Report: Sarpreet Kaur

Port Blair, March 8: Andaman and Nicobar Islands- a small strip of merrily floating lands around 1200 km off the coast of Chennai is a land of lush green forest and dancing aquamarine waves. Islands known for their unrivalled beauty, flourishing wildlife, incredible tribes and infamous tsunami have been gaining quite an interest from our nation’s think tanks and government for their untapped resources hidden warmly in the lap of nature.

Plan named “Sustainable development of Little Andaman Island vision document” by NITI Aayog recently announced by the government of India has caught the attention of all the stakeholders. This plan is an overshoot of the wider strategy promulgated by the government under the vision of the Holistic Development of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. This project aims to develop a Greenfield coastal city in the date unhindered island called Little Andaman. The plan underlines bigger ambitions of making Little Andaman capable of competing with Singapore and Hong Kong in terms of trade activity in the mighty Indian Ocean.

Owing to the strategic location of Little Andaman, its proximity to the open sea and the wide variety of marine and forest resources this island has caught the eye. It also corroborates with India’s highly ambitious “Act East Policy” ensuring better connectivity with the East India region. However, it has raised many eyebrows especially among environmentalists, activists and tribal leaders due to the ecological sensitivity of the area.

“The project to a larger extent may cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem and Bio-diversity of the Islands. A large part of the Little Andaman Island has either marsh or sand while the main cultivable soil parts (ranging from Janata Tekri to Ramkrishna Pur) are covered by the red palm plantation. So the cultivable land as compared to the size of the island is meagre. The limited cultivable land shall receive reduced rainfall with the degradation of forests in the island under the proposed project”, echoed an expert in the field of anthropology while expressing his concerns over the ambitious Greenfield project.

“The parts of Little Andaman Island were initially declared as ‘Tribal Reserve’ in 1956-7. In 1964 some forest areas were cleared under a rehabilitation scheme to resettle refugees from East Pakistan and repatriates from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This continued till the early-1970s. During the 1970s two modifications were made by which some areas were de-notified from the Tribal Reserve”, he the anthropologist explained.

“The Onges before their resettlement in 1976 at South Bay and Dugong Creek had free movement in the islands especially in the south, north, middle and north-west (Jackson Creek). After the Tsunami disaster of 2004, the Onge families of South Bay were shifted to Dugong Creek. But their movements from Dugong Creek to South Bay and other parts of the islands including North Brother Island and South Brother Island with their canoes were observed from time to time, he adds.

“Under the proposed project it has been argued and further may be argued that since the Onges do not live in certain parts, the same may be brought under the projected development. It must NOT be forgotten that the Onges have a close attachment with their territory be it inhabited or not”, the anthropologist expressed.

In layman’s term, a Greenfield Coastal City is an underdeveloped area where nature dominates in its essence and using a variety of developing measures, an entity proposes to transform it into a developed yet ecologically sustainable city. Chandigarh is considered India's first Greenfield City. Sustainability and Equality are the most striking features of such projects. How the term ‘Greenfield’ can be instilled in the proposed project is still ambiguous.

The Government proposes to develop a state of the art infrastructure which involves casinos, underwater resorts, golf courses, convention centres, plug and play offices, a dedicated drone port, nature cure centre, all type aircraft international airport and also aims to make it capable of handling an ample amount of trade to make this little island a string competitor of pre-existing hot shot countries dominating in terms of trade in the Indian ocean. It also looks forward to increasing the defence capability of the country in the revered ocean.

Though the government assures that the aim of developing the city is not only for the greater good of India, it also carries a motive of developing the grounds to make the island more prosperous and bring about many advantages to the natives. These include more job opportunities, facilitating self-employment, generating sufficient income, providing state of the art health facilities, making available high quality of education and better connectivity via all routes- sea, air and web alike.

“This project nothing but a blow to the ecology of the islands, as the dense tropical rainforests which cover more than 50 percent of the island, supports very high biodiversity, many of them endemic”, an environmentalist and researcher commented while expressing her displeasure over the project. The environmentalist has served in the islands for half a decade or more.

“Little Andaman also supports nesting grounds for Leatherback Sea Turtles and form critical habitats for the State Animal Dugong. Both the species are listed in schedule 1 (Indian Wildlife Protection Act 1972), and it’s nothing but important to conserve them”, the concerned environmentalist said.

“The population of Dugongs is already dwindling and Little Andaman supports their population. Leatherback take long migratory routes and come back to the nesting grounds of Little Andaman, highlighting the importance of these regions for species conservation”, she observed”.

In detail, this project aims to introduce three zones in the new city to be formed.

