Tribes of India: No home for the Nicobarese

...and nor for the Shompen, as India’s ‘alternative Hong Kong’ takes root in the rainforests

A Shompen tribal returns to his forest home after collecting government rations (Photo: Manish Chandi)
A Shompen tribal returns to his forest home after collecting government rations (Photo: Manish Chandi)

Rishika Pardikar/ Article 14

Over the past 17 years, and most recently in 2022, the hunter-gatherers, fisherfolk and farmers of a Nicobarese tribe inhabiting a rainforest-draped island of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago for about 50,000 years have pleaded with the Union government to return them to the ancestral land they lived in before the 2004 tsunami.

But with a Rs 72,000 crore plan to build a giant port, an international airport, a power plant and tourism facilities—by cutting down about a million trees in 130 sq km of rainforest—the government has erected a wall of silence against their requests to return home. The official reply to our RTI query: ‘No information’.

Great Nicobar is the southernmost tip of India and lies less than 200 km north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is hilly and covered with lush rainforests, sustained by around 3,500 mm of annual rainfall. Mangroves line its coast.

Two tribes of South-East Asian descent are indigenous to the island: the Nicobarese, who mostly live along the island’s south and west coast, and the Shompen, who inhabit the interior of the island’s lush forests. Their quiet existence was changed forever when a great tsunami came along in 2004. About 20 of the Nicobar islands were the first to be hit, out of the 600-odd in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago.

They are located in the Ring of Fire—a seismically active region of undersea volcanoes that experiences several earthquakes and geological ripples throughout the year. In their coastal villages, the Nicobarese suffered the most devastating impacts of the cyclone. Of the 250 who lived along the island’s west coast, only nine survived.

There were other Nicobarese survivors who lived on higher ground. The Indian government relocated them to what were meant to be temporary shelters in Campbell Bay on the island’s eastern coast. Ever since they were first resettled in 2005, they have asked to go back to their ancestral lands along the southern and western coast of Great Nicobar.

Over 17 years, the Nicobarese repeated that request, but the government of the islands, a Union territory directly administered by New Delhi through a lieutenant governor, has ignored those pleas despite, alleged the Nicobarese, promises to the contrary.

In March 2021, it became apparent that there was little likelihood the Nicobarese were ever going home: that was when the Union government’s think-tank, the NITI Aayog, unveiled a Rs 72,000 crore plan—first conceived in the 1970s— to transform the southern half of Great Nicobar over 30 years into an “alternative to Hong Kong”, as Sanat Kaul, a former chief secretary of the islands and author of the book, Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s Untapped Strategic Assets, described the plan.

The government plans then to wipe out—or ‘divert’, in official parlance— 130 sq km of the island’s rainforests to build a seaport, an international airport, a power plant, and town and tourism facilities on ‘uninhabited’ land, according to a ‘feasibility study’ prepared for the NITI Aayog in March 2021 by an American multinational consulting firm called AECOM.

The coast of Joginder Nagar in Great Nicobar, where the government has big development plans (Photo: Pankaj Sekhsaria)
The coast of Joginder Nagar in Great Nicobar, where the government has big development plans (Photo: Pankaj Sekhsaria)

The government hopes that the port being strategically located near one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the Malacca Strait, will feed off it. The project, which will occupy a third of the island, ignores not just the ancestral claims of the Nicobarese and their pleas to go back home, but some of the Shompen as well, who continue to live in the rainforest staring at an uncertain future.

The plan for them, if any, has not been made public. “Four Shompen settlements, along with their southern hunting and foraging grounds, will be devastated by the project,” Survival International, a 54-year-old global advocacy group has said.

“Their sacred river system will also be ruined. This will in turn destroy their pandanus trees, one of their most important sources of food.” “It is impossible to imagine that the Shompen will be able to survive this overwhelming and catastrophic transformation of their island,” said Survival International.

Apathy, void promises, inaction

In August 2022, Barnabas Manju, 45, chairman of the tribal council of the Great Nicobar and Little Nicobar Islands, wrote to lieutenant governor D.K. Joshi (with copies to the President of India, the prime minister and the home minister, among others) requesting a return to their original homes—that officials have promised frequently over the years since the tsunami, he said.

