The NITI Aayog’s, much talked about, soon-to-be-launched tourism and real estate project has evoked a lot of criticism with environmental experts calling it a “tremendous threat” to the islands.

On Friday, researcher, author and journalist Pankaj Sekhsaria, 52 released his new book ‘The Great Nicobar Betrayal’, which has been published by Frontline. In the book, Sekhsaria has talked about the project and how it is a “tremendously destructive” threat to the Great Nicobar island’s ecology and indigenous population.

“The present government has gone to great lengths to denotify certain stretches of the island previously marked as protected areas for leatherback turtles in order to enable transfer of land for commercial purposes,” Sekhsaria said.

He has spent close to two decades studying contemporary issues in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The book was launched at a three-day event in Delhi.

Sekhsaria has been working on the ecology, culture and development issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for nearly three decades. His new book is a collection of insightful essays on the mega infrastructure project that the government plans to develop on the Great Nicobar Island.

The island is a stretch of land on the Indian Ocean that is home to several endangered and endemic species of plants and animals. It also is a home to the ancient tribal community of the Shompen people.

Sekhsaria and other experts have emphasised on how the project will destroy the majority of the forests and the coastline.

The book, which has insightful essays, will highlight what we will lose, putting enormous strain on the already fragile environmental balance, if the Great Nicobar Island becomes the new “Singapore” as was the government's claims on starting the project.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands, is a Union Territory and consists of two groups of islands at the southeastern edge of the Bay of Bengal.

The archipelago comprises around 600 islands. It is named after the Nicobar Islands, which are located at the northern apex of this triangular area.

The Andaman Islands and their neighbours to the south, the Nicobar Islands form an arc stretching southward for some 1,000 km between Myanmar and the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.

Situated on the ancient trade route between India and Myanmar, the Andamans were visited by the navy of the English East India Company in 1789, and in 1872 they were linked administratively by the British to the Nicobar Islands.

The two sets of islands became a Union Territory of the Republic of India in 1956. The territory has for more than a century been recognized for its indigenous communities, which have ardently avoided extensive interaction with outsiders.

The islands are also known for its numerous endangered and endemic species including the giant leatherback turtle, Nicobar megapode, Great Nicobar crake, Nicobar crab-eating macaque, and Nicobar tree shrew.

The island is home to two tribal communities — the Shompen and the Nicobarese. The Shompen, around 250 in total, mostly live in the interior forests and are relatively isolated from the rest of the population.

They are predominantly hunter-gatherers and are classified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group within the list of Scheduled Tribes. The Shompen also have their own unique language.

The Nicobarese community practises farming and fishing. It has two groups: the Great Nicobarese and the Little Nicobarese. They use different dialects of the Nicobarese language.

The Great Nicobarese lived along the island’s southeast and west coast until the tsunami in 2004, after which the government resettled them in Campbell Bay.

Today, there are around 450 Great Nicobarese on the island. Little Nicobarese, numbering around 850, mostly live in Afra Bay in Great Nicobar and also in two other islands in the archipelago, Pulomilo and Little Nicobar.

The vast majority of the population of the Andamans consists of settlers from mainland India. Most speak Hindi or Bengali, but Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam are also common.

Between 1968 and 1975, the Indian government settled retired military servicemen and their families from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, among a few others, here. Around 330 households were given around 15 acres of land across seven revenue villages on the island’s east coast: Campbell Bay, Govindnagar, Jogindernagar, Vijaynagar, Laxminagar, Gandhinagar, and Shastrinagar.

Campbell Bay is also an administrative hub that includes local offices of the Andaman and Nicobar administration and the panchayat.

There were also short-term and long-term migrations of fisherfolk, agricultural and construction labourers, businesspersons, and administrative staff comprising foresters, engineers, teachers, etc. from both the mainland and the Andaman Islands.

The construction contractors came after the 2004 tsunami. Overall, the population of settlers on the island today is around 6,000.

In March 2021, NITI Aayog unveiled a ₹72,000 crore plan called ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’. The project includes the construction of an international transshipment terminal, an international airport, a power plant, and a township.

The project is to be implemented by a government undertaking called the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO).

