Nicobar: CIC Follows Home Ministry Diktat, Allows Information Only on Tree Re-plantation and Not on the Rs72,000 Crore Development Project
The proposed Rs72,000 crore infrastructure upgrade on Great Nicobar island which is being sternly contested by environmentalists as a 'grave threat' to the island's indigenous inhabitants, and the hue and cry over felling of 100,000 trees which would damage its fragile ecosystem, is a huge public issue, but its details are kept under wraps even under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
 
Last week on 28th June, Vinod Kumar Tiwari, the central information commissioner (CIC) supported the bottling of information regarding the 130.75sqkm (square kilometres) of forest land in favour of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited (ANIIDCO).
 
CIC Tiwari upheld the reply provided by Charan Jeet Singh, CPIO-cum-scientist ‘D’, the central public information officer (CPIO) of the ministry of environment, forests & climate change, who quoted the home ministry’s diktat (referring to a letter of 15 September 2022) of not making anything public due to reasons of national security as the Indian Navy operates there.
 
The CPIO rejected the RTI request of applicant Prasad Khale, on the following grounds: “…the content of the application falls under the provision of section 8(1)(a) of RTI Act, 2005 in light of submission made by ministry of home affairs in their DO letter (no. 15020/24/2020-Plg. Cell dated 15.09.2022) wherein it is mentioned that the project has components, which are strategic in nature, such as the joint military-civil, dual-use airport, which is envisaged to be under the operational control of the Indian Navy.”
 
CIC Tiwari ordered the CPIO to provide information to RTI applicant Khare only on one of his several requests – that of details of afforestation along with GPS coordinates. He agreed with the CPIO and the FAA in not sharing information regarding land acquisition and forest clearances for the project as well as legal hurdles, if any.
 
The CIC, in his order, observed, “CPIO, performing his duties within the ambit of the RTI Act, 2005 has dealt with the RTI application and disposed of the same in accordance with relevant provision of the RTI Act, 2005.”
 
It may be recalled that this issue has gathered a political storm. Opposition parties too have called for an immediate halt to all clearances, demanding a comprehensive and impartial review of the proposed project, including scrutiny by the relevant parliamentary committees.
 
RTI applicant Khare had filed the following RTI application on 1 November 2022:
1. Copies of forest clearances and other clearances granted if any for the proposed diversion of 130.75sqkm of forest land in favour of ANIIDCO for sustainable development in Great Nicobar.
 
2. Details of application for forest clearance, form A submitted, ToRs (terms of reference)  issued by the statutory authorities, draft EIA and other reports submitted for each clearance may please be furnished.
 
3. Copies of reports and documents submitted by the forest & environment department.
 
4. Details of land acquisition, resettlement, and rehabilitation policy for land allotment for the project.
 
5. Copies of all the correspondences including emails pertaining to the land acquisition for the said project.
 
6. Details of legal proceedings with regards to this project may be furnished.
 
7. Details of the forest land under the project area and its legal status may be furnished.
 
8. Details of afforestation may be furnished along with GPS coordinates and KML files of the same.
 
9. Minutes of all FAC meetings, wherein this project was discussed may please be furnished, along with the agenda, minutes of meetings, documents submitted for the meeting and correspondence, including emails, file notings along with site visit reports of the FAC and/ or subcommittees of the FAC.
 
10. Copies of the inspection reports submitted by the environment & forest department as well as file notings regarding these complaints and reports, including emails.
 
11. Copies of all documents, reports, applications, powerpoint presentations along with file notings submitted by the project proponent & Andaman Nicobar environment & forest department.
 
12. Minutes of all the meetings wherein this project was discussed. 
 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)
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