Don’t kill the heritage forest in Greater Nicobar island

Diversion of 130.75 sq km of heritage forest land in Greater Nicobar island for a Mega Infrastructure Project violates every conceivable environmental norm

Nicobar forest


Shri Bhupender Yadav

Union Minister for Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MEFCC)

Dear Shri Yadav,

I refer to the Hindu news report ( on an “in-principle” clearance accorded by the Forest Wing of your Ministry for diversion of forest lands to the extent of 130.75 for setting up a large infrastructure project, consisting of an international container transhipment project, an international airport, a power plant and a township of 244 area, in the Greater Nicobar Island. Apparently, the idea has originated from Niti Ayog’s  “Pre-Feasibility Report (March, 2021): Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman & Nicobar Islands'”. The project is to be taken up by the integrated Development Corporation of the A&N Islands.

What distresses me most is a deliberate attempt on the part of Niti Ayog to gloss over the unique ecological features of the Greater Nicobar island and more importantly the fact that that area is inhabited by several vulnerable tribal communities, however small in number they may be, who depend critically on the local forests. An equally distressing fact is that this island was notified by UNESCO as one among the 12 biospheres in India and that Niti Ayog should choose to ignore this, to accommodate a complex of projects which could spell doom to the island’s ecology and its vulnerable tribal groups.

The total extent of the Greater Nicobar Island is 1039, 90% of which is under tropical forests, which are few in India. Out of this, it is ironic that your Ministry, that too the Forest Wing which is expected to protect the forests, should give its nod for diverting 13% of the area.

There are a few Constitutional and other important issues, that arise in the case.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (Forest Rights Act or FRA):

There are Shompen and Nicobarese tribes in this area who are dependent on the forest resources. The FRA requires that their individual and community rights be recognised in consultation with them. Apparently, Niti Ayog has not cared to discuss this inviolable statutory requirement in laying out its so-called “vision” for the island. There cannot be a “vision” which is not as perceived by the local communities!

National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST):

NCST is an authority set up under Article 338A of the Constitution. On any matter that is likely to affect the interests of the Scheduled Tribes, under Clause 9 of that Article, both the Centre and the States shall consult the Commission, before taking decisions. Niti Ayog’s report makes no mention of this! At least your Ministry ought to have raised this question before allowing diversion of forest land in the island, keeping in view the fact that it is the local tribes that have a direct stake in the forests.

MEFCC’s role:

Under Article 48A, your Ministry has the mandate to protect forests, not allow their degradation, irrespective of whether a proposal for such degradation of forests has the support of bodies such as Niti Ayog and Andaman & Nicobar administration. I am afraid that your Ministry has not lived up to this mandate.

Godavarman case & apex court ruling:

In their landmark judgement in the Godavarman case, the apex court had directed the government not to divert forest lands for non-forest purposes and, only in exceptional circumstances, stipulated that where such diversion became inescapable, for every acre diverted, compensatory afforestation of two acres be ensured.

Keeping this in view, your Ministry has in several cases directed that approval of the apex court would be necessary before any proposal for diversion of forest land is to be considered.

To cite one specific example, in a communication bearing No. F. No.8-95/2010-FC dated 13-7-02013, in a proposal for “De-reservation of 161.765 ha of forest land for regularization of land allotted in 9 villages in favour of M/s Revenue Department of A&N Administration in Baratang Forest Division in Port Blair district of Andaman & Nicobar Island”, your Ministry had incorporated the condition, “keeping in view the direction of Hon’ble Supreme Court contained in their order dated 14.02.2000 in I.A. No. 548 in W.P. 202/1995, re-iterated in order dated 9.02.2004 in I.A. No. 16 stating that ‘Pending further orders, no de-reservation of forests/sanctuaries /national parks shall be effected’….. approval of Hon’ble Supreme Court may be obtained by the UT Administration for de-reservation of the proposed forest land”

It is surprising that MEFCC’s Forest Wing should apply a different standard to Niti Ayog’s mega project!

The idea of “compensatory afforestation” introduced by the apex court envisaged that, in a given region, if a limited extent of forest land is to be diverted, it should be compensated by raising forests twice that area in the same region to maintain ecological balance. It is ironic that this idea should be extended to cases of diversion of large extents of forest lands in one region and make a mockery of the concept by saying that it will be compensated more than a thousand miles away, as it has been the case with your Forest Wing’s approval, which is based on compensatory afforestation in far away States such as Haryana and MP.

One cannot compensate for the kind of tropical forests of A&N Islands with their rich biodiversity, by raising forests in Haryana where the bioresources would not be the same.

Social value of biodiversity:

When disruptive projects such as the one in question is to be taken up, anyone with a sense of respect for ecology and its biodiversity, would consider its social impact on the same, before rushing into approving it. I would recommend MEFCC officials to read the Dasgupta study,  “The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review (, which has assessed the economics of biodiversity in a comprehensive manner. The social costs of such a project need to be weighed against the perceived benefits of a mega infrastructure projects.

In conclusion, I would suggest that your Ministry should tread cautiously in dealing with projects that could disrupt the lives of the local communities, especially, the tribals and the traditional forest dwellers in islands such as Lakshadweep and A&N Islands. I am not sure whether your Ministry is adequately equipped to discharge this responsibility. Had your Ministry consulted the NCST and the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs, it would have become wiser!

I request you to direct your Forest Wing to revisit this proposal in view of the concerns expressed above.


Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to Government of india


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Earth Day Greetings!

As I bicycled to work this cool, breezy spring morning in the Pacific Northwest, I admired the vibrant growth of multitude of plants reaching for the sun, and spring flowers seeking bees and…

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News