Great Nicobar is the southernmost island of the Nicobar Islands Archipelago. It covers 103 870 hectares. A background to the Nicobar islands (that belong to India), can be found (among other sources) in the anthropologist and ecologist Simron Singh's work (before and after the tsunami of 2004). . Now the Great Nicobar island is threatened by a massive "development" plan.
Denotification of Galathea Bay Sanctuary
At a meeting held on 5th January 2021 the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) recommended the denotification of Galathea Bay Sanctuary, with a number of conditions. This decision was made after local authorities cited a proposed international shipment project. Located on the southeast coast of Greater Nicobar Island, the southernmost and largest of the Nicobar islands, an archipelagic island chain in the eastern Indian Ocean, Galathea Bay Sanctuary is one of the world’s most important nesting sites for leatherback turtles. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists leatherback turtles as a vulnerable species. They are migratory and highly sensitive to temperature extremes. Their name is derived from their tough rubbery skin; they are the world’s largest turtles and the only species without a hard shell and scales. Kartik Shanker, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Ecological Sciences, said:
“Great Nicobar Island and Little Andaman Island host the largest nesting population of leatherback turtles in the central or northern Indian Ocean. Galathea is one of the few leatherback sites monitored over the last 30 years and is an iconic beach for leatherback nesting. Any development that impacts these nesting beaches will have an adverse impact on the population.”
Minutes of the NBWL meeting stated, ‘The mitigation plan needs to be developed through a detailed study so that marine turtles continue to nest on the beaches near Galathea Bay during both the construction as well as operational phases of the international shipment project.’ The minutes also stated that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration sought to declare Galathea Bay as a sanctuary covering 11.4 square kilometres through notifications issued in 1997, but the final notification for the sanctuary had not been issued.
Negligible eco-sensitive zone around Galathea National Park
Two weeks later, on 18th January, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) expert committee approved an almost negligible eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around the Galathea National Park (GNP), which adjoins Galathea Bay Sanctuary and is a habitat for many rare species of animals and plants. An ESZ provides a buffer zone around a protected area, thereby helping to safeguard faunal and floral diversity. According to the Indian government the GNP is ‘one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world and shows a high degree of endemism’. The area consists of mangrove forests with at least 14 species recorded, littoral forests, low-level evergreen forests, tropical evergreen forests, southern hill-top evergreen forests and ferns. GNP is also home to an exceptional variety of wildlife including threatened fauna such as Nicobar crab-eating macaque, Nicobar wild pig, Nicobar tree shrew, spiny shrew, Nicobar flying fox, Nicobar leaf-nosed bat, Nicobar pipistrelle, Andaman water monitor (a large lizard), Tiwari’s garden lizard and estuarine crocodile. Avi-faunal species include Nicobar tiger bittern, Nicobar cuckoo dove, Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, Nicobar paradise flycatcher, Nicobar megapode and Nicobar black-naped oriole.
Designation of such a small ESZ around the GNP means that the international shipment project - comprising a major port, an airport and a strategic defence project - faces no impediment in the future. Greater Nicobar Island is regarded as one of the most strategically important areas in the Andaman and Nicobar Island region due its southern position closer to Myanmar and Sumatra than to the Indian mainland. The MoEFCC’s expert committee was informed that the justification behind such a small ESZ was the strategic location of Greater Nicobar Island, very close the major international sipping route of Malacca Strait. Officials said that a 750-metre buffer was proposed from the coast and near the GNP boundary. The risks of a tsunami and rising water level require the developable area to be located away from the coast and near the GNP boundary. The government selected the GNP site from four potential sites, stating that as over 95 per cent of the island is national park, protected forest or tribal reserve there is little room for development projects. GNP is also the home of the Shompens, one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG), a classification created by the Government of India aiming to improve conditions for communities with very low development indices.
The Shompens people are solely dependent upon forest resources for their hunting and gathering. Manish Chandi, a human ecologist and senior fellow with the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team, said the question that must be answered is whether the development will really benefit the islanders, or would they have no choice but to work as labourers or domestic help in other peoples’ houses, resorts or offices. He said:
“There are so many pressing needs of the local communities that are overshadowed by the Rs.10,000 crores for the transhipment terminal, which in itself is an economic sinkhole of dubious future, as everything and everyone to make it function will have to be imported.”
Chandi suggested funds be spent instead on improving infrastructure for the local community and enhancing their capacity to create and augment their own income-generating opportunities through nature-based tourism.
At the meeting on 18th January 2021 the expert committee was informed that NITI Aayog, a public policy think-tank of the Government of India, ‘has proposed to construct an airport, requiring 21.64 sq.km. of land at the southernmost part and construction of rapid mass transit system originating for Campbell Bay and terminating somewhere in the western part and running parallel to the coastline’. It was also stated that ‘besides the development of a major transhipment port, the area is also earmarked for future strategic defence use in view of the developing geopolitical scenario in the area’.
Impact on marine turtles and indigenous Shompen
Conservation India expressed many concerns about the transhipment port plans. The 126-page pre-feasibility report prepared for NITI Aayog by AECOM India Private Limited, entitled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’, contained minimal acknowledgement of Galathea Bay being an important leatherback turtle nesting site. Significant changes to legal frameworks were made to allow for situating the transhipment port in Galathea Bay. It is estimated that the project will cover an area of 166 square kilometres, mostly consisting of pristine coastal ecosystems and tropical forests. Several experts argued that the location decision violated both the letter and spirit of the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA). To Conservation India, a non-profit information portal, it is almost as if the unique diversity of life ‘suddenly stopped existing because of an arbitrary line drawn to allow a slew of high value projects’. AECOM’s report suggests that 650,000 people will inhabit Great Nicobar upon full implementation of the project. This is an enormous increase on the current population of 8,500 and there would be major physical and cultural impacts on the indigenous Shompen, numbering only a few hundred.
