The Modi Cabinet’s decision last week to promote environmentally ruinous oil-palm plantations in the Andamans was a long time in the making and came on the heels of a go-ahead contained in a scientific body’s report, which environmentalists have disputed.

The 11,000-crore National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) plan seeks to renew and expand oil palm plantations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a fragile archipelago of 572 untrammeled islands, of which only 38 are inhabited. Palm oil, which is cheap, is used in most food items, from chocolate to pizza.

India’s quest to increase oil palm isn’t new. A broad policy push came with the Special Programme on Oil Palm Area Expansion between 2011-12 and 2014-15. During the erstwhile 10th and 11th five-year plan periods, the government also ran a programme called ISOPOM, or the Integrated Scheme of Oilseeds, Pulses, Oil Palm and Maize.

India’s huge demand has made it the world’s largest importer of vegetable oils, a base ingredient for cooking most common dishes. The country meets up to two-thirds of its domestic demand through imports.

During 2020-21, India imported both crude and refined palm oil worth $5.8 billion. Edible oil is the country’s third most high-value import, after petroleum crude and gold.

Edible oil plantations tend to replace natural tropical forests, depleting biodiversity. Environmental case studies in forested belts of Sumatra, Borneo and the Malay Peninsula — which produce 90% of global palm oil — have found that cultivation had eliminated pristine forests, pushing out wildlife, from orangutans to birds.

The new push will likely require additional clearances from the Supreme Court, which had on May 7, 2002, ordered the phasing out of all “exotic plantations” to conserve the islands’ ecology, an official with the knowledge of the matter said. “Exotic” in this context refers to all species of flora and fauna not native to the islands.

The new scheme seeks to bring additional 0.65 million hectares under oil palm by 2025-26 to reach a targeted one million hectares, up from 0.3 million hectares at present. This would result in crude palm oil output rising to 1.1 million tonnes by 2025-26 and up to 2.8 million tonnes by 2029-30.

The scheme follows a long series of steps to steer clear of legal and procedural hurdles, HT has learnt.

In January 2019, the administration of Andaman and Nicobar Islands had moved Supreme Court seeking a review of its strict conservation orders for the Andamans, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The chief secretary of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Jitendra Narain, did not respond to a request for comment till the time of going to press.

A second official said the Union agriculture ministry had deputed a scientific team from the Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research for a report on how to grow oil-palm sustainably at the request of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration. The panel’s report, finalised in end-2018, stated that agro-climatic conditions in the archipelago were congenial for oil palms.

Ecologists dispute this. “The report was more about agricultural suitability. It is not an ecological study,” said Manjula Jaitley, an independent ecologist.

Most of the oil-palm plantations in the archipelago, including in Little Andaman, are nearing the end of their natural productive shelf life of about 35 years. They now need to be grown anew.

Oil-palm can be grown sustainably but only under strict conditions, including total avoidance of Andaman’s rainforests, said GV Ramanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. However, there are very few non-forested open belts in the Andamans, ecologists say.

The country’s second-most senior law officer had told the Supreme Court in October 2018, in a case regarding the rehabilitation of farmers in the islands, that there was hardly any land available for “compensatory afforestation” and “87% of the landmass is a natural notified forest”.

According to top ecologist MD Madhusudan, grasslands are officially taken by policy makers to be wastelands, which “they are not” and so oil palm should not be there.

The state-run A&N Islands Forest and Plantation Development Corporation Ltd owned about 1,583 hectares of red oil palm plantations in islets, such as Little Andamans. The company had four processing units whose operations were curtailed when the top court ordered the folding up of monoculture plantations.

Deposing before a parliamentary committee in 2009, a senior official of the environment ministry had stated that “as per the recommendation of the Shekhar Singh Commission, the existing plantation of oil palm, rubber etc. are to be phased out and the land so released, insofar as it is forest land, be regenerated. No exotic species of fauna or flora should be introduced into the Islands”.

The landmark Shekhar Singh commission, which was set up on the orders of the Supreme Court in 2002 and was formally known as the Forests and Allied Matters in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands Commission, had spelt out a series of recommendations to conserve the islands’ anthropological and ecological heritage, such as the preservation of aboriginal characteristics of its population, flora and fauna.

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