Great Nicobar island remains out of bounds as project controversy rages on

ByJayashree Nandi, New Delhi
May 26, 2023 08:43 AM IST

Activists, residents claimed the restriction on non-islanders was imposed to curb criticism against the project - Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island.

The timeline goes thus:

The Great Nicobar Township project met with criticism, prompting NGT to set up a panel to look into its approval (Shutterstock)(HT_PRINT)
The Great Nicobar Township project met with criticism, prompting NGT to set up a panel to look into its approval (Shutterstock)(HT_PRINT)

HT reported on May 21 that there were restrictions on non-islanders travelling to Great Nicobar.

On May 24, the Directorate of Shipping Services (DSS), Andaman and Nicobar administration, tweeted that tickets to Campbell Bay-bound passenger vessels could be availed through STARS e-ticketing portal from 9am on May 25.

On May 25, several non-islanders and HT tried to book online tickets to Campbell Bay but failed, with the DSS website clearly mentioning the provision of booking tickets from Port Blair or Chennai to Campbell Bay was allowed only for islanders. But, tickets from Campbell Bay to Port Blair and Chennai were available for non-islanders also.

Read: Great Nicobar plan needs transparency

Asked why non-islanders were being barred from travelling to Campbell Bay, which is not a tribal area and is usually open to tourists, the Andaman and Nicobar administration did not respond to HT’s queries till the time of this report going to print. On May 19, in response to a separate batch of queries by HT, the administration had said that travel to Nicobar is permitted, however, visits to tribal area requires a tribal pass as per the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation.

The DSS website said on Thursday: “Passengers travelling to Nicobar group of islands must possess tribal pass... foreign nationals are not permitted to travel beyond Hut Bay (Little Andaman).” Nicobar district has three sub-divisions – Car Nicobar, Nancowry and Great Nicobar. Campbell bay is a part of Great Nicobar Island, and is open for Indian tourists.

HT’s May 21 report cited activists and residents who claimed the restriction on non-islanders, was imposed to curb criticism against the 72,000 crore project called the Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration is concerned about outsiders influencing the views of indigenous people living there on the infrastructure project, they said.

“Non-islanders are not being allowed into the Great Nicobar area, including Campbell Bay. Only those with islander passes, which is proof that they are residents of Campbell Bay, can enter the village or enter Great Nicobar by air or ships,” a member of the elected panchayat (village council) of Great Nicobar said over the phone on condition of anonymity.

“Campbell Bay is not a tribal area and entry of non-islanders was permitted here before. It’s only being imposed in the past couple of months.”

Read: Online tickets to Andaman and Nicobar islands back amid project row

The 72,000 crore development project proposed by Niti Aayog involves building an international container transhipment terminal, an international airport with a capacity to handle 4,000 passengers every day, a township and area development, as well as a 450 MVA gas and solar based-power plant over 16,610 hectares in the island. The project has drawn widespread criticism from former bureaucrats, retired-defence personnel, legal experts, tribal rights activists, parliamentarians, financial analysts, anthropologists, seismologists and ecologists because of the possible wide-ranging impact of the project on tribes and the fragile ecology of the region which is highly vulnerable to seismic hazard.

The Tribal Council of Little and Great Nicobar had in November 2022 withdrawn the no-objection certificate (NOC) given in August last year for diversion of forest land, roughly half of which is tribal reserve land, for the controversial Great Nicobar township and other infrastructure projects, HT reported on April 14.

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 the communities lived in prior to the 2004 tsunami. The forest clearance to the project for diversion of 130.75 sqkm was granted on October 27 last year.

“As you are well aware, 84.10 sqkm of this diverted forest is a tribal reserve which is now set to be de-notified. 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,” the letter by the Tribal Council said. “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.”

“We are aware of the restrictions imposed on outsiders. We are not against the development project but we want to return to our ancestral villages,” a tribal council member said last week over phone, seeking anonymity. “We are hoping to get a response from the government on sparing our ancestral villages.”

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has constituted a high-powered committee headed by the secretary, Union environment ministry to revisit the environmental clearance (EC) granted by the environment ministry to the Great Nicobar township and area development and other infrastructure projects involving an area of 16,610 hectares in the ecologically fragile islands. Environmentalists have questioned the wisdom of having the secretary of the very ministry that granted EC to review it.

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