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New Delhi: The centrally appointed Expert Assessment Committee (EAC), tasked with reviewing projects before granting them environmental clearance, has identified several shortcomings in NITI Aayog’s plan to develop the remote island of Great Nicobar. The panel asked for more details, so they could make an “informed decision” on the matter.

NITI Aayog has proposed to establish a Rs 72,000 crore international container transshipment terminal, airport, thermal power station and township on the largely uninhabited island rich in biodiversity.

In line with environmental clearance standards, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report for the project was submitted to the committee earlier this year. EIA is a process for assessing the impacts of a project and its construction on the local ecology.

In a meeting held over two days, 24 and 25 May, the committee observed that the EIA report excluded the assessment plans it had specifically requested earlier, such as an assessment oil spill risks and rehabilitation and mitigation plans for several species affected by the project.

Great Nicobar Island is known to be home to over 1,700 species of animals and is one of the most biodiverse areas in the country, with vast expanses of dense natural forest.

“In response to the EAC’s request for a Saltwater Crocodile Management Plan, no plan has been submitted other than an assurance to follow an action plan to mitigate human-crocodile conflict,” indicates the minutes of the meeting, which were made public last week.

The committee also acknowledged that the transshipment port is “likely to disrupt” the nesting habits of the critically endangered giant leatherback turtle, contrary to claims in the EIA report that turtles “can enter the nesting site without any hindrance (sic)”.

The giant leatherback turtle is a globally endangered species with few nesting sites around the world. One of them is Galathea Bay on Great Nicobar Island, which is also the site chosen for the transshipment port worth thousands of crores. Environmentalists said the construction of the port will further endanger the turtles and cause irreversible damage to the island’s ecology.

The committee, however, did not suggest that the port be moved, citing defense activities there. He asked the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to consider other channels to protect current nesting sites and proposed three alternative nesting sites for turtles as well as megapode birds. Great Nicobar Island is also a nesting site for these megapodes, which will be affected by the project.

ThePrint reached out to a spokesperson for Niti Aayog on Friday via email for comment. The copy will be updated once the response is received.

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“No justification” for shortcomings

The committee requested a complete overhaul of certain parts of the plan submitted in the EIA.

The construction of a township, an airport, and a power plant will “obstruct the movement from the forest to the shore of the sea to the forest” of several animals, and there is no provision for such a corridor in the NITI Aayog plan, the committee noted, according to the minutes. of the May meeting.

“Therefore, it is necessary to revise the layout of the master plan keeping the natural forest corridor” every three kilometers, with a width of 300 to 500 meters, the committee said.

The committee further noted that NITI Aayog “has not submitted any Mangrove Conservation Plan/Coral Conservation Plan which normally forms part of the EIA/Environmental Management Plan”.

“No justification was given for not including the Mangrove Conservation Plan, including the Compensatory Planting Plan in lieu of the loss of mangrove cover. Similarly, the Coral Conservation Plan did not not been included,” he added.

About 12 to 20 hectares of mangrove cover will be lost, over 8 lakh of trees cut and over a square kilometer of coral destroyed due to the project, according to the project plan.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are also prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes, and the committee noted that the plan made no mention of this.

“Evacuation plans for natural disasters should (be) spelled out clearly and in detail as this area is prone to tsunamis, frequent earthquakes and cyclones, etc.,” the committee said.

He also demanded that the Wildlife Institute of India submit “a detailed roadmap” of costs to monitor giant leatherback turtle movements, habitat restoration and nest protection for the next 10 years.

The questions posed by the EAC echo the concerns raised by environmental experts against the NITI Aayog plan. Also earlier, several environmental organizations, researchers and citizens had submitted written submissions to the pollution control committee of the Andaman and Nicobar Administration, requesting the review of the EIA report.

Avli Verma, a researcher at Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, an environmental research organization, said the committee’s observations highlighted the EIA’s many shortcomings.

“The committee pointed to a wide range of issues that show how flawed the EIA was. This shows that there has been very little thought given to the impacts of this project. The question is, why is this quality of EIA maintained? And should he be entertained? he asked, while talking to ThePrint.

(Editing by Poulomi Banerjee)

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