Zone 1 would be developed in 102 sq km on the east coast which will include financial district, Medicity, Aerocity and Hospital.

Zone 2 which is proposed to be around 52 sq km includes the immaculate forests that would be replaced by a Film City, Residential District and Tourism SEZ.

Zone 3 would consist of an Exclusive forest resort, Nature healing district and Nature retreat. It has also been proposed to develop a 100 km Greenfield ring road connecting east to west to facilitate mass rapid transit.

However many ecological and cultural hurdles have to be crossed before the initiation of this project. The underlying theme of the project is the development of islands through innovation and creativity. Lots of innovation has to be carried out to balance the ecological sensitivity of the islands with the proposed development and an equal amount of creativity has to be applied to preserve the tribal’s sanctity and culture along with the impending modernization.

“This proposed project is nothing but a disaster, an extremely hasty and money-driven vision, completely disregarding the sentiments of the indigenous people of the island, the Onges”, observed the researcher.

“How many onges have been contacted to know if they are okay with being displaced?? Imagine somebody walking to your place and offering a comfortable life elsewhere and asking you to leave! All you see is, this place you call home crumbles right in front of your eyes.

“Does the proposed work, even consider the sense of belonging Onges have to the place”, she questions.

Little Andaman is a tiny sleepy mass of land known as the home to the Onge tribe. This island lazes around happily on the southern end of the Andaman archipelago, 88 km from the capital city of Port Blair. The area comes under the Administration of South Andaman. It covers an area of around 700 km2 opening its wide arms towards the Bay of Bengal. At present Little, Andaman houses its original residents Onge, Nicobarese, Bangladeshi Refugee Settlers and few other people from Mainland India.

“The South Bay area and its vicinity have another tribal settlement i.e. Harminder Bay and a Light House which is important from the security point of view too. The Harminder Bay people (Nicobarese) do still maintain their ethnic culture and lifestyle utilizing the land allotted to them under their rehabilitation scheme introduced in the 1970s. Their land values should be given respect by leaving it undisturbed”, the expert anthropologist explains.   

“The Onges are gradually increasing population and now they are 125. The present existing settlement may not be enough in future for the increased number of the Onges. The situation may arise again for a search of another land for their new or second settlement. Secondly, they are not like Jarawas who are territorial tribes. The Onges are good sea-farers and they navigate between the lands by their traditional canoes in course of their hunting and fishing. So in this factual view, it may not be a good decision that the area notified in their interest be made de-notified only on the ground that they are not living at the respective place presently”.

“The Onges still call different areas by their names named after their communal huts ‘Beyras’. They perform their rituals out of the Dugong Creek in the areas where their members died. For example – one Onge Koirah died in the way between VK Pur and Dugong Creek in 2006 and they performed the death ritual at the place of his death. Land alienation may be construed by them as a ‘socio-cultural damage’ and a psychological shock.  The Onges still go to distant places in search of wild pig, honey and ethnobotanical medicines”, he went on to explain.

The tribal affairs expert and the environmentalist presented a cultural as well as ecological effect that this little island has to bore once development sets foot on this land. Till now, Little Andaman which can be approached by the only jetty at Hut Bay is dominated by nature in an ingrained essence with lands dotted by small shacks selling necessities while being fanned by tilted coconut trees. Nature smiles here wide with its open shores and glistening blue sea. But under this blue and green magic lies a highly sensitive ground that is easily shaken even with the tiniest of the change.

 “The entire Andaman & Nicobar falls in the fault line. The landmass is vulnerable, tsunami being the best example I can give. How is this not even considered in the vision document”, the environmentalist cried.

“In my opinion, this project is a blunder in its own, completely targeted to make lives better for the privileged ones, ignoring the marginalized communities. A completed disrespect to the ecology of the island, and cultural heritage too.

“If this happens, it would be just a beginning of the apocalypse”, adds the research scholar.

Expressing deep anguish over the ambitious project the anthropologist said, “The ‘forests’ even a child understands are an abode of endemic flora and fauna. I don’t think I am required to make the government understand the impact of the deforestation under the proposed project”.

The concerns of the eminent experts and researchers who have toiled hard on the grounds of Andaman and Nicobar are something that cannot be shunned away. The NITI Aayog document itself presents a vague picture of the proposed plan with many crucial points presented in an open-ended manner. Is the basic model of development usually carried applicable to Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ ecologically? What kind of sustainable solution can be presented to act on the concerns mentioned? How will this project handle the agenda of conserving indigenous tribes as well as preserving animal habitat? There are many question marks for which there might not be an immediate answer available but the need to dive deep into these concerns seems like the need of the hour.