“Where we are living now is not a permanent settlement,” Manju told Article 14 in Hindi and some English. “It’s not part of our identity.” The land, he said, was what was linked to that identity. In his letter to the government, Manju complained that the Nicobarese felt pressured to adopt clothes, a diet and an ‘outlook’ that he said were ‘alien to us’.

They were ‘unable to perform various rites, rituals and festivals’, and felt ‘exposed, insecure and indoctrinated’. The Nicobarese largely practise Christianity mixed with animism and a variety of beliefs tied to ancient traditions. For example, almost all of them keep figurines called kareus in their homes to scare away ghosts and use the services of shamans.

Manish Chandi, a social ecologist with two decades of experience on the island, said “settlers and mainlanders who do not have any ancestral connection to the islands and the lands” of the Nicobarese largely do not understand how the tribe regard ancestral heritage and cosmological phenomenon as being responsible for their well-being.

Manju said in his letter that the Nicobarese after resettlement were ‘poverty stricken’, had become ‘a community with lost identity, customs and values’. The life they now led was ‘extremely unhygienic and not conducive to the life we desire for ourselves or our children’. He spoke of ‘prying gazes, dismissed (sic) and insensitive attitudes (of mainlanders) and jarring ridicules (sic)’.

Tribal lives here are inextricably linked to the rainforests
Tribal lives here are inextricably linked to the rainforests

Reduced to daily wage labourers

The detachment from their land has also adversely transformed the livelihood of the tribe. Before the tsunami, the Nicobarese grew areca and coconut plantations, reared poultry and pigs, fished and hunted. But in Campbell Bay, Manju said, the government has not given them land for plantations.

‘We work as labourers in the construction sector,’ said Manju, their situation echoing a fate that has been repeated with tribal communities across India. Against their wishes and disregarding their wishes to return to their ancestral lands, Manju said in his letter that the government built shelters at settlements called Rajiv Nagar and New Chingen in Campbell Bay area.

In 2010, the government constructed more permanent shelters than the tin-roofed ones the community was forced to live in since the tsunami. These ‘permanent shelters’ built with iron girders and wooden planks, are sometimes on stilts.

Approximately 500 Nicobarese— almost the total number of the Nicobarese on the island—live in these homes consisting of two bedrooms, a small kitchen and a bathroom, closely packed together. “The post-tsunami shelters at Rajiv Nagar and elsewhere cater to nuclear families, whereas the original Nicobarese homes catered to joint families,” said Chandi.

“The transformation afforded by the post-tsunami governmental intervention illustrates the poor understanding of even basic tenets of the islanders social ecology and livelihood requirements.”

‘We have struggled with inadequate forms of habitations and livelihoods that we do not desire, are unaccustomed to, and do not want for the future of our children or subsequent generations,’ wrote Manju in his letter to the government. ‘We have repeatedly requested assistance from the Andaman administration to shift our community back to our pre-tsunami villages, but our requests have only been met with apathy, void promises and inaction for 16 years.’

A copy of the letter was also sent to local officials, such as the deputy commissioner in Nicobar, the secretary at the department of tribal welfare in the Andaman and Nicobar administration and the Union tribal affairs and environment ministries. None of the officials have responded to the letter.

On 23 August, Article 14 sought comment from lieutenant governor Joshi and his secretary, Union tribal affairs minister Arjun Munda and his secretary, and two NITI Aayog officials (vice chairman Suman Bery and director Urvashi Prasad). We sent a follow-up query on 28 August, but there was no response. We will update this story if we get a response.

‘No information’ on resettlement

This reporter filed an RTI (right to information) query with the Union ministry of tribal affairs asking whether it was aware of the request by the local tribal council for resettlement and, if yes, how those demands would be met. In response, the ministry said in May 2023 that it had ‘no information’.

shelters at Rajiv Nagar
Post-tsunami shelters at Rajiv Nagar

The reporter, the ministry said, should seek information from the island authorities, who, as we said, ignored all queries. This wall of silence continues even as the government’s Rs 72,000 -crore mega project gains steam in the southern half of Great Nicobar, despite official obfuscation of the facts of the land takeover. The government claims that the trans shipment terminal, for example, is on ‘uninhabited’ land, according to the pre-feasibility report prepared to obtain environmental clearance.

