SC panel questions need to revive oil palm plantations in Andamans

New Delhi, Jan 24 (PTI) Oil palm plantations raised in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the past have proven to be a total commercial failure, the Supreme Court-constituted Central Empowered Committee (CEC) has said, questioning the need to revive the commercial crop in the archipelago.

In a note submitted to the apex court on January 12, the committee said any permission for diversion of forest land for red oil palm plantation in the archipelago in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, “is bound to open flood gates in all the states for similar agricultural purposes on forest lands”.

The CEC also said oil palm plantation might lead to encroachment of forest lands in the islands group and asked why the production of palm oil could not be taken up on the mainland.

The Union Territory administration, in January 2019, moved the Supreme Court seeking revocation of its 2002 ban on commercial and monoculture plantations on forest land in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The proposal is part of the government’s efforts to meet the vegetable oil shortage in the country and reduce its import burden.

The top court had asked the CEC to provide inputs on the Union Territory administration’s proposal to lift the ban and divert 16,000 hectares of forest land for red oil palm plantations.

“Since the focus of the proposal is on meeting the shortage of vegetable oil in the country, why cannot the production of palm oil be taken up on the mainland, where the oil palm plantations have been successfully raised,” the committee’s note submitted to the Supreme Court read.

It said red oil palm plantations raised in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands “prior to the enactment of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, proved to be a total commercial failure” and the Union Territory administration’s application does not appear to adequately address the reason for raising fresh plantations in the Andaman forests.

“The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980; FC Rules, 2022, and the guidelines issued thereunder strictly prohibit the diversion of forest land for agricultural purposes and any non-site specific activity. This being so any permission to raise red oil palm plantation or any other non-forest agricultural crop in the Island is bound to open flood gates in all the states for similar agricultural purposes on forest lands,” the CEC observed.

It also noted that the 16,000 hectares of forest land where the palm oil plantations are proposed to be raised has not been identified and demarcated.

The application merely states that grasslands will be utilised for this purpose “without any specific reference to the existence of grasslands in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and location of such grasslands”.

The Union Territory administration’s application seeking modification of the Supreme Court’s 2002 order, even without identifying and demarcating the required forest land on the ground, “appears to be an attempt by the applicants to bypass the due procedure and the scrutiny of the proposal under the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980”, the CEC said.

The committee also said the raising and maintenance of 16,000 hectares of commercial plantations will require engagement of 32,000 plantation labourers on a continuous basis at a very conservative estimate.

It said the availability of such a large labour force in the islands is doubtful and the possibility of illegal migrants entering from neighbouring countries cannot be ruled out.

“The island is already facing a serious issue of encroachment of forest lands and from past experience, there is every likelihood of the plantation labourers and their families encroaching on forest lands,” it panel said.

In 2021, the Centre launched the Rs 11,040-crore National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) with focus on oil palm plantations in the northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands due to their favourable climate for the purpose.

India depends on imports to meet its requirements for edible oil and is its largest importer in the world.

During 2020-21, India imported around 133.52 lakh tonnes of edible oils, costing around Rs 80,000 crore, the Centre said in its operational guidelines, prepared last year, for NMEO-OP.

Of all the imported edible oils, the share of palm oil is about 56 per cent, followed by soybean oil (27 per cent) and sunflower oil (16 per cent).

Domestic edible oil production has not been able to keep pace with the growth in consumption, which is above 250 lakh tonnes.

Citing damage done to rainforests and biodiversity by oil palm plantations in southeast Asia, environmental experts have warned that their cultivation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could be disastrous.

Neha Sinha, conservation biologist and author, said it is very significant that the CEC has recognised oil palm monoculture as an agricultural use and not as a “green project” as it is often referred to.

“The Convention on Biological Diversity has recently passed the 30 by 30 target, which is protecting 30 percent of land and sea by 2030. India has championed this target. It just does not make sense to destroy our best tropical forests to plant an agricultural monoculture.

“The CEC also makes the extremely important observation that palm oil has failed once before in the islands and this is not a site specific activity. The inference is that such an experiment should not be tried on the biodiverse islands with a rich native ecosystem,” Sinha said.

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