The ‘Vision Document’. In January 2021 news of plans for a tourism oriented mega development project on Little Andaman Island triggered alarm amongst conservationists. The island, at the southern end of the Andaman archipelago, is home to the Onge tribe and fragile, unique ecosystems with many rare wildlife species. The total project area is nearly 240 sq km, 35% of the island. Implementation would require de-notification of 32% of the Reserve Forest (a large part of this consisting of pristine, evergreen forest) and 138 sq km, 31%, of the land protected as Onge Tribal Reserve, an area described by Pankaj Sekhsaria, a leading expert on the environment, development and indigenous communities in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, as ‘a unique and rare socio-ecological-historical complex of high importance’. The plans are outlined in the ‘Sustainable Development of Little Andaman - Vision Document’, which Sekhsaria criticises as ‘Sloppy and inappropriate’ containing ‘no financial details, no budgeting, or inventorisation of forests and ecological wealth and no details of any impact assessment’. There was no environmental impact assessment or detailed site layout plans. He also criticises the document for including maps without legends and photographs plagiarised from the internet. The document, thought to have been finalised a few months previously, was not in the public domain .
The full 58-page ‘Vision Document’ is, however, included in ‘A MONUMENTAL FOLLY: NITI Aayog’s Development Plans for Great Nicobar Island (An evolving archive of reports, information and documents)’, compiled by Sekhsaria and published by Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group. The Little Andaman plan, similar to plans for ‘Holistic Development of the Great Nicobar Island focussed on a transhipment port, identifies development areas that would take up 107 kilometres of the island’s coastline. Comprising three zones linked by a greenfield road many elements of the plans are focussed on luxury tourism:
Zone 1, on the eastern coast – high-density development with a Financial District and MediCity, an Aerocity housing an international airport would be ‘the catalyst for development of the district’ also comprising tourist facilities such as hotels and resorts.
Zone 2, on the southern coast – Leisure Zone with Film City, Residential District and Tourism SEZ
Zone 3, on the western coast – low density development, a Nature Zone with super luxury resorts and beach hotels, with an airstrip for charter flights. Sekhsaria points out that a resort complex is proposed at West Bay, a key nesting site for globally endangered Giant Leatherback Turtles .
Writing in Firstpost, Saikeerthi raises concerns that the Vision Document does not explain the process that NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India) would take to achieve the developments. The presence of indigenous tribes and measures to protect their welfare are not specified and no detail regarding schemes to relocate of protect them was disclosed. The island’s seismic vulnerability, evident from severe damage caused by the 2004 tsunami, had not been considered. Saikeerthi also points out lack of government supervision for safeguarding biodiversity on the island, ‘NITI Aayog’s development plan fails to acknowledge the ecosystem being crushed under expansive tourist resorts and scuba diving station. The indigenous people and the flora and fauna of Little Andaman receive little or no protection in the proposal put forward’ . Sarpreet Kaur relays concerns of an environmentalist, serving the islands for at least half a decade, over threats to the island’s high biodiversity, with dense tropical rainforests supporting many endemic species, Coastal areas are critical habitats for the aforementioned Great Leatherback Turtles and the State Animal Dugong, both listed in Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. She observed that “The population of Dugongs is already dwindling and Little Andaman supports their population” .
Relocation of Onge tribal people
The NITI Aayog Vision Document states that steps will be taken for relocation and protection of Onge people, but no detail was disclosed, even though the Onge Tribal Reserve would be reduced to 31% of the current 450 sq km area . The number of Onge people is estimated at 125 and they are categorised as one of India’s Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG). Parts of Little Andaman were initially declared a Tribal Reserve in 1956-7. Some areas were denotified in the 1970s and Onge indigenous people were resettled at South Bay and Dugong Creek on the northeast coast. South Bay was damaged by the 2004 tsunami and Onge residing there were relocated to Dugong Creek. The Onge have nomadic origins and still navigate their canoes when hunting and fishing. An anthropologist pointed out that bringing areas where Onge do not live into the proposed development would still impact them, saying “the Onges have a close attachment with their territory be it inhabited or not”. An experienced researcher said “The proposed project is nothing but a disaster, an extremely hasty and money-driven vision, completely disregarding the sentiments of the indigenous people of the islands, the Onge”. In the vicinity of South Bay, within the area earmarked in the Vision Document illustrations, there is another tribal settlement in Harminder Bay where indigenous people (Nicobarese) maintain their culture and lifestyle on land allocated to them in the 1970s .
