To my eye, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were home to a relatively undisturbed ecosystem, where animals and tribes could still thrive as they were meant to, next to nature, which provided them sustenance and shelter. This was during a week-long visit to this archipelago located in the Bay of Bengal some 17-odd years ago. When I was there, just a few months after the 2004 tsunami, the area still retained the charm of a place not yet privy to the temptations of globalisation and the corruption wrought by ‘development’.
My flight landed at pristine Port Blair, which seemed much like the provincial capital I hailed from. The nearby Ross and Havelock Islands were largely free of mass tourism and so, retained much of their character. The beaches I visited were straight out of a promotional brochure and the waters of the ‘kalapani’ actually did appear ‘black’.
Home to tribes such as the Great Andamanese, Onges, Jarwas and Sentinalese, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were among the last outposts of untouched bio-diversity in India and I felt fortunate to have experienced it all in person.
Now, however, all that is slated to change. A new project, purporting ‘development’, is set to alter the flora, fauna and the very identity of the Greater Nicobar Island in hitherto unimagined ways.
Last week, the Union environment ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) gave its nod to a mega project in the Great Nicobar Island (GNI) which will involve felling of around 8.5 lakh trees in pristine rainforests, loss of 12 to 20 hectares of mangrove cover and considerable coral translocation.
The project involves the development of a military-civil, dual-use airport; an international container trans-shipment terminal; a gas, diesel, and solar-based power plant, and a township. The project is likely to affect 1,761 people, including the indigenous Shompen and Nicobarese communities.
GNI is home to rare flora and fauna including the leatherback sea turtles, Nicobar megapode — a flightless bird endemic to the Nicobar islands, Nicobar Macaque and saltwater crocodiles. The project site is within a 10 km radius of the Galathea Bay National Park and the Campbell Bay National Park.
Three premier institutes — Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON) — provided scientific inputs to the government’s EAC on the impact of the project on the flora and fauna of the GNI.
The WII said the project can be undertaken but more intensive assessment and research is required on the leatherback sea turtle and its movements to craft site-specific mitigation strategy, and suggested a 10-year roadmap to systematically implement mitigation measures. The EAC said it is clear that about 30 of the 51 active nests of Nicobar megapode within the proposed project areas will be permanently destroyed.
SACON and WII have provided a 10-year mitigation plan in this regard.
Although activists and civil society organisations have vociferously opposed the various components of the project and its impact on wildlife and bio-diversity, it is now all set to be implemented. Positioning it as crucial for strategic reasons has made many voices fall silent or atleast muted them considerably.
Along with concerns about the protection of wildlife and indigenous communities, experts have highlighted how the project will change the region’s demography irreversibly and that it is being built in a zone which is seismically active. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands region falls under the high-risk seismic zone V category, the severest of them all.
In January 2022, during the public hearing process for the project, Janki Andharia, who is the professor and dean at the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, wrote to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration highlighting that the scientific evidence suggests that the proposed container terminal is at a site that experiences about 44 earthquakes every year (444 earthquakes in the last 10 years) and thus it “needs to be reconsidered”, as reported by Mongabay-India in July 2022.
“It is also well known that the lighthouse at Indira Point, the southernmost tip of the Great Nicobar Island, which was on high ground before the undersea earthquake (tsunami) of 2004, is now underwater (some part), indicating land subsidence of about 3-4 metres. Should another major quake take place, the entire investment on infrastructure would be at risk, and the resultant oil and chemical spill would create a major environmental disaster in an area that is renowned globally for its rich biodiversity, unrivalled on our planet,” Andharia wrote while calling for revaluating the disaster risks.
Asked if the project should go through considering the adverse impact on ecology, Manish Chandi, a human ecologist and former senior fellow with the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team, told Mongabay-India that the trade-offs being discussed for the projects are important to analyse.
“Deforestation will have many ramifications. Given the earthquakes and loose nascent soil of the island, the amount of erosion and runoff will be huge…so even the concept of replanting corals or what it is that they imagine or say they’ll do, which will not happen, has a huge cost on the surrounding reefs and marine life,” Chandi told Mongabay-India.
He emphasised that the turtles could be impacted by pollution from the terminal project, coastal surface runoff, ballasts from ships, physical collisions with ships, coastal construction and oil spills.
The question of what will happen to vulnerable tribals/indigenous communities also remains pertinent. During a meeting of the Expert Appraisal Committee held on May 24-25, 2022, “the EAC noted that the authorities have consented in principle that the project “will not disturb or displace any Shompen/Nicobari tribal or their habitation”, there will be “a clear demarcation of land so that there is no scope of conflict that would arise in future” and that habitat rights of the tribals will be taken care of as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006, as reported by Mongabay-India.
It was noted in the meeting that tribal groups that are particularly vulnerable will be eligible for compensation for the loss of habitat and there will be a welfare and development package for the Shompen tribe.
The experts, though, feel differently. “Indigenous peoples such as the Shompen and Nicobarese of Little and Great Nicobar have equivocally shunned the project in their areas as they have myriad needs which need to be looked after rather than being collateral damage overridden by bulldozers and trucks through the slush,” said Chandi.
Uday Mondal, a naturalist and citizen scientist, who has been documenting the flora and fauna of the islands for the last four years, said the GNI development project is the result of an unfortunate policy.
“Eminent anthropologists who have worked in the islands have objected to the EIA pointing out the ignored aspects of the sustenance of the Shompens and the Nicobarese. In the joint letter given by the anthropologists, it is clearly mentioned that some groups of Shompens live very close to the sites of development. We hope that this project will not be realised in any form because as much as the importance of this project is being highlighted, one thing is clear that it will result in the destruction of pristine forests and threaten the survival of indigenous communities,” Mondal told Mongabay-India.
Mondal’s hope that the project will not be realised has long been dashed. One can only hope that better sense will prevail and more such ‘development’ projects in ‘strategic’ locations will not be executed, much less proposed. After all, as someone once said, “When all the trees have been cut down and all the rivers have run dry, will you realise that you cannot eat money.”