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18 June, 2024
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Global academics rally against India's Great Nicobar development project

India faces backlash over $9B Great Nicobar Island transformation


In a fervent plea echoing concerns of humanitarian and environmental repercussions, academics worldwide have implored India to halt a monumental development initiative on Great Nicobar Island.

According to The Guardian, the $9 billion project, envisaged to metamorphose the remote Indian Ocean territory into the "Hong Kong of India," encompasses the establishment of an international shipping terminal, airport, power plant, military installation, industrial complex, and promotion of tourism.

Thirty-nine scholars from 13 nations penned an open letter to Indian President Droupadi Murmu, cautioning that the proposed endeavor poses an existential threat to the indigenous Shompen hunter-gatherer community inhabiting the island. They assert that even a scaled-down execution of the project could precipitate dire consequences tantamount to genocide for the Shompen, estimated to number between 100 to 400 individuals on the densely forested 900 square kilometer isle, situated approximately 800 miles east of Chennai, India, and a mere 93 miles northwest of Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia.

The Shompen people, reliant on the rainforest for sustenance, have maintained minimal interaction with the external world. Proponents of the academic letter argue that their isolation renders them vulnerable to diseases from outside contact, amplifying the urgency to safeguard their habitat.

Despite the grand ambitions outlined in the government's blueprint, scant attention has been paid to the fate of the Shompen and the coexisting Nicobarese populace. Pertinently, the absence of a comprehensive strategy for the indigenous inhabitants, beyond vague assertions of potential relocation, has raised profound ethical and humanitarian concerns.

Last year, 70 former government dignitaries and ambassadors expressed apprehensions, emphasizing the project's potentially catastrophic ecological impact and the peril it poses to vulnerable tribal communities. Conversely, government authorities contend that the initiative is pivotal for national security, bolstering India's defense infrastructure amidst escalating geopolitical tensions in the Indian Ocean.

Pending approval from the cabinet, construction of the proposed port in Galathea Bay is slated to commence by late 2024, with an operational capacity to handle 16 million shipping containers annually by 2028. The Ministry of Environment's green light for the felling of 850,000 trees underscores the scale of environmental ramifications accompanying the project's realization.

Minister for ports, shipping, and waterways, Sarbananda Sonowal, lauds the initiative as a transformative milestone in India's pursuit of self-reliance and economic prosperity. However, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes has decried the lack of consultation, warning of adverse ramifications for local tribal populations.

Environmentalists have voiced apprehensions over biodiversity loss and ecological degradation, citing Great Nicobar's status as a habitat for endemic species and a nesting ground for leatherback sea turtles.

Petitions filed by environmental advocacy groups have been rebuffed by the National Green Tribunal, emphasizing the imperative of regulatory oversight and accountability in mitigating environmental hazards.

Government assurances notwithstanding, critics remain skeptical of the project's purported safeguards, emphasizing the imperative of prioritizing the preservation of Great Nicobar's rich biodiversity and indigenous communities.

In the face of mounting opposition and impassioned pleas for reconsideration, the Indian government's stance on the project remains awaited, as concerns over its humanitarian and ecological implications continue to reverberate on the global stage.

[With information sourced from The Guardian]

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