Political Economy

Who Is the Great Nicobar 'Holistic Development' Project Really For?

It costs a whopping Rs 72,000-crore. Two of the consultant’s reports have contradicted each other. NITI Aayog is in denial. The environment report appears tutored. And the supersonic speed with which all approvals have proceeded has been mind-boggling.

The Rs 72,000-crore project titled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ is proceeding at breakneck speed. But it is steeped in mystery.

The Gurgaon based M/s AECOM India Private Limited prepared and submitted a Pre-Feasibility Report of the project in March 2021 for the “sole use of their client, NITY Aayog.”

It says the goal of the project is to “provide a framework for development of a new ‘greenfield city’ with a diverse and robust economy based on maritime services and tourism, amongst other drivers…”

The project has four components – an International Transhipment Port (ITP), Greenfield International Airport, a power plant and a new township that could constitute a Special Economic Zone. These four interlinked projects form the core of the new city and the holistic master plan.

The ITP would be the primary project driving the ‘Holistic Development’ that would morph the forested, serene and pristine island into a steel-and-concrete urban aberration. But in response to a Right to Information application, the NITI Aayog has denied and disowned any such report or initiative.

Nevertheless, there is speculation that in ‘Amrit Kaal’, the Indian government is grabbing the opportunity to develop the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands into a free trade zone like Hong Kong to house multi-national companies (MNCs) reportedly ‘quitting’ this El Dorado because of Chinese shenanigans. The recent inauguration of the under-sea optical fibre cable network connecting Chennai with the Islands by the Prime Minister is considered as the augury for such development. 

Strangely, the very same consultant AECOM had prepared and submitted a ‘technical note’ on “Development Options (FTWZ, Transhipment Hub, Bunkering, Shipbreaking/Building Yard, Cruise Facilities) at Andaman and Nicobar Islands” to the Ministry of Shipping and the Indian Ports Association in July 2016.

It said: “This technical note evaluated many options that could be considered for development at Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Development of Free Trade Zone and transhipment hub may not be a favourable option due to the insufficient hinterland demand and supply.”

This 2016 note and the 2021 one contradict each other.

However, the feverish pace with which the “Holistic Development” of Great Nicobar Island is being pushed and pursued is very much in line with the Narendra Modi government’s agenda of pumping and promoting a bunch of oligarchs by conceiving and offering massive and often predatory projects with attractive real estate and Viability Gap Funding (VGF).

This agenda was spelt out by Amitabh Kant, the former CEO of NITI Aayog, the Prime Minister’s preferred think tank, in December 2020 at a virtual event organised by Swarajya magazine. He said that the current government has the “political will and the courage to say that we want to support five companies who want to be global champions…” 

Also read: When ‘National Champions’ Humiliate the Nation

The chronology

Implementation of this agenda in Great Nicobar is evident from the chronology of approvals, clearances, exemptions and de-notifications issued to facilitate the ITP, as illustrated in these articles by The Hindu’s Frontline and Scroll.in.

In September 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, NITI Aayog issued the request for proposals for the “Preparation of Master Plan for Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island.” 

AECOM, a little-known consulting company, got the contract and released the pre-feasibility report in March 2021. It was immediately taken up for discussion by the Environment Appraisal Committee – Infrastructure 1 (EAC) which issued the Terms of Reference in May. AECOM also submitted the Preliminary Engineering Design Report of the ITP to NITI Aayog in August 2021. 

In January 2021, well before the project proponent – Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO) – even submitted the proposal to the EAC, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife denotified the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to free it as the port site. 

Two weeks later, in early 2021, the Union Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) declared a “zero extent” eco-sensitive zone for the Galathea National Park, allowing forest land along its south and south-eastern boundary to be made available for the project. 

VIMTA Lab published the final Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Report in March, 2022. The project was discussed by the EAC in its meetings in March and May and finally recommended for clearance in its meeting held on August 22-23, 2022

On October 27 the Ministry gave in-principle or Stage 1 Forest Clearance that will involve felling of approximately 8.5 lakh trees in the rich rain forests teeming with extraordinary flora and fauna species. This was done by amending the Rules in haste. 

On November 4, 2022, MoEFCC granted final Environmental Clearance for the plan.

With this, the decks were cleared to start construction of a port, an international airport, a power plant and a township spread over 166 square km of land. At least 130 square km of this is primary forest on the ecologically rich island, which was declared a biosphere reserve in 1989 and included in UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program in 2013.

On February 6, 2023, the Syama Prasad Mookerjee Port of Kolkata invited an Expression of Interest for the ITP project with an expected investment of Rs 41,000 crore (US $ 5 billion) including investment from both the government and public-private partnership concessionaire. 

The “Holistic Development” project of which ITP is a part, will be implemented over 30 years and is expected to bring around four lakh people to the island during that time. This is roughly equal to the current population of the entire Andaman and Nicobar Island chain. As for Great Nicobar, the island will see a 4,000% increase in its current population of about 8,000. 

