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A Death Sentence To ‘Shompens’

The Great Nicobar Project

Sumit Mukherjee

Great Nicobar, the largest island in Nicobar archipelago, spanning 910 sq km, has become a focal point of contention and opposition since India’s planning commission, ‘NITI Aayog’, proposed a major development project for the island during the peak of the pandemic in 2020. This initiative has sparked widespread protests and criticism, particularly concerning the formulation, evaluation, and approval of a large-scale infrastructure and tourism endeavour that would encroach upon 166 sq km of the ancestral lands of the indigenous Shompens and Nicobarase tribes bypassing all of their rights thereof. The extreme vulnerability of the Island revolves around its dual identity: a haven for rich biodiversity and indigenous communities, yet strategically positioned on the international sea route in the southern Bay of Bengal with respect to Indian polity.

It’s practically a choice between some 250 Shompen and 1000 Nicobarese Indigenous souls striving after the 2004 Tsunami havoc and Rs 75,000 crore ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island in Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ project by the Government of India. Soon 8.5 lakh trees from 15 percent or 130 sq km of the prime evergreen tropical forest including 650 and 330 species of terrestrial and marine flora and fauna with several endemics like Nicobar Shrew, Nicobar Megapode, etc, and also 12 to 20 hectares of mangrove cover will be replaced by an international Cargo Terminal, a 22 sq km green field airport, gas and solar power plants and two mega coastal cities connected by a long express highway along the east coast.

Historically, the Great Nicobar Island was the land of the Shompen and Nicobarese Tribes. Around 853 square km of Great Nicobar was 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.

Colonization of mainlanders began in 1969 by the Government of India with 337 ex-serviceman families were settled on the south-eastern coast of Great Nicobar Island de-reserving 45.30 sq km from tribal reserve within the reserve forest area. There are 72 villages as per the Census records of 2011 out of which only 30 are inhabited and 42 uninhabited after the tsunami havoc in 2004. The island is entirely rural having a total population of 8046, of which 1214 (14.50%) are Scheduled Tribe people. There are two national parks and one wildlife sanctuary which are declared as Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2013. Hence any encroachment in protected forests and disturbing the rights of the indigenous people are hugely contradictory within the different institutions of the same government.

These two tribal communities have around 250 and 1000 souls striving after the 2004 tsunami havoc on the island and the nomadic Shompens are declared as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) in constitutional parlance. They are shy, non-violent, gatherer hunter people living in small bands depending fully on nature excepting in a few cases, accepting limited free ration items. The language of the Sentinel is only understood by the neighbouring coast dweller Nicobarese with whom the former exchange resources. Excepting a few instances of orchard plantation they are forager in the forest and hence need a large resource zone to migrate as per the availability of food. It is feared that any contact with the outsiders may prove fatal to this isolated small population from the present-day disease pathogens and modern culture, as experienced in case of the Great Andamanese and the Onge in other parts of the archipelago.

On the other hand coast dweller Nicobarese people have lost most of their coconut plantation, coral reef fishing, and piggeries after Tsunami 2004 and are now in the process of reviving and rebuilding their traditional economy and society. A good number of villagers are waiting to return to their old villages or resettlement sites in the coastal zone.

In fact, there will be some 650 thousand non-local people who will inhabit the island by 2050 as per NITI Aayog plan estimates causing an increase of 76 times from the present. Being located in an active plate-tectonic zone, acute scarcity of fresh water, and limited green power options the very sustainability of the project is under deep doubt.

Wherever and whenever the project confronted so far with any such existing acts, rules, notifications, like Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation 1956, Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (RoFR) Act, 2006, and the Shompen Policy 2015 be implemented in letter and spirit, Coastal Regulation Zone 1991, Biosphere Reserve scheme 1986, India’s National Marine Turtle Action Plan 2021 on Galathea Bay, etc the NITI Aayog deployed measures like de-notification, deregulation, de-reservation, diversion, etc strategies to let the project launch at any cost.

The whole of Galathia Wildlife Sanctuary, a nesting ground for the highly endangered Giant Leatherback Turtle and Megapode bird, has been denotified and will be converted to the international transshipment terminal and the international green field airport during the first phase of the project already in progress. An additional 4.21 sq km of land is to be acquired for the port and airport. The 12 km wide buffer zone of the Galathia National Park has been de-notified. Thus the forest habitat of the Shompens i.e. the core area of the Biosphere will be in direct contact with the project area with obvious long-term detrimental impacts. Further about 71 sq km of the Biosphere Reserve area will be scooped out in the north-eastern part of the project. The traditional tribal land of 12 Nicobarese villages along the southeast and southwest coasts is also being denotified and grabbed by the project authority. In fact, it was a long brewed plan implemented in a hurry to deprive them of their thousand-year-old dwelling lands taking advantage of the tsunami rehabilitation programme.