The Shompen are the indigenous people of the interior of Great Nicobar Island. The Shompen are a designated Scheduled Tribe in the legislation of India.
Overall, the port project plan entails use of about 244 square kilometres of land, almost 18% of the 910 square kilometre island. Writing in The Hindu about NITI Aayog’s supposedly ‘holistic’ and ‘sustainable’ vision for the island, Pankaj Sekhsaria points to the significance of ‘the speed and co-ordination with which it has all unfolded’. On 4th September 2020 the Director, Tribal Welfare, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, constituted an empowered committee to examine NITI Aayog’s proposals. Part of the communication was a copy of the 2015 Policy on Shompen Tribe of Great Nicobar Island which noted that the welfare and integrity of these people should be a priority, indicating the aims of the committee. The proposed project areas are important foraging areas for the nomadic, hunter gatherer Shompen community. The port project could make large forest areas inaccessible for them. Sekhsaria draws attention to new protections for marine turtles that have been ignored by project planners. The NBWL meeting on 5th January 2021 which decided to denotify Galathea Bay Sanctuary, was seemingly unaware that India’s National Marine Turtle Action Plan was at that time under preparation. Released on 1st February 2021, this document lists Galathea Bay among the ‘Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas’, and ‘Important Marine Turtle Habitats’ in the country.
EAC grants ToR in spite of flagging serious concerns
Following meetings in March and April 2021 the Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the MoEFCC removed the first hurdle standing in the way of the port project, recommending it for granting of terms of reference (ToR) for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies. The EAC was responding to the pre-feasibility report prepared by AECOM India Private Limited and flagged a number of serious concerns, both procedural and substantive. The cost of the project was estimated at US$9.96 billion. The EAC also noted lack of details on the number of trees that would be felled, a number that be enormous as 130 square kilometres of the project area contains some of the finest tropical forest in India. Site selection for the port had been conducted mainly on financial and technical criteria, ignoring environmental aspects.
The EAC requested an independent study of the proposed site with specific focus on leatherback turtles along with Nicobar Megapod and dugong. Yet the importance of Galathea Bay as a turtle nesting site is already borne out by surveys conducted over three decades by the island’s Forest Department and research agencies such as the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team. Ecological surveys in recent years have reported a number of new species, some only found in the Galathea region, including the Great Nicobar crake (a bird), Great Nicobar frog and a type of skink (lizard). An island expert, requesting anonymity, said “None of these are even mentioned in AECOM’s pre-feasibility report of the EAC’s observations. We don’t even know what exists here, leave alone understanding the many fragile interlinkages of the Great Nicobar’s complex systems.”
Manish Chandi told The Wire Science that AECOM’s pre-feasibility report recognises only seven revenue villages on the island, not the tribal villages. He said the agency’s oversight “is problematic and unfair” for these inhabitants who have not been accounted for. Port Blair based journalist Zubair Ahmed described the port plans as “a death knell for the already minuscule Shompen tribe and an obvious ecological disaster for leatherback turtle nesting sites”. He explained that the port plan is not new but has been discussed “for over twenty years”, only to be dismissed because it wasn’t economically or environmentally viable and “stood to cause more damage than benefit”. But this time the project seemed set to take off. Ahmed said what is needed on Great Nicobar is basic infrastructure like schools and hospitals and connectivity to Port Blair, capital city of the islands. Residents also endure regular power outages, especially during monsoons, and paucity of basic groceries such as vegetables, rice and salt. Ashwini Mohan, an evolutionary biologist who has worked in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for a few years, raised the concern that the project might be unrealistic due to prevailing water scarcity; islanders depend upon rainfall for their freshwater need. He said, “There may not be enough freshwater for a large-scale development project over the long run”.
Concerns over turtle nesting sites
Pankaj Sekhsaria’s 4th June 2021 article in The Wire Science details the concerns of many other organisations and individuals about the impact of the port on leatherback turtles. Neha Sinha, head of conservation and policy at the Bombay Natural History Society said “India is currently president of the Convention of Migratory Species. We are in a leadership position to support conservation of these leatherback turtles and this does not include denotifying protected areas which are their breeding sites”. According to coastal researcher Aarthi Sridhar NWBL’s denotification decision suggests “pre-judgement of clearance outcomes and values, and signals lack of interest in the legally mandated process of examination of diverse ecological, economic and social reasons”.
Muralidharan Manoharakrishnan and Adhith Swaminathan, turtle biologists at the Dakshin Foundation monitoring turtle population in the islands for many years explained that the ideal site for a port is a sloping beach with deep offshore waters, the exact coastal features preferred by leatherback turtles. Manoharakrishnan said it was unlikely that leatherback turtles would continue to nest in the bay if the entry to it was narrowed by the port; “The breakwaters and the construction will only erode the beach and the associated disturbance from dredging, lights and increased human presence will dissuade leatherbacks from nesting.”
Under the leadership of the Chennai-based Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) several turtle researchers banded together to launch a signature campaign against NINI Aayog’s port plans. Arun Venkataraman of SSTCN, leader of the campaign, said “We have written to a number of Union government officials in the environment ministry, the Lieutenant Governor of the UT as well as forest officials.” Efforts to preserve turtle nesting sites could be bolstered by the aforementioned listing of Galathea Bay in the National Marine Turtle Action Plan which was released on 1st February 2021.