Also read: Former Civil Servants Ask President to Halt ‘ Undesirable Development’ of Great Nicobar Island

The reports

That the Environmental Impact Assessment report of VIMTA Lab of Hyderabad was tutored is clear from the fact that they started field work in December 2020 i.e., seven months before the EAC actually issued the Terms of Reference for the Expression of Interest.

Zoological Survey of India itself started the biodiversity survey only in February 2021. The Expression of Interest is riddled with several flaws and defects:

  • The island is not very far from Banda Aceh in Indonesia, which was the epicentre of the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that caused unprecedented death and destruction. The coastline of Great Nicobar sank nearly four metres. Yet, there was no study or risk assessment of the location of the island on a highly seismic zone prone to frequent earthquakes.

  • The Report has been submitted without complying with several Terms of Reference. The report does not include a Coastal Zone Management Plan.
  • The recommendation to relocate coral reefs is absurd and makes no sense. 
  • Claims of adequate measures and provisions for the protection of turtle nesting sites are unscientific. The location of the port will evidently cause great disturbance to existing turtle nesting sites.
  • The report ignores the potential impact that the project has on tribal populations.
  • The impact of de-notifying the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is not mentioned in the report. 
  • The report did not include legible maps about the projects for the public hearing. 
  • No details of the near-million trees to be felled had been given.
  • The impact of the 2004 tsunami on the island and the risk involved in the case of future disasters has been ignored. 
  • The risk analysis also misses the impact of handling different types of cargo on the fragile  ecosystems.
  • Extremely cursory and casual statements have been made on impacts and possibilities of erosion due to port and other coastal construction. 
  • The report gives false information about migratory birds in the island. There is recorded evidence of more than 40 species of migratory birds from Great Nicobar.

The MoEFCC’s website has no details of the minutes of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). Significantly, not a single document pertaining to the forest clearance has been made available on the Ministry’s Parivesh portal to date.

The ecology

This is understandable because MoEFCC has lot to hide and conceal given the fact that the Project Affected Area is an ecological paradise which the “Holistic Development” will destroy for ever.

The main areas of tropical rain forest in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr. Public domain.

Let’s look at the facts. The Great Nicobar Island covers 951 square km, making it the largest island in the Nicobar group of Islands, and is also the southernmost region of India. The island has a tropical monsoon climate with an annual rainfall of 372 cm.

Mount Thulliar is the highest point on the island at 2,106 feet and is the source for several rivers such as Alexandra, Amrit Kaur, Dogmar and Galathea. The vegetation of the island is broadly divided into evergreen hill forest, tropical rainforest, littoral forest, and mangrove vegetation. It is also located in the Alpine-Himalayan seismic belt, considered to be one of the most highly seismically active belts of the world.

As I write this piece the island is being rocked by earthquake of magnitude 5.1.

The island comprises of unique and threatened tropical evergreen forest ecosystems. It is home to 650 species of angiosperms, ferns, gymnosperms, bryophytes, among others. In terms of fauna, there are over 1,800 species, some of which are endemic to this area.

The region is noted for its rich biodiversity and fosters several rare and endemic species. The endemic species comprise of 11 species of mammals, 32 species of birds, 7 species of reptiles and 4 species of amphibians. Of these, the well-known Crab-eating Macaque, Nicobar Tree Shrew, Nicobar Megapode, are endemic and/or endangered.

One of the most unique aspects of Great Nicobar is the southernmost point, the Galathea Bay, a nesting ground for the Leatherback Turtle. 

The primary human inhabitants of the island are the Shompen and Nicobarese tribes who have been living on the island for countless generations. The Shompen tribe are an aboriginal people of about 200 to 300 members who inhabit the interiors of Great Nicobar. This particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) is a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer community, practicing basic horticulture and pig rearing, who probably migrated around 10,000 years ago.

They are a unique group, anthropologically completely distinct from the other PVTGs of the Andaman Island as well as from the Nicobarese. Their language, Shompanese, unrelated to any other existing language, seems to have adopted a few words from Nicobarese in the context of an existing, even if very limited, barter system between the two communities. Recent studies have found that, despite their small number, it is a heterogenous group within which different dialects are spoken in various sub-groups. 

The scale of construction and operations proposed through the four-pronged “holistic development” scheme will be capable of wreaking irreversible damage to the biological and cultural heritage of the island.

The staggering investment of Rs 72,000 crores is being paraded despite these serious deterrent factors: the fact that Great Nicobar rests on a major faultline; the impact the project will have on the Shompens, a PVTG, and the Nicobarese, a Scheduled Tribe; and the complete destruction of habitat for the Leatherback Turtle. This project is being rushed through many procedural lapses, apart from the systematic dilution of legal protections to facilitate its implementation. 

A leatherback turtle. Photo: Alastair Rae/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As if adding insult to injury, the compensatory afforestation (CA) will be done in 13,075 hectares of land, in the dry Aravalli hills of far-away Haryana. When we cut down trees, we destroy an entire ecosystem which is impossible to regenerate. Nature follows no laws of compensation. 

