Wednesday, December 26, 2007

When President Patil checks in, quite a lot have to check out

by Shubhajit Roy

Posted online: Wednesday, December 26, 2007 at 0000 hrs

VISIT 60 trees cut in Andamans for helipad; all bookings in two Govt resorts cancelled for ‘VVIP’
NEW DELHI, DECEMBER 25: I stand here today as the Republic’s first servant, said President Pratibha Patil, after assuming office in July this year. Perhaps, the officials at Andamans didn’t take her seriously.

As Patil and her family land in the Andamans tomorrow for what is billed a three-day “official tour,” a few things have been brushed under the red carpet: at least 60 trees have been cut to prepare a helipad for her so that she and her 10-member family entourage don’t have to take a 40-minute road trip.

And two Government-run tourist resorts have issued notices to all tourists cancelling their bookings — the Christmas-New Year’s Eve is the peak holiday season for the islands — to accommodate her delegation.

Sources have told The Indian Express that the trees were cut to make way for a helipad for Patil’s entourage — which includes her husband Devisingh Ramsingh Shekhawat — in Wandoor village, about 30 km south-west of Port Blair.

Wandoor is home to one of the most environmentally protected areas in the country, the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, spread over 15 islands and creeks and has a rich diversity of flora and fauna across 280 sq km.

The President is there to hand over 200 eco-friendly houses to tsunami victims at Kinyuka village in Car Nicobar.

Officially, on “Revenue Department land”, the helipad has been built in Wandoor, close to the jetty so that ferries can take Patil and her family to the nearby coral islands in Jolly Buoy, Red Skin and Twins Islands.

When asked to comment, Chief Secretary Chhering Targay told The Indian Express: “Some trees had to be cut for the helipad, I have no idea how many. For that you will have to ask the Principal Conservator of Forests.”

Principal Conservator of Forests, who is also Environment Secretary in the Andaman administration, S S Chaudhary said: “Trees were cut for the construction of the helipad, the trees which were cut were in the funnel area. While take-off or landing of the choppers, all directions have to be cleared of any obstruction, that led to the cutting of trees. The Indian Air Force was monitoring the helipad project, while the Andaman PWD executed it.”

He added: “There was no need to consult the Union Environment and Forest ministry, since this is a local requirement. The Indian Air Force is monitoring it and we are following Civil Aviation Ministry guidelines while constructing the helipad.”

When contacted, a Rashtrapati Bhavan spokesperson said: “The Rashtrapati Bhawan had asked for no damage to be made to the environment while constructing the helipad. According to the Andaman administration, no trees have been cut. But some trees have been pruned to facilitate the landing and take-off of the chopper.”

Asked about the cancellation of bookings, the Rashtrapati Bhawan spokesman said: “We have not instructed anyone to cancel bookings. We are not aware of any such thing.” The spokesperson also said that neither the President nor the family is spending New Year’s at the island.

But consider how Patil’s visit derailed the tourism season:

In Havelock Island, 54 km north-east of Port Blair and a favourite destination for tourists with its white-sand beaches and turquoise water, all advance bookings on the Christmas-New Year’s eve week between December 20 and December 31, have been cancelled in the Tourism Department-run Dolphin Beach Resort.

In Corbyn’s Cove — four km from Port Blair airport — all advance bookings have been cancelled at the Hornbill Nest Yatri Niwas, also run by the Tourism department, between December 10 and January 31, 2008.

Orders for these cancellations were issued by the Tourism department, between November 28 and December 12. The order to cancel all Dolphin reservations cites “the visit of VVIP” as the reason.

Chief Secretary Targay said: “Bookings had to be cancelled to accommodate the President’s party. Otherwise, how would be able to accommodate them? And 25 per cent booking amount has been refunded.”

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