Citizens file RTI applications on Niti Aayog plans for the Andaman & Nicobar islands

A number of Right to Information (RTI) applications have been filed seeking information on various aspects of the Niti Aayog’s development plans for Little Andaman and Great Nicobar Islands. At least nine applications have been filed on the website, a public interest initiative for citizens to file RTI applications, with request for more information regarding the development plans. Denotification of tribal reserves in Andaman and Nicobar islands was discussed in a recent meeting of the Chief Secretary of the islands, in pursuance of Niti Aayog’s vision plans. However, the minutes of the meeting are not yet available in public domain. Following several media reports published recently, a number of Right to Information (RTI) applications have been filed seeking information on various aspects of the Niti Aayog’s development plans for Little Andaman and Great Nicobar Islands. While no mechanism exists to get a comprehensive account of all such applications, information gathered from multiple sources, most prominently, a public interest initiative that helps citizen file RTI applications anonymously and for free, suggests that at least nine applications have been filed between March 1 and 27, at various offices across the country. In Port Blair these include one application each at the offices of the Lieutenant Governor (LG) and Chief Secretary (CS) of the islands and two at the A&N Island (ANI) Administration’s Department of Environment and Forests (DEF). In Delhi, applications have been filed at the Niti Aayog and the Union Ministries of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and Shipping, Port and Waterways (MoSPW) respectively. The earliest RTI in Port Blair was filed at the office of the CS seeking minutes of meetings of the empowered committee set up in September 2020 to examine proposals for denotification of tribal reserves in pursuance of the Niti Aayog’s vision plans. Held on February 4, the most recent meeting of the committee chaired by the CS, reportedly agreed to denotify about six sq kms of the tribal reserve on Little Andaman. No formal communication or minutes of the meeting are yet available in the public domain, however. The application in the LG’s office, filed via on March 16 lists three sub questions related to the ‘Techno-feasibility reports fo transshipment ports in Andaman and Nicobar Islands’. The two filed in the DEF also via are focussed explicitly on the Niti Aayog’s plan for Great Nicobar Island – one seeking details of the comment(s)/recommendation(s) made by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests – Wildlife of the islands in the matter and the second seeking more granular details of the recommendations regarding the same set of projects but by the Divisional Forest Officer – Nicobar Division. Of the five applications filed in Delhi, three are via youRTI, while the others – one each at the Niti Aayog and the MoSPW – have been filed directly by interested citizens. Filed on the 1st of March, the application at the Shipping ministry seeks comprehensive techno-feasibility details of all sites considered for the construction of the transshipment port in the islands since 2010. The application was transferred to the office of the CS, A&N Islands and then transferred again on March 17 to the PIO in Harbour Masters Office in Port Blair. The initial RTI application in the Niti Aayog’s office had a list of four detailed questions also related to the plans for Great Nicobar Island – on the blueprint of the vision document for the island and on the ‘techno-economic-feasibility’ reports of the transshipment port here. An objection was raised that too many questions were being asked following which the application with just one question was refiled on March 19. It is perhaps the two applications filed at MoEFCC, both on 10th March via youRTI, that are the most detailed and diverse. The first seeks details of the integrated management plan, the integrated coastal zone management plan and the coastal zone impact assessment for Little Andaman and Great Nicobar as prepared by the National Centre for Sustainable Coastal Management (NCSCM). It also asks for all reports on the conservation of the coastal and marine resources of these islands prepared by the NCSCM including those on social aspects and economics. The second application is related specifically to the Zoological Survey of India’s (ZSI) February 2021 survey for an environment impact assessment report of the Great Nicobar development plans. It has eight questions seeking details of the terrestrial, inter-tidal and marine life listed in Schedule I of India’s Wildlife Protection Act – 1972 and the IUCN endangered species list that are found in the project areas on the island. It also seeks specific information on Galathea Bay, the specific site of the transshipment port and the centrepiece of the plans for Great Nicobar. Little is known of what the ZSI survey of February 2021 recorded but an illustrative example of what might be in store was on offer in the February 10 issue of the Port Blair based newspaper Andaman Chronicle. The ZSI team recorded a nesting giant leatherback female while on survey here, confirming that the site continues to be an important nesting ground of this endangered turtle and the reason why this beach is listed as an important marine turtle habitat in India’s National Marine Turtle Action Plan. Even more striking (and a find that set conservation circles abuzz) was that this was the same female who had been tagged in 2014 while nesting on the beach at West Bay on Little Andaman – the site for the other huge Niti Aayog development plan. It is the first such record of the species using different beaches for their nesting activities here. “This should be an important reminder to us,” a senior research remarked on conditions of anonymity, “of the complex interlinkages and what the Niti Aayog plans put at stake. The information sought via these multiple RTIs,” he continued, “also show us the range of institutions and issues involved and the scale of the questions that need answering. That RTIs have to be filed to get such basic information of plans and proposals of such magnitude and impact is indeed a grim reminder of the sorry state of affairs.” Banner image: Beach at Little Andaman island. Photo by Balaji Venkatesh Sivaramakrishnan/Flickr.