- An expert committee of the Indian government’s environment ministry has okayed a near-negligible eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around the Galathea National Park (GNP) in the Great Nicobar Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Island region even as it is home to endemic flora and fauna.
- An ESZ provides a restricted development zone buffer outside protected areas, thereby giving additional protection to the faunal and floral diversity.
- The Andaman and Nicobar Island administration justified the zero extent ESZ on the grounds of allowing holistic development which includes projects such as an airport, a major transhipment port, and a strategic defence project in view of the geopolitical importance of the area.
- The expert committee also cleared a zero-to-one kilometre ESZ around the Campbell Bay National Park as well, which is the other major national park on the island.
Giving weightage to the “holistic development” argument, an expert committee of the environment ministry has recommended a near-negligible eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around Galathea National Park (GNP) in the Great Nicobar Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands region so that the development of an airport, a major transhipment port, and a strategic defence project faces no impediment in the future.
The issue was discussed in the January 18, 2021 meeting of the expert committee of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s (MoEFCC) expert committee which decided about the ESZ around protected areas including wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, and tiger reserves. An ESZ provides a restricted development zone buffer outside protected areas, thereby giving additional protection to the faunal and floral diversity.
The Great Nicobar Island, spread over an area of 1,044 square kilometres, is one of the most strategically important areas, in the Andaman and Nicobar Island region. It is located further south than Kanyakumari (Tamil Nadu) and is closer to Myanmar and Sumatra than to the Indian mainland.
But as important it is from the strategic point of view, it is also home to many endemic species. In January 1989, the government had declared the island as a biosphere reserve and later in 2013, it was included in UNESCO’s biosphere programme. Besides the GNP, the island is also home to Campbell Bay National Park (CBNP) and they both are part of India’s protected area network.
The area is certainly important from the strategic point of view but the island is also home to unique flora and fauna. According to the Indian government, The GNP’s vegetation is “one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world and shows a high degree of endemism” due to its geographic location and physical isolation.
The GNP consists of mangrove forests, littoral forests (beach forests), low-level evergreen forests (coral reef forests), tropical evergreen forests, southern hill-top evergreen forests and fern breaks. At least 14 species of mangrove plants are recorded from the area.
The GNP also has elements from the “Indo-Chinese and Indo-Malayan regions” and “about 648 species of flora” have been reported from the area, “out of which 48 species of endemic flora and 85 species of non-endemic flora are rare and endangered.”
The protected area has only one perennial river, Galathea, which originates in the CBNP and flows all the way towards the south through the GNP and its estuaries forming important nesting grounds for “giant leatherback sea turtle, olive ridley turtle, green sea turtles.”
According to the government’s own data, a total of 330 species of fauna are recorded from the GNP including 28 species of mammals (including three marine mammals), 97 species of birds, 23 species of reptiles, 10 species of amphibians, 52 species of butterflies, 24 species of odonates, 20 species of spiders and 76 species of aquatic Hemipterans.
The data states that the GNP is home to “an exceptional variety of wildlife” including the “major threatened and endemic fauna recorded from the national park” such as Nicobar crab-eating macaque, Nicobar wild pig, dugong, Nicobar tree shrew, Nicobar flying fox, spiny shrew and Nicobar leaf-nosed bat, Nicobar pipistrelle, Andaman water monitor, Tiwari’s garden lizard and estuarine crocodile.
The areas also have several “important endemic avi-faunal species” such as Nicobar tiger bittern, Nicobar cuckoo dove, Nicobar emerald dove, Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, Nicobar paradise flycatcher, Andaman three-toed kingfisher, Nicobar megapode, Nicobar hill myna, Nicobar back-naped oriole, Nicobar scops owl, Nicobar green imperial pigeon, Nicobar white eye, Andaman Glossy Stare, Nicobar Olive-backed sunbird, Nicobar yellow-backed sunbird, Andaman grey rumped swiftlet and many others.
The GNP is also home to one of the “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG), the Shompens, which is still in the hunting and gathering stage and is solely dependent on the forest resources.”
Development of airport, port and other projects take precedence
On October 28, 2020, the authorities had published a draft notification proposing an eco-sensitive zone of 0-1 kilometre and sought comments from the public and other stakeholders. The GNP is spread over an area of 110 sq. km. while the CBNP’s area is 426.33 sq. km.
During the meeting, a presentation was made by officials of the Andaman and Nicobar islands administration including the chief wildlife warden and the environment secretary. They told the committee that the GNP and its adjoining areas are rich in biodiversity including endemic faunal and floral species.
When the committee discussed the zero extent of the ESZ in major stretches along the GNP’s boundary of the national park, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration representatives explained that zero extent is proposed since the major geographical area of the Great Nicobar Island where the park is located, is covered under protected areas network and tribal reserves” due to which “there is hardly any area left for holistic development.”
It was also stressed during the meeting that the Great Nicobar Island has “tremendous strategic significance for the country and the government of India is in the process of development of strategic projects and therefore, there is no scope for ESZ left.”
