The pristine beaches, mangroves, unique biodiversity, protected species of giant leatherback turtles, and cultural traditions of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) of Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the Bay of Bengal may be sacrificed to commercial interests if the Central government has its way. A Rs.72,000-crore project mooted by NITI Aayog in early 2021 aims to push ahead with its mega components in two of the larger islands in the Union Territory’s 836 islands: Great Nicobar and Little Andaman.
The aim is to transform Great Nicobar Island, largely uninhabited and remote, into a transhipment port and tourist hub, complete with an international airport, a power plant and residential cities. Little Andaman will have a leisure zone in South Bay with a film city, a residential district and a tourism specific economic zone, while West Bay on the island will be developed as a nature retreat with theme resorts, underwater resorts, beach hotels and high-end residential villas.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands boast some of the largest mangrove forests, which act as natural barriers against extreme climate events, in India. They also have one of the best and rarest tropical forests, as well as rare flora and fauna. The islands are also home to five PVTGs, namely, the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onges, the Shompens, and the Sentinelese.
The giant leatherback turtle, the largest of the seven sea turtle species on the planet (which can grow to be 6 feet long and weigh over 900 kg), nests only in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is a protected species under Schedule 1 of India’s Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. But this spectacular ecosystem is facing a grave danger to its existence from the government’s ambitious development project.
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The government has hired AECOM Infrastructure, a Gurgaon-based firm, to plan and develop greenfield cities, one each in Little Andaman and Great Nicobar, with the goal of developing them as free trade zones similar to Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai and presenting visitors a unique experience by leveraging the islands’ unique location and natural features.
The Terms of Reference for environmental clearances were granted with astonishing speed. By April-May 2021, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change finalised the Terms of Reference for the Environmental Impact Assessment, which was also completed in record time. The EAC specifically states that while considering the proposal the administration has agreed that (a) the project will not disturb or displace Shompen and Nicobarese tribes, the two PVTGs living in Great Nicobar; (b) there will be a clear demarcation of land for the project and for the tribes to avoid any conflict in the future; and (c) habitat rights of the tribal groups shall be taken care of in accordance with the Forest Rights Act. According to the EAC, the tribes will be eligible for compensation for the loss of their habitat (if any) and a fair compensation will be devised in addition to the resources already available for the welfare and development of Shompen while ensuring their survival as a community, their unique identity, culture and heritage.
A crude joke
A public hearing was held on January 27, 2022, apparently to apprise the tribes of the project details and assure them of the least possible disruption to their habitat and life. However, as in most cases like this, the public hearing was a crude joke on the tribal groups, with no invitation going out to the action groups speaking out for their rights. There was not a single representative from anthropological organisations and written objections from their members submitted earlier were ignored.
“We were called to attend the meeting, but we did not know that we could submit our objections and worries in writing. So whatever we were worried about, we conveyed to the government verbally,” said Barnabas Manju, chairman of the Tribal Council of Great Nicobar and Little Nicobar Islands, over phone. He said all through the process of project formulation, at no stage were they consulted or their opinion sought. “We are not against the project as such, but we don’t want to be displaced from our jungles and land. This is the only life we know and would not want to be disturbed,” he said.
Already displaced from their native villages following the 2004 tsunami, tribal people like Manju are living in camps in Campbell Bay. “But we want to return, we want to restart our lives, engage in farming, hunting or other activities we used to do. There is nothing to do here. Some of us are forced to work as labourers,” he said.
With the impending project, people like him are beginning to lose hope that they can return to their villages one day. The project is likely to impact most the Nicobarese, of which Manju is a member, and the Shompen. The Shompen, who number only 237,and the Nicobarese, whose population is 1,094, feel completely left out of the entire process.
Many environmental activists this writer spoke to confirmed that their attempts to draw the government’s attention, including through media reports, to the damage that can be caused to the people and the ecology have failed so far.
