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Great Nicobar Plan: “Holistic” Or Dangerous Vision For Nicobar?

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The Indian government think-tank NITI Aayog was mandated to steer the holistic development of the islands sustainably to attain sustainable development in the identified Islands without damaging the pristine biodiversity. In this regard, the NITI Aayog proposed a “Great Nicobar Development plan” and the plan outlines a concept for the “sustainable development” of Great Nicobar Island.

Amit Shah Parliament Speech On Delhi Violence

Amit Shah chaired the first meeting of the Island Development Agency in 2017, the agency that came up with the Nicobar plan.

In this context, the National Board for Wildlife’s Standing Committee denotified the entire Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in January to allow for the port and other associated facilities. The Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This will make the NITI Aayog’s master plan for the development of the Great Nicobar Island a lot easier to implement. Experts, on the other hand, are concerned that this unnecessary interference may have catastrophic consequences.

In The Name Of Development

Our islands were protected till now because the responsible agency for this blind development the Island Development Agency(IDA) was constituted in 2017 under the aegis of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

With an area of about 1,000 square kilometers, Great Nicobar is one of the archipelago’s largest islands. and for Phase, I of this ‘holistic’ and ‘sustainable’ vision for Great Nicobar Island, more than 150 square kilometers of land will be made available. It is the Andaman and Nicobar group’s southernmost island. The Environment Appraisal Committee, which had previously expressed reservations about the proposal, has now ‘recommended’ that it be granted ‘terms of reference’ for EIA studies.

The committee had previously noted that there were no specifics about the trees to be felled — an amount that may be in the millions, given that the project area covers 18 percent of land area and contains some of India’s finest tropical forests. It asked for a study on the effects of dredging, reclamation, and port operations, including oil spills (to be carried out by nationally recognized institutions) with a focus on ecological and environmental impact, especially on the turtles, and evaluation of risk-handling capacities, a seismic and tsunami threat map, a disaster management plan, labor specifics, labor camps, and their specifications, a cumulative impact assessment, and a hydro-geological study to determine the impact on ground and surface water regimes.

The green panel allows Great Nicobar plan to forward:

  • It will stretch for about a quarter of its coastline.
  • The overall plan envisages the use of a major percentage of pristine forest and coastal ecosystems.
  • Projects to be executed include an airport complex, a trans-shipment port (TSP) at South Bay, a parallel-to-the-coast mass rapid transport system, a free trade zone, and a warehousing complex on the southwestern coast. The implementing agency is Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO).

The proposed township is expected to cover an area spread over 149.60 square km of which 28.27 square km is revenue land, 8.37 square km is deemed forest and 112.96 square km is forest land, which is likely to impact turtle and megapode nesting sites and affect coral reefs. Concerns are being raised for the Tribal rights of Shompen, as these large diverge forest areas could become inaccessible for them.

Conserving Marine Turtles

Of seven species of marine turtles globally, of which five are found in Indian waters, Four species of sea turtle (leatherback Dermochelys coriacea, green Chelonia mydas, hawksbill Eretmochelys imbricata, and olive ridley Lepidochelys olivacea) nest on the beaches of the Nicobar group of islands in the Bay of Bengal.

Leatherback turtles are listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because their numbers are decliningLeatherback turtles are the world’s largest turtles and the only species without scales or a hard shell, making them extremely vulnerable to temperature extremes. They got their name from their tough rubbery skin, and they’ve been around since the dinosaur age. According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, leatherback turtles migrate over 10,000 miles a year between nesting and foraging grounds.

The leatherback turtle nesting population on Great Nicobar Island and Little Andaman Island is the largest in the central or northern Indian Ocean. Galathea is an iconic beach for leatherback nesting and is one of the few leatherback sites monitored over the last 30 years. Any development that harms these nesting beaches would have an unfavorable impact on the population.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Leatherback turtles are endangered animals and the Nicobar Islands is a prominent nesting place for these animals.

Home Of The Shompen Tribe

Most of the inhabitants of the Nicobar islands who are not recent immigrants are Nicobari. Despite some differences in language and culture between the inhabitants of the various islands, all the Nicobari are closely related.

Besides the Nicobari, however, there is a small group of tribal people living largely hidden lives in the interior of Great Nicobar – and only on Great Nicobar: the Shompen, and they are neither Nicobari nor are they related to the Andamanese Negrito. They speak a language or possibly a group of languages that is (or that are) quite different from the Nicobari languages although they seem to be related to it. The Shompen represent the original population of the Nicobar islands, predating the arrival of the Nicobari by many thousands of years. They practice a hunter-gatherer subsistence economy.

Because of their isolated lifestyle in the interior of the island, the Shompens were largely spared from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which wreaked havoc on Nicobaris and Indians living along the coast. The project would devastate the islands’ biodiversity, including their swamps and forests, as well as the diverse species and Shompen tribes who have lived on the islands for centuries.

Humans are increasing the likelihood of pandemics like COVID-19 by reducing biodiversity by chopping down forests and developing more infrastructure. Previous research has indicated that disease outbreaks that pass from animals to humans, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and bird influenza, have increased in the last several decades.

As people move into undeveloped areas, increased contact between humans, wildlife, and cattle is thought to be the cause of this phenomenon. Shompens are living there for ages and they understand the relationships between multiple actors such as land use, ecology, climate, and biodiversity. Their Vision to sustainably “Survive”  is broader than our narrow vision of Development.

The islands are located in the seismically active Alpine-Himalayan belt and are classified as zone V, which means they are the most vulnerable to earthquakes. Moreover, The proposed area for diversion spreads over the vast tract of forests having the undulating configuration, they have ignored that geologically the island is very recent and the area is prone to soil erosion. The vegetation type is tropical rainforest, and the island receives around 2020 to 3,774 mm of rainfall annually spread out over eight months, resulting in extreme topsoil erosion if the forest cover is removed. The current forest cover acts as a linking factor, keeping the subsurface tightly bind in contact with the soil.

The need of the hour is to mitigate health infrastructure for our country, the fund allocated for the Great Nicobar Plan can be redirected towards the Health sector and instead of forcing IP waiver and relaxation in TRIPS, our Think tank should think of some more prudent ways to increase the vaccine supply.

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