Representational image (Express Illustrations)
Representational image (Express Illustrations)

Striking a balance between ecology and national security

Development in ecologically sensitive regions presents a tightrope walk.

Development in ecologically sensitive regions presents a tightrope walk. The challenge is enormous when it’s planned in one of India’s most strategic locations, like the ambitious Rs 72,000 crore project in Greater Nicobar Island (GNI). The multi-development project recently received Stage-I clearance from the government but the statutory clearance process is embroiled in controversy primarily because the project is sited in an ecologically fragile zone. Envisioned by NITI Aayog, the project includes an international container transhipment terminal, a Greenfield International Airport, a township and solar-based power plants. Apart from ecology, the region, situated at India’s southernmost tip, is also strategically important.

The project is vital in light of China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea in the last two years, the sighting of its intelligence apparatus in the Indian Ocean, its plans to build infrastructure and military installations closer to the eastern Indian Ocean, and its relations with Sri Lanka. The project assumes greater significance since it would give New Delhi an advantage in its defence preparedness.

National interests notwithstanding, the project poses a great challenge to the 910 sq km island, which is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with immense biodiversity value. Home to 245 species of scleractinian corals, endangered leatherback turtles, Nicobar megapode, macaque, saltwater crocodiles, and a host of species of birds, the GNI is inhabited by Shompen and Nicobarese tribes too. Not surprisingly, the Expert Appraisal Committee which recommended Stage-I clearance also observed with some trepidation in its report: “EAC also noted that there are several other endemic flora and fauna and impact of the project on these species is mostly unknown. … (and) the scale of impacts the proposed project may have both on flora and fauna of GNI and native populations.”

While the island has witnessed the impact of anthropogenic pressure and climate change in recent decades, massive development would require the exploitation of ground and surface water as well as other natural resources to cater to the demands of a township and other installations in the future. The project also necessitates the felling of over eight lakh trees—though in phases as suggested by the EAC—to catastrophic effect. The clamour surrounding the environmental impact assessment report and de-notification of parts of two protected areas of GNI last year has not helped assuage the concerns. Needless to say, the Centre will have to find a fine, fine balance.

The New Indian Express