hearing, project proponents will present the project and its potential impacts – listed in the EIA prepared for the project – to the members of local communities and stakeholders and collect their feedback.
The project’s EIA has been prepared by Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs, and includes a biodiversity survey of the proposed site, a list of activities to be undertaken as part of the project, and recommends an ‘environment management plan’ to mitigate the project’s environmental impact.
It also features reports by the ZSI and the WII and their recommendations to mitigate the impact of the project’s construction and operation.
Short reports, incomplete EIA
Vimta Labs conducted its primary survey of ecology and biodiversity over a span of seven days in December 2020 and another seven days in April 2021. The ZSI report on biodiversity at five sites in the proposed project area spanned two months. The WII’s “rapid assessment” of “environmental sensitiveness” of the beaches of Great Nicobar Island, where sea turtles nest, was conducted over a six-day period in April 2021.
These are very short times in which to assess biodiversity, and experts have said that such short-term surveys can’t say anything meaningful.
The EIA report also doesn’t contain a study by the ZSI on the nesting sites of a threatened endemic bird – meaning it is found only on the Nicobar islands – called the Nicobar megapode. It is still “awaited”, according to the EIA.
The ZSI report attached as part of the EIA only says that it recorded 202 megapodes on the Nicobar islands, including 14 breeding pairs and their nesting sites in the Galathea Bay area. But the EIA document doesn’t appear to have taken this into account.
Nicobar megapodes abound in the Galathea Bay area, where the ‘Integrated Development Project’ proposes a large port. In fact, this area is among the most conducive habitats on all of Great Nicobar Island for the species, independent researcher Manish Chandi, who has studied the biodiversity of the island for close to two decades, told The Wire Science.
“Besides the megapodes and leatherback sea turtles, saltwater crocodiles, Nicobar tree shrews, a whole array of endemic avifauna, giant robber crabs and herpetofauna as well are all found in abundance in the proposed project area,” he said.
The tsunami of 2004 was bad for the megapodes. Waters submerged the Nicobar Megapode Sanctuary, a protected area dedicated to these birds. In 2006, the WII found that only 788 breeding pairs of megapodes remained in the coastal regions of the Nicobar islands.
The island is also home to birds in the winter. According to an online database, migrants such as the grey wagtail, whimbrel and orange-headed ground thrush can be found on the island’s eastern coast.
However, while the EIA notes that 34 winter migrants have been recorded from Great Nicobar Island alone, the ZSI report says the proposed sites were not part of the “migratory route” of any bird because it found no migratory birds during its surveys.
To this, the EIA says: “No migratory birds discovered on the island. Same has been confirmed by ZSI in their report.”
Mitigate impacts on forests, turtles
The ZSI report that is part of the EIA notes that “huge forest areas and coral reef areas will be cleared” for the project. According to the EIA, around 130 sq. km of forest land in the Great Nicobar Island will need to be diverted.
To ‘compensate’ for this, the report recommends afforestation – in another area on the island, the islands nearby or on mainland India.
Such compensatory afforestation has come under fire from conservationists to policy experts, however. Officials often ‘afforest’ land that doesn’t need forests, or grab land belonging to smallholders or occupied by Indigenous peoples, or plant less-than-ideal species of trees in an ecosystem that can’t support them.
Experts have also criticised compensatory afforestation because cutting down old-growth forests, which do sequester carbon, and replacing them with young saplings in some other area, which don’t sequester carbon, is not beneficial to the climate – but the government believes it is.
The port project area also overlaps with the nesting locations of leatherback turtles in Galathea National Park. To build the port, workers will have to excavate the soil, will operate heavy vehicles, transport construction materials, etc. – all of which will alter the local ecology, and directly or indirectly affect the leatherback turtles, the ZSI report says.
Galathea Bay beach is one of four or five important nesting beaches for leatherback sea turtles in the Andaman and Nicobar complex, Chandi said. “This is a fact well established with rigorous research for three years prior to the tsunami of 2004, and yearly visits to the said beach nearly every year to check on and corroborate our experience of the area from 2006 onwards,” he told The Wire Science.
The WII’s rapid assessment study – also part of the EIA – concludes that all five sites it surveyed, including Galathea Bay, are “ecologically or biologically significant sites especially for sea turtles, and may be equally environmentally sensitive for any changes due to development”.
However, the ZSI report continues that sea turtles have been known to nest on beaches near existing Indian ports on the mainland, implying that the turtles on Great Nicobar should be able to do so as well. It cites the example of the Dhamra port in Odisha: “The Dhamra port is fully operational and there is no impact known on sea turtle nesting at Gahirmatha and adjoining areas.”
This is a deceptive statement. Conservationists have already criticised this port for its impact on nesting olive Ridley turtles.
A 2014 paper analysed satellite images to find that soil near the port had been eroding faster after 2007, when the port came up. Between 2000 and 2012, the area lost 227 metres of land to erosion while the nearby Maipura coast, which has extensive mangrove cover, lost 47 metres. In 2016, local government officials said the effects of beach erosion had had an observable effect on the number of eggs turtles were laying at Gahirmatha.
Erosion, if present, will affect sea turtles by reducing the amount of land available along the water to nest, marine biologist Divya Karnad, who has studied olive Ridley turtles along India’s east coast, said. A port in Great Nicobar is likely to have a similar effect.
The major mitigation measures ZSI suggests include halting offshore and onshore construction activities when the sea turtles nest (November to February) and removing night lights during construction, both known to influence nesting and the hatchlings’ survival. But they don’t address the loss of land issue.
According to the ZSI report, dredging activities in the nearshore waters for the projects during construction will “apparently destroy the corals and coral beds, but transplantation is a worldwide solution which could be easy [easily] executed in Great Nicobar island in alternate suitable offshore habitats”.
However, transplantation is not so straightforward, Vardhan Patankar, a marine biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, who has been studying coral reefs around the Andaman and Nicobar islands for more than a decade, said.
Galathea Bay has several coral species, including Porites, Acropora and Favites. Some of the big-boulder corals could be as old as 100 years, he said.
The ZSI report lists 245 species of corals at the seven sites on the island it studied, including Galathea Bay.
“Reef restoration and transplantation won’t be successful as many of these species are big and can grow as large as a Maruti  car,” he said. “Transplantation will involve uprooting them, which will kill them.”
Taken together, the project will certainly adversely affect the local ecology, and it appears that the mitigation measures the ZSI and the WII have suggested won’t suffice. In fact, the ZSI’s report states that the environmental impact of the integrated project will be “negligible” and recommends that the project receive its ‘environmental clearance’.
It also recommends adding another infrastructure project to the construction melee: “A state-of-art research institute … to monitor the fragile ecosystem of Great Nicobar Island including both the terrestrial and marine ecosystem with greater emphasis of vulnerable, endemic animals, and coral reef ecosystems to assess their health and population status.”
All these projects mean the island’s extant natural resources – including water supply – will be stressed further. Great Nicobar currently has a human population of 8,000-10,000 people, according to Chandi, and the existing water harvesting, storage and distribution systems are grossly inadequate and poorly maintained. Given this, Chandi continued, existing inadequacy, how will the island cater to the approximately 5-6 lakh people that the proposal talks about.
“It’s very unfortunate that a planning commission has designed this in such a fashion,” he added. “The concept of self respect and resilience for the local population has just been sunk into the sea while proposing to throw lots of finance around beyond the islands, but in the name and rationale for the islands.”
A sea wall to protect the harbour from sea action↩