A variety of experts have also mentioned how anthropologists have been kept out of the consultation process. Photo: Wikimedia Commons 4.0
A variety of experts have also mentioned how anthropologists have been kept out of the consultation process. Photo: Wikimedia Commons 4.0

Great Nicobar project: Social impact assessment on ‘local community’ concluded without consulting original inhabitants

Public hearing fails to include the voices from two tribal communities- Shompen and Great Nicobarese

Even as the mega infrastructure project on the Great Nicobar Island continues to draw serious environmental, legal, and ethical scrutiny, a public hearing process on the draft Social Impact Assessment (SIA) report has been concluded without consulting the island’s indigenous people — the Shompen and the Nicobarese.

These two communities are set to be impacted the most by the Rs 72,000 crore project. 

The hearing that was held on June 29 to discuss the concerns of the ‘project affected community’ invited people from Gandhi Nagar and Shastri Nagar —  two Gram Panchayats of Campbell Bay taluk of Nicobar district, where the government settled people from mainland India between 1968 and 1975. 

In these two villages, 404.8 hectare (ha) of private land belonging to around 234 families will be acquired for the purpose of constructing the Greenfield International Airport, as part of the infrastructure project.

But along with the private land, the project also requires the diversion of around 130 sq km of pristine forest land, and felling of around a million trees. The Shompen, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), and the Nicobarese, a Scheduled Tribe (ST), currently inhabit and are dependent on the resources of the riparian and forested parts of this proposed project area. 

But these communities have been kept out of the consultation process.  

In fact, the 117-page long draft SIA, undertaken under the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act, fails to evaluate the impact of the mega infrastructure project on the interests of the original inhabitants and does not refer to the two communities even once. 

The government’s rationale behind this is that the consultation was done only with the owners of the land which was acquired; and that this land does not belong to these two communities or any ‘Scheduled Tribes’ or other ‘Traditional Forest Dwellers’ category.

“The area where land is to be acquired does not come under the tribal reserve area. All of it is either government land or revenue area and no tribes will be impacted. But we have asked the Department of Tribal Welfare for their inputs,” an official of the Directorate of Social Welfare, A&N Islands, told Down to Earth (DTE) on the condition of anonymity. 

It is important to mention that under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, the SIA should evaluate the potential impact of the acquisition on the local community. 

Limited outlook on the original inhabitants

Raising serious objections to the SIA report, on the manner in which it has been prepared , a group of 103 former civil servants belonging to the All India and Central Services, wrote a letter dated June 17 to the secretaries of the ministries of Tribal Welfare and Home Affairs, social welfare department of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes last month, terming the study for the SIA report as ‘superficial’. 

The letter pointed out how a very limited view seems to have been taken of the term ‘local community’. 

“The local community cannot be merely the settlers and their neighbours. The tribal groups on the island, living in the Tribal Reserve, whose lives will be deeply and adversely affected by the project have to be considered as part of the local community, and the impact of the land acquisition on them should have been considered. An SIA which does not do that has to be dismissed as flawed,” it said. 

The mega infrastructure project, titled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar’, piloted by government’s official think tank, the NITI Aayog and implemented by the Port Blair-based Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation (ANIIDCO), involves the construction of an international container trans-shipment port, an international airport, a township and a solar and gas-based power plant. 

Ecological and environmental experts have been warning of huge ecological risks to the islands, such as the impact on marine ecosystem and destruction of coral reefs and threat to the terrestrial Nicobar Megapode bird and leatherback turtles who nest in the Galathea Bay area. 

Along with these risks, social scientists, anthropologists, and civil society organisations from across the country have also raised an alarm about how the project will result in permanent displacement of indigenous settlements located in the Galathea river basin forests. 

Highlighting how the rights and livelihoods of the local communities will be impacted, EAS Sarma, former tribal welfare commissioner in the Andhra Pradesh government as well as secretary to the Union government, told DTE that these tribes are the original residents of the islands and such a huge project that would have multi-faceted impacts on them and their lives. 

“The SIA study and the so-called public hearing violates the A&N Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANIPATR), as it ignores the interests of the Shompen and Nicobarese, whose homeland the Great Nicobar Island is,” he said. 

But according to the officials, there is no tribal reserve included in the proposed project. 

This is because 84.10 sq km of tribal reserve area has already been denotified, that is it was stripped of its protected status, for the project. 

In its submission to National Commission for Scheduled Tribes in 2023, A&N administration through ANIIDCO had itself said the Great Nicobar Island has a tribal reserve measuring 751.01 sq km and out of the total area proposed for development measuring 166.10 sq km, 84.10 sq km falls within the tribal reserve. 

In fact, the project has made progress despite the Tribal Council of Great Nicobar Island withdrawing its ‘no objection’ given in 2022 for the diversion of land. 

What does the draft SIA say?

The report has been prepared by Probe Research and Social Development Pvt Ltd, an organisation headquartered in Delhi. 

Under the section on assessment of social costs and benefits, the report compares the positive and negative benefits of the proposed project. 

“The project has less negative social impacts as loss of land, structures and trees and the positive social impacts of the project are very wide since the benefits will be enjoyed by the entire community of GNI. The self-sustainability of GNI is one of the main positive social impacts of the proposed project. Hence, the project perfectly serves the public purpose,” it says. 

A variety of experts have also mentioned how anthropologists have been kept out of the consultation process. 

“Considering that the Anthropological Survey has done such extensive research on the islands and its tribal groups, they should, at the very least, have been consulted,” said the letter by the group of former civil servants, urging the government to set aside the present SIA and have a proper social impact assessment  undertaken together with the Anthropological Survey of India. 

The Probe agency is set to submit the final report on July 14, to the Directorate of Social Welfare, A&N administration, after which it will be studied by an expert committee, including government officials, and experts from IIT Kharagpur and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

Down To Earth