The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are often pictured as a lush, tropical tourist paradise. But recent government moves may strip the protections that the ecologically and ethnically significant archipelago enjoys, in order to make way for big business, shipping and tourism projects, documents accessed by IndiaSpend show.

Through a series of de-notifications, amendments, special committee meetings and correspondence with other states – many hidden from public view – the forests, tribal reserves and coastal areas of the islands are being prepped for mega projects.

With the new projects that have been proposed, the government claims it will bring growth and employment to the islands. But it disregards the reasons why these islands have been shielded from projects like these so far: they have some of India’s largest mangroves, a natural defence against extreme events such as cyclones and key to climate change mitigation and adaptation in coastal areas.

Over half the species of butterflies, 40% of birds and 60% of mammals found here are endemic. And, the islands are home to particularly vulnerable tribal groups such as the Great Andamanese, Jarawas, Onges, Sentinelese and Shompen that live off forest resources. These communities are vulnerable because their numbers are either stagnant or declining, and their members are economically backward and have low levels of literacy.

Further, the plans will cause irreversible damage to the unique biodiversity and fragile ecosystems, with little hope for the islanders to benefit from the development plans.

Loss of protection

Information has emerged about the following administrative moves that threaten the fragile areas of Little Andaman and Great Nicobar, two of the 836 islands or rocky outcrops that comprise the Union Territory:

  1. In September 2020, in response to a call from the UT administration, Madhya Pradesh offered to carry out afforestation in its jurisdiction in lieu of forest land diverted from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
  2. On January 1, the Island Coastal Regulation Zone of the Great Nicobar island was reduced –construction work that was barred within 200 metres of the island coast can now be carried out past 100 metres.
  3. On January 18, the expert panel of the environment ministry notified buffer zones of 0-1 km width around Campbell Bay and Galathea Bay National Park in the Great Nicobar. The buffer zones around Galathea Bay National Park and Campbell Bay National Park got notified on March 12.
  4. On January 25, the UT government of Andaman and Nicobar de-notified 11.44 sq km of Galathea Bay Sanctuary in the Great Nicobar.
  5. On February 4, a special committee meeting was held to decide the extent of de-notification of the Onge tribal reserve in the Little Andaman Island.

The region has the highest number of protected areas, pointed out Harikrishnan Surendran, a herpetologist – an expert on reptiles and amphibians – at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. “We found new species in our field research in the region,” he said. “Further explorations will reveal even more new species. Losing this area to development will be a big blow.”

“These plans will only push the islanders to compete with large infrastructure and development projects, jostle for space to be heard and scramble for basic amenities like water and electricity that are already scarce or in disarray in the UT,” said senior ecologist Manish Chandi, a former senior fellow with the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team, a research body focused on the conservation of the islands’ socio-ecological systems.

Some of the islanders we interviewed believed that the projects could bring prosperity to the region but others alleged that they are designed to benefit outsiders.

“Locals do not have the skill and capacity,” said Maung San Tun, a local entrepreneur and a resident of Little Andaman. “They cannot invest at the scale required to benefit off these huge plans. These plans will only help people from the mainland. Islanders will not gain much.”

We wrote to DK Joshi, the Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar UT, for his views on these proposals but have not heard from him as yet. We will update the story if and when we get a response.

The Andaman forests are recognised as a distinct eco-region in the World Wide Fund for Nature global list with high endemism. Ecologically and ethnically fragile pockets of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are being gradually stripped of protection for commercial interests. Photo credit: Harikrishnan Surendran

‘Vision’ for archipelago

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are at extreme risk of becoming uninhabitable because of rising sea levels. “Many low-lying cities and small islands at most latitudes will experience such [extreme sea level] events annually by 2050,” said the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The islands fall in the seismically active Alpine-Himalayan belt and are categorised under zone V, most prone to earthquakes.

Despite these factors, NITI Aayog, the Centre’s policy think-tank, has been planning the development of the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands since 2016 when it published a paper, An Approach Paper on Prospects of Island Development – Options for India.

Pankaj Sekhsaria, who has written extensively on the island, noted in 2017 that the proposed plan included rail construction, a port, a petrochemical complex, special economic zones and tourism projects. These measures “ignored the historical, social, ecological and legal context of the unique island systems”, he said.

The 2016 plan placed Little Andaman at its centre and proposed the development of an “integrated tourism complex”, an international airport and a new harbour at Dugong creek. In June 2017, the government formed an Island Development Agency to oversee the progress on the plan. Since then, the development focus has been swinging back and forth between Little Andaman and Great Nicobar islands and other islands of the UT.

In 2018, NITI Aayog prepared a preliminary report on the “holistic development” of the islands for potential investors focusing on the development of tourism in other islands. It stated that to facilitate investments, all clearances, including environmental and coastal permissions, would be obtained “upfront” before the bidding.

