In the aftermath of the death of 26-year-old missionary John Allen Chau, allegedly at the hands of the Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, there has been an overdose of global press coverage, the reason being the perpetrator was an American national. Reports of attempts by the authorities to retrieve John Chauâ€™s body, which have not yet been abandoned despite pressure from across the world, have continued to come in.
In all this hullaballoo, attention is taken away from the much-needed policy intervention and the institutional failures in keeping the island tribes safe from outside intrusion.
In the run-up to the proposed visit by the Prime Minister next month, the Andaman administration, instead of firefighting and scouting for islands for â€śholisticâ€ť development, needs to pay adequate attention to the most neglected stakeholders of the islands â€“ the tribes, who have remained off the conscience of the administrative machinery during the last four and a half years.
Following the recent interest shown by the government of India in developing the island territory as one of the sought-after tourism destinations with opening up of new islands and a series of plans in the pipeline, the Andaman and Nicobar administration is showing unusual zeal and, in the process, seems to be overlooking many environmental regulations. Though there is no lack of verbal assurances about protection of the fragile ecology and the biodiversity, when it comes to tourism, the fence itself seems to eat the grass.
Recently, a NITI Aayog team headed by its CEO Amitabh Kant had visited the selected islands and locations for the Prime Ministerâ€™s visit and asked to speed up the process of clearances.
Consequently, a committee was constituted to examine the amendments recommended by the Andaman and Nicobar Coastal Zone Management Authority (ANCZMA) in the Integrated Island Management Plan (IIMP) for night stay for tourists at Aves Island in Mayabunder and Smith Island in Diglipur.
The entire Aves Island and entire Smith Island, as per notification 115/47-5/60 DH dated September 8, 1963, is Protected Forest. The project proposal envisages construction of 50 luxury tents in Aves Island along with facilities for kitchen, reception, lounge area, store room and staff quarters. Though the draft prepared by a joint committee, comprising the Executive Engineer, APWD, Mayabunder, North Andaman, and the Divisional Forest Officer, specifically recommends that carbon footprint be minimised by adopting various eco-friendly steps such as rainwater harvesting, desalination plant, solar power plant, sewage treatment plant, solid waste management, organic waste convertor and transportation of non-biodegradable waste and used oil to the mainland, the premise itself is wrong.
The draft says that the committee hasnâ€™t observed any discrepancy with regard to the revenue survey numbers, forest-revenue boundaries and others. The committee claims that the land records and map available with the district conforms to a notification issued on January 30, 2008. The question is whether such a notification exists converting the protected or reserved forest status into revenue land. Itâ€™s learnt from sources that during the field visit, the committee found the width of the project site to be relatively less and wants to reduce the No Development Zone (NDZ) to 20 m from the High Tide Line (HTL) from the existing 60 m, as proposed for the IIMP in the draft Integrated Coastal Regulation Zone (ICRZ) Notification 2018, and assumes that it will not affect the ecosystem.
The committee visited Smith Island on November 17, 2018 and issued a draft recommending clearance on the same lines. The project envisages 70 luxury tents and tree houses on this island. During the visit, the committee again observed that there is no discrepancy with regard to the status of the land. It also observed that the area of the revenue village vis-a-vis forest land in Smith Island is quite less, and wants the same reduction in the NDZ from 60 to 20 meters from the HTL, and assumes it would facilitate better development of the project site without affecting its ecosystem.
The usurping of forest land for these projects is a clear and present danger faced by the island territory, in which no codal formalities for conversion of land status through notifications are observed.
John Chauâ€™s untimely death is a lesson for the long neglect of implementation of policies in place and an eye-opener for course correction. However, it seems we can least expect it from authorities who follow the directions imposed upon them by the Centre and especially NITI Aayog, who have in a way become the biggest stakeholders in disregarding the settlers, tribes and the ecology, though there is no dearth of lip service.