Strategic imperative and environment concern in Great Nicobar Project

Context: The opposition party has raised significant concerns over the proposed Rs 72,000-crore infrastructure upgrade at Great Nicobar Island, labelling it as a “grave threat” to the island’s indigenous inhabitants and its fragile ecosystem. 

The party demands an “immediate suspension of all clearances” and calls for a “thorough, impartial review of the proposed project, including by the Parliamentary committees concerned”.

Location and Significance of Great Nicobar

Location and Significance of Great Nicobar
  • Great Nicobar is the southernmost and largest of the Nicobar Islands, covering 910 sq km of mainly tropical rainforest in the southeastern Bay of Bengal. 
  • Indira Point, located on the island, is India’s southernmost point, situated only 90 nautical miles from Sabang in Sumatra, Indonesia. 
  • The island hosts two national parks, a biosphere reserve, small populations of the Shompen and Nicobarese tribal peoples, and a few thousand non-tribal settlers.

The Infrastructure Project

Project Details

The mega infrastructure project is spearheaded by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO). It includes:

  • An International Container Transshipment Terminal (ICTT)
  • A greenfield international airport with a peak hour capacity to handle 4,000 passengers
  • A township
  • A gas and solar-based power plant

The project spans 16,610 hectares and aims to leverage the island’s strategic location, roughly equidistant from Colombo, Port Klang, and Singapore, to enhance its participation in the regional and global maritime economy.

Implementation and Approvals

  • The project was initiated following a report by NITI Aayog, highlighting the strategic potential of the island.
  • Galathea Bay, the proposed site for the ICTT and power plant, is uninhabited and located on the southeastern corner of the island. 
  • The project received in-principal forest clearance and environmental clearance in October 2022. 
  • A detailed project report (DPR) has been prepared, and the government is expected to invite bids for the initial construction phase soon.

Strategic Importance

Security Interests

  • The Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean region are crucial for India’s strategic and security interests, particularly in countering the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s expanding presence. 
  • India’s concerns include Chinese military activities at key Indo-Pacific chokepoints such as Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok.

Military Upgrades:

Significant military infrastructure upgrades at the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, including:

  • Revamping airfields and jetties
  • Building additional logistics and storage facilities
  • Establishing a base for military personnel
  • Enhancing surveillance infrastructure

These upgrades aim to support the deployment of additional military forces, larger warships, aircraft, missile batteries, and troops, reinforcing India’s national security.

Environmental Concerns

Ecological Impact

Conservationists, wildlife biologists, and local tribal councils have criticized the project for its potential ecological damage. 

Major concerns include:

  • Violation of tribal rights, particularly the Shompen, a vulnerable tribal group of hunter-gatherers
  • Felling of nearly a million trees
  • Destruction of coral reefs
  • Threats to the Nicobar Megapode bird and leatherback turtles in Galathea Bay

Seismic Vulnerability

  • The opposition also highlights the seismic risks, noting the area’s subsidence during the 2004 tsunami. 
  • They also accuse local authorities of inadequate consultation with the Tribal Council of Great and Little Nicobar Islands. 
  • In 2022, the tribal council revoked a no-objection certificate, citing insufficient information.

Legal and Administrative Actions

  • In 2023, the Kolkata Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) declined to intervene in the environmental and forest clearance but recommended forming a high-power committee to review the clearances.
  • The committee’s report status remains unclear.

The proposed infrastructure development at Great Nicobar Island is a contentious issue, balancing strategic national interests against significant environmental and indigenous rights concerns. 

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