A 4th February 2021 meeting of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory (UT) directorate of tribal welfare finalised the extent of denotification of the Onge Tribal Reserve. In attendance were the deputy commissioner of South Andaman, the secretary of shipping and revenue departments of the UT, the managing director of Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited (ANIIDCO), the superintendent anthropologist of the Anthropological Society of India and the joint secretary of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Sanjay Balan, a former bureaucrat, said “The entire island belonged to the Onge community. In the 1970s revenue land was carved out of the Tribal Reserve and the reserve forest.
De-notification will be difficult as the population and demands have increased in the region” . Along with other Andamese tribes the Onge are thought to have been part of migration out of Africa about 50,000 years ago. After repeated waves of settlements under British colonial and later rule under the Indian mainland the Onge are struggling to survive as a visible group. Since 1900 their numbers have dwindled .
While not dismissing the development plan the Anthropological Society of India suggested measures before it moves forward, including an anthropological impact assessment. Professor Anvita Abbi, credited with identifying the distinct characteristics of two Great Andamese languages, Onge and Karawa, said “This project of the government is totally going to be disastrous to the whole culture, society, and the antiquity of the place. Because these are not tribes who settled down there 1,000 or 5,000 years ago – they have been living there for the last over 50,000 years. In fact, it is the civilization of that old nature. This is an absolutely mindless act India today can do to dislocate them somewhere else.” Sophie Grig, senior research and advocacy officer of London-based indigenous rights group Survival International, said “We are very alarmed about this proposal and the appalling way it talks of stealing Onge land, and even relocating them, without any mention in the proposal the Onge’s free, prior, and informed consent must be obtained before their land is taken from them for the project” .
On 29th April 2022 the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a United Nations body consisting of independent experts, sent a letter to the Government of India seeking answers to questions arising from mega development projects in Little Andaman and Great Nicobar. The letter stated categorically that both projects would have harmful impacts on five tribal groups notified as PVTGs, namely the Great Andamanese, Jarawas, Onges, Shompens and Sentinalese. The letter reminded the government that these projects violate existing laws and policies of the government such as the Shompen Policy of 2015, which establishes the prioritisation of tribal rights over large-scale developmental projects, the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation of 1956 and the Indian Forest Act of 1927. CERD asked the government about measures to prevent adverse impacts on the projects on PVTGs livelihoods and existence, as well as on ecosystems and biodiversity .
Diversion of forest land
In a note dated 20th September 2020 the Divisional Forest Officer of Little Andaman raised concerns that the project would cause irreversible damage to the island’s forest, stating that the major diversion of forest land entailed the loss of more than 2 million trees. An official source, communicating with Mongabay-India, said there are over 2.4 million trees in the “vast tract of forests” where development is proposed and that the island, being geologically recent, is vulnerable to soil erosion. Forest cover binds the sub-surface with soil and its removal would lead to severe topsoil erosion. The source also cited a 2002 Supreme Court judgement ordering closure of sawmills on Little Andaman that called for immediate suspension of tree felling. An anthropologist raised another concern regarding degradation of forests: rainfall would be reduced, impacting on the small area of the island with cultivable soil .
Trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere and deforestation releases carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change. Uprooting more than 2 million trees for the Little Andaman development plan would result in carbon stock losses and carbon emissions. Carbon stock losses were estimated in a paper by Sujit Raha, Avijit Chakraborty, Purbita Chatterjee, Tanmoy Chakraborty and Sayan Mondal, published in the International Journal of Advanced Research in Computer and Communication Engineering (IJARCCE). Their study aimed to estimate carbon stock losses using national carbon stock inventory. Calculations were based on datasets of area land use and land cover (LU/LC) created from Bhuvan thematic satellite data and a dataset of carbon stock from India State Forest Carbon Stock for different forest types. Carbon pools were calculated for the four forest types in the 210 sq km study area. Evergreen/Semi Evergreen accounts for the largest area at nearly 136 sq km and there are smaller areas of Deciduous, Swamp/Mangrove and Plantation forests. The study estimated that implementation of the ‘Sustainable Development of Little Andaman - Vision Document’ would result in carbon stock loss of 2,996.286 tonnes from five categories of carbon pools. Most of the carbon stock loss, 55%, would be from woody debris and soil organic matter, with 32% from above ground living biomass, 9% from below ground biomass, 3% from dead mass of litter and 1% from dead wood .
Threat to Giant Leatherback Turtle nesting sites
The Little Andaman development plan poses a threat to nesting sites of Giant Leatherback Turtles, the only turtle species with a leather-like flexible carapace rather than a bony shell. Growing over six feet in length and weighing up to 1 tonne these are the world’s largest turtles. Many populations, including Malaysia, Costa Rica and the east Pacific, are in precipitous decline. In a letter dated 19th January 2021 Prakash Javadekar, Union minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, in an introduction to the National Marine Turtle Action Plan, a document released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) identifying threats to these marine species and activities for mitigation, noted that five species of marine turtles are found in Indian marine waters and are accorded very high protection status . The Andaman and Nicobar islands are prominent in the plan. All of India’s important sea turtle nesting habitats are classified as ‘Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas’; South Bay and West Bay on Little Andaman, along with other nesting beaches on the islands are specifically mentioned as ‘Important Marine Turtles Habitats in India’ .
The Marine Turtle Action Plan offers a roadmap for five years. In a Mongabay-India article Rosamma Thomas argues that, as sea turtles are slow-maturing and long-lived, longer-term studies are needed. There are fears that, if NITI Aayog’s vision is implemented, the leatherbacks will be pushed to the brink of extinction. A January 2021 meeting of the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), chaired by Javadekar, directed preparation of a comprehensive management plan to be prepared and followed by the Andaman and Nicobar Administration for conservation and protection of leatherback turtles in Great Nicobar Islands. A meeting note that the Administration shall bring more areas under provisions for conservation of leatherback turtles is relevant to nesting sites in Little Andaman that are among the most important in the entire island chain. South Bay and West Bay are both high-intensity nesting sites that would be impacted by the Little Andaman development plan . A 7km stretch of West Bay had been the site of ongoing marine turtles research since the 2004 tsunami, by the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team ANET), Dakshin Foundation, Indian Institute of Science and the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Department .
Under the leadership of the Chennai-based Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) a number of turtle researchers banded together to launch a signature campaign against NITI Aayog’s plans for Little Andaman and Great Nicobar. Leader of the campaign, Arun Venkataraman of SSTCN, 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.” Secretary of Rushikulya Sea Turtles Protection Committee, Odisha, said “We are shocked to know about the proposed projects in the islands which are the nesting site of leatherback turtles. We have signed this petition” .
In 2019, a report submitted to the government on a long-term monitoring programme at Little Andaman island – at South Bay and West Bay – indicated that Great Leatherback Turtle nesting recovered substantially after the 2004 tsunami. One component of this project identified previously unknown migratory routes of turtles nesting in the region, highlighting their dependence upon foraging and nesting sites that are thousands of kilometres apart. Between 2011 and 2014 ten adult female turtles were tagged with satellite transmitters and monitored regularly using the Satellite Tracking Analysis Tool (STAT). Data from one turtle was not transmitted but the nine tracked turtles traversed much of the Indian Ocean, as far southeast as Western Australia and in a southwest direction towards the eastern coast of Africa. One tagged turtle travelled 6,713km to the coast of Western Australia, one turtle travelled 12,328km to the northeastern coast of Madagascar and another travelled close to the western coast of Mozambique. This turtle travelled the furthest, covering a distance of 13,237km in 266 days; it was also the fastest, travelling an average of 49.8km per day .