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Inaccuracies and procedural lapses in Great Nicobar draft climate impact assessment
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Inaccuracies and procedural lapses in Great Nicobar draft climate impact assessment

Public hearing to be held tomorrow amid concerns about the independence of the consultant hired to prepare the report.

The draft environment impact assessment (EIA), for the mega development project on Great Nicobar Island, has been released. It raises serious questions about the accuracy and timeliness of the information. A public hearing is scheduled for Thursday at Campbell Bay (the administrative headquarters) to discuss the report.

The matter concerns the 72,000-crore integrated NITI Aayog project in Great Nicobar, which includes construction a mega port, an international airport complex, and a township that covers 130 sq. There are pristine forests and a gas- and solar-based power plant. The project proponent is Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Ltd.

Gurugram-based AECOM India Pvt. compiled the pre-feasibility report. Ltd. In May 2021, a committee of the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change issued terms of reference (ToR).

Concerns raised

Researchers and ecologists have raised concerns about this project over a period of time (NITI Aayog Vision for Great Nicobar ignores Tribal, Ecological Concerns). The HinduThese fears were confirmed by the draft EIA, which was released on March 21, 2021. Concerns arise about the role of VimtaLabs Ltd. from Hyderabad, which was hired to conduct the EIA.

While the ToR to prepare the EIA was only completed in May 2021; the report itself lists many instances in which Vimta personnel were present in the field conducting research as early as December 2020.

How is it possible Vimta was aware of the details of the projects, the EIA needs months before the contract was issued and even finalised the project details? This could only have been done through the project proponent, or the DPR specialist. It appears to be a violation of the ToR which stated that the DPR consulting should be independent from the EIA consultant.

The draft EIA consultants have one expert in ecology and biodiversity as part of their team. It is not clear what that expert’s area of expertise is. Debi Goenka is a veteran environmental campaigner and executive trustee at the Conservation Action Trust. It is also evident that not all of the ToRs have been followed, as stated in the draft EIA Report. He also noted that the ToR was commissioned before the completion of the rapid assessment by the Wildlife Institute of India, and the baseline survey by Zoological Survey of India.

Incomplete data

There are serious issues with scientific integrity and accuracy in the data presented. Section 3.9, which deals with ecology and biodiversity, has large parts that have in-text references but no citations. Tables containing lists of the plants and animals that were found on the island have insufficient information and are not sourced. Information found in other places is inconsistent and/or inaccurate. In one place, the island’s surface is listed as 1,045 sq. It is 910 sq. km (the current, official figure) in another.

The executive summary states that the Galathea port area doesn’t record coral reefs. However, the ZSI study attached to the EIA reports that there is a coral reef covering 116 hectares in Galathea Bay.

Chapter 3 also states that 330 species are found on the island. However, the ZSI study shows that 695 species are present.

The EIA states that no migratory birds were reported from Great Nicobar. However it is well known that these islands lie along two globally important bird flyways, and more than 40 species are known to have been recorded from Great Nicobar.

Institutional blindness

The approach of the statutory authorities continues to be callous. The EIA report would have details about the project proposal’s environment policy including its standard operating process, procedures to highlight violations of environmental norms and ensure compliance with environmental clearance conditions.

ANIIDCO, project proponent, has responded by saying that there is no such policy, and that they agree to follow all laws of the country relating to the environment, forests, coastal regulation zone, and other related matters. Further questions are being raised about the validity of the EIA, as a statutorily mandated set is being allowed to stand. Equally striking is the undertaking issued in the name of the Directorate of Tribal Welfare. This agency is responsible for securing the rights of indigenous peoples on the islands.

It first assures that the right of the tribal shall be well protected and taken care of and then goes on to conclude that whenever any exemption from the existing regulations/policies/law of the land are required to be provided for the execution of the project, this Directorate will seek required exemptions(s) from the competent authority to that effect.

Tick box exercise

Is there more evidence than that the EIA was not used as a document to ask critical questions but rather as a tool to facilitate clearances and ensure that the project proceeds? Asks a senior tribal researcher, who declined to be identified. Sreejachakraborty, an environmental attorney, stated that the EIA process is fraught with serious procedural lapses and lack of transparency. The EIA is a tick box exercise that inspires no confidence and has been reduced to nothing more than a tick box exercise.

(Pankaj Sekhsaria is a researcher who has been studying the Andaman Islands since over 20 years. He is also the author five books about the islands.

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