In today’s Finshots, we explain why a massive development plan in the Andaman and Nicobar Island region has created a furore.

The Story

Last November, a colossal ₹72,000 crore development project on the Great Nicobar Island got the green signal. A massive port, a swanky airport, a renewable energy power plant, and a lavish township were part of the plan.

But last week, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) hit the pause button on the project. They’d got complaints saying that the environmental clearances were rushed through. So the tribunal took a look and found some glaring issues — for instance, the impact assessment report only considered 1 season for its research while the regulations mandate a 3 season study.

Now before we get into the criticism of the project, let’s start with why the government wanted to develop this region in the first place.

Firstly, there’s the strategic aspect of national security. See, the report says a ‘foreign power’ has been building its presence around the Indian peninsula. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that it’s referring to China. Our neighbour has consistently been setting up operations in the region. And it doesn’t all seem to be for trade purposes. For instance, it set up a port in Djibouti and began converting it covertly into a naval base. It has friendly ties with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and has been involved in setting up ports there too. And all this is concerning for India. Having our own strong naval presence in the Great Nicobar Islands could be a deterrent to any other ulterior motives that China might have.

Secondly, there are economic benefits. See, about 50% of global container traffic and 70% of the world’s oil trade passes through the seaways of the Indian Ocean. And the southern tip of the Great Nicobar Island which is called Indira Point is right in the midst of this action. It’s just 150km from Indonesia actually. A hop, skip and jump away really. Not to forget the close proximity to other countries such as Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand too. A presence of a trading port here could mean we get a nice chunk of trade that passes through as well.

And thirdly, there’s the tourism angle. The virgin beaches, evergreen rainforests, and scenic hills are the stuff of dreams. But since the island isn’t developed yet, there really isn’t any tourism to speak of. The new airport would change that. And the expectation is that tourism alone could generate revenues of over ₹4,700 crores annually by 2052. That’s when the project will be up and running in full swing. Not to forget the lakhs of jobs this would create for people in the region and outside.

So yeah, put all this together and you can see why the government has been pushing quickly for the project to be set up.

But wait…what about the environment, you ask? Because the Great Nicobar Island is a biosphere reserve. It’s a protected space.

Well, that’s where things begin to look ugly.

For starters, the sensitive project will clear over 8.5 lakh trees in this ecological hotspot. Sure, there will be compensatory afforestation to make up for it. But that’ll happen in Haryana (don’t ask why). What’s lost here is lost — tropical forests and mangroves. The homes of rare and endemic creatures such as the Nicobar tree shrew, the Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, and the Nicobar megapode will be threatened. Yeah, the addition of the word ‘Nicobar’ in their names speaks for itself. In fact, over 50% of butterflies, 40% of birds and 60% of mammals found here are endemic — found only in this region. Forests in Haryana aren’t going to protect them.

And to push this project through, the government apparently simply decided that the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary would be denotified. That the sanctuary didn’t really matter for conservation anymore and could be used for port activities. Now this is a problem for the vulnerable Leatherback Turtle. The port activity will be right on the nesting sites and it could mean that its very future is in peril.

Then there’s the effect on the indigenous tribe — the Shompen and the Nicobarese. These communities have been around for thousands and thousands of years. They depend on the bounties of the forests, marshes, and rivers for their needs. That’s what gives them food and nourishes them. They hold a deep connection with the land. But development projects such as these can destroy life as they know it. They’ll be forced to relocate and start afresh in a new area. Their life will be compromised.

And we just have to look a little north towards the Andaman Islands to see the impact of development on the tribal communities — the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese. Communities who lived there for tens of thousands of years.

Even 150 years ago, these tribes numbered over 5,000 people. And while the population in the islands rose, it was mainly made up of settlers from mainland India. The tribal communities make up just 500 people now.

It’s no wonder then that the Tribal Council of Little and Great Nicobar, a local unit that has elected representatives by village heads, apparently also withdrew their consent for the development plan. They fear they’re losing their rights over their lands.

Sure, you could ignore all this and still say — but we need development.

However, here’s another problem. The islands lie along a seismic fault line. This means that the area is prone to earthquakes. In fact, 444 earthquakes rocked the region in the past 10 years. And as per Janki Andharia, Professor at the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies, the Environmental Impact Assessment Report didn’t even talk about this issue.

Imagine spending a whopping ₹72,000 crore in an area that’s already sensitive to nature’s vagaries. It could make the area more volatile. And it could even destroy what is being built quite quickly.

So yeah, you can see why the plan for the Holistic Development of the Great Nicobar Islands has run into some hurdles. And there’s no easy answer to this environment versus development debate either. Even weighing the positives and negatives is hard — how do you decide if disrupting the lives of the indigenous community and the fauna is okay for gaining a military advantage in the area and protecting the mainland?

We just hope that the project isn’t bulldozed through. And that people’s concerns are taken into account and addressed sufficiently. That’s the least the government can do.

Until then…

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