VIBHAV PERI | MAY 14TH, 2021 | ENVIRONMENTAL CRISES
In mid-2020, the NITI Aayog announced a plan to ‘develop’ the Great Nicobar Island by constructing a port, an airport, a warehouse, and a mass-rapid transportation system that was directly parallel to the coast.
Another plan was made later, which declared that the Little Andaman Island would be made into a ‘Sustainable Megacity‘. It involved the construction of a financial district, environmental zone, and a tourism district.
This project is supposed to take upto 244 square kilometres. This area takes up about 18% of the Island’s total area which is about 910 square kilometres. Most of the identified area is evergreen forest and marine habitats, which made concerns arise among ecologists, environmentalists, and climate justice groups.
The project, as mentioned above, would include an Airport Complex which would take up about 22 square kilometres, a transshipment port at the South Bay, a mass-rapid transportation system which would be parallel to the coast, and a free-trade-zone and warehouse on the south-western coast. The cost of the entire project was estimated to be Rs. 75,000 crore.
On its meeting on January 5th, the Standing Committee of the NBWL (National Board for Wildlife) denotified the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to allow for the construction of the port. Conservationists expressed concerns and anger over the loss of the nesting sites of the Leatherback Turtles. The Turtles nest in the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary every year.
This was despite the fact that the National Marine Turtle Action Plan, which was released on February 1, 2021, had listed Galathea Bay as one of India’s few ‘Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas’ and ‘Important Marine Turtle Habitats’.
On January 18th, another Environmental Ministry committee approved a ‘zero extent’ ESZ (an Ecologically Sensitive Zone which is in effect non-existent) for the Galeatha Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to allow use of its land in parts of the island for the NITI Aayog Plan.
The October 2020 draft notification for this zero extent ESZ had ironically listed out in great detail the park’s ecological uniqueness – that it is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, houses a range of forest types, has one of the best preserved tropical rainforests in the world, is home to 648 species of flora and hosts 330 species of fauna including rare and endemic ones such as the Nicobar wild pig, Nicobar tree shrew, the Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, Nicobar paradise flycatcher and the Nicobar megapode. It also notes that the park is home to the indigenous Shompen community.
Pankaj Sekhsaria, on The Hindu
Despite the biodiversity of these pristine forests and coastal zones which host a wide array of wildlife and showcase astounding biodiversity, the committee wrote that more than 70% of the National Park would have a zero extent ESZ around it.
Conservationists and ecologists are most concerned over the two species that virtually represent the biodiversity of the Great Nicobar- the Leatherback Turtle, the largest living turtle species in the world, and the Nicobar Megapode, also known as the Nicobar Scrubfowl, famous for its unique behaviour of constructing a mound of decomposing matter around its eggs to incubate them rather than the traditional method of incubating them through the warmth of its feathers.
The Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun said in 2006 that more than 70% of Nicobar Megapodes have disappeared in the last 12 years. Both the Nicobar Megapode and the Leatherback Turtle are listed as ‘vulnerable‘ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
A native tribe to the Great Nicobar, the Shompen tribe, would be greatly affected by the project. Even after the development of the island, the remaining forest areas, which are likely to become nature retreats for tourists, would become useless for the tribes.
The Official Shompen Policy of 2015 stated that their welfare should be a top priority during the construction of any large scale projects. However, neither the MoEFCC nor the NITI Aayog have bothered much to look into the concerns and issues raised regarding the project, which show that the project is a major threat to the tribals.
This project is outlined on a document with the title ‘Transforming the Island through Creativity and Innovation’. The document features a full-page images which have been plagiarised from the web almost every alternate page, maps which are hazy, unclear, with no legends and explanations. This document provides a basic blueprint for Little Andaman Island, but it is mentioned in several parts of the document that this model of ‘development’ might be employed across the Andaman & Nicobar as well as the Lakshwadeep Islands, which has raised an alarm among conservationists and ecologists.
This project has been divided into 3 zones:
The document notes that there are certain factors ‘which are stopping us from developing these into veritable jewels for the country’. These include the fragile biodiversity and b of the island, the tribals which inhabit the island, Supreme Court notifications which are a ‘hindrance’ to development, and the lack of proper transport and communication services on the island.
Ecologists were alarmed over the fact that fragile biodiversity and ecosystems were viewed as a hindrance to development, and became worried that this could mean the large scale destruction of ecologically significant biodiversity hotspots.
Some features which have been proposed in the plan, which include the following.:
The document notes that the islands do not have much area which is suitable for agriculture and cultivation of any kind. Nonetheless, it states that ‘However, the islands have the potential for high-value crops such as spices, fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants, oriculture etc.’ It states that organic farming would be encouraged and that irrigation would be done through rainwater harvesting and the employment of soil moisture conservation measures.
The document states that Polymetallic nodules which are found deep in the ocean contain valuable metals which are in high demand throughout the country
Conservationists are worried over this proposal, for deep sea mining ruins marine habitats and fragile ecosystems present deep in the sea.
It is even more concerning due to the fact that this measure might be employed across the Andaman and Nicobar as well as the Lakshwadeep Islands, for the document states that ‘Both Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Lakshadweep can provide suitable platforms to facilitate deep sea mining thereby providing employment to the islanders.’
Apart from the trading systems, warehouse, and port at the Great Nicobar, the document also proposes maritime trading infrastructure in Minicoy Island in the Lakshwadeeps, as well as across the other islands in the Andaman & Nicobar and the Lakshwadeep.
The project proposes plans to increase the employment rate of the islands and create new jobs, through a table. The document highlights a focus on Long and Smith & Ross Island as they did not match up to the employment rate in the rest of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. A screenshot of the provided table is shown below.
The document notes that 95% of the Little Andaman Island is covered in forests. The proposed project, however, would need at least 35% of the land on the Island for implementation. It proposed a solution which alarmed conservationists, ecologists, and environmentalists.
The document states that a solution would be to de-reserve 32% of the Reserve Forest and 31% of the Tribal Reserve. It also states that if the tribals become a hurdle, they could be relocated to other parts of the island.
Tribal relocation, ecologists and anthropologists pointed out, is a very difficult process, since most tribes in the islands are not very technologically advanced, and thus would suffer due to the relocation.