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Will India's megaproject sink Great Nicobar island?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
February 20, 2024

India is determined to build its own "Hong Kong" on the pristine Great Nicobar island. Activists warn the impact could go beyond wrecking the environment — it could spell extinction for indigenous islanders.

A wooden boat at a white sand beach
Great Nicobar is part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which mark the eastern edge of the Bay of BengalImage: LensAndLuck//Pond5 Images/IMAGO

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is planning to invest $9 billion (€ 8.38 billion) to transform India's Great Nicobar island into a massive military and trade hub. But the plans have raised concerns among environmentalists, scientists and civic organizations who believe the megaproject will ruin the unique ecology of the remote region.

Beyond ecological concerns, many fear the impact on indigenous communities — especially the Shompen people, a hunter-gatherer community who have lived on Great Nicobar for thousands of years with very little outside contact.

India's eastern outpost

Indian officials say plans to develop Great Nicobar have been fueled by China's growing assertiveness in the Indian Ocean, noting that the island's strategic position makes it vital for security and trade.

The island is located some 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) east of India's mainland, close to Indonesia's Sumatra and only hundreds of kilometers away from Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. It currently has around 8,000 residents.

Plans approved by the Indian government envisage the construction of an international container terminal; a dual-use airport for military and civilian purposes; a gas, diesel, and solar-based power plant; and a greenfield township on the 1,000-square-kilometer island. These developments would also boost the island's population into the hundreds of thousands.

The authorities point out that the port, set to dominate the island's Galathea Bay, will flourish due to being close to one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, the Malacca Strait.

And plans are proceeding at a fast pace with the government managing to secure various approvals, clearances and exemptions over the past three years, leading some to praise the project as the creation of India's own "Hong Kong" at Great Nicobar.

India's minister of ports, shipping and waterways, Sarbananda Sonowal, told reporters the government had no second thoughts about pushing ahead with the island's development.

"It is true that different stakeholders have raised environmental concerns, but those have been clearly addressed," Sonowal said.

Cutting down the rainforest

However, critics say the initiative would cause irreversible damage to the pristine rainforests on Great Nicobar. The island has "one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world," according to the Indian government, but the plans to transform it into a defense and trade hub would mean cutting down around 852,000 trees.

Environmentalists warn that the large port at Galathea Bay would destroy a sensitive nesting area for leatherback sea turtles. Apart from turtle nesting sites, dolphins and other species would be harmed by the proposed dredging, and saltwater crocodiles, Nicobar crab-eating macaque and migratory birds would also bear the brunt of the island's development.

The coral reef along the coast of the bay could be destroyed by dredging during the port's construction, India's environmental watchdog EIA has warned. The township, airport and thermal power plant will all be built in areas with dense forest cover, which will "significantly" affect biodiversity the EIA said in a draft report.

Even more alarmingly, activists warn that a massive demographic shift combined with depleting natural resources would endanger and possibly end indigenous communities.

Shompen community set for extinction?

London-based Survival International, a human rights organization that campaigns for the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, pointed to the risk to the Shompens, a local tribe numbering around 300 people. The group said Shompens face the risk of total extinction.

"It is impossible to imagine that the Shompen will survive this catastrophic transformation of their island. If the authorities in India succeed in their ambition to turn the island into the 'Hong Kong of India,'" Survival International Director Caroline Pearce told DW, adding, "future residents should know that it was built on the graves of the Shompen, whose homeland this has been since time immemorial.”

Survival International points out that like other hunter-gatherers, the Shompen have an intricate knowledge of their forest and use the flora of the island in a multitude of ways.

Moving into quake-prone area

Earlier this month, dozens of scholars from around the world expressed the same concerns in an open letter to India's President Droupadi Murmu, urging her to halt construction and pointing to the risks posed by the expected demographic shift. The signatories, which included experts on genocide, warned that an anticipated 650,000 settlers, or an 8,000% increase in population, would mean the end of the Shompen.

"The people will not be able to survive on their own terms within this framework. And the people living there, they will not just suffer physically, they will be psychically destroyed. It will kill them," Mark Levene, fellow at the UK's University of Southampton, told DW.

And local tribes are not the only ones in danger. A massive influx of population would also mean putting hundreds of thousands of people into one of the world's most dangerous seismic areas. In 2004, the Great Nicobar region was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 9.3 on the Richter Scale, triggering the deadliest tsunami in recorded history.

"This project is completely arbitrary. The multimillion-dollar project comes at a huge cost. It will destroy the environment and the rights of the indigenous people," Bhupesh Tewari, who works with indigenous groups in India's Chhattisgarh, told DW.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic


Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11