With the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change clearing the decks for the Rs 72,000-crore mega project on Great Nicobar, experts and researchers have raised serious concerns about the future of indigenous communities on the island.

The island’s Shompen residents number a little more than 200 and the Nicobarese about 1,000. Together, they comprise about 15% of Great Nicobar’s population of a little more than 8,000. They were the only residents of Great Nicobar till the 1960s when settlers were brought in from mainland India.

The Shompen are listed by the government as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group”, characterised by a pre-agricultural level of technology, low levels of literacy and a declining or stagnant population.

Around 853 square km of Great Nicobar is designated as a tribal reserve under the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, 1956. This means that the land is meant for exclusive use of the community and others cannot access the area without express permission from the administration.

The Great Nicobar project, piloted by the government think tank Niti Aayog, involves the construction of a Rs 35,000-crore trans-shipment port, an international airport, a power plant, a township and tourism infrastructure spread over more than 160 square km of land, including 130 square km of primary forest. This includes 84 square km, or nearly 10%, of the tribal reserve area, which is now slated to be denotified as per the final environment impact assessment report that has been approved by the environment ministry.

The project seeks to increase the population of the ecologically-sensitive island from the current 8,000 to more than 3.5 lakh in the next three decades. This is an increase of over 4000%. It is only marginally less than the entire population of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which was 3.8 lakh as per the 2011 Census.

The mega project and the proposal to increase the island’s population amounts to “a planned destruction of the Adivasi culture and lives”, said Sharad Lele, senior researcher with the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment and a former member of the environment ministry and tribal ministry committee on the Forest Rights Act.

Added a senior researcher, who did not want to be identified, “These communities and their identities will be swamped out of existence by this huge influx.” The project, he said, would have an enormous cultural and social impact on the territory, in addition to an environmental one.

On October 27, the environment ministry granted in-principle or Stage 1 Forest Clearance for the project followed by the final environmental clearance on November 4.

Callous environmental clearance

Experts say that the environment impact assessment report, based on which final environmental clearance was granted, is replete with inaccuracies and inadequacies, in addition to reflecting a flawed understanding of the tribal communities.

This was emphasised in a submission in January by leading researchers, including PK Mishra, President, Indian Anthropological Association, and linguist Anvita Abbi.

The submission was in response to the draft environment impact assessment report for the project prepared by Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs. The researchers raised several concerns such as the degradation of forest resources needed by the Shompen, fear of exposure to diseases and alien cultures by an influx of outsiders. This would undermine their “place identity” and “place attachment” and result in them losing their “pharmacological, ethnobiological and religious heritage”.

However, the final environment impact assessment for the project released in March only pays lip service to these concerns. It also contains factual errors.

For instance, the area of the tribal reserve has been recorded as 751 square km, whereas the island administration itself in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court in 2018 states the area is 853 square km.

The report has differing population numbers for the tribal communities and even the name of the community is spelt incorrectly in 40 instances across the document: “Nicobaries” instead of Nicobarese.

It also erroneously mentions that the “Nicobarese are headed by a chief called ‘Rani’ or ‘queen’”. In fact, this describes the Nancowry group of islands and has nothing to do with the Great Nicobar community.

Legal violations

Retired Union finance secretary EAS Sarma has raised questions about the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes being bypassed when clearance was granted for the Great Nicobar project.

In a letter to Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav dated November 15, Sarma said the Centre and the states are obliged to consult the commission on matters related to scheduled tribes.

Coimbatore-based tribal rights researcher and activist CR Bijoy contended that according to the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the Shompen are the sole legally-empowered authority to protect, preserve, regulate and manage the tribal reserve.

“What we are seeing in Great Nicobar is a blatant violation of the rights of the tribals,” said Bijoy.

He said that the project also violates the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The act recognises atrocities as interference with rights, including over forest, land and water, in addition to the wrongful occupation and dispossession of land and obstruction of rights to common property.

Lele of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment said the law vests rights with forest-dwellers.

“What makes the violations here even worse is that these forests are particularly pristine,” said Lele. “PVTGs [particularly vulnerable tribal groups] like the Shompen have (or should certainly have) even stronger rights under the FRA [Forest Rights Act].”

Passing the buck

But government agencies have passed the buck on protecting the rights of the indigenous communities.

For instance, a letter in August 2021 by the Andaman and Nicobar Administration’s Directorate of Tribal Welfare to the project proponent, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Industrial Development Corporation, states that the rights of indigenous communities will be protected. But it adds that the directorate will seek required exemptions from the competent authority “whenever any exemptions” are needed “for the execution of the project”.

The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Niti Aayog have responded in similar fashion. In response to a right to information application seeking details on tribal issues on Great Nicobar, the tribal ministry’s Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups division on November 7 said it had no information. It passed the query on to Niti Aayog and the home ministry.

On November 11, Niti Aayog sent the query back to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs with a one-line response: “It is to state that since the RTI applicant requested the information available with MoTA [Ministry of Tribal Affairs], the application is being sent back to MoTA for further necessary action.”

On November 18, the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups division reiterated that it had no information and sent the query to the Ministry of Home Affairs “for providing information to the applicant directly”.

Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He is also author of five books on the islands.

Also read: Despite red flags, mega project on ecologically-sensitive Great Nicobar island gets green signal