By 2018, four of the tourism projects planned in Smith, Long, Shaheed Dweep and Aves islands were already being considered by the central expert panel for clearance under the Island Coastal Regulation Zone Notification.

In May 2019, NITI Aayog released a report titled Transforming the Islands Through Creativity & Innovation. It added Little Andaman and Great Nicobar for its size and “strategic location” for further “sustainable development”. It commissioned studies on land use, land reclamation and use of water resources in the two islands. It also constituted a committee for recommending a “road map for harnessing the development potential” of the two islands.

However, the outcomes of these studies or the committee’s recommendations were not put in the public domain. Since the appearance of this 2019 report, only sketchy and fragmented information is available on the development of the two islands.

“I filed a Right to Information Application with the NITI Aayog seeking details of the development plan for Great Nicobar Island. But I was denied the information,” said Tarun Karthick, founder and editor of an online news portal Nicobar Times, and a resident of the Great Nicobar Island.

Laws changed

In the fifth meeting of the Island Development Agency held in February 2019, the UT administration said it could not divert forestland since there was no degraded forest on which to carry out compensatory afforestation as required under the Forest Conservation Act 1980.

Following this, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued an order allowing states and UTs with over 75% of their land under forest cover to carry out compensatory afforestation in other states or UTs which have degraded forest land or land banks. The government of Madhya Pradesh offered to carry out afforestation on 650 sq km of its degraded forest land to enable forest land diversions in the UT.

An aerial view of Boat Island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Photo credit: Hari Kumar/AFP

In March 2019, a new Island Coastal Regulation Zone Notification was promulgated. With this, tourism development could be taken closer to the sea than allowed under the 2011 notification. Land reclamation for ports, harbours and jetties was also permitted. This paved the way for the luxury tourism on Smith, Aves and Long Islands and water aerodromes in Neil, Havelock and other islands of the Union Territory.

Around the same time, Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands Industrial Development Scheme was promulgated for the promotion of the “information technology-based and other Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises”. However, the locals in Andaman and Nicobar Islands have not gained much, we found. All the tourism projects that were initiated in the four islands were to be developed by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited, a government undertaking created for the development and commercial use of natural resources in the islands.

“We, local businessmen, are often barred from carrying out economic activities, sometimes the tribal reserve is the reason, sometimes the diversion of forestland is not possible and sometimes we are stopped due to the Island Coastal Regulation Zone restriction,” said entrepreneur Maung San Tun. “Almost all local development projects are given to Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited. Even the laws are moulded to its favour.”

In 2019, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited invited requests for developing tourism projects. However, the deadlines for inviting bids for tourism projects in Smith, Long, Shaheed Dweep and Aves Islands kept getting extended due to lack of interest from bidders. Among other issues, the fact that the projects would need almost everything–from employees to construction material and freshwater from outside – made potential bidders apprehensive.

“In Port Blair we get water once in three days,” said a resident of Port Blair who did not wish to be named. “As summer approaches, the water supply will be just once a week.”

“All essential supplies in the region come from the mainland. One episode of bad weather can cut the supplies here for days,” said IISc’s Surendran.

Through 2020, the focus switched to the development of a trans-shipment port, and additionally, a strategic defence project and an airport in the Great Nicobar Island and a commercial-cum-tourist hub that will include an international airport, a film city, a casino and luxury tourism projects in Little Andaman. In September 2020, NITI Aayog invited proposals for a master plan for the “holistic development” of Great Nicobar island, showed documents accessed by IndiaSpend.

Diminishing protections

In October 2020, the draft notification for demarcating an ecologically sensitive zone, which would act as a buffer around the Galathea National Park, was published. It proposed an ecologically sensitive zone of 0 to 1 km. The same was recommended by the ministry’s expert panel on January 18, 2020. The same buffer zone around Galathea Bay National Park Park got notified on March 12.

On January 1, the environment ministry amended the Island Coastal Regulation Zone Notification 2019, to move Great Nicobar from Group I of islands with a 200-metre buffer from the high-tide line to Group II with 100 metres’ buffer.

On January 5, the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife recommended the de-notification of the Galathea Bay Sanctuary, as we said earlier. Since the UT administration had only expressed an intent to notify the sanctuary and actual notification was pending for “settlement of forest rights” in the area, the sanctuary never got notified. On January 25 this year, the UT administration of Andaman and Nicobar Islands retracted its intention to notify 11.25 sq km of the sanctuary.

On February 4, the directorate of tribal welfare of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands UT organised a meeting to finalise the extent of de-notification of the Onge Tribal Reserve in Little Andaman.

It was attended by the deputy commissioner of South Andaman, the secretary of shipping and revenue departments of the UT, the managing director of Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited, the superintendent anthropologist of the Anthropological Survey of India and the joint secretary of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, according to the meeting notice accessed by IndiaSpend. The outcome of the meeting is yet to be made public.

