Vulnerable Nicobarese and Shompen tribes of the Great Nicobar Island at risk from new port

Fearing tribal displacement and ecological destruction from the proposed port and container terminal, a civil rights group has written an open letter to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes

High angle view of rocks on beach,Mayabunder,Andaman and Nicobar Islands,India (Getty Images)
High angle view of rocks on beach,Mayabunder,Andaman and Nicobar Islands,India (Getty Images)

NH Environment Bureau

A group of former civil servants of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) have written an open letter to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes expressing their concern with regard to the construction of a port on the Great Nicobar Island. They have said that this project "will virtually destroy the unique ecology of this island and the habitat of vulnerable tribal groups". 

They have brought to light the displacement that two vulnerable tribal groups will face if this project is undertaken. Further, they have said that their attempts to appeal to the government on the matter have been Unsuccessful. The letter stressed that "several people have written to the government objecting to the use of tribal reserve land for the project, among them the anthropologists of the Indian Anthropological Association".

Read the full letter here.

Dear Chairperson and Members of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes,

We are a group of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of our careers. Both as individuals and as a group, we believe in impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Constitution of India. We do not owe allegiance to any political party.

On 27 Jan 2023, we had written an open letter to the President of India on the proposed port and container terminal on the island of Great Nicobar that will virtually destroy the unique ecology of this island and the habitat of  vulnerable tribal groups.  But neither our letter, nor the very many others written by other individuals and groups, about the flaws in the environment and forest clearances, seem to have had any effect in making the Government of India re-examine the project. It is only very recently that the National Green Tribunal has ordered a closer look at some of the environmental issues raised.

We write today, not about the environmental and ecological destruction that the project is likely to wreak, but about the fate of the two groups of tribal people that the island of Great Nicobar harbours, viz., the Shompen, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group who stand to lose much of their traditional forest foraging grounds, and the southern Great Nicobarese, a Scheduled Tribe, who have already been badly affected by the tsunami of 2004, having had to move out from their ancestral villages  and be resettled closer to the administrative hub of  the island. The project will be extremely detrimental to both these groups: hence, this letter to you.

According to the timeline of events as learnt by us, on 12 Aug 2021, the Directorate of Tribal Welfare, A & N islands, a body meant to protect the rights of the tribal communities and to ensure that the various regulations and policies are implemented,  issued an undertaking that any exemptions from the  regulations, laws and policies required for  the project would be obtained by it, thereby violating the very objective of the Directorate. A year later,  on 12 August 2022, a special Gram Sabha meeting was held in which it was decided that part of the  tribal reserve land within the boundaries of the island would be diverted for the “holistic development of Great Nicobar” and another portion of land, outside the current tribal reserve, and on a different part of the island, would be added to the tribal reserve. We are unaware of any provision in the law which allows such a switch to be done; and all this without the willingness of the tribal groups concerned. Four days later, on 16 August, the NOC for the diversion of  tribal reserve land was signed by the BDO, the Pramukh, Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti representative (AAJVS)  (for the Shompen), and the Chairman of the Tribal Council  (for the Nicobarese). On 25 August 2022 the Nicobarese, having become aware that the land that was agreed to be diverted was their own former ancestral home lands, wrote to the Lieutenant Governor requesting for relocation to their pre-tsunami villages of Chingenh and Pulo Babhi (this area was now the proposed site for the port and the airport of the project).   On 23 Sept 2022, a meeting chaired by the DC Nicobar was held with the Tribal Council to discuss the matter of their relocation. The officers again tried to  persuade the Nicobarese not to insist on going back, with the promise of making available all facilities at their current resettlement sites. But the Tribal Council stuck to their stand. Therefore, another meeting was proposed to be held by the officers.  This meeting was, however, never held.   

Despite the Nicobarese’s insistence on returning to their ancestral settlements, both forest clearance and environment clearance were given to the Great Nicobar Holistic Development Project on 27 October and 11 November 2022 respectively. The lands involved covered the original home lands of the Nicobarese. Shortly thereafter, on 22 November 2022, the Tribal Council sent a letter withdrawing their NOC for  diversion of their lands, mentioning that they had not been informed earlier that the land being earmarked for development included areas where the group lived prior to the tsunami. They stated that they were completely dependent on forests in their original homes and they wanted to go back to foraging and tending to plantations on their lands, and rearing domestic animals, rather than working as manual labour in menial jobs, as they do at present.  They said that losing access to their lands would be damaging both to their future generations and to their ‘Shompen brothers’.

It will thus be seen that the Nicobarese have consistently been unwilling to give their consent to the diversion of their ancestral homelands, which they had used until the tsunami of 2004. They have also been asking to be sent back to their pre-tsunami settlement areas since 2007. That they agreed at one point of time to the diversion of tribal reserve land can be ascribed to their lack of knowledge of the areas proposed to be used for the project, their lack of awareness of their rights, and the insistence of the administrative authorities.  Even so, the Tribal Council (of the Nicobarese) withdrew the consent they had given earlier for diversion of their tribal reserve land as soon as they could.

The Shompen, meanwhile continue to live, cultivate and collect food resources from the forests, little aware that some of their forests would soon be taken away.

Several people have written to the government objecting to the use of tribal reserve land for the project, among them the anthropologists of the Indian Anthropological Association. They wrote to the Andaman Nicobar Pollution Control Committee ahead of the public hearing, stressing the need to take great care when clearing the project, particularly where it concerned the lands of the Shompen and the Great Nicobarese. They emphasised the damage that would occur if the project came too close to the dwellings or foraging grounds of the Shompen. They too mentioned that the Nicobarese were anxious to return to their pre-tsunami settlements. Yet all these calls for caution have gone unheeded and the project has been cleared despite the damage it will cause to these defenceless tribal people.

As the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), you are mandated under Article 338 of the Constitution to oversee the implementation of the safeguards provided to the Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution or under any other law for the time being in force. For the tribes of the islands this would mean, the Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation,1956. This Regulation governs the statutory safeguards applicable to the tribes in these islands and overrides any law, agreement, court decree or order inconsistent with it. All Acts, including the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, would, in our opinion, be subordinate to this regulation.

Under Art 338A (9) of the Constitution, the Union and every State Government is meant to consult the NCST on all major policy matters affecting Scheduled Tribes. We are aware that in this major matter of a mega project coming up in Great Nicobar, displacing the vulnerable tribes from their traditional forest and tribal reserve areas, this consultation has not been done.  We are happy that on learning of this, a notice has been sent on 20 April 2023 by your Commission to the Andaman and Nicobar Administration asking them to explain the facts of the matter within fifteen days. This letter was sent on a complaint made by Dr. EAS Sarma, a former Secretary in the Union Finance Ministry, and an expert on tribal matters.    

We would like to add our voice to that of Dr. Sarma and of the many others who have expressed their concern about the many flaws in the clearances given and the damage that the displacement will cause to the tribal groups. We hope you will look into this matter thoroughly and ensure that a project meant for the holistic development of Great Nicobar does not result in the immiseration and ultimate extinction of these highly vulnerable tribal communities, whose original and only home the island is.


Yours sincerely,

Constitutional Conduct Group

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