The question of economic and financial feasibility

As we have seen this ITP as well as the “Holistic Development” are unabated ecological, environmental and social disasters and the projects cannot be feasible by any stretch of imagination.

Now let’s see the other two critical feasibilities, economic and financial. Though Expression of Interest has been floated for the ITP, neither the Techno-Economic Feasibility Report nor the Detailed Project Report are available.

Since adequate information on these are not available, a comparative analysis can be made only with a similar project floated on the coast of Kanyakumari District couple of years ago, which has not materialised. 

Kanyakumari Great Nicobar
Location  Mainland Island, 1,650 km from Chennai
Distance from International Shipping Route 08 Nautical Miles 40 Nautical Miles
Cargo Capacity  12.9 million TEU (Twenty Equipment Unit), 20-feet Container 14.2 million TEU
Estimated Cost  Rs 28,000 crores Rs 41,000 crores
Viability  Not viable. 25-30% Viability Gap Funding (VGF) to achieve equity IRR of 16-18%. Not known. Could be higher because project is in a far away Island.
Port Charges 15/20% lower cost versus Colombo. Cabotage full waiver. Not known. Could be same or more
Upfront volume commitment  50% from major liner Not known. Could be same or more

It is clear that Great Nicobar ITP would be neither economically viable nor financially feasible. 

Technical and legal issues

Let’s look at the technical side. Dredging during construction would involve blasting and breaking of several million cubic metre of under-water rock that would affect marine/aquatic fauna and flora through direct impact on sea-bottom habitats. Breakwaters and changes in water quality would result in sea-bottom contamination inside the port area and surroundings. Land reclamation from the sea would destroy bottom habitat and displace fishery resources and cause decrease in the number of species and its abundance.

Piles, concrete surfaces, rubble mounds and other similar structures in water could form new habitats, introduce undesirable species and contamination of fishery and shellfishery resources. Millions of metric tons of granite stones would be required for the construction of the berths and other infrastructure in the Port. This would ravage whatever hills or mountains in the island.

As far as legal feasibility is concerned almost all the approvals/exemptions given and denotifications issued under various special laws/rules protecting forests, tribal rights and coastal ecosystem are untenable and could be struck down when challenged in appropriate courts and Tribunals.

The international convention

Several recent occurrences should have discouraged the government from undertaking such a major environment-destroying project.

The first is the decision taken on December 19, 2022 at the Conference of Parties for the Convention for Biological Diversity, at which it was agreed, among other things, to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. Also, specifically, to protect 30% of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans with emphasis on areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functioning and services.

This decision which was ratified by nearly 200 countries, including India, specifically mentions ‘reducing to near zero the loss of areas of high biodiversity importance, including ecosystems of high ecological integrity’.

Considering such a commitment, it is baffling how India can even consider the loss of such an enormously ecologically important area like Great Nicobar.

Gautam Adani. Photo: PTI/File

For whom?

The question now arises as to whom this ecologically, environmentally, socially, economically, financially, seismically, technically and legally unviable, undesirable and unsustainable “Holistic Development” is meant for.

Common sense says that it could be only for the “five global champions” whom NITI Aayog and the government want to promote. Out of these there is only one ‘champion’ who is present across all the four components of this “development” – seaport, airport, power and township – constituting the Special Economic Zone.

So, the safe guess is that this ‘Amrit Kaal’ gift of 166 square km of pristine real estate with a probable VGF of about Rs 25,000-30,000 crores of taxpayer’s money will be handed over to a favourite oligarch in the garb of ‘developing’ this distant island.

Also read: Modi Government Gave Adani Special Privileges to Boost Coal Business: Report

The juggernaut has started rolling with 10 entities led by Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd submitting Expressions of Interest.

Project structure and qualification criteria are finalised after considering the views of interested applicants. Thereafter Requests for Qualification or Requests for Proposal and Concession Agreement documents are put out for bidding and the project thus awarded on the ‘landlord model’ for an operational period of 50 years. With one ‘champion’ having ‘expressed interest’ the outcome could be on expected lines.

Has this commercial venture been disguised in security and strategic clothing?

To summarise, two of the consultant’s reports contradicted each other and NITI Aayog is in denial. The EIA report has been tutored. The supersonic speed and secrecy with which all approvals, clearances, exemptions and denotifications have been proceeding is mind boggling.

What is more, RTI applications are being rejected under Section 8.1(a) of the Act citing security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests of the state. Ironically, only 8.45-square-km airport component out of the total 166 square km comes under any semblance of security and strategic interest as notified by the Union home ministry. Yet, the MoEFCC, in an unprecedented move, has put a lid on all discussions on the forest clearance to the entire 166.10-square km project recommended by the statutory FAC.

Something is rotten in the state of India.

M.G. Devasahayam is a former Army and IAS officer and coordinator of the Citizen’s Commission on Elections.