Havelock island in Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. Photo credit: Yogini Patil/Wikimedia Commons

‘Irreversible damage’

Great Nicobar

Great Nicobar, the southernmost island of the Nicobar Islands Archipelago, is spread over a little more than 1,000 sq km. There are 650 species of flora and 1,800 species of fauna to be found in the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve, many of which are endemic to the region, according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The island is an important nesting ground for giant leatherback sea turtles.

Besides, the islands are highly vulnerable to submergence due to sea-level rise, floods and cyclones. In the tsunami of 2004, the Nicobar islands lost 90% of their mangrove cover and the inter-island passenger jetty at Campbell bay in Great Nicobar had completely collapsed. The development of a trans-shipment port and ancillary activities near the coast could add to the vulnerability.

“The port is being touted as a big employment-generating opportunity. But we need to look at the process too,” said Chandi. “The project will destroy the biodiversity of the islands, their swamps and forests and the myriad species and also interior-dwelling Shompen tribes that use this habitat for centuries.”

Little Andaman

As for the Little Andaman Island, South Andaman, which it is a part of, has 60% of its coastline at high to moderate risk of cyclone-induced floods. Up to 2.58 hectare of the forests in Little Andaman were lost and the approach jetty at Hut Bay was breached in the tsunami of 2004.

Moreover, the Andaman forests are recognised as a distinct eco-region in the WWF global list with high endemism. The 732.8 sq km of the Little Andaman Island at the southernmost tip of the South Andaman district is home to the Onge tribe. Over 70% area of the island is protected as Onge Tribal Reserve under the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation 1956. Nearly 90% of the island is categorised as Reserve Forest under the Indian Forest Act 1920. The development plan proposes to de-reserve part of the reserve forest too despite the fact that local dependence on forests is high.

PK Paul, the Divisional Forest Officer, in his response to the proposal for diversion of over 7,000 hectares of forests for the first phase of the project in September 2020, stated that the region is an internationally acknowledged biodiversity hotspot.

“Such large diversion of forest land shall have obvious environmental loss leading to irreversible damage and will also act adversely on mitigation of impact of climate change,” noted Paul in his response accessed by IndiaSpend. We tried reaching out to Paul for his further comments but he refused.

A new trans-shipment port in Great Nicobar will help the locals, who will get jobs, say proponents of ongoing "development" projects in the lush, tropical Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But critics question this logic. Photo credit: Harikrishnan Surendran/ IndiaSpend

Unrealistic expectations

NITI Aayog’s reports and papers have claimed that development will augment economic growth in the islands, bring jobs and benefit islanders. But there are mixed views on this.

“Development of the trans-shipment port in Great Nicobar will help the locals. They will get jobs,” said Karthick. To protect the sea turtles from the effects of the de-notification of the sanctuary, the beach area where they come to nest will need to be kept outside the plan, he suggested.

But Chandi is sceptical the planned development works will actually deliver growth in the area. “The region needs connectivity, electricity and better water supply,” Chandi said. “We are not ensuring these for the islanders. But planning a humongous project with a dubious future given that Malacca strait, where Great Nicobar is located is definitely strategic, but it comes with various liabilities, is a grave mistake. Everything to make the port functional will have to be imported, including allied repairs and maintenance.”

Development plans for the islands need to be designed keeping its vulnerabilities in mind, said the Port Blair resident who preferred to be anonymous. “Locals need basic amenities and small, sustainable eco-tourism projects which give them livelihoods, not mega plans involving huge ecological and cultural change,” the resident said.

The agenda note on de-notification of 7.73 sq km of the Onge tribal reserve in Little Andaman accessed by IndiaSpend stated that “in lieu of” de-notified area an equal area “can be considered for re-notification” from the land on the eastern coast of Little Andaman which was de-notified in 1972.

“The entire island belonged to the Onge community,” said Sanjay Balan, an ex-bureaucrat settled in Port Blair. “In the 1970s, revenue land was carved out of the Tribal Reserve and the reserve forest. Re-notification will be difficult as the population and demands have increased in the region.”

He has been the tahsildar of Little Andaman Island and assistant commissioner in Great Nicobar. “Little Andaman only has a thin strip of revenue land that borders the reserve forest,” he said. “There are forest-revenue disputes on that too. Some judicial pronouncements have also further limited the already meagre availability of land for any purpose.”

We wrote to R Jaya, joint secretary at the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and A Anil Kumar, director, Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, seeking their views on the de-notification of the tribal reserve and if there were any plans for compensatory re-notification elsewhere. Anil Kumar forwarded the queries to Manoj Bapna, director, Forest Rights Act. We will update this story if and when we hear from him.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.