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Mystery Deepens: NITI Aayog Says It Has No Vision Document for Great Nicobar

Mystery Deepens: NITI Aayog Says It Has No Vision Document for Great Nicobar

A satellite view of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean. Image: Google Earth

Mumbai: In response to an RTI application, the NITI Aayog has said it has no vision document for the development of Great Nicobar Island, of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

The reply is baffling because of the timing.

It comes nine months after the NITI Aayog issued a request for proposals (RfP) for ‘Preparation of Master Plan for Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island’, two months after Gurgaon-based Aecom India Pvt. Ltd. submitted a 126-page proposal for a Rs-75000-crore plan, and a month after the environment ministry’s Environment Appraisal Committee – Infrastructure I raised serious concerns over it but also recommended the ‘grant of terms of reference’ to undertake environmental impact assessments.

“As far as NRE Vertical [of] NITI Aayog is concerned, no vision document has been prepared for proposed development plans in Great Nicobar Island, A&N Island,” the advisory think-tank said in response to an application (reg. no. PLCOM/R/E/21/00145). The reply is dated May 6, 2021, and is signed by L. Gopinath, senior research officer, NITI Aayog’s environment and forest division. It is in response to a query filed by a private citizen.

Screenshot of a soft-copy of the RTI application and answer.

The plan

The 126-page pre-feasibility report that Aecom India created for NITI Aayog is entitled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’. It is available to read on the environment ministry’s ‘Parivesh’ portal. It was prepared in response to an extensive (201-page) RfP for a ‘master plan’ to ‘holistically develop’ Great Nicobar Island, which NITI Aayog issued in September 2020.

According to the report, its purpose is to provide “a framework for development of a new ‘greenfield city’ with a diverse and robust economy based on maritime services and tourism, amongst other drivers”. It goes on to propose a stunning Rs 75,000 crore plan that includes an international container transshipment terminal, a greenfield international airport, a power plant and a township complex.

The plan also envisions accommodating 6.5 lakh people on the island by 2050 over an area of 166 sq. km. This land is mainly occupied today by pristine coastal systems and tropical forests.

Facilitating the process

The last few months have seen hectic activity on the policy and regulation fronts towards implementing this proposal. This in turn makes NITI Aayog’s denial to the RTI query more mystifying. The government had created a special committee under the chairmanship of the chief secretary, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, in September 2020 to facilitate the denotification of tribal reserves on the Little Andaman and Great Nicobar Islands, to acquire the land.

In January 2021, the National Board for Wildlife, India’s apex body for wildlife conservation, denotified the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in its entirety explicitly for the port in the bay. This bay is India’s most iconic nesting site for giant leatherback turtles. The environment ministry’s National Marine Turtle Action Plan, released in February 2021, also included the bay with other sites on these islands as important marine turtle habitats.

A few weeks later, another expert committee of the 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.

Experts have also raised concerns of the impact all of these activities will have on the rich forests and coastal and marine ecosystems of Great Nicobar. The island hosts a UNESCO World Heritage Site, multiple forest types and one of the best-preserved tropical rainforests in the world. It is also home to 648 species of flora and 330 species of fauna, including rare and endemic ones like the Nicobar wild pig, Nicobar tree shrew, the Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, Nicobar paradise flycatcher and the Nicobar megapode.

The denial

While senior members of NITI Aayog have denied to journalists that the body has plans for the islands, what stands out in the RTI response is it’s from the same division – Natural Resource and Environment (NRE) Vertical, Island Development – that issued the RfP last year. Emails sent to Gopinath, who signed the RTI response, and to Saloni Goel, a specialist in the NRE vertical who had issued the 201-page RfP, hadn’t elicited a response at the time of publishing this article.

“One cannot even say that we have a case here of the right hand not knowing of what the left is doing,” a senior researcher on the island who has been following these developments said on condition of anonymity.

The general pattern of responses to nearly a dozen RTI applications filed by citizens in the last two months to various offices – lieutenant governor; chief secretary and the island administration’s department of environment and forests, Port Blair; and the NITI Aayog, and ministries of environment and shipping in New Delhi – has been striking. In each of these cases, the officials concerned have consistently denied information to the applicant.

“Those who file RTIs need to be more careful of the language and the terminology in their requests to avoid such responses and denials,” Pratik Kumar, of the Yugma Environmental Justice Clinic, and who has filed many RTI applications in the matter of NITI Aayog’s plans, said. “This RTI response might be correct in the limited technical sense, but it is certainly not in line with the spirit of the RTI Act.”

“Not just a vision – a full-fledged 126-page report exists and a plan of Rs 75,000 crore has already been drawn out for Great Nicobar in response to the call from the NITI Aayog,” the senior researcher quoted earlier said. “What we have here now, however, is the Aayog telling us nothing exists at all. It can’t get more Kafkaesque than this.”

Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He is also author of five books on the islands including, most recently, Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story (Harper Litmus, 2019).

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