The great misadventure in the Nicobar islands

In 'The Great Nicobar Betrayal', Pankaj Sekhsaria writes of the land grab by the government to push a mindless Rs 72,000 crore ‘development’ extravaganza

The site plan of the
Great Nicobar Project
The site plan of the Great Nicobar Project

Pankaj Sekhsaria

“Trees with nesting holes of endemic owls to be identified and geo-tagged with help from SACON. Such trees shall be safeguarded, as far as possible.”


On November 11, 2022, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) granted its final environmental clearance (EC) to a mega infrastructure project euphemistically titled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island’. It marked the culmination of a roughly two-year process for the project, which will be implemented over the next three decades in the ecologically rich and geologically volatile Great Nicobar Island, the southernmost in the Andaman and Nicobar chain.

The quote above is one of the many conditions laid out in the clearance letter for this Rs 72,000 crore project that has been piloted by the NITI Aayog and will be implemented by the Port Blair-based Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation.

The plan’s centrepiece is a Rs 40,000 crore transshipment port to be constructed at Galathea Bay, a prime nesting site of the Giant leatherback turtle. Other components include an airport, a powerplant, and a greenfield township spread over 160 sq km of land, including 130 sq km of primary forest.

Covering roughly 18 per cent of the 910 sq km island, this is a mega project unlike any seen in India. Great Nicobar is important for multiple reasons—it is a rich repository of biodiversity and endemism, was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2013, has two large national parks, is protected as a tribal reserve for the indigenous Shompen and Nicobarese communities, and is also located in the world’s most seismically volatile zone.

Highlights of the government's project proposal
Highlights of the government's project proposal

It saw a permanent subsidence of nearly 5m in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake of December 26, 2004, which triggered the massive south and south-east tsunami. Thousands were killed and assets worth billions of dollars were destroyed in one stroke.

The scale of the subsidence in Great Nicobar is evident from the fact that the lighthouse at Indira Point, which was earlier situated well above the high tide line now stands completely surrounded by the waters of the Andaman Sea.

Logic suggests that the wise men at the MoEFCC and its expert bodies would be particularly careful and diligent when considering clearance for such a massive project, given its exceptionally sensitive and vulnerable location. The condition quoted in the very beginning appears then to be an illustration of precisely such concern. A more careful look reveals a vastly different picture.

Let us, for instance, unpack this “nesting holes of endemic owls” condition. In a recent submission to the National Green Tribunal, the MoEFCC admitted that the land earmarked for the project on Great Nicobar has over 1.86 million trees, and about a million are slated to be cut. An area larger than the size of Mumbai’s Sanjay Gandhi National Park will be deforested in a few years even as a climate crisis lurks around the corner.

Consider this as well: nesting holes of owls are tough to locate in the best of situations. We are talking here of 130 sq km of pristine tropical forest with few, if any, regular visitors.

Even if scores of India’s "nest birdwatchers" were to work year-round to document all actual and potential owl nesting sites, it would be hopelessly unrealistic to survey one million ancient trees (some as tall as 45 m) to identify the owls’ nesting holes. Clearly, a survey such as this will achieve nothing, if it ever takes place.

The great misadventure in the Nicobar islands

Such doublespeak runs through the full length of the environmental clearance granted. Take the condition that appears just above the one on endemic owls:

No trees will be cut at one go. (...) All trees which are exceptionally tall and old in age shall be safeguarded, as far as possible. A&NFD will mark all such trees and submit the species-wise list to the Ministry and EAC and the regional office of MoEFCC before infrastructure activities take place.

For decades now, many experts have known that conditions imposed were meant to be followed in the breach and these are perfect examples.

What environment impact assessment is this?

Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs released a draft EIA report of the project in December 2021 and a final version three months later, in March 2022. This report was the basis on which MoEFCC’s key body, the Environment Appraisal Committee—Infra I, recommended final environmental clearance in August 2022, which was eventually then granted in November 2022. Below is an extract from the EIA consultant’s Great Nicobar EIA study site visit report:

The hills are steep, slippery and totally covered by multi-storeyed vegetation. Whenever we could gain entry through some opening into the dense/thick forest, visibility was poor; humidity was high; soil was wet and slippery on account of intermittent sharp showers every day, [and there were] invisible streams of water under a thick carpet of dead leaves and twigs. Added to the problem was biting insects including mosquitoes.
Further, when one tries to look upwards to find out what tree it is, it is not just one but many. Most trees are overgrown by heavy climbers and the tree-trunks are covered by epiphytes including mosses, lichens, epiphytic ferns and orchids. There was no threat of venomous snakes as they do not occur in the Island. It was impossible to use any measuring devices like tape to make any quadrat in the forest vegetation. Hence, intensive survey was carried out on both sides of the Campbell-Indira Point for four days. It is about 45 km. (sic) and the entire stretch was survey (sic) eight times in four days.


The sheer scale of this project and its possible impacts are staggering not just because of the ecological issues, but also the financial gamble involved. This is a Rs 72,000 crore investment whose costs, going by past experience, are likely to be much higher before completion.

We are talking about a tropical evergreen forest spread over 130 sq km, a million old-growth trees, the northern Indian Ocean’s most important leatherback nesting site and a geologically volatile area that experienced one of the most severe earthquakes and tsunamis in human history in December 2004. Where is the scientific rigour and expertise?

The draft EIA report had suggested erection of barbed wire fences to separate the indigenous peoples of the forests from the thousands of outsiders who will be brought in as part of this holistic development.

The suggestion was fortunately removed following objections by researchers and NGOs, but none of this was a red flag for the MoEFCC, which stated in its February 2023 submission to the NGT that “environmental clearance... has been accorded... after an extremely detailed and rigorous scrutiny process at the highest level, and with scrupulous adherence to the [relevant] provisions...”.

And this is how we, in an era of an advanced climate crisis, signed away an ancient forest, a million trees, a bewildering array of biological diversity, and an irreplaceable repository of the planet’s ecological history.

Reproduced with permission from:

Title The Great Nicobar Betrayal/ Curator Pankaj Sekhsaria/ Publisher Frontline Publication/ Pages 123/ Price 495 (paperback)

This essay by Pankaj Sekhsaria first appeared in Sanctuary Asia, April 2023. It forms a part of the anthology curated by the author

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines