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Editorials/Opinions Analysis For UPSC 03 July 2024

  1. Infrastructure Project on the Great Nicobar Island
  2. Create the Space for Governance with a Green Heart


Context:

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs will examine the paperwork related to forest clearance for the ₹72,000-crore infrastructure project on Great Nicobar Island, a significant initiative under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, according to Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram. This marks an important decision in the government’s third term, highlighting the challenging decisions governments face in balancing infrastructure development, preserving pristine biodiversity, and respecting the rights of indigenous inhabitants and tribals.

Relevance:

GS3-

  • Growth and Development
  • Environmental Conservation

Mains Question:

What is the government’s rationale behind the Great Nicobar Project? What are the concerns associated with the project and how can the oath ahead ensure balancing infrastructure development while also preserving pristine biodiversity? (15 Marks, 250 Words).

Great Nicobar Island:

  • Great Nicobar Island is the largest and southernmost of the Nicobar Islands, spanning 910 square kilometers in the southeastern Bay of Bengal. It is predominantly covered by tropical rainforest and sparsely inhabited.
  • Indira Point, situated on Great Nicobar Island, marks India’s southernmost tip and is approximately 90 nautical miles (less than 170 km) from Sabang at the northern tip of Sumatra, the largest island in the Indonesian archipelago.
  • The Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprise 836 islands grouped into the Andaman Islands in the north and the Nicobar Islands in the south. They are separated by the 10° Channel, which spans 150 kilometers wide.
  • Great Nicobar Island hosts two national parks, a biosphere reserve, and small communities of the Shompen, Onge, Andamanese, and Nicobarese tribal peoples, alongside a few thousand non-tribal settlers.

The Great Nicobar Project:

  • The Great Nicobar Island (GNI) project, initiated in 2021, is a large-scale endeavor planned for the southernmost region of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
  • It aims to establish a trans-shipment port, an international airport, township infrastructure, and a 450 MVA gas and solar-based power plant on the island.
  • The project was greenlit following a NITI Aayog report that highlighted the island’s strategic location, equidistant from Colombo in Sri Lanka to the southwest, and Port Klang (Malaysia) and Singapore to the southeast.
  • Managed by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO), the ambitious infrastructure initiative includes an International Container Trans-shipment Terminal (ICTT) and a greenfield international airport.
  • Positioned near the Malacca Strait, a vital route connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, the ICTT is expected to integrate Great Nicobar into the regional and global maritime trade network as a key hub for cargo transshipment.
  • The proposed site for the ICTT and power plant is Galathea Bay, located at the southeastern tip of Great Nicobar Island, an area devoid of human settlement.
  • The Great Nicobar Project includes plans for a trans-shipment port, an international airport, township development, and a 450 MVA gas and solar-based power plant across an estimated 130 sq. km. of virgin forest.
  • It has received stage-1 environmental clearance, a mandatory requirement from an expert committee.
  • In August 2023, the government informed Parliament that approximately 9.6 lakh trees could be felled for the project, with compensatory afforestation planned in Haryana, thousands of kilometers away from the unique rainforest ecosystem of Great Nicobar.
  • The Galathea Bay in the Nicobar Islands harbors numerous rare species such as the leatherback turtle, whose future is jeopardized by the project’s development plans.

Rationale Behind the Project:

  • The upgrade aims to enhance the capability to deploy additional military forces, larger warships, aircraft, missile batteries, and troops.
  • Securing comprehensive surveillance of the archipelago and establishing a robust military deterrent at Great Nicobar Island are crucial for India’s national security strategy.
  • Due to its proximity to the Malacca Strait, a critical route linking the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, Great Nicobar Island’s International Container Trans-shipment Terminal (ICTT) is expected to position it as a significant participant in regional and global maritime trade.
  • The Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean regions hold immense strategic importance for India, primarily due to concerns over the increasing presence and influence of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China.
  • India is particularly wary of China’s efforts to bolster its naval capabilities at strategic chokepoints in the Indo-Pacific, including the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits.
  • Additionally, China’s establishment of a military facility on the Coco Islands, situated just 55 km north of India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands, underscores India’s concerns. The Andaman & Nicobar Islands play a pivotal role in India’s maritime security architecture in the region.
  • The government argues that its intention is to utilize the strategic position of Great Nicobar Island, located just 90 km from the western end of the Malacca Strait, a crucial shipping route connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
  • However, critics and some of the government’s policy advisors believe that promoting tourism is a significant underlying reason for the project.
  • The Environment Ministry, responsible for environmental regulations, has chosen not to disclose details about the project. Information regarding the environmental clearance process and the assessment, typically public documents, has been withheld.
  • Additionally, there appears to be urgency from the island administration to move forward while disregarding the consent rights of the local tribes, especially the Shompen.
  • The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, a constitutional body, has demanded an explanation from the district administration on these issues.

Associated Concerns:

Impact on Indigenous Tribes:

  • The Shompen and Nicobarese, identified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) of hunter-gatherers, have a population estimated in the hundreds. They reside within a tribal reserve on Great Nicobar Island.
  • There are serious concerns that the proposed infrastructure upgrade could severely affect the Shompen tribe and their traditional lifestyle, closely intertwined with the island’s natural surroundings.

Threat to Island Ecology:

  • The project’s implementation is anticipated to significantly impact Great Nicobar Island’s ecology, involving the felling of nearly a million trees.
  • There are fears that the construction of the port could devastate coral reefs, affecting the local marine ecosystem, and pose risks to terrestrial species like the Nicobar Megapode bird and leatherback turtles, which nest in the Galathea Bay area.
  • This portion of land constitutes approximately 15% of Great Nicobar Island’s total area and represents one of India’s largest forest diversions in a globally and nationally unique rainforest ecosystem.

