In a set of developments that have unfolded with unprecedented speed and uncharacteristic coordination over the last three years, there has been a huge push for a mega development plan for Great Nicobar, the southernmost island in the Andaman and Nicobar group. The centrepiece of the plan, euphemistically labelled the “Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island”, is a Rs 40,000 crore transhipment port, with additional components being an international airport, a powerplant, and a greenfield township spread over more than 130 sq km of pristine forest. The ecologically rich island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The project seeks to increase the population of the island from the current 8,000 people to 3,50,000 (a 4,000 per cent increase) over the next 30 years and also envisages the cutting of nearly a million trees in a largely pristine and untouched rainforest ecosystem. Piloted by the NITI Aayog, the project is estimated to cost a whopping Rs 72,000 crore.

Flawed clearances

The process started in September 2020 with the NITI Aayog’s request for proposals (RFP) and the subsequent release in March 2021 of a 126-page pre-feasibility report (PFR) by international consultant AECOM India Pvt Ltd. Vimta Labs, based in Hyderabad, was contracted to prepare the environment impact assessment (EIA) report, the draft of which was released in December 2021, marking the completion of the first formal stage of the process.

The draft EIA report (not unexpectedly) had many problems, and researchers and NGOs from across the country raised nearly 400 concerns related to ecology, rights of the indigenous communities and the tectonic volatility and disaster vulnerability of the island. Not much of this was accounted for when environmental clearance was finally granted by the Environment Ministry in November 2022. A few weeks earlier, in October, the ministry also granted Stage-1 (in-principle) forest clearance to the project via a process marked by a complete lack of transparency and multiple violations of law and due process.

A similar lack of concern is visible in other aspects of the proposal, such as those related to the rights of the indigenous communities of the island via violations of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation (ANPATR), 1956, and the Forest Rights Act, and the deep disaster vulnerability of this island considering it stands on a major fault line.

The concerns with the environmental and forest clearances were taken to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which failed completely to understand the scale of what is at stake and what we seek to lose if the project is allowed to go through. The NGT did constitute a committee with a limited remit to look into some aspects of the project clearances. Unfortunately, and in violation of the principles of logic and natural justice, it was made up of members representing the very agencies and institutions that have pushed the project and granted the various permissions in the first place. The report of the committee is still awaited but nothing can really be expected from that.

In parallel developments, authorities announced that 10 “notable” agencies, including Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (APSEZ) Ltd, JSW Infra Ltd, Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd (RVNL), Container Corporation of India Ltd, and the Dutch dredging major Royal Boskalis Westminster, have submitted expressions of interest (EoIs) for the construction of the port.

A critical juncture

Concerns over the project, discussions in the media, and questions in Parliament have thrust the remote, little-known, and even less understood Great Nicobar Island into the national limelight like never before. The only other time it made it to the headlines in national papers and in primetime news was when it faced the unimaginable wrath of the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004.

It is not even two decades since and it can only be considered Great Nicobar’s great betrayal and huge misfortune that this pristine island, its invaluable biodiversity, its original human inhabitants, the thousands of crores of investment, and the more than 300,000 non-islanders who might eventually live here are deliberately and knowingly being put in harm’s way. There cannot be a folly more monumental than this.

One of the hopeful aspects of the entire saga is the dogged interest in and coverage of the project in the media. Thanks to this, there is a large body of writing that covers nearly all aspects – environmental and ecological, geological, rights of the local communities, as well as law and due process – of this disaster in the making.

The Great Nicobar Betrayal is a quickly put-together compilation of a selection of this writing. The pieces are carried as they were originally published with only minor editing interventions, some small changes to ensure consistency, and in some cases changes in the original titles for the purpose of brevity and design considerations.

Needless to say, a compilation such as this can never be a neat one and has its limitations. The hope, however, is that it will give the reader a quick but comprehensive enough picture of this disaster that is being perpetuated in Great Nicobar.

Excerpted with permission from The Great Nicobar Betrayal, edited by Pankaj Sekhsaria, Frontline.