A view of the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve on the Great Nicobar Island. Photo by Prasun Goswami/Wikimedia Commons.

India - The container terminal that could sink the Great Nicobar Island

The government of India is pursuing a massive development project involving a container terminal, airport, township, and a power plant on the Great Nicobar Island in the strategically important Andaman and Nicobar Islands region.

  • The project has raised alarm bells among environmentalists, scientists, wildlife experts, and civil society organisations. They highlight it would result in irreversible damage to the pristine rainforests as it involves cutting of about 852,000 trees.
  • Those opposing the project also highlight that it would adversely impact primitive tribal groups and wildlife including species such as leatherback turtles, saltwater crocodiles, Nicobar crab-eating macaque and migratory birds.
  • Civil society organisations have called for a revaluation of the project as they noted it falls in an active high-risk seismic zone.

The government of India is going all guns blazing on the “holistic development” of the Great Nicobar Island with a multi-component mega project. An international container trans-shipment terminal, a military-civil dual-use airport, a gas, diesel, and solar-based power plant, and a township are all planned on this island that spreads over 1,044 square kilometres – an area smaller than the National Capital Territory of Delhi. This proposed project is expected to lead to the cutting of over 852,000 trees and adversely impact avifauna, marine and terrestrial biodiversity including species such as the leatherback turtles, megapodes, corals, migratory birds and Nicobar crab-eating macaques. In addition, it is expected to impact the population of particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG) on the island.

The push for this mega project, estimated to cost about Rs. 750 billion (Rs. 75,000 crores), comes despite vociferous objection from environmental and wildlife experts and civil society organisations, who have highlighted many loopholes in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report of the project.

The Great Nicobar Island, which is the southernmost part of the Indian territory, is one of the most strategically important areas, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands region. In fact, it is closer to Myanmar and Sumatra than to the Indian mainland, and, in 2013, it was included in UNESCO’s biosphere programme. It is home to rich biodiversity and “an exceptional variety of wildlife”. According to the government, it has “one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world.”

The project was considered for environment clearance by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change’s (MoEFCC) expert appraisal committee (EAC), which deals with projects related to infrastructure development, during its meeting in May 2022. The EAC did not recommend environment and coastal regulation zone (CRZ) clearance for the project on account of additional information required to take a “well-informed decision”. The project requires at least 166.1 square kilometres (16,610 hectares) of land including a forest area of 130.75 sq. km. for which forest clearance has been sought separately.

But civil society members that are expressing concern about the project, fear it is just a matter of time before it is granted all the required clearances, considering the push for the project from the highest echelons of the Indian government including NITI Aayog, the federal think tank.

According to the minutes of the May 2022 meeting, the EAC tried to allay fears about the impact of the project on biodiversity and the local community. For instance, it observed that “areas proposed for any activity other than defense in the western coast of the GNI especially the areas of Pemayya Bay, Casuarina Bay and Alexandria Bay which can be used by Leatherback and other sea turtles and Nicobar Megapods and even by crocodiles as alternative nesting sites” should be excluded from the total project area.

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