EAC allows Great Nicobar Plan to advance

The Environment Appraisal Committee (EAC) operating under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recently recommended for grant of “Terms of Reference for Environmental Impact Assessment” studies. Earlier the committee had raised serious concerns against the project.

What is the meaning of Terms of Reference for Environmental Impact Assessment?

It is a document produced by the authority that is conducting the Environmental Impact Assessment. It is the most important document as it sets the guidelines for the study. It provides the following details:

  • Description about the project
  • Description about the existing environmental conditions in the site
  • About stakeholders benefitted or harmed during the project
  • Impacts the project will have on environmental and social aspects
  • Description of the species endemic to the area
  • Possible alternatives for the project
  • Recommends mitigation strategies
  • Budget of the study

Thus, the Terms of Reference document is highly important to make sure that the study is carried out effectively to ward off the environmental damages.

Now a three months of baseline studies will be conducted.

What is the issue?

In January 2021, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife allowed the construction of the port in Galathea Bay and the Expert Committee of Environment Ministry approved “Zero Extent” Ecologically Sensitive Zone. This was done to allow the use of the land. Concerns were raised in allowing development in a fragile area.

What is “Zero Extent” Ecologically Sensitive Zone?

The ESZ acts as shock absorbers of protected areas. The extent of Eco Sensitive Zones range from 0 to 10 kilometres. When the extent ranges to 0 km then it is called Zero Extent Ecologically Sensitive Zone. In simple words, the ESZ does not exist in that place.

Why was Zero Extent ESZ tag approved? – Justification

  • The major geographical areas of the Great Nicobar Island is covered under protected areas network and tribal reserves. There is hardly any area left for holistic development.
  • The Zero Extent ESZ was proposed for the northern and western sides as it merges with Bay of Bengal.
  • The Zero Extent ESZ for the coastal sides were proposed as they are protected under Coastal Regulation rules.
  • The eastern side of the region is protected under the Forest Act as it is a tribal area.

In this scenario, it is impossible to allocate land for developmental activities. Minimum sustainable development is required in the region.

What is the Great Nicobar Plan?

  • The plan includes international container transhipment terminal, township complex, power plant spread over 166 square kilo metre.
  • The estimated cost of the project is Rs 75,000 crores.
  • The plan was proposed by NITI Aayog.
  • The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation is to act as the Nodal Agency.

What are the concerns raised by the EAC?

According to the committee, several information were missing. The missing information were as follows:

  • Seismic and Tsunami Hazards
  • Freshwater requirement details
  • Details of the Impact on Giant Leatherback Turtle
  • There were no details about the trees to be felled

Impact on Giant Leatherback Turtles

  • The turtles are the largest Marine turtles in the world.
  • The Galathea bay is the nesting site of these turtles. Under the Great Nicobar Plan, the port is to be built in Galathea bay.
  • According to EAC, the site selection for the port has been done based on financial and technical criteria alone.
  • The Leatherback turtles are known for their shells.
  • They are migratory in nature crossing both Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Conservation Status of Leatherback Turtles

  • IUCN: Vulnerable
  • Wildlife Protection Act, 1972: Schedule I
  • CITES: Appendix I

According to IUCN, there is no sufficient data about the turtle population in the region.

Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

  • It was declared a Wildlife sanctuary in 1997.
  • It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • The National Marine Turtle Action Plan has listed Galathea Bay as one of the “Important Marine Turlt Habitats” and also “Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas”.
  • It is included in “Coastal Regulation Zone I”, which means it gets the highest protection.

Concerns raised by conservationists

  • The project will clear 18% of pristine forest.
  • The Galathea National Park is home to 330 species of fauna and 648 species of flora. It is home to rare and endemic species such as Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, Nicobar wild pig, Nicobar Megapode and Nicobar Paradise Flycatcher.
  • It is home to the indigenous Shompen community. The project poses threat to the community.
  • The project proposal did not address the geological vulnerabilities. The island is vulnerable to Tsunami and is a geologically active ring of fire region. There are evidences of land subsidence post Tsunami.

Shompen policy of 2015

  • According to the Anthropological Survey of India, there are two hundred to three hundred Shompen tribes in the region.
  • Pandanus (a fruit resembling pineapple) is the staple food of the tribes.
  • The policy states that understanding and knowledge of the Shompen tribal is scanty. More scientific research is required.

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