The Great Nicobar Project involves developing a trans-shipment port, an international airport, township development, and a 450 MVA gas and solar-based power plant on the island.

The project area is also expected to cover over 130 sq. km. of pristine forest, and has been accorded a stage-1 environmental clearance — one of the mandatory prerequisites — by an expert committee.

In August 2023, the government told Parliament that 9.6 lakh trees could be felled and ‘compensatory afforestation,’ for the loss of this unique rainforest ecosystem, had been planned, thousands of kilometres away, in the vastly different ecological zone of Haryana.

The plan states: “The proposed port will allow Great Nicobar to participate in the regional and global maritime economy by becoming a major player in cargo transshipment.

“The proposed airport will support the growth of maritime services and enable Great Nicobar Island to attract international and national visitors to experience the outstanding natural environment and participate in sustainable tourism activity.”

‘The Hindu’ recently reported that the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry will be looking into the forest clearance paperwork of the ₹72,000-crore infrastructure project.

The project is being heavily criticised by environmentalists and experts. Environmentalists have warned that the clear-cutting, blasting, dredging, construction, dumping of debris, ship traffic, pollution of multiple kinds and the enormous influx of outsiders with their animals and germs will endanger the Indigenous people and the creatures who live on and around Great Nicobar.

The opposition has also raised their concerns. On June 17, the Congress party demanded an “immediate suspension” of all clearances granted to NITI Aayog’s mega project on Great Nicobar Island in the light of “violations of due process, legal and constitutional provisions protecting tribal communities, and the project’s disproportionate ecological and human cost.”

The party also demanded a “thorough impartial review of the proposed project, including by the parliamentary committees concerned.”

Referring to the environment clearance given for diverting over 13,000 hectares of forest land, Congress media in-charge Jairam Ramesh — who is also a former Union Environment Minister — said this was equal to about 15 percent of the island’s land mass and constitutes one of the country’s largest forest diversions in a nationally and globally unique rainforest ecosystem.

The Congress said the project was a direct threat to the well-being and survival of the Shompen and the Nicobarese (a Scheduled Tribe).

This apart, the project is coming up in a seismic zone and the compensatory afforestation is being planned in Haryana, the Congress pointed out, calling for an impartial review of the project including by a parliamentary committee.

Other political parties have also raised concerns about the project. In its 2024 election manifesto, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) promised to “scrap the environmentally disastrous and pro-corporate Islands Development Plan for Andaman and Nicobar”.

The Tribal Council of Great Nicobar and Little Nicobar and a host of environmentalists, wildlife conservationists, and tribal rights groups have also opposed the project.

After the concerns were raised, Union Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram’s promise to look into the clearances granted for the project. However, Congress said the promise looks ‘mildly’ encouraging.

Calling Union Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram’s promise to look into the clearances granted for the Project only “mildly” encouraging, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said he doubted how much power Union Ministers have over their own portfolios in a government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Meanwhile, Constitutional Conduct — a collective of retired bureaucrats who take up issues of national importance — has called for setting aside the present Social Impact Assessment and demanded that a proper one be undertaken with the Anthropological Survey of India.

In a letter to the tribal affairs ministry, home ministry, National Commission for Scheduled Tribes and the director of Social Welfare of the islands, they have suggested that if such an assessment shows a significant adverse impact on the Tribal Reserve in Great Nicobar and its vulnerable tribal groups, then the government should be advised to abandon the project.

The development project consists of an international container transhipment terminal, a large greenfield international airport, a township and area development, and a solar and gas-based power plant.

The airport area covers 8.88 sq km of deemed forest, which is part of the Tribal Reserve area in Great Nicobar. “This would certainly affect the Shompen and the Great Nicobarese. Yet the SIA has not taken the trouble to communicate with them,’’ the retired bureaucrats have underscored.

The retired bureaucrats also pointed out that the Tribal Council in their letter dated November 22, 2022, had withdrawn their consent from the NOC for the diversion of forest citing suppression of information, thereby making the Stage-I Forest Clearance granted to the project null and void.

In November 2022, the Tribal Council of Great Nicobar and Little Nicobar retracted its no-objection certificate (NOC) for the project, citing the administration’s lack of transparency regarding the use of tribal reserve lands and the hasty process of obtaining consent from tribal communities.

