The latest proposal by NITI Aayog suggests large scale transformation of Little Andaman island located at the southern end of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But conservationists think it’s a recipe for disaster.
The government of India has big plans for Little Andaman Island. Think tank NITI Aayog envisions transforming the 707 sq km strip located at the southern end of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands (ANI) into a free-trade zone along the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong.
Well, not all of it. The urban space to be developed would span 240 sq km and would have an airport, golf courses, convention centres, casinos, resorts, hospitals, you name it.
The rosy plan has rung all kinds of alarm bells among conservationists. They already know the extent of damage ‘modernisation’ has done to the fragile ecosystem of the islands.
Little Andaman aka Gaubolambe
Little Andaman is the fourth largest of the 325 Andaman Islands and occupies 11 per cent of its total space. It is separated from the rest of the Andaman Islands by a 48-km strait known as the Duncan Passage. The low-lying island is home to the indigenous semi-nomadic Onge tribe.
The major types of vegetation found here are tropical evergreen, semi-evergreen, littoral and mangrove forests. As with all regions that are separated from neighbouring areas by geographical barriers, Little Andaman is home to endemic flora and fauna that are found nowhere else, like the Andaman Horseshoe Bat, the Small-eared Island Skink, the Andaman Teal and the parasitic mistletoe Ginalloa andamanica.
Trouble arrives with the colonisers
Britishers first reached the island in 1825 but were able to gain a foothold here only by 1883, from when they began to plunder the region for its rich timber resources. From the 1960s the government made efforts to resettle refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) on Little Andaman. Settlers also arrived from India and Sri Lanka, pushing back the Onge to a much smaller part of their territory.
In 1976 came the big blow.
The administration decided to resettle the tribespeople into the north-eastern part of the island — a patch of about 110km. So the Onge had to contend with hunting and gathering from this stretch alone. The move stripped them of much of their traditional resources, while rampant exploitation of the rest of the island continued virtually unhindered.
The tribal population plummeted from 670 in the 1900s to just around a hundred today — when the total population of the island is well over 18,000. That’s 180 outsiders for every single tribesperson on the island!
When the 2004 tsunami ravaged massive stretches of land and indiscriminately took over 2.2 lakh lives across south Asia, all of the Onge survived the ordeal, relying on nothing but traditional know-how. But today they are a people plagued by infertility, infant mortality, malnutrition and diseases introduced by the settlers and barely have the numbers to keep their tribe surviving.
In fact, around 640 sq km of Little Andaman is technically a reserved area as per the Indian Forest Act of 1927. The government plans to ‘solve’ this problem by de-reserving as much as 32 per cent of the forest cover. For a fragile ecosystem with a dwindling indigenous population, the impact of further urbanisation is a question that hangs heavy.
The Giant Leatherback sea turtle
These deep-diving marine animals have been listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Two reasons have been pinpointed as a direct threat to them. Ingestion of plastic floating in oceans and loss of nesting beaches.
And guess where they nest the most? Roughly 150 nests of the Giant Leatherback sea turtle are found on the beaches of Little Andaman every year which, incidentally, is among the largest. But many of them are already choking on plastic, which they often mistake for jellyfish.
Any sort of tourism push would be a death knell for these gentle sea creatures.
Critics have pointed out that other than mentions of sustainably developing the mega-city, no real steps have been listed as to how the natives or the rich biodiversity of the land will be protected and allowed to thrive beside a booming industry like tourism which is also known all too well for its possible potential to denude the environment.
Provision of potable water for the increasing population is a different concern altogether. The island is also located in Seismic Zone-V which is among the most active seismic regions.
Little Andaman is a microcosm.
It is a part that represents a whole. The realities of this island reflect those on the rest of the Andaman & Nicobar islands.
Ocean of changes awaits ANI
In 2018, the reclusive Sentinelese tribe of North Sentinel Island were in the news for killing 26-year-old American blogger-missionary John Chau. The Sentinelese have always been an uncontacted tribe in voluntary isolation from the rest of the world. So it was barely a surprise when they reacted in a hostile manner to a missionary.
It’s no coincidence that the Chau incident happened in the same year that the government decided to open up these islands, including North Sentinel, that had till then been off-limits to tourists. It was a unilateral decision involving zero consultation with the affected people.
Similarly, several initiatives undertaken in the region have only revealed the administration’s glaring lack of awareness and insensitivity to sociocultural as well as ecological aspects of these once-pristine lands.
The government is still going ahead with its plans for development on ANI and has vowed to transform the place into a tourist magnet like the Maldives.
Besides, it has also been eyeing the space for strategic purposes. ANI form the entrance to the Malacca Strait, which is the busiest shipping route in the world. With China extending its stranglehold on various parts of the South China Sea and looking to expand further, it has become imperative for India to take precautions.
The real question
The India State of Forest Report 2019 says that of the 2,500-odd plant species on the ANI archipelago, 200 are endemic — not seen anywhere else on the planet. It is also home to 38 true mangrove species. The islands also house nine national parks and a host of marine and wildlife sanctuaries that have over 6,000 species of animals, including 900 endemic ones.
Now the only real question that remains is whether the proposed developments on the islands will do justice to the rich life it houses. Or will we end up paying a heavy ecological price in the long run?