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Govt of India 'ignoring' land acquisition law: Plan for international airport in Great Nicobar

Counterview Desk 
In an open letter on the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) of the proposed international airport project in Great Nicobar, the Constitutional Conduct Group (CCG), which has former civil servants belonging to the All India and Central Services as its members*, has suggested that the proposed project is likely to have a significant adverse impact on the Tribal Reserve in Great Nicobar and its vulnerable tribal groups.
Seeking abandonment of the project due to its “disastrous ecological consequences”, addressed to the director, Social Welfare, Andaman and Nicobar islands, and senior Government of India officials of ministries of tribal and home affairs, as also the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, the letter says, SIA Report has been prepared by a private organization which has “superficial” assessment of the project without taking into account the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act of 2013.


On 22 January 2023, we in the Constitutional Conduct Group (a group of former civil servants belonging to the All India and Central Services, owing allegiance only to the Constitution of India, and not to any political party) had written an open letter to the Hon’ble President of India, objecting to the undesirable development project proposed to be undertaken in the Island of Great Nicobar. The development project consists of an international container transshipment terminal, a large green field international airport, a township and area development, and a solar and gas-based power plant, which would cover almost 16% of the island. Our objection was not only that the project would cause the destruction of extensive pristine forests and irreparably harm the precious ecology of Great Nicobar, but also because of the adverse impact such a project would have on the shy and reclusive tribal people of the island, viz. the Shompen, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), and the Nicobarese, a Scheduled Tribe (ST).   
Our letter, which was one of several similar objections raised by concerned people, including the Nicobarese themselves, obviously fell on deaf ears, because we now learn that the EIA for the project has been completed, ignoring all concerns regarding the damage to the environment and to the tribal groups residing on the island. We are not aware whether any proper public hearing was held as required under the EIA, but if it was, all objections seem to have been dismissed out of hand. Moreover, the Tribal Council in their letter dated 22nd November, 2022, had withdrawn their consent from the NOC for the diversion of forest citing suppression of information, thereby making the Stage-I Forest Clearance granted to the project null and void. A petition was filed against this before the National Green Tribunal in Kolkata, who in their order dated 3rd April, 2023 had directed the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to constitute a High Powered Committee to revisit the deficiencies of the EIA. The committee was asked to submit a report until which the NGT had placed a temporary stay on the project. We are unaware if the High Powered Committee submitted its report and what was mentioned regarding the violations pointed out by the NGT. The present Social Impact Assessment (SIA), relating to part of the same project, is being carried out under the Land Acquisition Act of 2013. An SIA report has been prepared and objections from the public invited on it. 
We have serious objections to the SIA report, on the way it has been prepared and is being pushed through in a hurry. We place here our views for your consideration:
i. The SIA Report has been prepared by Probe Research and Social Development Pvt. Limited, an organization with its headquarters in Delhi. They state that they have made several visits to Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar, as well as to other places. However, their study appears to be superficial, considering the consultation has been done only with the owners of the land that is to be acquired (and perhaps with some others). The Land Acquisition Act of 2013 clearly states that the social impact assessment carried out should evaluate the potential impact of the acquisition on the local community. Unfortunately, a very limited view seems to have been taken of the term ‘local community’. The local community cannot be merely the settlers and their neighbours.  The tribal groups on the island, living in the Tribal Reserve, whose lives will be deeply and adversely affected by the project have to be considered as part of the local community, and the impact of the land acquisition on them should have been considered. An SIA which does not do that has to be dismissed as flawed.
ii. Equally importantly, the airport area covers 8.88 sq. kms. of deemed forest, which is part of the Tribal Reserve area in Great Nicobar. This would certainly affect the Shompen and the Great Nicobarese. Yet the SIA has not taken the trouble to communicate with them. 
Airport area covers 8.88 sq. kms. of deemed forest, which is part of the Tribal Reserve area in Great Nicobar
iii. It is not apparent from the report whether any anthropologists were consulted. It seems not. Considering that the Anthropological Survey has done such extensive research on the islands and its tribal groups, they should, at the very least, have been consulted. The original residents of the island were, and continue to be, two vulnerable tribal groups, the Shompen and the Nicobarese, and the Tribal Reserve they live in will be seriously impacted by the entire project, including the proposed airport. Such consultation should therefore have been essential, not just consultation with the land owners and non-tribal people, who are later settlers in the area. 
iv. The Tribal Reserve in Great Nicobar, along with other such areas in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, has been declared as such under the A & N Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR). This Regulation was notified by a Presidential Proclamation in 1956 under Article 243(2) of the Indian Constitution and has the same force as an Act. Therefore, any change in the deemed forest area will impact the Tribal Reserves and their inhabitants, and cannot be ignored by any Social Impact Assessment. It is surprising that the Social Welfare Department of the Andaman Administration whose primary duty should be to look after the welfare of the tribes should deal with this matter so cavalierly, ignoring the damaging impacts on them of different projects.   
We therefore urge you to set aside the present SIA and have a proper social impact assessment  undertaken together with the Anthropological Survey of India; and, if such an assessment shows a significant adverse impact on the Tribal Reserve in Great Nicobar and its vulnerable tribal groups, to advise the government to abandon the project forthwith. We also reiterate our request of 22 January 2023 to abandon the project due to its disastrous ecological consequences.
Satyameva Jayate
*Click here for signatories



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