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Responsible Development of Andaman and Nicobar

Nava Thakuria Nava Thakuria
26 Feb 2024

President Droupadi Murmu's visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands triggered a debate on the development initiatives in the Indian archipelago. 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 a 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 uncontacted until today, 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 rainforests that occupy the islands' interior. Should the project for a mega-port, a new city, an international airport, a power station, a defence base, an industrial park and helping 650,000 new settlers go ahead with original plans, it will be a death sentence for the Shompen, asserted the experts, adding that 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. She also revealed that over 7,000 people, arguing that the Shompen people had no idea of the ongoing activities, communicated with New Delhi with their demand to stop the genocide.

The group of over 830 large & small hilly islands (with only 31 inhabited) shares maritime borders with Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand and occupies a total land area of around 8,249 square kilometres with a population of 3.81 Lakhs. Andaman islands in the northern part are primarily home to four tribes: Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese. These tribes are believed to have migrated from the African islands thousands of years ago, and most of them survive by hunting wild animals and natural agri-produces. The Sentinelese are the most isolated and reject all contact with outsiders.

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

Union Ports, Shipping and Waterways Minister Sarbananda Sonowal 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 harbour is fully operational, it will drastically reduce the ship travel time to Kolkata from 72 to 15 hours, commented Sonowal.

It's time that New Delhi dealt with the issue responsibly to achieve a developed Andaman and Nicobar in tune with nature. Moreover, the sea route connectivity with north-eastern States through Chittagong (Bangladesh) and Sittwe (Myanmar) ports can also be visualized with pragmatic diplomatic policies in the coming days.

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