Central Controversy Surrounding the Great Nicobar Development Project

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The Union Home Ministry requested that the 8.45-square-km airport component of the project be kept confidential due to a “strategic” imperative.

In a unique move, the Environment Ministry has decided to withhold discussions on the forest clearance for the entire 166.10-sq km project, as recommended by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), which includes the airport.

The FAC, an expert body, reviews and approves the diversion of forest land for various projects.

In addition to the airport, the project includes a Rs 72,000-crore township (149.60 sq km), a container transhipment terminal (7.66 sq km), and a power plant (0.4 sq km).

The project, which requires the diversion of 130 sq km of forest land and the cutting of 8.5 lakh trees, is facing opposition due to its impact on the island’s forest and coastal ecology, as well as the indigenous tribes.

In May 2022, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the ministry noted that the proposed international airport would be a joint military-civil, dual-use airport under the Indian Navy’s control for defense, strategic, national security, and public purposes.

The EAC conducted a detailed discussion on the project’s environmental aspects, withholding only information related to the strategic airport from its minutes. It approved the project pending forest clearance by the FAC.

On October 27, 2022, the Environment Ministry granted in-principle approval (Stage-I forest clearance) for the diversion of 130.75 sq km of forest land for sustainable development in Great Nicobar based on the FAC’s recommendations.

The FAC met 26 times between October 7, 2020, when the project proposal was received, and October 27, when clearance was granted. However, there is no mention of the Great Nicobar development project in the agenda or minutes of these meetings.

When asked about the project’s absence from the FAC records, an official involved in the forest clearance process stated that it was a strategic project and only the competent authority could provide further information.

Attempts to contact the Director General of Forest and Inspector General of Forest, who are members of the FAC, were unsuccessful. Independent expert members declined to comment or did not recall discussing specific projects.

The FAC is a statutory body established under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, to advise the government on forest clearance approvals. It meets monthly to discuss pre-published agenda items and uploads meeting minutes on the ministry’s website.

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