Academics worldwide are urging India to halt a massive construction venture on Great Nicobar Island, asserting that the proposed $9 billion port project poses an imminent threat to the Shompen hunter-gatherer community-dwelling there. Described as the potential “Hong Kong of India,” the ambitious initiative encompasses the establishment of an international shipping terminal, airport, power plant, military base, industrial park, and tourism development for the island, home to approximately 8,000 inhabitants.
In an open letter addressed to the Indian president, Draupadi Murmu, 39 scholars hailing from Asia, Europe, and the US expressed their grave concerns, asserting that the project’s execution, even in a limited capacity, could be tantamount to an international crime of genocide against the Shompen. Located 800 miles east of Chennai, India, and merely 93 miles northwest of Aceh, on Sumatra, Indonesia, Great Nicobar spans 900 sq km (350 sq miles) and houses between 100 and 400 residents.
The Shompen people heavily rely on the island’s rainforest for sustenance and maintain minimal contact with the outside world. Scholars argue that their prolonged isolation could render them highly susceptible to diseases if exposed to external influences. Notably, the government’s plans lack explicit details regarding the fate of the Shompen and the Nicobarese, another indigenous group on the island. The official documentation merely mentions the possibility of relocating indigenous people “if required,” leaving significant ambiguity.
In a previous appeal to the president, 70 former government officials and ambassadors emphasized the potentially devastating impact of the project, asserting that it would virtually obliterate the island’s unique ecology and jeopardize the habitat of vulnerable tribal communities.
The government views the project as crucial for national security and defense, citing the strategic importance of Great Nicobar in the Indian Ocean to counter China’s expanding influence in the region. Positioned along one of the world’s busiest sea routes, Great Nicobar, in conjunction with the Andaman Islands, holds significant geopolitical significance.
Anticipating cabinet approval in the upcoming months, construction of the port in Galathea Bay is slated to commence by the end of 2024. The port’s envisioned capacity is 16 million shipping containers annually, with operational readiness targeted for 2028. Despite concerns, the Ministry of Environment has granted approval for the clearance of 850,000 trees on the island.
Sarbananda Sonowal, the Minister for Ports, Shipping, and Waterways, emphasized the project’s transformative role in fostering India’s self-assurance and self-reliance while contributing to the nation’s economic development, according to statements made to Indian media.
However, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, a constitutional body in India, reported non-consultation on the project, asserting that it would “adversely impact the lives of the local tribals.” This information was gleaned from media reports.
Environmentalists have also raised alarms about potential biodiversity and ecological repercussions. Great Nicobar is home to several endemic species, including long-tailed macaques, treeshrews, and scops owls, and Galathea Bay serves as a nesting site for leatherback sea turtles.
Petitions submitted by the Conservation Action Trust, an environmental organization based in Mumbai, to the National Green Tribunal were rejected in April. The tribunal asserted that it would not intervene in the granted clearances, deeming concerns addressed by the ministries involved, as explained by Debi Goenka, the founder of the trust.
Arjun Munda, the Minister of Tribal Affairs, assured a meticulous examination of every aspect of the project by various ministries, emphasizing that precautions would be taken to preserve the sanctity of the environment and the well-being of the local population. Munda stated that on-the-ground teams from various ministries are actively working to ensure the project’s success without compromising the island’s rich biodiversity and the welfare of its residents.
Mark Levene, an emeritus fellow in history at Southampton University and one of the signatories to the letter, emphasized the realism behind their concerns, stating, “We would not write if we were not being entirely realistic about what the consequences of this proposed project would be for the Shompen, however advanced or not the development of the project.”
A spokesperson from the human rights group Survival International expressed the dire situation faced by the Shompen, noting their nomadic lifestyle and clearly defined territories. The spokesperson highlighted that four of the Shompen’s semi-permanent settlements, as well as their southern hunting and foraging territories, are directly threatened by the project. The concern is that the Shompen, if displaced, would have limited space to relocate, potentially leading to a genocidal impact. The spokesperson asserted that to avert such a crisis, the colossal project must be abandoned.
As of now, there is no comment from the Indian government on the matter.