Tribal Concerns in Andaman-Nicobar Islands

News: The Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has denotified the entire Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to build port, trade zone on the Great Nicobar Island.

Details:

  • As part of the NITI Aayog-piloted ‘holistic’ and ‘sustainable’ vision for Great Nicobar Island, about 244 sq. km. of the island area would be developed as a trade zone.
  • The phase I of the project spread over 150 sq. km area of the island would include an airport complex, a trans-shipment port (TSP) at South Bay, a parallel-to-the-coast mass rapid transport system and a free trade zone and warehousing complex. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO) would act as the nodal agency.

Concerns:

Ecological concern:

  • Significant changes have been affected to the legal regimes for wildlife and forest conservation to allow for the development of the envisaged project. This could have an adverse impact on the ecology of the island.
  • Apart from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) denotifying the entire Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, an Environment Ministry expert committee has approved a “zero extent” Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ) for the Galathea NP to allow use of land in the south-eastern and south-western part of the island for the NITI Aayog plan. It proposes a zero extent ESZ for nearly 70% of the periphery of the park.
  • The phase I of the project would lead to clearance of the pristine forest on about 18% of the 910 sq. km. island, and will cover nearly a quarter of its coastline. The envisaged project seems to overlook the ecological uniqueness of the island.
  • Galathea Bay is included in Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ)-I, the zone with maximum protection.
  • The park, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, houses a range of forest types, and has one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world.
  • The beaches on the island, like at the mouth of the river Galathea in South Bay, are among the most prominent nesting sites globally of the Giant leather back. It for this reason that the bay was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1997. India’s National Marine Turtle Action Plan has listed Galathea Bay as one of the ‘Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas’ and ‘Important Marine Turtle Habitats’ in the country.
  • The envisaged project could prove detrimental to the biodiversity of the island.
  • The park is home to 648 species of flora and hosts 330 species of fauna including rare and endemic ones such as the Nicobar wild pig, Nicobar tree shrew, the Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, Nicobar paradise flycatcher and the Nicobar megapode.
  • The Nicobar megapode is a globally endangered bird unique to the Nicobars. Recent study on this species have documented 90% of this ground nesting bird’s nests to be within a distance of 30 m from the shore. The study had recommended that the entire west and southern coast of Great Nicobar be protected for the megapode and other wildlife like nesting marine turtles.

Tribal concerns:

  • The Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the indigenous Shompen community. The envisaged project poses threat to the Shompen community.
  • The proposed project areas are important foraging grounds for the hunter-gatherer nomadic community. Large forest areas on the island could become inaccessible and useless for the Shompen.

Geological vulnerability:

  • The available evidence seems to suggest that issues of the geological vulnerability of the islands have not been factored in.
  • The island remains vulnerable to Tsunami given its proximity to the geologically active ring of fire region. This raises questions over safety of life, property and the investments in this zone.
  • 8-metre-high tsunami waves have been observed at the Great Nicobar coast on December 26, 2004. There are also evidences of land subsidence of about 3-4 m post the Tsunami. Loss of life and property then was limited because the Great Nicobar coast is largely uninhabited.

Way forward:

  • The project will need to ensure that the welfare and integrity of Shompen community is given priority as envisaged in the Shompen Policy of 2015.
  • There is the need to protect the park from an ecological, environmental and biodiversity point of view.
  • The project should factor in the complex ecological, social and geological vulnerabilities of the region while planning and implementing the project.