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Great Nicobar Project “Plan for the paradise”

New Delhi, Apr 05: In February 2021, India's National Marine Turtle Action Plan mentioned Galathea Bay on the south-eastern coast of the Great Nicobar Island as one of the "Important Marine Turtle Habitats in India". Beaches on either side of the Galathea River are the most important nesting sites in the northern Indian Ocean for the Leatherback turtle, the world's largest marine turtle. The Action Plan says that coastal development projects, including the construction of ports, jetties, resorts, and industries, are major threats to turtle populations. But this kind of development is exactly what is planned for the future of Galathea Bay under the Rs.72,000-crore mega project piloted by NITI Aayog for the "holistic development" of the Great Nicobar Island (GNI), situated at the southern end of the Andaman and Nicobar group of Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

The giant Leatherback is not the only species dotting this ecologically and culturally rich Island spanning over a little more than 900 sq. km, of which 850 sq. km is designated as a tribal reserve under the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, 1956. The Island has been home to two isolated and indigenous tribes - the Shompen and the Nicobaris - for thousands of years. The GNI was declared a biosphere reserve in 1989 and included in UNESCO's Man and Biosphere Programme in 2013. It has an unparalleled array of microhabitats- sandy and rocky beaches, bays and lagoons, littoral patches with mangrove communities, evergreen and tropical forests, and more. These habitats host numerous species, including marine animals, reptiles, birds, mammals, trees, ferns, insects, crustaceans, and amphibians. Several of these, like the Nicobari Megapode, are endemic to GNI and found nowhere else in the world.

This unique ecological setting faces significant and imminent alterations as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) late last year cleared the decks for the mega project, called the "Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island", which ecologists, anthropologists, domain experts, and former civil servants have called an impending ecological disaster. NITI Aayog, however, says its plan is aimed at tapping the "largely unexplored potential" of the Island and setting a "model in place for holistic development of few identified islands while preserving and maintaining" their natural ecosystem and rich biodiversity.
Map of the Rs.72,000-crore mega project piloted by NITI Aayog for the "holistic development" of the Great Nicobar Island (GNI). Source: Pre-feasibility report (2021)
The plan has four components - a Rs.35,000 crore transshipment port at Galathea Bay, a dual-use military-civil international airport, a power plant, and a township, to be built over 30 years on more than 160 sq. km of land, of which 130 sq. km is primary forest. The northern end of the project falls in the biosphere reserve, which means a part of this protected region will have to be allotted to the project.

As for the population, the Shompen and the Nicobarese were the sole inhabitants of the island until the government set up seven revenue villages, settling 330 ex-servicemen families from 1969 to 1980. These three communities make up the over 8,000 population of southern Nicobar, which includes GNI, Little Nicobar, and other small islands. The mega project will bring nearly 400,000 people to GNI during its span of three decades, which amounts to a 4,000% increase in its current population. An estimated 8.5 lakh trees are to be cut down in GNI's prehistoric rainforests for the project.

The government clearance given to use of about 130 sq. km of pristine forestland last year, made this one of the largest single forest diversions in recent times and nearly a quarter of all the forest land diverted in the past three years in the country. And former civil servants have said in a letter that the plan to carry out compensatory afforestation for this diversion in a far away arid patch in Haryana "would be laughable if it weren't so tragic"

Hasty clearances

For a project of this scale, size, and duration, the Great Nicobar plan has been accompanied by uncharacteristic haste in receiving various clearances. The plan was first floated at the height of the pandemic in 2020 and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO), based in Port Blair, was charged with implementing the project.

In September of that year itself, NITI Aayog issued a request for proposal for preparing the master plan for the project. In March 2021, a little-known company, Gurugram-based AECOM India Pvt. Ltd. released a 126-page pre-feasibility report for NITI Aayog. The MoEFCC's Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC)-Infrastructure I began the environmental clearance process the very next month and the project proponent contracted the Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs to prepare the environment impact assessment (EIA) report. In October last year, it got stage-1 (in-principle) forest clearance, while the environmental clearance was given on November 11 by the Ministry. Researchers and activists have flagged inconsistencies in the chronology in which the clearances were granted, with some procedures beginning even before the proposal for them was cleared.

Besides, the path for the project's highlight, the shipment port, was made easier in January 2021, when the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) denotified the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to free it as the site for a port. Soon after, the MoEFCC declared a zero-extent eco-sensitive zone for the Galathea and Campbell Bay National Parks, thus making the forest land along the central and south-eastern coast of GNI available for the project.

The GNI lies between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in a tectonically sensitive zone. Researchers and NGOs from across the country have raised several concerns relating to the tectonic volatility and disaster vulnerability of the islands, which have experienced nearly 444 earthquakes in the past 10 years. The tribal communities, who were displaced in the 2004 Tsunami, are still recovering from its impact. (The Hindu)


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