Great Nicobar authorities restrict access to outsiders amid project controversy
The restriction on non-islanders has been imposed to curb criticism against the ₹72,000 crore project, conservationists alleged.
Non-islanders are not being allowed to enter Great Nicobar by the local administration, according to residents of Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar, conservationists and environmental activists from other parts of the country who have been following recent developments in the island.
The restriction on non-islanders has been imposed to curb criticism against the ₹72,000 crore project of the government think tank Niti Aayog called the Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island, they alleged. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration is concerned about outsiders influencing the views of indigenous people living there about the project, they said.
Also Read: Take a holistic view of the Nicobar project
“Non-islanders are not being allowed into 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. Its only being imposed in the past couple of months.”
The local administration, however, said access to Great Nicobar Island is permitted, but visit to tribal area requires pass as per regulations. Only some pockets of the island are inhabited by tribal people, access to which have always been restricted, the panchayat member said.
“There is no official notification on this, but common people who need to visit the island for some work or who are family members of islanders without an islander card are finding it difficult because getting a tribal pass is not easy,” he said. “We have not been told why the restriction is being imposed, but people are speculating that it is because non-islanders can influence the locals’ opinion on the Great Nicobar development project.”
Environmental groups who have been tracking developments in Great Nicobar are aware of this unofficial rule.
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“Both chopper and ship tickets are now unavailable to mainlanders and non-islanders (those without an island card),” a trader based in Campbell Bay said, declining to be named. “Every visit of a non-islander is not related to the Great Nicobar infrastructure project. Several kinds of visitors come here, like traders, tourists, wildlife photographers, birders, ecologists. The situation is becoming difficult for locals too.”
One can book a ticket for Great Nicobar only after getting a tribal area pass from the administration, officials at the Directorate of Shipping Services in Chennai said. Campbell Bay can be reached from Port Blair by helicopter or ship.
Elected members of the village council said they have written to chief secretary Keshav Chandra about the logistical problems with such restrictions.
HT sent queries to the chief secretary’s office on Friday. An assistant commissioner responded by saying: “With respect to the queries raised in your e-mail regarding travel to Nicobar Island, it is to state that travel to Nicobar is permitted. Further, visit to tribal area requires pass as per The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation.”
The Tribal Council of Little and Great Nicobar had in November 2022 withdrawn the no-objection certificate given for diversion of forest land in August last year, 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 that communities lived in prior to the 2004 tsunami. The forest clearance to the project for diversion of 130.75 sq km 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 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,” 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 on Saturday over phone, seeking anonymity. “We are hoping to get a response from the government on sparing our ancestral villages.”
To make up for the tribal reserve land that is being diverted for the proposed project, the local 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.
Great Nicobar has four communities: the Great Nicobarese, who live along the south-eastern and up to the mid-western coast of the island; the Little Nicobarese, who live 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.
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.
On April 3, the National Green Tribunal had constituted a committee headed by the Union environment secretary to revisit the environmental clearance to the project in the ecologically fragile island.
Also Read: NGT panel to review green nod for Greater Nicobar project
The tribunal issued the order after several discrepancies were pointed out by appellants, Mumbai-based non-profit Conservation Action Trust and ecologist Ashish Kothari, who had appealed against the environment and forest clearance granted to the project despite the severe impact it would have on rainforests and unique biodiversity of the region.
The appellants highlighted several deficiencies that need to be addressed by the committee and further work on environmental clearance should be halted until the panel’s findings are submitted except “for the work which may not be of irreversible nature,” the tribunal’s eastern bench headed by chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel had said.
The tribunal’s order may not help because the committee to review the clearance will be headed by the secretary of the same ministry that granted the permissions, experts have said.
The tribunal and the Centre have maintained that the project location is of strategic importance.
“Even the appellants have not joined issue on these aspects. While the Tribunal’s consideration is confined to material on record, we have also noted (without any comment) media reports that the area is located in China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy which is sought to be countered by Indian Authorities under India’s ‘Act East’ policy. Indian Ocean has emerged as a key intersection zone of Indian and Chinese strategic interests, ” the 64-page green tribunal’s order had said.
The Greater Nicobar Island has tropical wet evergreen forests, hill ranges nearly 650m high and coastal plains. There are 11 species of mammals, 32 species of birds, seven species of reptiles and four species of amphibians that are endemic, including the Crab-eating Macaque, Nicobar Tree Shrew, Dugong, Nicobar Megapode, Serpent Eagle, salt-water crocodile, marine turtles and Reticulated Python.
The region also has coral reefs with varied thicknesses and diversity. In a few areas, new coral formation has been seen. Along the coastal beaches of Great Nicobar Island, leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles are known to nest.