Andaman & Nicobar Deserves Better Than The NITI Aayog Plans

West Bay, Little Andaman island. (Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha)

Andaman & Nicobar Deserves Better Than The NITI Aayog Plans

BloombergQuintOpinion

Having just recovered from Covid-19, my father was being closely monitored. I was talking to a doctor about a sudden drop in his sugar levels - the conversation was tense and weighed down by frightening scenarios. Just then, the phone line snapped dead. Hundreds of kilometres from Delhi, Cyclone Tauktae had made landfall on the Gujarat coast. The fury of the sea had come to the city. Delhi was lashed with continuous rain – felling both trees and life-saving conversations. Many other states along the coast were plunged into darkness as electricity lines were scythed and houses flooded.

A few days later, Cyclone Yaas hit Odisha and West Bengal. In places like Bengal’s 24 Parganas, people fled from their submerged and ravaged houses. The increase in cyclonic activity is attributed to rising temperatures on the Indian coastline.

At peril are the islands as well. Cyclone Yaas hit Andamans and Tauktae hit Lakshadweep.

And the winds are likely to get harsher with climate change.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Leatherback Turtle hatchling.&nbsp;(Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha)</p></div>

Leatherback Turtle hatchling. (Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha)

The leatherback turtle is a long-distance traveler – journeying from other continents to lay eggs on Indian shores. Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle – one can weigh above 500 kilograms. Galathea Wildlife Sanctuary, on Great Nicobar island, is the biggest recorded nesting site in India. This is a region under threat – the 2004 tsunami wiped out several critical nesting beaches in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; today the remaining nesting beaches on various islands in the Nicobar region also face domestic threats like stray dogs and pigs preying on the nests. Once nesting on other parts of the mainland coast, leatherback turtles are now refugees, relegated to the islands.

It is the deep, wide entry to the bay and the gentle slope of the beach that perhaps makes Galathea suitable for both turtles and ports.

On Jan. 28 this year, India launched its first Marine Turtle National Action Plan. Three days before that, it denotified the Galathea Wildlife Sanctuary.

This has been done to build a transshipment terminal as part of what is being described by the NITI Aayog as ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island in Andaman and Nicobar Islands’. And, there’s a lot planned by diverting 160 square kilometres of land on the island.

  • An international container transshipment terminal;
  • A greenfield international airport;
  • A township;
  • Primary and secondary urban infrastructure networks;
  • A 450 megavolt-amperes gas and solar power plant.

Breakwaters will interrupt the island’s shoreline and cut off physical access for turtles. This ‘holistic’ Rs 75,000 crore project will build on the nesting sites of turtles and homes of many intensely Indian species on the island, some endangered. By the project’s own admission, the site falls under seismic Zone V and is cyclone prone. It has ‘highest risk of suffering earthquakes (seismic zone-V), [is] vulnerable to tsunamis and susceptible to floods. Some of the coastal stretches along the western and eastern end is erosion prone.’

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Adult Leatherback Turtle.&nbsp;These are the biggest turtles on earth, and&nbsp;can weigh above 500 kilograms.(Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha)&nbsp;</p></div>

Adult Leatherback Turtle. These are the biggest turtles on earth, and can weigh above 500 kilograms.(Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha) 

In yet another set of plans, the NITI Aayog envisages casinos, floating hotels, underwater resorts, a medicity, and an aerocity on the South and West Bay of Little Andaman Island, the only remaining leatherback nesting beaches on the Andaman group of islands.

Part of a global hotspot of biodiversity, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have species found nowhere else on earth – like the Nicobar Megapode, a bird that resembles a chicken; endemic orchids and tree-ferns.

The mention of ‘island life’ often conjures up an image of paradise where time works differently. An island seems to eat, sleep, and blossom in its own rhythm. The din of the mainland and the pressures of urbanity seem far away. Options to escape if in danger are far away too. Historically, islands have evolved to contain unique species because they are isolated from other places. The same isolation and remoteness make these islands and their indigenous inhabitants (both human and non-human) fragile to external pressures.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A view of South Bay, Little Andaman island.&nbsp;(Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha)&nbsp;</p></div>

A view of South Bay, Little Andaman island. (Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha) 

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The Megapode Island near Galathea was named after the bird; it was swallowed by the tsunami. The birds may likely be swallowed by these new plans.

The NITI Aayog’s proposals give little thought to the uniqueness of the islands, systematically glossing over the potential ecological destruction and displacement.

These carbon-sequestering forested islands deserve more than cut-copy-paste port and casino plans.

The policy rationale to build on coastlines at a time of climate change needs to consider several alternatives that keep climate risk assessments at the core.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>The Andaman and Nicobar islands host among the richest tropical forests in India.&nbsp;(Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha)</p></div>

The Andaman and Nicobar islands host among the richest tropical forests in India. (Photograph: Adhith Swaminathan, Via Neha Sinha)

As we face both species extinction and climate hazard, the government’s think tanks have just not managed to keep up. It is as if Tauktae, Amphan, Laila, Fani, Yaas are just words and the most unique places on earth are prettier in pamphlets.

Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist. She is the author of ‘Wild and Wilful - Tales of 15 iconic Indian species’ (HarperCollins India).

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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