The government of India is going all guns blazing on the “holistic development” of the Great Nicobar Island with a multi-component mega project. An international container trans-shipment terminal, a military-civil dual-use airport, a gas, diesel and solar-based power plant, and a township are all planned on this island that spreads over 1,044 square kilometres – an area smaller than the National Capital Territory of Delhi.

This proposed project is expected to lead to the cutting of over 852,000 trees and adversely impact avifauna, marine and terrestrial biodiversity including species such as the leatherback turtles, megapodes, corals, migratory birds and Nicobar crab-eating macaques. In addition, it is expected to impact the population of particularly vulnerable tribal groups on the island.

The push for this mega project, estimated to cost about Rs 75,000 crore, comes despite vociferous objection from environmental and wildlife experts and civil society organisations, who have highlighted many loopholes in the environmental impact assessment, or EIA, report of the project.

The Great Nicobar Island, which is the southernmost part of the Indian territory, is one of the most strategically important areas, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands region.

In fact, it is closer to Myanmar and Sumatra than to the Indian mainland, and, in 2013, it was included in Unesco’s biosphere programme. It is home to rich biodiversity and “an exceptional variety of wildlife”. According to the government, it has “one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world.”

The project was considered for environment clearance by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s expert appraisal committee, which deals with projects related to infrastructure development, during its meeting in May 2022. The committee did not recommend environment and coastal regulation zone, or CRZ, clearance for the project on account of additional information required to take a “well-informed decision”.

The project requires at least 166.1 square kilometres (16,610 hectares) of land including a forest area of 130.75 square kilometres for which forest clearance has been sought separately.

But civil society members that are expressing concern about the project, fear it is just a matter of time before it is granted all the required clearances, considering the push for the project from the highest echelons of the Indian government including Niti Aayog, the central think tank.

According to the minutes of the May 2022 meeting, the committee tried to allay fears about the impact of the project on biodiversity and the local community. For instance, it observed that “areas proposed for any activity other than defense in the western coast of the Great Nicobar Island especially the areas of Pemayya Bay, Casuarina Bay and Alexandria Bay which can be used by Leatherback and other sea turtles and Nicobar Megapods and even by crocodiles as alternative nesting sites” should be excluded from the total project area.

On RoW, or Right of Way, of 55 metres proposed for the road, the committee noted that it “appears to be very wide even as per the standards fixed for national highways and expressways” as per the guidelines of the union ministry of road transport and highways.

“RoW for the roads should be not more than 30 meters and remaining 25-meter width shall be excluded from the total project area and shall be kept as natural green belt on both sides of road without cutting any trees,” noted the committee.

It also held that the proposed golf course will not be permitted considering the strategic nature of the project and that it is an “extremely water-intensive activity” while calling it a “misfit”. The expert panel also called for exploring the creation of an independent channel for the possible unhindered movement of the turtles to and fro nesting ground and a natural forest corridor for animals to facilitate the movement of wildlife between forests and the sea shore so that the project does not stop the access of several endemic and endangered wild animals.

The panel also sought provisions in road design for canopy walks/bridges for the passage of snakes, crabs, crocodiles, and other amphibians/ reptiles.

Seismic zone, earthquake risk

In addition to concerns regarding the protection of wildlife and tribal people, experts have also highlighted that the project will irreversibly change the demography of the region and that it is being built in an active seismic zone.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands region comes under the high-risk seismic zone V category, the severest of them all. In 2004, the region was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 9.3 on the Richter Scale followed by a tsunami that led to major damage to many areas in the region.

A map of the Great Nicobar Island. Credit: Landbot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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”.

“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.

Andharia also highlighted that after the project. it is expected that 6,50,000 people will finally inhabit the island, a significant population addition given that the total population of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is currently less than 4,50,000 people, including only 8,500 on the Great Nicobar Island.

Poor trade-offs

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, said 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, oil spills, etc.

For the protection of marine biodiversity, the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee said the forest department of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in consultation with the Wildlife Institute of India, shall identify the areas in Pemayya Bay, Casuarina Bay and Alexandria Bay suitable for habitat and nesting ground of leatherback turtles, Nicobar megapode and saltwater crocodiles to ensure the continued nesting of these animals and birds in the Great Nicobar Islands.

It also sought detailed coral conservation and translocation plan, and a crocodile conservation plan. The panel further asked for the preparation of a detailed roadmap for monitoring the leatherback turtle movement in the Great Nicobar Island, their habitat restoration and nest protection measures for a minimum of 10 years. On such plans, Chandi said such “sops are without any clue on ground realities and use of those said regions.”

A photograph from March 2005, months after the tsunami, shows an aerial view of the damaged coast of Indira Point on the Great Nicobar Island. Credit: Reuters.

He explained that the committee has identified Menchal island as a conservation site for endangered Nicobar Megapodes even as it harbours not more than two pairs of Megapodes while the Galathea bay region which is to be consumed by the container terminal supports more than 20-30 pairs.

“Menchal is a coconut resource island managed by the Little Nicobarese. The EAC [expert appraisal committe] has further suggested declaring Meroe island for coral conservation. Little do they know that it is an ancient emergent sea mount which harbours a fair number of wild birds, bats and crocodiles and also million rats, given the extensive coconut plantation of the islanders of Kondul and Little Nicobar Islands. Both these Islands are resource catchments of the Little Nicobarese who have managed them much before the EAC looked at a map of the region and marked the two dots as sops in exchange for the huge pieces of forest water and the land they wish away to a coal storage and transhipment terminal,” said Chandi.

Vulnerable tribes

During the meeting, the committee 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 tribal will be taken care of as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

It was noted in the meeting that it has been assured that these particularly vulnerable tribal groups will be eligible for compensation for the loss of their habitat, if any, and that there will be a package for the welfare and development of Shompen while ensuring their unique identity, culture and heritage is protected. But the experts are not convinced.

“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 islands for the last four years, said the Great Nicobar Island development project is the result of an unfortunate policy.

“Eminent anthropologists who have worked in the islands have objected to the EIA [environmental impact assessment] 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.

He highlighted that after the 2004 tsunami, the Nicobarese of Old Chingen village, which is located right at the site of the port, were resettled very close to the Campbell Bay township where they are unable to practice their traditional way of life.

“The Nicobarese people have said that they want to go back to their ancestral land – their old Chingan village as soon as the road is built. This will no longer be possible if the terminal comes up. Ironically, the department that is supposed to protect the tribes in the ANI [Andaman and Nicobar Islands] administration has not only signed its approval for the project without adequate consultation with the tribes but emphatically stated that the department will seek exemptions from the existing provisions of regulations/policies/laws of the land’ for the execution of the project,” he said.

Rainfall over the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve. Credit: Prasun Goswami, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mondal said at a time when the rights of indigenous communities are being recognised and hailed all across the world, “we are continuing to ignore or even acknowledge their rights to their livelihood and to the island”.

“Moreover, after all the destruction, the financial viability of the project remains questionable as all the construction material will have to be shipped to this remote island and it will have to compete with already well-established ports,” Mondal noted.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.