NITI Aayog plan for Andaman and Nicobar islands falls short of 'holistic development'

A researcher with more than 15 years of experience working in the islands asks “for whom is the project?”

“Each place has its peculiar characteristics in terms of geology, ecology and socio-cultural context. My claim is that none of these three things are being accounted for in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands when developmental policies are framed” says Pankaj Sekhsaria, a conservationist who has worked extensively in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for about 20 years and is associated with Kalpavriksh, an NGO which works on environmental and social issues.

Pankaj is also the author of ‘Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story’, published on 5 April 2017 by HarperCollins India.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands, in essence, are the peaks of a submerged mountain range and are part of a global biodiversity hotspot. The islands are known for their levels of endemicity owing to years of isolation which has allowed the evolution of species of flora and fauna that are found nowhere else in the world. The isolation, though, also means that the islands support extremely fragile systems and parochial developmental activities could lead to the loss of the products of millions of years of evolution.

An aerial view of the damaged coast of Indira Point, India's southern most point, 600 km (about 375 miles) south of Port Blair, in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago March 1, 2005. The tsunami which swamped Asian coastlines just over two months ago not only killed thousands of people in India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, it also hurt a vital part of the country's defences. Picture taken on March 1, 2005. REUTERS/Sucheta Das - RP5DRIHIJHAA

Andaman and Nicobar islands. Image: Reuters

The islands are located far away from mainland India, about 1,200 km from all major ports. And islands like these which are far removed from mainland India, along with coastal regions, suffer owing to land-centric developmental policies which don’t account for uniqueness, Sekhsaria says.

But such generalisations in economic policies are only a part of the problem. The larger debate surrounds questionable development projects and one such project is currently being proposed by the NITI Aayog.

On 10 August 2018 NITI Aayog unveiled a proposal titled ‘Incredible Islands of India (Holistic Development)’ aimed at fostering investment opportunities in Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep islands.

Amitabh Kant, the CEO of NITI Aayog, stated that the development potential of the islands has been accorded high priority while noting the constitution of the Island Development Agency (IDA) which has mandated the NITI Aayog to head the Holistic Development of Islands program.

As per latest information, the IDA has reviewed 11 tourism projects of which six are in Andaman and Nicobar islands and a few other infrastructure projects like ferry services, desalination plants, digital connectivity et cetera as part of the ‘holistic development’ plans.

Conservationists though are concerned  most notably because there are serious questions about the nation’s capability to oversee such large-scale tourism projects and steer them with the right intent.

In a detailed Project Information Memorandum (PIM), the NITI Aayog notes that 26 islands have been identified as having development potential and overall, 220 luxury resorts, 70 luxury tents for camping activities and 50 tents will be developed.

Questioning the benefits of such high-end, tourism-centric plans to local islanders, a researcher with more than 15 years of experience working in the islands asks “for whom is the project?” and elaborating on the same he says, “These islands definitely need development. The local inhabitants, particularly the settler communities live in difficult conditions and deserve a better, rewarding life. However, the currently proposed development model has not been developed in consultation with local communities or administration and has no clear and direct tangible benefits for the locals.”

“The local communities need better health, education and connectivity facilities. Not jobs as labourers or doing menial jobs in high-end resorts” he adds.

The developmental plans therefore clearly fall short of the title ‘holistic development’.

The PIM also states that ‘upfront support’ in the form of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearances and “most of the other clearances” will be provided. And elaborating on the same, the researchers note that such statements are not to be seen in isolation and says “The draft ICRZ (Island Coastal Regulation Zone) Notification talks about permitting ‘eco-tourism’ activities without clearly defining what they mean by ecotourism. Such ambiguous terms could open up the earlier inaccessible coastal spaces to multiple kinds of tourism-related activities. This could be disastrous to the ecological and environmental integrity of these fragile islands.”

The CRZ notification was issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 in order to protect coastal ecosystems from the developmental pressures.

The NITI Aayog now seeks to provide such approvals upfront with “an objective of de-risking the development period substantially”.

It can, therefore, be safely concluded that in a battle between local ecology and the upcoming construction activities on the island, the development agenda would definitely have an upper hand.

The sheer size of the proposal too points at concerns and speaking about the same Sekhsaria says “among other things, the scale [of such projects] is also really important. Even if the plans are for community or eco-tourism projects, sometimes their scale doesn’t allow for certain things.”

The fact is that these islands are a tourist destination because of all the other values they have - tropical forests, oceans and coral reefs which encourage dive tourism, the aura of indigenous communities, the researchers says and notes the fallacy in the developmental plans which work like ‘killing the goose which lays the golden eggs’.

“The narrative being sold on the islands is that this is going to be the next Singapore”, he says and adds that Singapore has lost a major portion of its forested lands owing to large-scale developmental activities and is now a tourist destination for reasons other than its scenic beauty.

The other factor worth noting is geology  the islands are categorised as ‘Zone 5’ in the mapping of seismic zones in India. Zone 5 covers areas with the highest risk. And excessive focus on developmental activities regardless of their detrimental impact on the land is sure to intensify the effects of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit the islands on 30 December 2018 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the First Flag Hoisting day by Subhash Chandra Bose on Indian soil. During this time, the PM would likely hold meetings with the civil and defence establishments and address public gatherings and also perhaps announce or inaugurate some big projects.

It would pay to closely follow the announcements about infrastructure, defence and tourism projects in the islands that are made in the days leading up to the PM’s visit so as to flag concerns before it’s too late.

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