Rainforests, tribal reserves to be dereserved
The Great Nicobar holistic development project includes a transhipment port, an airport, a power plant and a residential city, and will come up on 166 sq. km. The island has a total area of 910 sq km. Over 130 sq km of some of the finest tropical forests will have to be denotified and destroyed for the project.
Tribal reserves of 84.1 sq km will have to be denotifed for the port in Galathea Bay, where the Shompens live. The tourist hub project for Little Andaman seeks to dereserve 200 sq km of pristine rainforests and denotify 140 sq km of the Onge tribal reserve.
Threat to turtles
The giant leatherback turtle nesting beaches are also under threat. Two of these are on Little Andaman and one on Great Nicobar island. The Galathea nesting beach, located along the south east coast in Nicobar islands, was declared a wildlife reserve in 1997. Covering an area of 11.44 sq km, it is one of the most iconic nesting sites for the leatherback turtle. The National Board for Wildlife denotified this reserve in January 2021 without assigning any reason. Denotifying this reserve means it will be open for port construction activities.
According to the project report, the bay mouth, through which the giant turtle travels to the nesting beach, is about 3 km wide, but it will be reduced to 300 metres by constructing breakwaters at the opening. This apparently is to provide unhindered access to the turtle to its nesting site, but it is doubtful whether the turtle will even approach the nesting site once dredging and other activities start. Although the plan is to stop construction from November to February, which is the nesting season, and have dim lights and sound mufflers in the area, activists are worried that interfering with the natural habitat will itself drive them away.
“The best mitigation plan for these turtles is to have no plan at all. If the project begins then nothing can mitigate the disaster awaiting Galathea Bay and its turtles,” writes Pankaj Sekhsaria in Monumental Folly, published by the environment action group Kalpavriksh in December 2021, a compilation of reports on the project and official minutes, notices, circulars, and so on. Sekhsaria, a professor at IIT Bombay, has been documenting the ecological history of Andaman and Nicobar Islands for years.
Vulnerable tribal groups
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a top UN body, has sought information from the Indian government on the impact of the project on PVTGs. The committee received a complaint in January this year and sent a letter to the Government of India, through its permanent representative in Geneva on April 29, seeking answers to the questions raised. The letter states that the two projects will have a harmful impact on five PVTGs, which are already on the verge of extinction, inhabiting these islands.
According to this letter, the Nicobar project will put significant ecological pressure on the islands and their surroundings. The Andaman project, it says, will require dereserving 32 per cent of the forest reserves and denotifying 31 per cent of the tribal reserves, with negative consequences for PVTGs. The letter reminds the Indian government that these projects violate the existing laws and policies that protect PVTGs and their habitats, namely, the Shompen Policy of 2015, which establishes priority of tribal rights over large-scale development projects, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation of 1956, and the Indian Forest Act of 1927.
The CERD has asked the government about the measures it has adopted to prevent any adverse and irreparable impact on PVTGs, and the impact the projects will have on the ecosystem, biodiversity, livelihood and existence of these tribes. It has also sought information on the steps taken to ensure strict adherence to laws and policies. The letter requested a response by July 15, 2022.
It is not known whether the government replied to CERD, but efforts by this writer to elicit a response from the Andaman and Nicobar authorities proved futile. Senior IAS officers, directly in charge of forest and environment, as well as the Chief Secretary’s office, which also oversees the holistic development project, refused to answer.
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Speaking from Great Nicobar island, Tarun Karthick, founder and editor of Nicobar Times, told this writer that except for the tribal population, others living in the island chain, mostly settlers, are in support of some development. “It may or may not be this project necessarily, but people want development so there is not much opposition on the ground. Even political parties have been quiet on this issue,” he says. This, perhaps, is why the lone Andaman and Nicobar MP, Kuldeep Rai Sharma, of the Congress has not uttered a word against the project.
The compulsions could be many, but as Pankaj Sekhsaria rightly states in the concluding remarks of his book, “The Andaman & Nicobar Island system lies at a very fragile and vulnerable intersection of the geological, ecological and sociocultural. The NITI Aayog plan completely ignores these realities and pushes ahead with an 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 imagined.”