The Great Nicobar Island mega project and the recent amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act in violation of the Supreme Court’s directions

The Great Nicobar Island mega project and the recent amendment to the Forest (Conservation) Act in violation of the Supreme Court’s directions pose a serious threat to India’s forests and biodiversity- Appeal for urgent intervention

To

Smt. Droupadi Murmu

The President of India

Respected Rashtrapati Ji,

Kindly refer to my letter of July 22, 2023, in which I apprised your office of the prima facie violation of Article 338A(9) of the Constitution on the manner in which the government recently processed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, and the likely long-term adverse impact of those amendments on the interests of the Adivasis and on the forest habitat on which they critically depend. In particular, I referred to the objections raised by the then Chairman of the National Commission for the Scheduled Tribes (NCST) in his detailed letter F.No. NCST-04/0mon/4/22-RMDC dated 26-9-2022 which the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MEFCC) not only chose to ignore but also chose not to apprise the Parliament of the same (https://countercurrents.org/2023/07/lok-sabha-report-of-joint-committee-on-forest-conservation-amendment-bill-2023-national-commission-for-scheduled-tribes-ncsts-views-not-elicited/)

I take the liberty of further apprising you of how the recent moves on the part of the government, in addition to the above-cited legislative amendments, are likely to hurt the interests of the Adivasis not only in the mainland but also in the Great Nicobar Island.

The Centre’s unilateral decision to set up a mega infrastructure project in Great Nicobar Island, ignoring the objections raised by the local Tribal Council, will strip the Island of its irreplaceable forest cover of 131 square kilometres and deprive the local endangered Shompen and Nicobarese tribal communities of their exclusive “Tribal Reserve” in violation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956. In my letters of 29th January and 14th of April, 2023 (https://countercurrents.org/2023/04/mega-infrastructure-project-in-great-nicobar-island-need-to-consult-the-shompens-and-nicobarese/), I apprised you of this in detail. 

The NCST has taken cognisance of my submissions for further action but, in the absence of an adequate response from the Centre, I am not sure whether any tangible steps will be taken to safeguard the interests of the local Shmpens and Nicobarese communities unless your office intervenes.

The irony of the Greater Nicobar Island project is that the MEFCC had justified its action to accord statutory clearance for deforesting 131 square kilometres of forests for the project on the basis of a highly questionable assurance that it would ensure “compensatory afforestation (CA)” in compliance with the stipulation made by the Supreme Court in the well-known Godavarman case and such CA would be arranged in a highly dubious manner in far away Haryana State, where the recent legislative changes introduced by the Haryana government in respect of the 123-year old Punjab Land Preservation Act (PLPA), 1900, read with the latest amendments introduced by MEFCC to the Forest (Conservation) Act have already cleared the way for stripping the Haryana State and its people of their community forests, especially, the forests, both notified and not notified under the Indian Forest Act, in the ecologically sensitive Aravalli hill range. In other words, the Great Nicobar Island project would remove 131 square kilometres of a unique globally recognised tropical biosphere, without genuinely compensating for the loss of biodiversity for the island and without compensating the Shompens and Nicobarese for the loss of their exclusive habitat and privacy.

In this connection, I invite your attention to my detailed article (https://countercurrents.org/2023/11/tropical-forests-in-greater-nicobar-islands-to-aravalli-forests-in-haryana-the-green-connection-between-politicians-and-their-corporate-allies/) in which I have highlighted how the nation is made to believe that the loss of 131 square kilometres of a unique forest habitat of the local tribals is being compensated for by raising forests 2000 kilometres away in Haryana where both the Centre and the State have jointly opened the floodgates to large scale deforestation, including deforestation of the ecologically sensitive Aravalli Range. While the Shompens and the Nicobarese are losing their precious forest habitat, the ultimate winners in this unholy bargain are real estate developers who have mushroomed in and around Delhi, especially in the adjacent Haryana State.

Both the MEFCC and the Haryana government seem to be in gross violation of the directions issued by the apex court of India in three of their important judgements, namely, (i) the judgement in the Godavarman case (1997) with reference to deforestation of a “deemed forest” not necessarily notified under the Indian Forest Act, (ii) the judgement of July 2, 2022, in Narinder Singh vs Divesh Bhutani (Civil Appeal No.10294 OF 2013) with reference to the validity of the 2019 amendment introduced by Haryana to the PLPA and (iii) in the judgement of January28, 2011 in Jagpal Singh & Ors vs State Of Punjab & Ors (Civil Appeal No.1132 /2011) prohibiting alienation of ecologically important community lands to private agencies. 

Unfortunately, the cumulative impact of these violations is going to manifest in terms of endangering the interests of the Adivasis both in Great Nicobar Island and the rest of India, causing an ecological disaster in the Aravalli hill range in Haryana and the other north-western States, a similar ecological crisis in other important mountain ranges including the Himalayas, the Vindhyas, the Eastern and the Western Ghats and generally depriving the local communities across the country of their valuable community forest resources. 

In view of this, I would appeal for your urgent intervention on the following:

  1. Direct the Central government to reconsider the mega infrastructure project in Great Nicobar Island, preserve in its pristine form the local forest-based “Tribal Reserve” notified under the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956 and ensure that the objections raised by the Shompens and Nicobarese through their local Tribal Council are fully respected
  2. Direct the MEFCC and the States to respect and comply with the environmental norms and the norms for maintaining community lands as stipulated by the apex court
  3. Direct the Haryana government to reconsider the 2019 amendment to PLPA in view of the apex court’s 2022 judgement
  4. Direct the MEFCC to respect the views of the NCST and the norms stipulated by the apex court in the Godavarman case and accordingly review the amendment already introduced with respect to the Forest (Conservation) Act
  5. Direct the Centre and the States to secure 100% enforcement of the provisions of the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act [PESA] and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act or “Forest Rights Act” [FRA] under which the local Adivasi Gram Sabhas should have a say in decision making on matters such as these that affect their lives

Since both the Centre and the States seem to be in direct non-compliance with the apex court’s directions, perhaps your office may like to make a reference to the apex court itself for appropriate action.

I take the liberty of appraising you of my concerns as above, in view of their far-reaching implications for the Adivasi communities across the country and the long-term ecological implications of the above-cited moves on the part of the Centre and the other States such as Haryana.

Respectfully,

E A S Sarma

Former Secretary to the Government of India

Visakhapatnam

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