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Explained: The Great Nicobar Development Plan

The Environment Appraisal Committee that had earlier flagged concerns over the NITI Aayog’s ambitious Great Nicobar Plan, has now recommended it for grant of terms of reference. The decision from the environmental body to  “recommend” it “for grant of terms of reference (TOR)” for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies, which in the first instance will include baseline studies over three months, comes amidst an ongoing criticism of the project, ever since it has been announced.

What is the Project?

The Great Nicobar project is a proposed township and area development project in the Great Nicobar islands, which comprises a proposed township 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. Apart from this, the project also involves the development of an international container transhipment terminal (ICTT), greenfield international airport, township and area development and power plant. The estimated cost of the project is ₹ 75000 crores. 

Environmental concerns related to the Project:

The Andaman and Nicobar group of Islands are one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. It is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species that are exclusive to only this part of the world. The proposed project is seen as a threat to this rich biodiversity present around the group of islands, according to environmental experts and activists. The developmental activities on the island are likely to impact turtle and megapode nesting sites, affect coral reefs, and a large number of endangered species including the Giant Leatherback Turtle. This species of turtle along with Megapode, are the two most localised species found in this area, and the beaches of the islands including one along the river Galathea,  are the most prominent nesting sites for them, especially for the Giant Leatherback Turtle. It was due to this reason that Galathea bay was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1997, which has now been denotified to allow the construction of the transhipment port. It is feared that these construction activities in the region may result in the destruction of these nesting sites and a natural habitat for these species would be under direct threat. Moreover, the developmental activities would create damage to the ecology of the islands by causing damage to aquatic life and also to the green cover present in the region.

Apart from environmental issues, there have also been concerns related to geological inappropriateness of the project site flagged by experts, where a recent report published in ‘the Hindu’ states – “ Available evidence suggests that issues of the geological volatility of these islands are also not being factored in. The December 26, 2019, tender document by WAPCOS Limited for a ‘Traffic Study for Creating Transshipment port at South Bay, Great Nicobar Island’ justifies the port here by noting that “the topography of the island is best suited, which has not been damaged much even by the tsunami on 26.11.2004. Yet, a 2005 Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) Special Earthquake Report by a multidisciplinary team from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kanpur, recorded witness accounts of 8-metre-high tsunami waves hitting the Great Nicobar coast on December 26, 2004. Due to this, The lighthouse at Indira Point, the southernmost tip of the Great Nicobar Island, which was on high ground before the earthquake,” the report notes, “is now underwater, indicating a land subsidence of about 3-4 m.’’

The Project also poses a direct threat to the Shompen Community of the region. The Shompen community is an indigenous tribe of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The people of the tribe are primarily hunter-gatherers, and hunting wild pigs, monkeys, monitor lizards and sometimes pythons are common among the tribe. They are classified under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, according to a survey by the Anthropological Survey of India. 

According to an excerpt of a report in the Hindu, there are concerns regarding the impact of the Great Nicobar Project on the Shompen community, since the proposed sites are important hunting grounds for these people. Also, the large forests belonging to the region could become inaccessible to the Shompen Tribe, once the project begins taking shape on the ground.

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