The MoEFCC’s expert committee was informed of the justification behind such a small ESZ which highlighted that the Great Nicobar Island is strategically located very close to the major international shipping route of Malacca Strait.
It was noted that of the total geographic area of the island, over 95 percent is “either national parks, protected forests and tribal reserve” which leaves “little area for development.”
“In the eastern side, the NITI Aayog has proposed to construct an airport, requiring 21.64 sq. km. of land at the southeastern part and construction of rapid mass transit system originating from Campbell Bay and terminating somewhere in the western part and running parallel to the coastline,” the committee was informed.
It was also emphasised that in the southern part, “besides the development of a major transhipment port, the area is also earmarked for future strategic defence use in view of the developing geopolitical scenario in the area.”
While the south-western and western part of the Great Nicobar Island outside the Galathea National Park “are narrow and proposed to be used as free trade zone as ancillary to the transhipment port leaving little area for declaration of ESZ.”
The officials emphasised that “to protect the development and inhabitants from an unforeseen natural disaster like a tsunami, rising water level, a 750 metres buffer is proposed from the coast and near the national park boundary.”
“This requires the developable area to be located away from the coast and near to the national park boundary,” the draft notification had said.
The ESZ acts as a cushion or shock absorber for protected areas. They play the role of transition zones from areas of high protection to less protection.
The MoEFCC’s expert committee recommended the “finalisation of the ESZ notification” of the GNP based on the presentation and deliberations on the information made available to them.
Manish Chandi, a human ecologist and former senior fellow with the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team, said he is not anti-development but the question that needs to be answered is whether the development being brought to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is really going to benefit the islanders here or will it all simply force them to work as labourers or domestic help in other’s houses, resorts or offices.
“There are so many pressing needs of the local communities that are overshadowed by the Rs. 10,000 crores (Rs. 100 billion) for the transhipment terminal, which in itself is an economic sinkhole of dubious future, as everything and everyone to make it function will have to be imported,” he said.
Rather than such a grey and grave mistake, Chandi suggested that Rs 100 crores (Rs one billion) be spent on improving infrastructure for the local community and to enhance their capacity to augment and create income-generating avenues through nature-based tourism run and conducted by themselves, rather than destroying what significant natural resources that the island is known globally for.
In fact, he said that the “transhipment terminal is just a sinkhole for monies … nothing positive can be expected from this hare-brained idea to compete with Hambantota, Colombo, Klang, Vallarpadam and Tuticorin, which are much bigger and better terminals than Great Nicobar.”
“The damages that will ensue from this proposal will be extremely damaging to the natural resources which are assets to the archipelago and the islanders future. The transhipment terminal will take decades if at all to break even, and at an irreversible cost to local livelihoods and the natural environment of this island,” Chandi told Mongabay-India.
Near zero extent ESZ also recommended for Great Nicobar’s Campbell Bay National Park
Besides the GNP, the environment ministry’s expert committee also recommended the finalisation of the ESZ notification of the Campbell Bay National Park as well during the meeting, whose draft notification was also published on October 28, 2020, for public comments.
For the CBNP as well, the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had proposed an ESZ of 0 to 1 kilometre. During the January 18, 2021 meeting, the committee was informed that the CBNP and its adjoining areas are biodiversity-rich and house endemic species such as the Nicobar megapode, crab-eating macaque, giant robber crab, Nicobar pigeon etc.
The ministry’s panel was told that “no comments/ objections have been received in respect of the draft notification for the declaration of ESZ” within the stipulated 60 days and till date.”
The committee was told that zero extent ESZ on the western side and the northern side of the boundary of the national park was because it merges with the Bay of Bengal, and on the eastern side, it is already a tribal area protected under the Forest Act.
While the areas beyond zero extent on the coastal sides are already protected under the coastal regulation zone rules. The MoEFCC’s committee agreed to the justification.
However, the idea has failed to convince many working in the area for years.
Manish Chandi said the question is “will the local people get the latest medical and communication facilities. Will water supplies to kitchens be prioritised rather than sent for the construction and associated developments?”
“The environment in terms of local livelihoods and a sustainable future is not on anyone’s agenda and the government is simply brushing aside any concern towards that while it is taking up land in these island for developmental projects and within few years they will need more for their expansion at the expense of the forests area which indigenous Shompen people depend on. Shompen has categorically stated on camera to the NITI Aayog to leave their forests alone and let them live the way they want to,” said Chandi.
He emphasised that the NITI Aayog hasn’t bothered to take these concerns into consideration at all. “This is only going to be damaging for the indigenous forest-dwelling communities and the environment on a scale only comparable to the destructive tsunami of 2004,” said Chandi.
The trend of authorities advocating for near negligible or zero extent ESZs around protected areas has caught momentum in recent times which ultimately threatens their very existence as it could make turn them into islands of biodiversity.
Also read: Environmental stories from islands across the world
Banner image: According to the IUCN, the population of crab-eating macaque is decreasing. Photo by Prasun Goswami/Wikimedia Commons.