On a hot summer day in 2014, Francis, the captain of Daring village in the remote Nicobar archipelago, led me to a hut where an old Nicobarese minluana (spirit healer) sat amidst several kareau (carved ancestral statues), henta-koi (carved ritual figures), and women and men. Minutes later, Tinfus, in a soft, wavering voice, explained to me how kareau had always protected his people and islands from evil spirits. But since 2004, “Nicobar is dying.” The culprit was the top-down tsunami aid, the aftermath of which, the minluana prophesied, would ruin generations of Nicobarese. Tinfus rued the unravelling of an age-old community. Suddenly, mid-sentence, he broke down in tears.
Last November, Tinfus’s prophecy echoed in my ears as I learnt that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had granted in-principle permission for the diversion of 130.75 sq km of forest in Great Nicobar for a Rs.72,000-crore mega project that includes a port, an airport, power plant, and township.
Ecologists, anthropologists, and domain experts have called it an impending ecological disaster. ‘Save Nicobar’ (a citizen’s movement) is mounting people’s support and solidarity to save the island. Hundreds of concerned citizens have sent an email petition to the MoEFCC, requesting project withdrawal. The island’s indigenous people, whose traditional habitats and worldviews the mega project imperils, are also frantically trying to have their voices heard. Amidst all this chaos, the juggernaut of the mega project continues to move at lightning speed disregarding every concern.
Standing up for ancestral lands
In January 2022, the Andaman and Nicobar Pollution Control Committee conducted a public hearing, inviting people’s “suggestions”, “views”, “comments”, and “objections” on the mega project before the MoEFCC took up the case for environmental clearance. Besides other stakeholders in Great Nicobar, members of the tribal council of Little and Great Nicobar Islands also participated in it and verbally expressed their concerns. “They told us that the project is most essential for the country’s and the island’s development. We said that we don’t have any problem with the project as long as it does not harm our traditional lands and resources. They assured us, repeatedly, that it won’t,” a tribal council office-bearer told me.
Later, the Nicobarese discussed the issue with the local administration in detail and discovered that the government plans to utilise the “vacant” land (traditional lands of the Nicobarese and the Shompen) in Great Nicobar for the project. “They lied to us in the public hearing. The project will eat several of our pre-tsunami villages,” despaired a Nicobarese village captain. The tribal leaders immediately met to discuss the issue and took a collective stand that they conveyed to the local administration—“we won’t part with our ancestral lands.”
‘Helpless’ and ‘abandoned’
The Great Nicobar is a traditional habitat of two historically isolated indigenous communities – the Shompen and the Nicobarese – who were the sole inhabitants of the island until the government set up seven revenue villages, settling 330 ex-servicemen families (settlers) from 1969 to 1980. These three communities together constitute a population of 8,367 (Census 2011) in southern Nicobar, an archipelago comprising Great Nicobar, Little Nicobar, and other small islands.
The Shompen, enumerated 245 in 2022, is a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) that relies on hunting and foraging for its sustenance, besides some horticulture and pig rearing. Around 1,200 Nicobarese currently inhabit southern Nicobar; a large number of them live in Great Nicobar with almost negligible livelihood opportunities. Before the tsunami, they inhabited over 30 villages pursuing a subsistence economy based on the principles of cooperation, sharing, and reciprocity. Their primary livelihood activities included fishing, hunting-gathering, pig and poultry rearing, and horticulture of coconut and areca nut.
The cataclysmic tsunami of December 2004 ravaged Nicobar, claiming 3,449 lives, according to the official count (10,000 or around one-third of the Nicobarese community, as per independent researchers’ estimates). The majority of the Nicobarese in Great Nicobar, who lived along the coasts in the south-east and south-west regions, died. The government evacuated the surviving indigenes and relocated them in relief camps/intermediate shelters at New Chingenh and Rajiv Nagar (Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar). Soon, the Nicobarese expressed their willingness to go back to their pre-tsunami villages. But the government kept them in these shelters for six years. In 2011, against their wish, the government allotted permanent shelters to the Nicobarese at these sites, making them internally displaced people (IDPs).
In the past 17 years, the internally displaced Nicobarese have repeatedly requested the government to reunite them with their pre-tsunami ancestral homeland. Of late, they were particularly heartbroken to learn that their traditional habitats, along with their neighbours’ (Shompen), are now seen as “vacant” lands that projects and outsiders can easily grab. In August 2022, the distressed tribal council sent a petition to the Union Territory’s Lieutenant Governor stating its people’s plight thus: “We feel helpless and abandoned and are extremely anxious about our future. By continuing to stay at Rajiv Nagar (and New Chingenh), we will lose our ancestral homeland, our bona fide ownership of plantations, fishing grounds, and spaces for our populace to grow back.”
The displaced Nicobarese living at Rajiv Nagar (28 families) and New Chingenh (28 families, two Shompen families) pleaded with the local administration to facilitate their relocation to their pre-tsunami villages “at the earliest”. They also sent the petition to the President of India, the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the MoEFCC, the Ministry of Social Justice, and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes among others. However, their petition has not elicited any response yet.
I first visited Nicobar in 2011 to study the post-tsunami sociocultural changes and land conflicts. That was the year the Nicobarese were slotted into permanent shelters. During my field work in Great Nicobar, I would always pose the question: with limited opportunities available for earning a livelihood, what would happen to the Nicobarese in Rajiv Nagar and New Chingenh once their compensation money was exhausted? I distinctly remember two responses. “They will return to their pre-tsunami villages,” said the late Paul Joora, the former chairman of the tribal council. “They will join the ranks of labourers. What else will they do?” said an administrator, quite matter-of-factly.
