Will India's megaproject sink the Great Nicobar Island?

India is determined to build its own "Hong Kong" on the Great Nicobar island. Activists warn the impact could go beyond wrecking the environment, it could spell extinction for the indigenous people

Great Nicobar is part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which mark the eastern edge of the Bay of Bengal. (photo: DW)
Great Nicobar is part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which mark the eastern edge of the Bay of Bengal. (photo: DW)


The Indian government is planning to invest $9 billion (€ 8.38 billion) to transform India's Great Nicobar island into a massive military and trade hub. But the plans have raised concerns among environmentalists, scientists and civil society organizations who believe the megaproject will ruin the unique ecology of the remote region.

Beyond ecological concerns, many fear the impact on indigenous communities — especially the Shompen people, a hunter-gatherer community who have lived on the Great Nicobar for thousands of years with very little contact with outsiders.

India's eastern outpost

Indian officials say that plans to develop the Great Nicobar have been fueled by China's growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and that the island's strategic position makes it vital for security and trade.

The island is located some 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) east of India's mainland, close to Indonesia's Sumatra and only hundreds of kilometers away from Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. It currently has around 8,000 residents.

The plans approved by the Indian government envisage an international container terminal, a dual-use airport for military and civilian purposes, a gas, diesel, and solar-based power plant, and a greenfield township, all of which are planned on this island spreading over 1,000 square kilometers. These developments would also boost the island's population into hundreds of thousands.

The authorities point out that the port, set to dominate the island's Galathea Bay, will flourish due to being close to one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, the Malacca Strait.

And the plans are proceeding at speed — the government has managed to secure many approvals, clearances, exemptions, and de-notifications in the last three years, with some praising the project as the creation of India's own "Hong Kong" at Great Nicobar.

India's minister of ports, shipping and waterways, Sarbananda Sonowal, told the press the government had no second thoughts about pushing ahead with the island's development.

"It is true that different stakeholders have raised environmental concerns, but those have been clearly addressed," Sonowal said.

Cutting down the rainforest

However, critics say the initiative would cause irreversible damage to the pristine rainforests on the Great Nicobar. The island has "one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world," according to the Indian government, but the plans to transform it into a defense and trade hub would mean cutting down around 852,000 trees.

Environmentalists warn that the large port at the Galathea Bay would destroy a sensitive nesting area for leatherback sea turtles. Apart from turtle nesting sites, dolphins and other species would be harmed by the proposed dredging, and saltwater crocodiles, Nicobar crab-eating macaque and migratory birds would also bear the brunt of the island's development.

The coral reef along the coast of the bay could be destroyed by dredging during the port's construction, India's environmental watchdog EIA has warned. The township, airport and thermal power plant will all come up in areas with dense forest cover, which will affect the biodiversity "significantly," the EIA said in a draft report.

Even more alarmingly, the activists warn that a massive demographic shift combined with depleting natural resources would endanger and possibly end indigenous communities.

Shompen community set for extinction?

The London-based Survival International, a human rights organization that campaigns for the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, pointed to the risk to the Shompens, a local tribe numbering around 300 people. The group said Shompens face a risk of total extinction.

"It is impossible to imagine that the Shompen will survive this catastrophic transformation of their island. If the authorities in India succeed in their ambition to turn the island into the 'Hong Kong of India,'" Survival International's Director Caroline Pearce told DW, adding that "future residents should know that it was built on the graves of the Shompen, whose homeland this has been since time immemorial.”

Survival International points out that like other hunter-gatherers, the Shompen have an intricate knowledge of their forest and use the flora of the island in a multitude of ways.

Moving into quake-prone area

Earlier this month, dozens of scholars from around the world expressed the same concerns in an open letter to India's President Droupadi Murmu, urging her to halt the construction and pointing to the risk of the expected demographic shift. The signatories, which included experts on genocide, warned that the expected 650,000 settlers, or an 8,000% increase in population, will ensure the end of the Shompen.

"The people will not be able to survive on their own terms within this framework. And the people living there, they will not just suffer physically, they will be psychically destroyed. It will kill them," Mark Levene, fellow at the UK's University of Southampton, told DW.

And local tribes are not the only ones in danger. A massive influx of population would put hundreds of thousands of people into the zone of the highest seismic risk. Great Nicobar is in the region which was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 9.3 on the Richter Scale in 2004, which prompted the deadliest tsunami in recorded history.

"This project is completely arbitrary. The multimillion-dollar project comes at a huge cost. It will destroy the environment and the rights of the indigenous people," Bhupesh Tewari, who works with indigenous groups in India's Chhattisgarh, told DW.

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Published: 21 Feb 2024, 9:26 AM
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