Great Nicobar airport: Local administration rushes public hearing, residents seek clarity

A public hearing to discuss social impacts of land acquisition for an international airport at Great Nicobar is riddled with issues related to inadequate prior notice and lack of engagement with the local community.
The proposed site for greenfield International Airport at Great Nicobar
The proposed site for greenfield International Airport at Great Nicobar
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On June 7, the Andaman and Nicobar administration announced that it would be holding a public hearing on June 22, related to the development of an international airport in Great Nicobar. The airport is part of NITI Aayog’s Rs 72,000-crore mega project on the island that also includes a transhipment terminal, a power plant and tourism facilities. But the haste by the administration in conducting the public hearing violates the law.

The airport requires the government to take over around 400 hectares of private land from 234 families in two villages in Great Nicobar—Gandhi Nagar and Shastri Nagar. Overall, around 1,000 people live in the two villages. They are mostly settlers from mainland India from states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, etc. Many of them are dependent on farming and animal husbandry for livelihood. 

The notice of the public hearing came from the office of the Directorate of Social Welfare in Port Blair. It relates to a draft Social Impact Assessment (SIA) report prepared by Probe Research and Social Development Pvt Ltd and directs concerned stakeholders to submit their comments or objections in writing to the Social Welfare Department by June 18. 

The objective of a draft SIA study is to ensure that land acquisition processes are participatory in nature and transparent. Once the report is prepared, public hearings are held with the local community to discuss social impacts of land acquisition as detailed in the study and any concerns that the community may have with land acquisition. 

However the manner in which the public hearing is being held in the present case violates the law. 

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Social Impact Assessment and Consent) Rules, 2014 state that the draft SIA report “shall be published in the local language three weeks prior to the public hearing and distributed to all affected Gram Panchayats and Municipal offices.”

The official website of the Andaman and Nicobar administration shows that the draft SIA report was made available in English on June 4. And the Hindi version was uploaded on June 11. The people from the two villages use Hindi as a common link language among them. 

This means that according to the land acquisition law, the public hearing cannot be held before July 2 i.e. three weeks from June 11. And yet, the public hearing is currently scheduled to be held just ten days after the draft SIA report was made available in Hindi.

Speaking to TNM, ES Rajesh, the pramukh of the local panchayat in Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar said, “I do not understand why they (the Andaman and Nicobar administration) are hurrying the process.” Rajesh added that the administration should conduct a “face-to-face meeting" with the villagers and explain what they will give them in return for taking their land. “It is not clear to us – neither to me nor to the people – what the government will give us once they take over the land.”

‘Cannot read documents written in English’

An earlier notice from the same office i.e. Directorate of Social Welfare sought to hold the public hearing on June 10. This notice, issued on June 4, stated that the draft SIA report was made available for review by all stakeholders from May 24. But, as mentioned earlier, the draft SIA report in English was made available online only on June 4, not May 24 as the notice claimed, while the Hindi version was made available on June 11.

On June 6, this reporter spoke to Nitin Shakya, Director at the Directorate of Social Welfare, seeking answers as to why the public hearing was scheduled a mere five days after the date on which the notice was issued and the draft SIA report was made publicly available. He was also asked why the report was not translated into Hindi, a language which many residents of the two villages are familiar with. Shakya dismissed all queries without an explanation and only stated that the law was being followed. 

On June 7, this reporter reached out to some of the people whose names are mentioned in the draft SIA report as project-affected persons. Many were not aware of the public hearing being held on June 10 and some were in the Andaman islands (not in Great Nicobar). They also explained that the levels of education in the two villages are low and hence, many cannot read documents written in English like the draft SIA report. And while most of the people can speak Hindi, not all of them know how to read the language.

Rajesh, the pramukh of the local panchayat wrote to Shakya on June 7 pointing out that the public hearing was being held “within a short period” and that “the time given for the hearing is inadequate to understand the draft [SIA] report by the stakeholders.” In the letter, he too noted that many of the stakeholders are “out of station.” Rajesh sought a postponement of the public hearing to the second week of July. 

On the same day, the Directorate issued the notice postponing the public hearing to June 22. And on June 11, they uploaded the Hindi version of the draft SIA report onto their official website. 

A large number of the people in Shastri Nagar and Gandhi Nagar lost arable land to the 2004 tsunami and saline water ingression, which led to the collapse of agriculture in many parts. And till date, some of these people have not received compensation for the loss of their land in the tsunami. Today, another concern looms: What impact will the project have and what will happen once their lands are taken over for the project?

The draft SIA report states, “The acquisition of land for the airport could result in the displacement of local communities, including farmers and other landowners… This could lead to loss of livelihoods and social disruption. The acquisition of land for the airport could lead to loss of property rights for people living in the project area. This could have significant social and economic impacts, particularly for marginalised or vulnerable groups who may be less able to assert their rights.” 

“The government wants the land for development. This is ok. But they should tell the people clearly what they will give them. Any company can come here, do a social impact assessment and then go back. But the government has to engage with the people,” Rajesh said.

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