A Google Earth view of Little Andaman island.
Marine turtle researchers and organisations from across India have expressed concerns over the tourism and infrastructure plans that NITI Aayog has proposed for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They have referred in particular to the tourism and township plan over 240 sq. km of Little Andaman Island and the Rs-75,000-crore plan for Great Nicobar Island, including a transshipment port at Galathea Bay, an important nesting site of giant leatherback turtles.
These and other concerns were enumerated in a recent letter that experts sent to a host of government officials, including the chairperson of the expert appraisal committee of the environment ministry, the ministry secretary, its inspector general (wildlife) and NITI Aayog vice-chairman. It was also sent to the islands’ chief wildlife warden, the lieutenant governor and the chief secretary.
“Both Little Andaman Island and Great Nicobar Island,” the letter notes, “host vital and important nesting grounds for leatherback turtles, being one of the few global hotspots and India’s index leatherback nesting sites.”
Other signatories to the letter are affiliated with, among others, Dakshin Foundation, Bengaluru; Project Swarajya, Odisha; Green Habitat, Kerala; and Prakruti Nature Club, Gujarat.
Akila Balu and Aruv V., founder trustees of Chennai-based Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network, put the letter together; the group itself has been at the forefront of many turtle awareness and conservation campaigns.
“I feel pained, helpless and angry at watching this mindless destruction in the name of development,” Arun said. “We have to realise that we are not the sole inheritors and inhabitants of this planet.”
The two sites of specific concern on Little Andaman are the beaches at South and West Bay, both important leatherback nesting sites. South Bay is proposed to be part of a “Leisure Zone” where a film city, a residential district and a tourism-related special economic zone are to come up. West Bay is to be part of a ‘West Bay Nature Retreat’ with themed resorts, underwater resorts, beach hotels and high-end residential villas.
Importantly, the roughly 7-km-long beach at West Bay is the site of a pioneering long-term monitoring and satellite tracking project of the nesting turtles. Carried out jointly by the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team, Dakshin Foundation, the Indian Institute of Science and the islands’ forest department, the project has revealed hitherto unknown migration patterns.
Satellite-tagged female leatherbacks have been found swimming up to 13,000 km after nesting at West Bay, towards the western coast of Australia and southwest towards Africa’s east. This is evidence, the letter notes, that these sites are “globally significant and internationally important for marine ecological health and global leatherback numbers in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean.”
Great Nicobar Island
For Great Nicobar Island, the principal concern is related to the Rs-75,000-crore integrated project that includes an international transshipment port at Galathea Bay plus an airport, a power plant and a township. The letter notes that not only was Galathea Bay a wildlife sanctuary, it is also listed as an ‘Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Area’ and ‘Important Marine Turtle Habitat’ by the National Marine Turtle Action Plan, which the Union environment ministry released in February 2021.
Yet the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife denotified it in its entirety in January 2021 for the “construction as well as operational phases of the International Shipment Project.” The letter notes that “the scale of the project and the investment proposed could signal the end of a crucial leatherback nesting site, and the ecological richness of the last remnants of untouched tropical forests and marine ecosystems in India.”
The letter also points to the fact that in January 2021, the environment ministry agreed to a zero-extent ecologically sensitive zone for the Galathea National Park to make additional forest land available for the project.
The Great Nicobar proposal, like the one for Little Andaman, seeks over 240 sq. km of coastal and forest land over two phases of development, and seeks to bring 6.5 lakh people here by 2050. The current total population of this 910 sq. km island is only 8,500.
Noting that NITI Aayog’s proposals run the risk of destabilising and disintegrating these sensitive ecological zones, the letter asks for the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to be renotified. It concludes by pointing to the current challenges of the “pandemic, resource scarcity and a climate crisis” and appeals to the Indian government to reconsider the proposed plans.
“These projects will have a significant negative impact on the leatherback turtles in these islands, which is the only location in South Asia where they nest in significant numbers,” B.C. Choudhury, one of the letter’s signatories and the IUCN- Species Survival Commission Marine Turtle Specialist Group’s current regional vice-chair for South Asia, told The Wire Science.
“India is a signatory to the memorandum of understanding on the Conservation and Management of Marine Turtles and their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia, and it is our responsibility to do everything possible to safeguard such important nesting sites.”
Pankaj Sekhsaria has been researching issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades. He is also author of five books on the islands including, most recently, Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story (Harper Litmus, 2019).