The Great Nicobar Island Development Project | UPSC

Introduction

  • The NITI Aayog’s conceived ‘The Great Nicobar Island Development Project‘ is currently facing protests and appeals to halt the project on environmental grounds by conservationists, naturalists, various political parties, and civil society groups.
  • Promoted as a ‘mega-infrastructure project‘ and a ‘strategic masterstroke‘ by NITI Aayog, the project is significant for defense, logistics, commerce, industries, and eco-tourism.
  • A comprehensive evaluation of the benefits and risks associated with the project is necessary.

What is the Great Nicobar Island Development Project?

  • Overview: The project involves a Rs 72,000-crore infrastructure upgrade on Great Nicobar Island, implemented by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO).
  • Scope: The project spans 16,610 hectares and aims to leverage the island’s strategic location near the Malacca Strait.
  • Components:
      • International Container Transshipment Terminal (ICTT)
      • Greenfield international airport
      • Two greenfield cities
      • Coastal mass rapid transport system
      • Free trade zone

Geography 

  • Location: Great Nicobar is the southernmost tip of India, part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago comprising around 600 islands.
  • Terrain: The island is hilly, covered with lush rainforests, and receives around 3,500 mm of annual rainfall.
  • Biodiversity: The rainforests and beaches host endangered and endemic species like the giant leatherback turtle, Nicobar megapode, Great Nicobar crake, Nicobar crab-eating macaque, and Nicobar tree shrew.
  • Area: The island covers 910 sq km with mangroves and Pandan forests along its coast.

Significance 

Geo-strategic Benefit:

      • Located close to the Malacca Strait, the project aims to enhance India’s role in the regional and global maritime economy.
      • The strategic position is crucial for controlling maritime traffic between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Geo-Security Concerns:

      • Strengthening India’s maritime security in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean region is vital, especially with increasing Chinese naval presence.
      • The project includes upgrading military infrastructure, such as airfields, jetties, and surveillance facilities.

Economic Boost:

      • The International Container Transshipment Terminal (ICTT) will position Great Nicobar as a key player in cargo transshipment.
      • This could significantly boost economic activities in the region, similar to the transshipment hubs of Singapore and Colombo.

Job Creation:

      • Infrastructure development (ports, airports, etc.) will create job opportunities for locals.
      • Improved employment prospects can enhance the overall economic well-being of the island’s inhabitants.

Tourism Development:

      • The project aims to develop eco-tourism, contributing to income generation in the region.
      • The per capita income in Andaman & Nicobar Islands was Rs. 1,24,361 in 2015-16, lower than other Union Territories like Chandigarh, Delhi, and Puducherry.

Social Benefits:

      • The project includes developing affordable state-of-the-art facilities for healthcare, quality education, and improved infrastructure.
      • It will also facilitate e-governance services such as telemedicine and tele-education as part of the Digital India initiative.

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Associated Concerns

Threat to Biodiversity:

      • Nearly a million trees could be felled, potentially devastating the island’s ecosystem, including coral reefs and endangered species like the Nicobar Megapode and leatherback turtles.
      • Compensatory afforestation is planned in Haryana, which does not mitigate the local environmental impact.

Threat to Indigenous Tribes:

      • The project endangers the rights of the Shompen and Nicobarese tribes, violating the Forest Rights Act (2006), which grants them authority to protect and manage their land.
      • Increased contact with outsiders poses health risks to these tribes, who may lack immunity to certain diseases.

Seismic Vulnerability:

      • The proposed port is in a seismically volatile zone, which experienced significant subsidence during the 2004 tsunami.
      • Constructing large-scale infrastructure in a disaster-prone area raises concerns about safety and viability.

Lack of Adequate Consultation:

      • The project has been pushed through without sufficient deliberation with stakeholders like the Tribal Council.
      • The National Green Tribunal’s high-powered committee’s report reviewing environmental clearances has not been made public.

Undermining International Obligations:

      • The Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located on the island.
      • Preserving this biodiversity is an international obligation for India.

Lack of Adequate Social Impact Assessment:

      • The Campbell Bay panchayat has raised concerns about the lack of social impact assessments before land acquisition.
      • Increased contact with outsiders poses health risks to the Shompen tribe, who may lack immunity to certain diseases.

Economic Unviability:

      • The aspiration to replicate Singapore/Hong Kong duty-free ports/free trade zones on remote Great Nicobar Island, without a hinterland, resources, or industrial backup, is economically unrealistic.
      • The island is 2,000 km from major Indian ports like Chennai and Kolkata, questioning the feasibility of another transshipment terminal.

Way Forward

Respect Tribal Rights:

      • Development must prioritize tribal rights, adhering to policies like the Shompen Policy of 2015, which prioritizes tribal rights over large-scale development.

Separate Security and Development:

      • Address the security needs of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands separately from the development plans for Great Nicobar Island.

Reassess Economic Feasibility:

      • Reevaluate the economic viability of the transshipment terminal, considering its distance from established hubs like Singapore, Port Klang, and Hambantota.
      • The inauguration of India’s own transshipment terminal in Vizhinjam, Kerala, adds another layer of consideration.

Conduct Proper Assessments:

      • Ensure detailed environmental and social impact assessments, as mandated by the Environment Protection Act 1986, for all construction under the development plan.

Adopt Eco-friendly Practices:

      • Use eco-friendly construction practices, adhering to standards like the GRIHA code for sustainable building.

Maintain Transparency:

      • NITI Aayog and planning agencies should maintain transparency in data, releasing information on the project’s rationale and consultations with stakeholders.

Enhance International Cooperation:

      • Collaborate with countries like Japan and South Korea to develop successful island development models.

Explore Other Islands:

      • Consider developing other islands in the Nicobar group, such as Little Nicobar, Nancowry, Kamorta, and Katchall, to distribute the environmental and social impact.

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Conclusion

  • India must aim to achieve the vision of “Happy and Prosperous Islanders on ecologically-protected Islands.”
  • Development plans should be technically feasible, economically profitable, and socially acceptable to ensure sustainable progress while protecting the environment and respecting indigenous rights.

 

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