Tribal council withdrew NOC for contentious Nicobar plan
A report released by the Andaman and Nicobar administration earlier this year said the Tribal Council welcomed the project
The Tribal Council of Little and Great Nicobar had in November 2022 withdrawn the no-objection certificate (NOC) given in August that year for diversion of land — roughly half of which is tribal reserve land — for the controversial Great Nicobar Township and other infrastructure projects, documents seen by HT suggest.
The withdrawal of the permission was after the council said it was not informed that the land being marked for development included areas and villages that the communities lived in prior to the 2004 tsunami disaster. This is the first time this information is coming to light. Instead, a report released by the Andaman and Nicobar administration earlier this year said the Tribal Council welcomed the project.
A tribal council is a local elected unit, and its approval for land diversion is crucial for forest clearances, much in the same way that a gram sabha’s nod holds weight. The tribal council is elected by captains of each village who are, in turn, picked by residents of the village or hamlets.
According to documents seen by HT, the office of the tribal council wrote to Union environment ministry commissioner-cum-secretary (Environment and Forests) of Andaman and Nicobar and Amardeep Raju, member secretary of the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee on November 22 last year stating that they are withdrawing their NOC.
There have been several oversights in the process, the letter, seen by HT, said. The forest clearance to the project for diversion of 130.75 sq km was granted on October 27 last year, with plans to turn the southern most parts of the archipelago into settlements, with shipping ports and an airport, at one of the country’s most untouched regions in a ₹72,000 crore exercise.
After widespread criticism over the project, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on April 3 constituted a committee to look into the process, assigning a Union environment ministry representative to oversee an inquiry related to their own department – a probe experts questioned.
“As you are well aware, 84.10 sqkm of this diverted forest is a tribal reserve which is now set to be denotified. We were not made aware of this information, nor were we shown on a map the extent of the Tribal Reserve area that falls within the proposed plan. We were shocked and distressed to learn that parts of our pre-Tsunami villages of Chingenh (along the south east coast) and Kokeon, Pulo Pacca, Pulo Baha and In-haeng-loi (along the southwest coast which are affiliated to the largest Great Nicobarese village Pulo Bhabhi) also will be denotified and diverted as part of holistic development plan of Great Nicobar,” the letter said.
The denotification plan also includes three regions occupied seasonally and as periodic camps to forage and collect produce from jungle food gardens by the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group, the Shompen. “We express our strong disagreement to this decision and demand that the forest clearance and the denotification of our Tribal Reserve be revoked and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation 1956, Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (RoFR) Act, 2006 and the Shompen Policy 2015 be implemented in letter and spirit,” the letter added.
The council pointed out that in 2019, the Niti Aayog had commissioned a report to document stakeholders’ views on the project. The council and other members of indigenous communities had mentioned that they did not want tourism or other development activities on their land and that they wish to go back to their original homelands in Chingenh and Pulo Bhabhi.
During a public hearing in January last year at Campbell Bay, Barnabas Manju, chairman of the Southern Nicobar Tribal Council, said that although the council supported the development of Great Nicobar Island, they would want to return to their ancestral villages.
The letter has stated that even during the public hearing , tribal members were not informed that their tribal areas (including specific pre-Tsunami villages) would be de-notified and that the transhipment port and township accommodation for non-islanders , built on areas where their traditional settlements used to be. They were also not told that “the forests and foreshore reefs in that area will be destroyed and sea will be reclaimed,” the letter added.
The letter went on to say that the Environment Impact Assessment finalised in March 2022 did not mention “the matter of our relocation”… which “indicates the project proponent wanted to conceal our rightful ownership of that area from the EAC committee so that the project gets forest and environment clearance”.
The council said it had several meetings with district officials between August 13 and 16, and wrote to Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands on August 20 seeking tribals to access original lands and restoring the rights of the PVTG Shompen tribe.
“We declare the NOC signed by the chairman of the Little and Great Nicobar Tribal Council, Mr Barnabas Manju dated August 16, 2022 stands nullified as the proceedings of the meeting of the sub-division level committee, Campbell Bay, Nicobar district were added after his signature and do not reflect the statements of the Nicobarese community or the Tribal Welfare Officer, Andaman Adim Janajati Vikas Samiti,” the letter said.
Report has contradictory claims
The Andaman and Nicobar Administration’s public hearing report, which came out on January 3 this year, a copy of which has been reviewed by HT, states that members of the Tribal Council welcomed the project as it would generate ample employment and increase tourism activity. Barnabas Manju, chairman of the Great Nicobar-based Tribal Council, for example, is said to have consented to the project and submitted that there would be no loss to tribal communities as they were relocated and settled in Tsunami shelters in Campbell Bay.
