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‘Just want to convert Nicobar into Singapore' — why the island project is a ‘monumental folly'

'There’s probably no point that is further from Delhi than the Great Nicobar Island, yet all decisions about its fate are being made by officials here,' said Pankaj Sekhsaria.

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New Delhi: Author and activist Pankaj Sekhsaria set out to convince the audience at his book launch on 27 June 2024 that the Great Nicobar Island Development Project is a “monumental folly”. By the end of the session, which breached its time limit by well over an hour, audience members at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy were chiming in with questions and suggestions on how to spread awareness about the dangers of this project.

Sekhsaria’s The Great Nicobar Betrayal is a collection of articles and essays by experts on the ecological, geological, and social consequences of the ongoing Rs 72,000 crore development project in the Great Nicobar Island. Sekhsaria was joined by former IAS officer MK Ranjitsinh Jhala; the session moderated by Vidhi’s Debadityo Sinha.

“When you see the way this project has gotten clearances, you’ll realise our legal systems and scientific processes have been completely compromised,” said Sekhsaria.

The Great Nicobar Betrayal delves into shoddily done environment impact assessments, hasty clearances from tribal affairs ministries to wildlife institutes, and the hush-hush nature of the entire project in the name of ‘national security’.

‘Nothing further from Delhi’

Pointing at a map of the Indian subcontinent, Sekhsaria outlined the Great Nicobar Island, a stretch of 910 sq km at the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. An area of 166 sq km within this stretch has been proposed for the development project, which includes a trans-shipment port, power plant, an airport, and townships to house around 3 lakh people. Out of this 166 sq km area though, over 130 sq km is dense forest land that would need to be diverted for this project.

“There’s probably no point in the Indian territory that is further from Delhi than the Great Nicobar Island, yet all decisions about its fate are being made by officials here,” said Sekhsaria.

The Island is home to over 1,700 species of animals, among which is the nicobarese megapode, and the largest turtle species in the world called the great leatherback turtle. Galathea Bay in Great Nicobar is one of the biggest nesting sites in the world for these endangered turtles, and the new development project proposes to reduce the opening of the bay by 90 per cent, thus restricting their access to the region. Part of the project site is also home to around 1,700 people belonging to the aboriginal Shompen and Nicobarese tribes.

The proposed site is also very close to the epicentre of the 2004 tsunami that killed around 2,00,000 people in India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. The Great Nicobar Island is in the Pacific Ring of Fire region, which is heavily prone to earthquakes with an average of one or two tremors per week in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

“Forget the environment, even the economic feasibility of such an expensive project seems dicey,” said  an audience member.

EIA ‘criminality’ and project secrecy

Sekhsaria, who is a member of the environment action group Kalpavriksh and has been writing about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over a decade now, showed on a projector how parts of the environment impact assessment (EIA) for the project were written with shoddy grammar, meandering lines, and no clear plan of action. It was also difficult to get informed consent from those who would be most affected by this project — the tribes that live in largely secluded, undisturbed regions of the island. The Tribal Council of Great Nicobar Islands also withdrew their consent for the plan back in 2022.

“What is stunning is that all of this is happening legally – the destruction of habitats, de-notification of wildlife sanctuaries, undoing protection for tribal areas,” said Sekhsaria. “One of the most pristine biodiversity spots in India is being given up just like that.”

The project was accepted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change of India (MOEFCC) due to the strategic importance of the location. Since 2023, all RTI requests about the project have been denied, with officials quoting “national security reasons” and calling it a defence project. Sekhsaria’s book, however, disagrees.

“It is an out-and-out commercial project,” argued Sekhsaria. “There could be some defence interests in it, but let’s not be fooled — they just want to convert Nicobar into another Singapore.”

‘Educating the educated’

The audience, which included academics, journalists, students, and some Vidhi employees, seemed gripped after Sekhsaria's presentation and brought up examples of other developmental projects of the past. Sinha, too, spoke about ecologically sensitive zones like the Himalayas and the numerous road and construction projects approved there. He then posed a question to Jhala, asking him to bring in his experience as a bureaucrat.

When given the floor, Jhala took a contrarian stance to say that the event seemed to be “educating the educated”. He advised Sekhsaria to think of ways in which they can actually create a dent in the project process, beyond just organising book talks for small groups of people.

“Sadly, conservation in this country is a top-down process. Our bureaucracy has surrendered, and our science has become servile to the forces of development a long time ago,” said Jhala.

By this point, however, the audience had already started asking questions about the government’s clearance for the project and ways in which they could participate.

“The problem is [that] it’s so far. Otherwise, we would have sat and organised a strike by now,” said one woman in the audience.

Another member suggested using social media to make and share 1-2 min videos recapping the entire issue to spread greater awareness about the subject. Some others pointed out, and Sekhsaria grudgingly agreed, that pricing the book at Rs 500 was not a smart idea if reaching people was the point.

The session got over, but not the discussion. Members stuck around to discuss how the case was faring at the National Green Tribunal, and whether political mobilisation would help.

While ending the talk, Sekhsaria said, “I believe there’s hope and possibility in civil society, I saw it happening in front of my eyes today.”

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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