Great Nicobar Island: Sinking Risk from India’s Megaproject?

Great Nicobar Island: Sinking Risk from India's Megaproject?

Great Nicobar Island: Sinking Risk from India's Megaproject?

India plans to create its own version of “Hong Kong” on the untouched Great Nicobar island. However, activists are concerned that this development could not only harm the environment but also lead to the extinction of the indigenous islanders.

The Indian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has proposed a significant investment of $9 billion (€ 8.38 billion) to develop India’s Great Nicobar island into a major military and trade center. However, this ambitious plan has sparked worries among environmentalists, scientists, and civic organizations who are concerned about the potential damage it may cause to the island’s unique ecosystem.

In addition to environmental concerns, there are also apprehensions about the impact on the indigenous communities, particularly the Shompen people. These hunter-gatherer communities have inhabited Great Nicobar for thousands of years, with minimal interaction with the outside world.

India’s easternmost territory

Great Nicobar Island: Sinking Risk from India's Megaproject?

Indian authorities emphasize that China’s growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean is driving the development of Great Nicobar Island. They emphasize that the island’s strategic location is crucial for security and trade purposes.

Situated approximately 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) to the east of India’s mainland, the island is in close proximity to Indonesia’s Sumatra and just a few hundred kilometers away from Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. Presently, it is home to about 8,000 inhabitants.

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The Indian government has given its approval for several exciting projects on the 1,000-square-kilometer island. These include an international container terminal, a dual-use airport, a power plant utilizing gas, diesel, and solar energy, and a brand new township. These developments are expected to significantly increase the island’s population, bringing it into the hundreds of thousands.

One of the key factors contributing to the success of the port, which will be located in Galathea Bay, is its proximity to the Malacca Strait, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

The government has been making great progress with the plans, securing various approvals, clearances, and exemptions over the past three years. This has led many to compare the project to the creation of India’s own “Hong Kong” on Great Nicobar Island.

Sarbananda Sonowal, India‘s minister of ports, shipping, and waterways, assured reporters that the government is fully committed to the island’s development and has addressed any environmental concerns raised by stakeholders.

Cutting down the rainforest

Plans to transform Great Nicobar Island into a defense and trade hub pose a threat to its rainforest, with the potential to cut down approximately 852,000 trees. If implemented, this initiative would cause irreversible damage to the island’s pristine tropical rainforests, considered among the best-preserved in the world.

Environmentalists have raised concerns about the negative impact of constructing a large port at Galathea Bay. This port would disrupt a sensitive nesting area for leatherback sea turtles and pose a threat to various species, including dolphins, saltwater crocodiles, Nicobar crab-eating macaque, and migratory birds. Additionally, the coral reef along the bay’s coast could be destroyed during the dredging process for the port’s construction, as warned by India’s environmental watchdog EIA.

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The proposed development also involves building a township, airport, and thermal power plant in areas with dense forest cover, which would have a significant impact on biodiversity, according to the EIA’s draft report. Activists have further highlighted the potential risks of a massive demographic shift and depletion of natural resources, which could endanger and potentially lead to the extinction of indigenous communities on the island.

Is the Shompen community facing extinction?

Great Nicobar Island: Sinking Risk from India's Megaproject?

Survival International, a human rights organization based in London, has raised concerns about the future of the Shompen tribe, a local community consisting of approximately 300 individuals. According to the organization, the Shompens are at risk of complete extinction.

Survival International Director Caroline Pearce expressed her disbelief at the idea that the Shompen people would be able to survive the drastic changes happening on their island. She also highlighted the potential consequences if the Indian authorities succeed in transforming the island into the “Hong Kong of India.” Pearce emphasized that any future residents should be aware that this development would be built upon the ancestral lands and graves of the Shompen people.

Survival International further emphasizes that, like other hunter-gatherer communities, the Shompen possess a deep understanding of their forest environment and utilize the island’s flora in various ways.

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Relocating to an area prone to earthquakes

In a recent development, a group of scholars from various countries have expressed their concerns regarding the construction activities in a letter addressed to President Droupadi Murmu of India. They have urged her to halt the construction due to the potential risks associated with the expected demographic shift. These experts, including those specializing in genocide, have warned that an estimated 650,000 settlers moving into the area would result in an alarming 8,000% increase in population, ultimately leading to the extinction of the Shompen community.

Mark Levene, a fellow at the University of Southampton in the UK, emphasized the detrimental impact of this demographic shift. He stated, “The people will not be able to maintain their way of life within this framework. The individuals residing there will not only suffer physically, but they will also face psychological destruction. It will be a fatal blow to them.”

However, it is not just the local tribes that are at risk. The influx of such a large population would also mean placing hundreds of thousands of people in one of the most seismically active regions in the world. The Great Nicobar region experienced a devastating earthquake measuring 9.3 on the Richter Scale in 2004, which triggered the deadliest tsunami ever recorded.

Bhupesh Tewari, who works closely with indigenous groups in India’s Chhattisgarh, criticized the project, stating, “This project lacks any rational basis. It comes at an exorbitant cost and will result in the destruction of the environment and the violation of the rights of indigenous people.”

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