HT on Wednesday sought a response from the union environment ministry on whether Tribal Council withdrew the NOC for diversion of forest and tribal land last November but no response was received.
To ostensibly make up for the 84.10 square km of tribal reserve land that is being diverted for the proposed project, the Andaman and Nicobar administration proposed to re-notify 45.23 sq. km of land within Campbell Bay National Park and Galathea National Park as tribal land.
But the tribal communities insist on keeping their original land.
“We have been clear that we want to return to our ancestral villages where the project is coming up, once we were informed that these areas will be de-notified. After being moved to tsunami shelters, our lives have been very difficult and dependent on resources from outside. We are originally completely dependent on forests and would want to go back to foraging and tending to plantations in our land. Most importantly, losing access to our lands will be very damaging for our future generations and our Shompen brothers. There are around 120 people in Chinghenh and 110 in Pulo Bhabhi. We are not against development projects but we want complete access and ownership to our lands as it is, in a forested condition,” Manju said in Hindi over a call from Great Nicobar.
“I am not aware of these concerns. The public hearing last year was taken by another DC. Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited (ANIIDCO) may have details,” said Hari Kallikkat, deputy commissioner, Nicobar.
Experts urge caution for tribes
Great Nicobar has four communities: the Great Nicobarese, who lived along the south-eastern and up to the mid-western coast of the island, the Little Nicobarese, who lived from the mid-western coast to the northern coast; the various Shompen bands, who are scattered in the interiors of forests and valleys; and migrants and settlers who occupy revenue settlements along the east coast.
Anthropologists at the Indian Anthropological Association, who had written to VV Dinesh Kumar, member secretary of Andaman Nicobar Pollution Control Committee ahead of the public hearing last year, called for great care and precaution when it comes to the lands of Shompen and Great Nicobarese people.
“Several dwellings and foraging grounds of the southern group of Shompens are close (within 1-2 km) to the sites (of the projects). Additionally, Nicobarese settlements that were relocated post-tsunami and desire to move back to their old dwellings will forever lose their ancestral land. The existing plan has not consulted any of these two tribes despite it being a requirement stipulated by the Expert Appraisal Committee (MoEFCC, GoI) in their Terms of Reference (ToR) for socioeconomic assessment. They will be the worst-affected victims of these landscape-altering plans. The social impact assessment executed by the EIA consultant has procedural lapses, illegally performed and is far removed from the sensitivities required to comprehend the fragile relationship of the tribes with the island and the existing frailties (owing to rampant modernisation) that they are already enduring,” the anthropologists wrote.
“They (the Great Nicobarese) are shocked that the proposal envisaged other people will be living in those areas as tourists and as ICTT personnel rather than they and their children. It’s their bonafide right to return and use their own homeland,” said Manish Chandi, who works in the islands on the interface between communities and the natural environment and is former member of Tribal Welfare and Research Advisory Board.
“The project bringing in a large number of people and various infrastructure, using part of the island as a transhipment terminal will lead to indigenous islanders losing exclusive access and ownership of lands that were originally theirs to begin with. The Great Nicobarese villages of Hingloi, Pulo Bha, Pulo Pucca, Kokeon, Inhaeng loi, and Chingenh are the hamlets of the Great Nicobarese which will be consumed in totality,” Chandi said.
“The Shompen settlements which will be affected are Kirasis, Kurchinom, Buja yae and Re Pakao, all in the interior forests neighbouring Great Nicobarese settlements. The Great Nicobarese and some Shompen bands have always had a sharing and mutually beneficial exchange economy that each determined on their own terms and turf, while ensuring conflict was minimised or non-existent especially for livelihood resources,” said the tribal research expert.
“The southern Shompen foraging grounds of swamps, marshes and evergreen riparian forests along the Galathea river will be irreversibly destroyed. These areas provide food and nutritional security which they have utilised for thousands of years,” Chandi explained. “This is going to be seriously irreversibly damaged by the project before we (outsiders) have even got a basic understanding of the system.”
The ₹72,000-crore Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands project proposed by Niti Aayog involves building an international container transhipment terminal, an international airport with a capacity for 4,000 passengers, a township and area development, as well as a 450 MVA gas and solar based-power plant over an extent of 16,610 hectares in the Great Nicobar Islands.
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