The Great Nicobar Misadventure: Yet Another ‘Development’ Disaster
Andaman and Nicobar, a group of 572 islands located in the south-eastern part of the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, away from the mainland, is passing through such a dilemma these days
Can the world’s most unique, diverse and endangered regions be saved from turning into a jungle of concrete? Is our current model of development bereft of a policy to preserve the natural habitat, lifestyle, and dialects of the aboriginals? Andaman and Nicobar, a group of 572 islands located in the south-eastern part of the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, away from the mainland, is passing through such a dilemma these days.
These islands are located near Indonesia and Thailand. In 2013, they were included in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme. The place is home to rich biodiversity and an extraordinary variety of wildlife. According to the government, it is one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world.
The so-called ‘holistic development’ of Great Nicobar is under question also because the project was initiated towards the end of 2020 when the world had come to a standstill due to the pandemic. On the one hand, there was an orgy of death and instability—the country was in a grave economic crisis—and on the other hand, machinations were on for expediting approvals to such a huge project. In terms of investment and size, this project is much bigger than any scheme proposed earlier.
The Great Nicobar Island development project was initiated in September 2020 with the NITI Aayog issuing a Request for Proposal (RfP) for the preparation of a master plan. An integrated project, worth Rs 72,000 crore, was proposed. It included the construction of a mega port, an airport complex, a city spread over 130 sq. kms, as well as solar and gasbased power plants. (The envisaged settlement of some four lakh outsiders in the coming years is several thousand per cent of the islands’ current population.) This was followed up by AECOM India Pvt Ltd., a Gurugram-based consulting agency, releasing a 126-page Pre-Feasibility Report (PFR) in March 2021.
It is worth mentioning that many of the projects done by this consulting firm have been mired in controversies. These include the Sea Bird Project in Karnataka, the development of Visakhapatnam, revamping the sewage system in Delhi, etc. Nonetheless, as soon as the PFR was received, the formalities of getting clearance from the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) started. Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs was tasked with preparing the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. In December 2021, the ministry placed the draft EIA report before the general public for comments and discussion, indicating the completion of the first phase. Mandatory public hearings were held in January 2022 at Campbell Bay, the administrative headquarters of Great Nicobar. Meanwhile, Vimta published the final EIA report in March 2022.
During the public hearing process, Janki Andharia, professor and dean at the Jamshetji Tata School of Disaster Studies, TISS, wrote a letter to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration. The letter, among other things, pointed out that the proposed container terminal was at a location that experiences around 44 earthquakes every year (444 earthquakes in the last 10 years) and thus needed to be reconsidered.
Thereafter the project was discussed in several meetings of the EAC, which finally recommended the project for approval in August 2022. The ministry accepted the recommendations and, in November, the final environmental clearance was granted in a letter signed by Amardeep Raju of the Impact Assessment Division.
On 27 October 2022, the MoEF’s department of forest conservation approved the use of 130 sq. km of pristine forest for the project, making it the largest forest diversion in recent times, that too with formalities left unfinished. About 8.5 lakh trees are to be felled.
It may be recalled that the total area of the island is a little more than 900 sq. km. An area of about 850 sq. km is designated as a ‘tribal reserve’ under The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956. The ecologically rich island was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1989 and, as mentioned above, was included in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme in 2013.
The unsubstantiated/hollow/factually inaccurate aspects of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report are not only worrying, they also raise suspicions about the intention of this so-called development project. In the report, the area of the island stands at 1,045 sq. km, while according to current official figures, it is only 910 sq. km. It states that the Galathea port area has no record of coral reefs, while the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) study shows that the coral reefs in Galathea Bay are spread over 116 hectares.
The Galathea Bay is a well-known breeding and nesting site for the Giant Leatherback turtle species in India. In surveys conducted over the last three decades, these turtles have been found to be the world’s largest sea turtles. The EIA report records 330 species of fauna on the island, whereas according to the study by the Zoological Survey of India, this number is more than double i.e., 695.
The report also provides the misleading information that no migratory birds have been reported from Great Nicobar, whereas it is well known that the island is on two globally important bird flyways. Additionally, more than 40 species of migratory birds have been recorded in Great Nicobar.
The saddest part of this report is that it does not spare the aboriginal adivasi tribes from a specious form of ‘word play’. In the name of development, the report launches vicious attacks on five tribal groups—the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge, Shompen and North Sentinelese— that are particularly vulnerable to land acquisition and deforestation.
It records that ‘the rights of the tribals will be well-protected and taken care of ’. But a closer look makes it clear that ‘whenever there would a need for an exemption from the existing rules/policies/law of the land for the execution of the project, this directorate will seek a necessary exemption to that effect from the competent authority’.
It is significant that Great Nicobar is the southernmost island of the Nicobar Islands. It has 1,03,870 hectares of unique and endangered tropical evergreen forest cover. It is a very rich and sensitive ecosystem that includes 650 species of angiosperms, ferns, gymnosperms, and bryophytes. There are more than 1,800 species of fauna, some of which are also endemic to the region.
The Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve is a wide range of ecosystems consisting of tropical moist evergreen forests, mountain ranges, and ecosystems at an elevation of 642 metres above sea level (Mount Thullier). All these will be erased in the said development projects.
The influx of a large number of outsiders on the islands will have serious consequences for the indigenous tribes. It may be recalled that during the pandemic, four members of the Great Andamanese tribe were infected by Covid-19. Currently, only 53 people of the Great Andamanese tribe are still believed to be alive, on one of the 37 inhabited islands. In the eastern part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 2,985 cases of the coronavirus infection were registered, and out of these, 41 people lost their lives. These figures indicate that the native population is highly sensitive to infections, even on the slightest contact with people from elsewhere.
Great Nicobar is an ecologically important region and the so-called development project will lead to deforestation affecting the flora and fauna of the region. It will also increase drainage and sediment deposits in the sea, which will affect the coral reefs and cause damage to the mangroves on the island.
The project is estimated to require 86,600 kilolitres of water per day (KLD), of which 45,000 KLD will be fresh water drawn from surface reservoirs that are yet to be constructed. The non-inclusion of provisions for the disposal or safe recycling of waste and residual water generated from the projects is also a threat to the existence of the island. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956 designates large areas of forests and surrounding seas as tribal reserves. This includes the entire group of Nicobar Islands (about 1,900 sq. km) and four tribal reserves in the Andaman Islands (about 1,600 sq. km).
The Andaman Reserve is named after the four aboriginal Negrito communities that have lived on these islands for at least 40,000 years—the Great Andamanese, Jarawas, Onge, and Sentinelese. These people are in danger of being carried away and wiped out in this promised land of development.
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