Palm-oil plan for Andamans came after many steps to skirt legal hurdles

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 plan periods, the government also ran a programme called ISOPOM, or the “Integrated Scheme of Oilseeds, Pulses, Oil Palm and Maize”.
Edible-oil plantations tend to replace natural tropical forests, depleting biodiversity. Environmental case studies in forested belts of Sumatra, Borne and the Malay Peninsula -- which produce 90% of global palm oil – have found cultivation had eliminated pristine forests, pushing out wildlife. (REUTERS PHOTO.)
Edible-oil plantations tend to replace natural tropical forests, depleting biodiversity. Environmental case studies in forested belts of Sumatra, Borne and the Malay Peninsula -- which produce 90% of global palm oil – have found cultivation had eliminated pristine forests, pushing out wildlife. (REUTERS PHOTO.)
Published on Aug 22, 2021 06:27 PM IST
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The Modi Cabinet’s decision last week to promote environmentally ruinous oil-palm plantations in the Andamans has been 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 11000-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 plan periods, the government also ran a programme called ISOPOM, or the “Integrated Scheme of Oilseeds, Pulses, Oil Palm and Maize”.

India’s gluttonous 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, Borne and the Malay Peninsula -- which produce 90% of global palm oil – have found 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 phasing out 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 hectare under oil palm by 2025-26 to reach a targeted one million hectare, up from 0.3 million hectare at present. This would result in crude palm oil output to rise to 1.1 million tonne by 2025-26 and up to 2.8 million tonne 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 Andamans and Nicobar Islands had moved the Supreme Court seeking a review of its strict conservation orders for the Andamans, the official said.

The chief secretary of Andamans and Nicobar Islands, Jitendra Narain, did not respond to a request for comments 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 Andamans and Nicobar Islands administration. The panel’s reported, 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. GVRamanjaneyulu of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. However, there are very little non-forested open belts in ther Andamans, ecologists say.

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

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

The state-run A&N Islands Forest and Plantation Dev. Corporation Ltd. owned about 1,583 hectares of red oil palm oil plantations in islets, such as Little Andamans. The company had four processing units, whose operations were curtailed when the top court had ordered 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, in so far 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 had spelt out a series of recommendation to conserve the islands’ anthropological and ecological heritage.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Zia Haq reports on public policy, economy and agriculture. Particularly interested in development economics and growth theories.

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