“A petition was filed against this before the National Green Tribunal in Kolkata, who in their order dated 3rd April, 2023, had directed the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to constitute a High-Powered Committee to revisit the deficiencies of the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment).

“The committee was asked to submit a report until which the NGT had placed a temporary stay on the project. We are unaware if the High-Powered Committee submitted its report and what was mentioned regarding the violations pointed out by the NGT.’’

Experts have also said that the islands, which are also witnessing major water crises, due to climate change, will bring devastation with the project.

In April, a group of experts wrote to the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes (NCST) highlighting how the Great Nicobar Project will be harmful for the region’s indigenous population.

According to ‘Down to Earth’, their letter was a response to a 15-point submission (after allegations by E. A. S. Sarma, former secretary to the Government of India) made by ANIIDCO, in which the Andaman and Nicobar administration justified the reduction of tribal reserve by re-notifying some other land area as tribal reserve as compensation.

“In order to compensate the reduction of Tribal Reserve and to protect the habitat of Shompen and Nicobar tribe, the A&N Administration proposes to re-notify 76.96 sq km of land in Campbell Bay National Park, Galathea National Park and land outside the National Parks as Tribal Reserve.

“Therefore, effectively only 7.11 sq km tribal reserve area will be required for de-notification for the project which is only 0.21 per cent of the total tribal reserve area of A&N islands and thus 743.96 sq km of the Great Nicobar Island will remain protected as Tribal Reserve,” it had said.

The group of experts wrote in the letter April 12, “The premise of just any land being equal and hence replaceable or suited for the needs of the tribals by the administration is flawed and indicative of the lack of understanding about the needs of the indigenous people as well as the bio-geophysical heterogeneity of the island by the UT administration.

“The fact that has not been admitted so far by the A&N administration is that the forested and riparian regions of the proposed project area are actually foraging grounds and also contain habitations of the Shompen community,” it said.

It emphasised that the denotification of a tribal reserve adversely affects interests of Shompen and Nicobarese groups and that by issuing such an order, the A&N administration has violated an important constitutional directive.

The project area also covers parts of the southeastern and western coast, where the coastal dwelling Scheduled Tribe, the Great Nicobarese, have their ancestral villages.

A portion of the land identified as “uninhabited” in the NITI Aayog plan is ancestral territory for the Great Nicobarese people.

Despite their attempts to return to these areas following post-tsunami resettlement, their requests have been repeatedly ignored by the government. Now, the large-scale project further obstructs their efforts to reclaim their ancestral lands.

The Shompen, who have had limited contact with the outside world, remain highly vulnerable to infectious diseases. The proposed development sites for the transshipment terminal overlap with areas inhabited by Shompen communities, compounding the risks to their health and survival.

“About three years ago, we saw these two very massive projects being proposed: one in an island called Little Andaman which did not take off, and the other one was the Great Nicobar Project.

“From the ecological, geological, and economic aspect, I think we have to ask a lot more questions. This is a deeply sensitive area ecologically.

“It is home to the tribal people who’ve been there for thousands of years. So anything that we do here has to be done with great care and sensitivity, and we don’t see that. That’s the big concern,” Sekhsaria added.

Sekhsaria further said the book contains chapters by various journalists on the possibility of wide-ranging ecological damage, the consequences of large-scale construction on an island that falls in a zone of seismic activity, and the impact of a population boom in a previously sparsely-populated area.

Urging readers to buy the book, he added that the contribution of every reader is crucial in stopping the NITI Aayog project in the island.

An analysis by the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment revealed that between January and June of 2019, 63 out of 70 development requests involving animal sanctuaries and parks were approved, resulting in the clearance of 216 acres of protected land.

From 2016 to 2019, India saw the felling of an estimated 7.6 million trees. In the environmentally sensitive northern state of Uttarakhand, more than 25,000 trees were cut to build roads to Hindu pilgrimage sites.

According to official data, the Indian environment ministry has approved 87% of the 2,592 requests received over the past six years for projects in and around protected areas.

Since July 2014, the government has sanctioned over 270 projects within and around India’s most protected regions, including national parks and biodiversity hotspots.