But it is clearly part of the ancestral land of the Nicobarese and where they lived for centuries until the tsunami struck and where the Shompen communities continue to live. The area marked for the proposed international port overlaps with two Shompen forest settlements called Kirasis and Kurchinom.

The Kirasis settlement comprises three families and their relatives. An uncertain number are spread out in Kurchinom. The proposed sites for tourist resorts along the west coast in the NITI Aayog plan are next to two more Shompen settlements of about 10 families. The Shompen are illiterate by modern standards, said experts, but they are schooled in the ways of the forest and the land, and are almost self-sufficient.

They have had little contact with the world outside the rainforest. “When the development plan [proposed by the NITI Aayog] takes place and reaches these settlements, it will push the people further north and into internal conflict with other Shompen communities,” said Chandi. Currently, each Shompen community and habitation has their own foraging area and forest plot, with little overlap.

Small overlaps are tolerated, but it is uncertain what might happen if and when entire habitations are forced to relocate. The Nicobarese allege that the government made false promises. “The officials who come to visit us only give assurances,” said Manju. “Some of them also discourage us from going back to our land, saying they will not be able to give us facilities [like roads, telecommunications, etc] if we go back.”

Nicobarese withdrew consent

In November 2022, the tribal council withdrew a no-objection certificate (NOC) it had provided in August 2022 for the use of 130 sq km of rainforest, 84 km of which was an officially designated tribal reserve, which means diversion of such lands for any purpose requires the consent of the tribal community.

The tribal council said that during a public hearing for the project in August 2022, the government did not make them aware that tribal reserve areas would no longer be regarded as such and would become part of the project. The letter alleged that the chairman, Manju, was ‘rushed’ to sign the NOC by officials present at the hearing ‘on the very first day and was denied any time for consultation with other community members’.

During these NOC discussions too, the letter alleged, officials gave ‘false assurances’ that they would assist the Nicobarese community in returning to their ancestral land. A 2021 environmental impact assessment report for the project makes no mention of the longstanding demand for relocation. During discussions about environmental clearance, an expert appraisal committee (EAC) claimed in 2022 that the local administration had agreed that the project would not disturb the Nicobarese and the Shompen or their habitations.

The EIA said that if habitat was lost, the Shompen would be provided ‘fair compensation’. This contention, said experts, raises two questions: does the expert committee expect that the project will displace the Shompen?

The practice of spiritual and healing rituals is common
in Nicobarese homes (Photo: Manish Chandi)
The practice of spiritual and healing rituals is common in Nicobarese homes (Photo: Manish Chandi)

What about the Nicobarese and their demands to be resettled on lands that will now be swallowed by the project? Article 14 sent an email to Deepak Apte, chairman of the EAC, and Amardeep Raju, member secretary, asking if they were aware of the tribal council’s plea for resettlement and how it could impact the environmental clearance granted to the project.

We sent a follow-up email on 28 August, but there was no response. We will update this story if a response is received.

In a report titled ‘Monumental Folly’ released in 2021 by Kalpavriksh, an NGO working on environmental and social issues, author and member Pankaj Sekhsaria laid out a host of other serious issues with the project.

These include procedural irregularities, such as quick impact assessments spanning only three months, and a ‘grave threat’ to wildlife habitat, for the giant leatherback turtle in particular, which nests on beaches that the project will take over. The report also explains how the lives of the Nicobarese and the Shompen are set to be adversely impacted by the project.

‘The Andaman and Nicobar Island system lies at a very fragile and vulnerable intersection of the geological, ecological and socio-cultural,’ wrote Sekhsaria.

‘The NITI Aayog’s Great Nicobar plan is deeply ignorant of these multiple realities even as it aggressively pursues a completely illusory agenda of economic growth and development. To go ahead with it will be to perpetuate a monumental folly, the price paid for which cannot even be comprehended.’

“There is a huge scope for development on the island,” Chandi said. “But not like this… not at the cost of displacement of tribals. This is the most damaging proposition.”

(Rishika Pardikar is a freelance environment reporter. This article is republished with permission from Article-14)

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