Experts also wonder how the 130 sq km of virgin tropical evergreen forest will be relocated in mainland India as promised in the EIA report. Neither there is any contiguous land available there nor can the artificial plantation replicate the same biodiversity ecosystem elsewhere.

Last hope in despair: the National Green Tribunal (NGT), India’s apex green court, has ruled that it would not “interfere” with the forest and environment clearances flouting all norms through the recommendation of a High Power Committee formed only with the GoI’s ‘own’ experts (Hindustan Times: April 14, 2023).

Serious criticisms and protests poured in from several social scientists, environmental activists, bureaucrats, local tribal groups, etc and even from other government institutions against the procedural lapses, hazy reports, suggested compensatory measures, and critical fallout on the tribal communities.

Prof P K Mishra, President, of the Indian Anthropological Association, has pointed out that the Environmental Impact Assessment Report, prepared by Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs, is full of inaccuracies and inadequacies along with faulty understanding of the tribal societies. The United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has pointed out the project will have a direct impact on Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onges, the Shompens, and the Sentinelese (PVTGs) and sought answers from the Government of India on the steps being taken to protect them and the compliance with the existing laws and policies to protect these groups (Frontline: July 22, 2022).

Prof Pankaj Sekhsaria, who has been researching and writing on issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades, quoted Prof Janki Andharia of TISS, Mumbai warning “The meaning of ‘making a structure earthquake proof’[as in EIA report] needs to be revisited in this context. This cannot be the same as waterproofing a house because a post-facto disaster response plan will not prevent a disaster from happening in the first place.”(Frontline: Jan 12, 2023). Prof Sharad Lele, a former member of the environment ministry and tribal ministry committee on the Forest Rights Act feared the mega project and the proposal to increase the island’s population amounts to “a planned destruction of the Adivasi culture and lives”.

A group of 70 former civil servants wrote to the President of India mentioning the project was highly detrimental to the foraging tribes and would virtually destroy the delicate ecosystem and vulnerable people (Scroll: May 02, 2023). In a letter dated November 15, 2023, to Bhupender Yadav, holding MOEFCC, Sri E A S Sarma, former Secretary to the Government of India, questioned the granting of clearances for the project without consulting the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (Frontline: July 22, 2022). An open letter seeking immediate withdrawal of the project is placed before the President of India by 39 scholars from 13 countries saying “If the project goes ahead, even in a limited form, we believe it will be a death sentence for the Shompen, tantamount to the international crime of genocide.” (The Guardian: Feb. 07, 2024)

The Tribal Council of Little and Great Nicobar Islands withdrew NOC in November 2022, which was given in August 2022 for the diversion of forest land, half of which is a tribal reserve. The Council members apprised EAC that they were not informed that their tribal areas (including specific pre-Tsunami villages) would be de-notified and that the transshipment port and township accommodation for non-islanders, built on areas where their traditional settlements used to be. They were also not told that “the forests and foreshore reefs in that area will be destroyed and sea will be reclaimed.”

The Tribal Council Chairman Mr Barnabas Manju expressed their serious concerns, “We are originally completely dependent on forests and would want to go back to foraging and tending to plantations in our land. Most importantly, losing access to our lands will be very damaging for our future generations and our Shompen brothers. We are not against development projects but we want complete access and ownership to our lands as it is, in a forested condition.”(Hindustan Times, 14 April 2023)

Despite huge criticisms and protests by environmentalists, anthropologists, bureaucrats and academicians from world Andaman Nicobar Integrated Island Development Corporation—ANIIDCO, the nodal agency of the project had decided to go ahead with the Terms of Reference (TOR) for Environmental Impact Assessment Studies last year. All those calls for caution have gone unheeded and the first phase of the project has been launched despite the damage it will cause to these defenceless tribal people. On the contrary, all non-islanders were denied entry to Great Nicobar Island by ‘unofficial rule’ during the launch of the first phase last year.

This ‘mega holistic development’ project is certainly going to cost the undisturbed delicate ecological harmony of the island with its innocent indigenous dwindling societies. From the above discussion along with comments of the concerned experts, it seems the NITI Aayog has become the lone holdout against the collective views on the project with its wilful blindness. How can the citizens of India ‘consciously’ put the lives of the Shompen and the Nicobarese, who are co-citizens, towards definite extinction for whatever benefit mainland people earn and also putting a larger number of people and a huge amount of national wealth in peril?

[The author is President, Foundation of Practising Geographers, Kolkata]

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Vol 56, No. 48, May 26 - Jun 1, 2024