The Nicobarese now eke out a living by daily labour, mazdoori, something that has never been a part of their culture. They are unable to go back to their homelands on their own as the region lacks facilities. “We badly wish to go. But the government won’t provide us any amenities there. How will kids and sick people survive? And what about those who attend schools here?” said a father of two. To understand the concerns of the Nicobarese of losing land to the mega project, one just needs to look at how separation from their pre-tsunami villages has unravelled their society.
These are quotes from the petition they addressed to the Lt Governor in August 2022:
“A community with lost identity, customs and values…. Poverty-stricken, living in substandard physical conditions… extremely unhygienic and not conducive to the life we desire for ourselves or our children…. Prying gazes, dismissive and insensitive attitudes and jarring ridicules…. Non-Nicobarese people… often exploit our members socially and economically, and discriminate us due to our tribal identity…. We are unable to perform various rites, rituals and festivals…. We feel pressured to adopt ways (garments, diet, outlook) alien to us…. Feel exposed, insecure and indoctrinated…. Our children are culturally and socially deviant and unable to understand our traditional ways nor can they cope with the influx of mainlanders and the mindless cut-throat competition they bring with them…. Rampant obesity, coronary heart disease, cirrhosis, arthritis, osteoporosis, chronic kidney failure, hypertension, diabetes…. We feel depressed, let-down and pained by the prevailing conditions and sincerely desire positive change.”
What the indigenes crave is the deep spiritual bonding they share with their homelands. “We miss our villages, but they will also be missing us,” Paul Joora once told me. In the Nicobarese cosmology, all living and non-living entities are part of a single, spiritual, moral, and regenerative system. Death, in their worldview, is the perpetuation of life in a different form. But separation from land is an irreparable loss. “I visited my ancestral village twice this year. Around 500-600 of us once lived there, but only 65 survived. I thought about those whom the tsunami took away from us. But I had no regret except that we cannot live on that land any longer,” said a Nicobarese. Sundered from their lands, culture, traditions, festivals, and unique worldview, the Nicobarese perpetually feel sad and empty inside. But only a few can express it in words. “We may seem alive but deep inside we are all dead people,” an elder of Nancowry once said.
The “holistic development” that the mega project envisions for Great Nicobar will only compound the problems of the Nicobarese. The influx of lakhs of people will rob the island of its biodiversity and resources, further pushing the indigenes to the margins. The history of the PVTGs in the Andamans warns us that the mega project will mark the beginning of the end for the Shompen.
The minutes of the Expert Appraisal Committee held on May 24-25, 2022, records an absurd statement. “The project will not disturb or displace any Shompen/Nicobari tribal or their habitation,” but says in the same breath that “the Shompen will be eligible… for compensation for the loss of their habitat (if any).” It is a foregone conclusion that a sudden flow of cash in a subsistence economy leads to disastrous consequences, of which the Nicobarese are the nearest example. Besides, the families of the Shompen living at New Chingenh have already spoken their mind—they wish to be reunited with their ancestral lands.
The way the mega project is being rammed down indigenous people’s throat shows the government’s mentality, which is rooted in colonial rationality. A colonial A&N (Land Tenure) Regulation of 1926 had asserted that: “All land in the Andaman and the Nicobars is vested absolutely in His Majesty.” In the late 1960s, the government attempted to implement a Regulation (1966) in the Nicobar that would have entirely stripped the indigenous people of their traditional lands and resources. The 1966 Regulation cloned the colonial spirit by replacing two words—“His Majesty” with “the government”.
Invoking the 1966 Regulation, an officer in April 1971 had warned two Chief Headmen in Car Nicobar, “All ‘vacant’ lands belong to the government, and it can take up any piece.” What the officer’s untrained eye perceived as “vacant” land had a pertinent purpose in the Nicobarese traditional system of managing their commons. That year, the stalwart Nicobarese leader, John Richardson, politely gave a history lesson to the Union Territory’s Chief Commissioner. “Sir, every bit of land [in Car Nicobar] is owned by the natives even from the beginning even before the British claimed the island for India. Since creation by god it is owned by the natives.” K.K. Mathur, in his book Nicobar Island (1967), offers some context: “The forest area, the pools in the interior, the beaches and even the seabeds which are exposed during low tides are divided among different families.”
The mega project is determined to axe over eight lakh trees in Great Nicobar. The government should remember an ancient tradition which dictates that “in Great Nicobar before attempting to cut down a tree in the jungle… permission is always obtained from the Shompen.”
Ajay Saini is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities. The views expressed are personal.
- Ecologists, anthropologists, and domain experts call the in-principle permission given by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) for the diversion of 130.75 sq km of forest in Great Nicobar for a Rs.72,000-crore mega project an impending ecological disaster.
- The island’s indigenous people, whose traditional habitats and worldviews the mega project imperils, are also frantically trying to have their voices heard.
- In January 2022, the Andaman and Nicobar Pollution Control Committee conducted a public hearing. Tribal people say they were assured that the project will not harm traditional land and resources. They now feel helpless and abandoned.
- Great Nicobar is a traditional habitat of two historically isolated indigenous communities—the Shompen and the Nicobarese—who were the sole inhabitants of the island until the government set up seven revenue villages, settling 330 ex-servicemen families (settlers) from 1969 to 1980.
- Before the tsunami, they inhabited over 30 villages. Their primary livelihood activities included fishing, hunting-gathering, pig and poultry rearing, and horticulture of coconut and areca nut.