Review Nepal News

Developing Andaman & Nicobar with tune to nature
  Kathmandu      February 20 2024

By Nava Thakuria

As President Droupadi Murmu is scheduled to visit the Andaman & Nicobar islands on Monday, a debate surfaced on the series of development initiatives in the Indian archipelago. The first tribal women head of state is  arriving in Port Blair, executive & administrative capital of the islands, on 19 February next with a five-day program. In her maiden visit to the union territory President Murmu is scheduled to visit Cellular Jail, Swaraj Dweep (earlier known as Havelock Island), Campbell Bay, Indira Point (southernmost tip of India), Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Dweep (earlier Ross Island),  etc. She will also interact with a selected number of people comprising tribal communities there.

Meanwhile, expressing serious concerns over the development programs in some parts of the islands, a group of international genocide experts have written to the Union government in New Delhi  with an warning that its plans to turn an un-contacted tribe’s island into a mega-port city will wipe them out. Thirty-nine genocide scholars argued that around 300 Shompen hunter-gatherers, two thirds of them are un-contacted till date, will face extinction if  New Delhi goes ahead with the development plans.

Shompen people are one of the most isolated tribes on Earth and they live in the dense rain forests that occupy the interior of the islands. If the project goes ahead with original plans for a mega-port, a new city, an international airport,  a power station,  a defense base, an industrial park and helping 650,000 new settlers, it will be a death sentence for the Shompen, asserted the experts, adding that a simple contact with the Shompen (who have little to no immunity to infectious diseases) may result in a precipitous population collapse.

Survival International, a London-based rights body, has been calling for the project to be abandoned to ensure the Shompen’s  ownership rights over their ancestral lands. Its director Caroline Pearce asserted that under international laws, no government (or company) should proceed with interventional activities without the indigenous people’s consent in their territories. He also revealed that over 7,000 people, arguing that Shompen people have no idea of the ongoing activities, communicated with New Delhi with their demand to stop the genocide.

Amid the Bay of Bengal, Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean, the group of over 830 large & small hilly islands (with only 31 inhabited),  shares maritime borders with Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand and those occupy a total land area of around  8,249 square kilometre with a population of 3.81 Lakhs. Andaman islands in the northern part are primarily home to four tribes namely Great Andamanese, Onge,  Jarawa and Sentinelese. These tribes are believed to have migrated from the African islands thousands of years back and most of them survive with the practice of hunting wild animals and natural agri-produces. Among them Sentinelese are most isolated and they reject all kinds of contact with outsiders.

On the other hand, Nicobar islands in the southern part give shelter to two tribes namely  Nicobarese and Shompen, who might have arrived in the islands several thousand years ago from the Malay-Burma coast. Nicobarese (they are around one thousand in number) maintain contact with the outsiders and many of them are now converted to Christianity. However, Shompen  are still a relatively isolated tribe surviving on hunting local wildlife and also harvesting plants. Many believe that they can both survive and thrive, if their lands and resources are secure.

Union ports, shipping and waterways minister Sarbananda Sonowal also recently visited the islands and admitted that some stakeholders raised environmental concerns. However,  he pointed out that those were already addressed. Inspecting the proposed mega port at Atlanta Bay, Sonowal informed that it’s hardly  565 km from Yangon, 765 km from Sittwe, 1000 km from Chittagong  and 1100 km from Kolkata. Once the harbor is made fully operational, it will drastically reduce the ship travel time to Kolkata from 72 to 15 hours only, commented Sonowal.

Perhaps, it’s time for New Delhi to deal with the issue responsibly so that a developed Andaman & Nicobar in tune with nature can be achieved. Moreover, the sea route connectivity with north-eastern States though Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Sittwe (Myanmar) ports can also be visualized with pragmatic diplomatic policies in the coming days, as both the neighbouring nations  agreed to allow using the ports for the benefit of 60 million Indians living in far eastern localities of the country.