Airport development features heavily in a plan for tourism-oriented megaprojects on Little Andaman Island, the southernmost island of the Andaman archipelago. Graphics below, from the 58-page ‘Sustainable Development of Little Andaman Island – Vision Document’, show: Zone 1, on the eastern coast, featuring an Aerocity, housing an international airport, envisaged as ‘the catalyst for development of the district’; Zone 2, on the southern coast, including a Leisure Zone and Tourism SEZ (special economic zone) with casinos, theme park and beach hotels; Zone 3, on the western coast, a Nature Zone containing super-luxury resorts and hotels, with an airstrip for private charter flights.
Sudden news of the plan, in January 2021, alarmed conservationists. The ‘Vision Document’, thought to have been finalised a few months previously but not in the public domain, is included in ‘A MONUMENTAL FOLLY: NITI Aayog’s Development Plans for Great Nicobar Island (An evolving archive of reports, information and documents)’, compiled by Panjaj Sekhsaria and published by Kalvpavriksh Environmental Action Group. The total project area is nearly 240 sq km, 35% of the island; the three zones would take up 107 kilometres of the island’s coastline. Development of this scale would have major impacts on indigenous people and the island’s unique biodiversity and forests. Little Andaman is home to the Onge tribe, living on the island for more than 50,000 years, the population dwindling since 1900. Now numbering an estimated 125 people the Onge tribe is categorised as one of India’s Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG). According to the plan the Onge Tribal Reserve would be reduced by 31%; the Vision Document states that steps would be taken to relocate and protect Onge people but no detail is given. An anthropologist pointed out that bringing areas where Onge, with nomadic origins, do not live into the proposed development would still impact them, saying “the Onges have a close attachment with their territory be it inhabited or not”.
The Divisional Forest Officer of Little Andaman raised concerns that the major diversion of forest land for the project would cause irreversible damage to the island’s forests, entailing the loss of more than 2 million trees. An official source said there are over 2.4 million trees in the “vast tract of forests” in the areas where development is proposed. Removal of trees would cause topsoil erosion and reduce rainfall, impacting on the small area of the island with cultivable soil. Uprooting more than 2 million trees for the Little Andaman plan would also result in carbon emissions and carbon stock losses. Carbon pools were calculated for the four forest types in the development areas: nearly 136 sq km of Evergreen/Semi Evergreen and smaller areas of Deciduous, Swamp/Mangrove and Plantation forests. A study estimated that implementation of the ‘Sustainable Development of Little Andaman – Vision Document’ would result in carbon stock loss of 2,996.286 tonnes from five categories of carbon pools: 55% from woody debris and soil organic matter, 32% from above ground living biomass, 9% from below ground biomass, 3% from dead mass of litter and 1% from dead wood.
Nesting sites of Giant Leatherback Turtles, the world’s largest turtles growing over 6 feet in length, with many populations in precipitous decline, are threatened by the Little Andaman plan. South Bay and West Bay on Little Andaman are both high-intensity nesting sites and among the most important in the entire island chain. Along with other nesting beaches on the islands, the two sites are specifically mentioned as ‘Important Marine Turtles Habitats in India’ in the National Marine Turtle Action Plan. There are fears that implementation of the ‘vision’ would push the leatherback turtles to the brink of extinction. A 2019 report on a long-term monitoring programme at Little Andaman island identified previously unknown migratory routes of Great Leatherback Turtle nesting in the region, highlighting their dependence upon foraging and nesting sites that are thousands of kilometres apart. Nine tracked turtles traversed much of the Indian Ocean, as far southeast as Western Australia and towards the eastern coast of Africa. The turtle travelling the furthest, close to the western coast of Mozambique, covered 13,237km in 266 days; it was also the fastest, travelling an average of 49.8km per day.
More information about the Little Andaman plan has been published on EJatlas, the world’s largest, most comprehensive online database of social conflict around environmental issues: Little Andaman Development Plan