Seismic Vulnerability:

  • The proposed port site is situated in a region prone to seismic activity, which saw permanent subsidence of about 15 feet during the 2004 tsunami.
  • This raises concerns about the safety and feasibility of constructing a large-scale infrastructure project in such a high-risk, disaster-prone area.

Lack of Adequate Consultation:

There are allegations that the local administration did not sufficiently consult the Tribal Council of Great and Little Nicobar Islands, as required by law.

Conclusion:

In April 2023, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) declined to intervene in the environmental and forest clearances granted to the project but ordered the formation of a high-power committee to review these clearances. The National Green Tribunal had appointed a committee, led by the Environment Ministry’s Secretary, to submit a report on the approval of forest clearances, yet this report remains undisclosed. Without transparency, the government would be imprudent to undertake such extensive changes to the islands. Given its fresh mandate, it should promptly reassess its approach.



Context:

As a new government term begins for the Lok Sabha, prioritizing environmental concerns should be paramount. Historically, no government has prioritized environmental issues, with the previous administration’s developmental agenda proving actively detrimental to the environment. To mitigate this, urgent adoption of green policies is crucial, even as the country pursues its middle-income economic goals.

Relevance:

GS3- Environmental Pollution and Degradation

Mains Question:

A conscious focus on green policies is crucial as environmental issues in India impact the survival and the health of millions. Discuss what should be the approach of the new government in this regard. (10 Marks, 150 Words).

India’s Vulnerability to Climate Change:

  • India’s vulnerability to climate change is pronounced, despite frequent mentions by leadership. Actions to reduce emissions remain inadequate, with insufficient focus on building resilience, ensuring food security, and securing essential resources.
  • As floods, famines, heatwaves, wildfires, water shortages, and droughts become more frequent, there is an urgent need for contingency plans to safeguard vulnerable populations.
  • Measures like updating building codes, preserving natural storm barriers such as mangrove forests, and establishing funds for evacuation and rehabilitation are critical but neglected responsibilities of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.
  • India suffers from one of the world’s lowest green cover levels per capita, with only 28 trees per person compared to Canada’s 8953 and China’s 130.
  • Qualitatively important forest cover has markedly declined in the last two decades, exacerbated by inadequate urban forestry management.
  • The degradation of forests has been obscured by dubious accounting practices that include plantation forests and urban tree cover.
  • Legislation like the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023, hastily passed by the outgoing Parliament, needs reconsideration and replacement with robust new protections.
  • India’s metropolitan areas, including Delhi, Mumbai, and numerous cities across the Gangetic belt, face severe air pollution issues that significantly diminish residents’ life expectancy.
  • Cities like Bengaluru and Delhi are grappling with water scarcity, forcing the underprivileged to endure long queues for basic needs.
  • Rivers like the Adyar in Chennai and the Yamuna in Delhi have turned into polluted waterways due to neglect.
  • Urban green spaces and water bodies have been encroached upon, leading to the formation of heat islands.
  • Smaller cities face similar challenges and require timely intervention to prevent reaching crisis levels akin to larger metros.
  • The national sewage treatment system, treating only about 28% of generated sewage, urgently requires comprehensive reform.
  • In summary, addressing these environmental challenges requires a profound shift towards green policies and stringent environmental protections at both national and local levels, essential for the well-being and survival of millions of Indians.

Destruction in the Himalayas:

  • Destruction in the Himalayas is a critical concern. Climate change has had disproportionately severe impacts on India’s mountain regions.
  • Glaciers are rapidly shrinking, with some already vanished, and it’s projected that up to 80% of their volume could disappear by the end of this century.
  • This shift in rainfall and temperature patterns threatens the water and food security not only of mountain dwellers but also of much of North India.
  • Despite significant protests and fasting by thousands in Ladakh demanding governmental action, their pleas were ignored, possibly because their region lacks electoral sway.
  • Similar neglect affects wetlands and other marginal landscapes crucial for biodiversity conservation.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA):

  • Another issue is public participation. The Indian government’s longstanding disregard for stakeholders and affected communities lies at the heart of many environmental challenges.
  • Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) have been reduced to mere formalities, disregarding protests and criticisms.
  • The absence of effective opposition has led to hasty and poorly considered decisions, exemplified by projects like the Char Dham Highway, rushed through with insufficient environmental scrutiny.
  • This has resulted in irreparable damage to Uttarakhand’s river valleys, exacerbating risks such as the tunnel collapse in November 2023.
  • Moreover, the integrity of the 2006 EIA Notification has been steadily undermined by numerous amendments over the past five years. To prevent further sabotage, EIA mechanisms should be legally mandated to ensure their effectiveness and impartiality.

Greenwashing:

  • Fifth, the issue of greenwashing is critical. Policies driven by commercial interests, such as green credits and compensatory afforestation, have supplanted genuine conservation efforts.
  • True sustainable development requires actions that prioritize environmental benefits over mere profitability. There is a pressing need to strengthen enforcement mechanisms and regulatory bodies to uphold genuine environmental laws.

Conclusion:

These concerns are not trivial; they profoundly affect the well-being and survival of millions of people. It was deeply disappointing that these issues were absent from the election manifestos of major political parties. However, there is still an opportunity for the government to fulfill its role as a responsible steward by prioritizing the physical health of the nation.


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