How long can Great Nicobar Island, home to spectacular bio-diversity, resist development and security pressures?

More than 10 years ago, we arrived at Great Nicobar in the middle of a show of strength by the Indian Navy. Our first glimpse of Campbell Bay was that of numerous ominous-looking patrol vessels and fast attack craft silhouetted against an overcast sky. As dawn broke, an ancient tug towing an equally dilapidated pontoon arrived to exchange passengers with the MV Harshavardhana. What followed was purely chaotic or remarkably efficient, depending on the way one viewed the process.

Embarkation and disembarkation were attempted together: luggage was flung back and forth amidst curses, wailing children and farm animals were tossed across to random adults, and those hesitating nervously at the edge of the gangway were quickly shoved in from behind like penguins from an ice block. In a matter of minutes, the commotion ceased, the ship disappeared and the pontoon was bouncing on choppy seas back to the jetty. The passengers huddled together in the centre as there were no railings to hold along the edges. This is the usual gentle introduction for most visitors to the Nicobars. Great Nicobar Island (GNI), or Tokieong Long as it is known to the Nicobarese, is the largest and southernmost island in the group. Situated barely 100 nautical miles from the island of Sumatra, GNI was one of the first places to be affected by the devastating tsunami of 2004, and suffered tragic human losses that went largely unnoticed and unreported.

Spectacular diversity

Although poorly accessible and inhospitable, the Nicobars are, to the field biologist, nothing short of an unexplored paradise. They form the western extremity of the Sundaland hotspot, a region of spectacular tropical diversity, which engulfs much of the Indo-Malayan archipelago. On account of its remoteness and low population density, Great Nicobar still has most of its forests intact. Two adjoining protected areas, the Campbell Bay National Park in the north and the Galathea National Park in the south, constitute the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve.

The characteristic high diversity of the hotspot is supplemented by a host of endemics stemming from long periods of isolation: mammals like the Nicobar white-tailed shrew, Nicobar treeshrew, and Nicobar crab-eating macaque, and birds like Nicobar serpent eagle, Nicobar Parakeet, and Nicobar Megapode to name just a few. Marine biodiversity in the waters surrounding the Nicobars is also expected to be equally high if one were to go by patterns in nearby Southeast Asia; however, very little in-water research has been carried out here. The beaches close to the river mouths of Galathea, Alexandria and Dagmar are amongst the most significant nesting sites for leatherback turtles in the Indian Ocean.

Currently, GNI is at a crossroads. Post-tsunami reconstruction, combined with the emerging significance of the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean has generated renewed interest in infrastructure development both from the point of view of security and that of economic strategy. Security concerns involving China, Burma and Indonesia are reflected in plans for infrastructure development and maintenance of access especially within the northern and southern sectors of the island chain. In Great Nicobar, the Indian Air Force is believed to be contemplating the establishment of a station near Indira Point. As for maritime trade, the island's proximity to the Southeast Asian sea lines and its position along the navigable Six Degree Channel has led to calls for the development of an international cargo hub as well as a special economic zone. The proposal for construction of a major trans-shipment terminal at South Bay (Galathea) has been rejected due to its capital-intensive nature as well as its location within the protected area. A downscaled project which is now being evaluated for Campbell Bay still requires additional scrutiny and environmental impact assessment. Tourism projects are also proposed from time to time citing potential benefits for the settler community that has few other employment options. However, its designation as a tribal area and Biosphere Reserve has held off large-scale development till now.

Roads without reason

Till recently, infrastructure development on GNI was minimal and restricted to a rudimentary airstrip, a jetty and two roads. The East-West Road (or what remains of it) stands as a testament to times when new frontiers were being opened up and roads were constructed out of habit, with little foresight or reason. The purpose of this road was to have motorable access to the west coast, but in reality a tenuous connection was achieved only with Kopen Heat, a tiny coastal hamlet with a handful of houses, beyond which progress was difficult. The road which bisected the island was of no use to man or beast, rather it did the indigenous Shompen a huge disfavour by serving as a conduit for alien culture and disease and an increasing dependence on government rations. Heavy rainfall and hilly, unstable terrain contributed to frequent landslips and over a period of time, most of this road has been reclaimed by the jungle. Recently, the issue of rebuilding the road was revisited, but did not receive a favourable response from the committee which cited tribal and ecological concerns.

The 51-km long North-South Road beginning at Campbell Bay (the main settlement) served as a lifeline for the ex-servicemen families settled along the road since the late 1960s and to the Nicobarese settlement of Chingenh situated close to Indira Point, India's southernmost point on land. The tsunami of 2004, however, devastated the settlements and many sections of the road. Currently plans to construct the road beyond the 36-km mark coinciding with the last permanent settlement needs are being reviewed as the Nicobarese from Chingenh have expressed a desire to return to their original village to recreate plantations. In this regard, tribal rights, indigenous resource use patterns and sentiments need to be given due recognition.

Cumulative impact

At the same time, the plan to shift what was once a coastal road further inland will entail considerable ecological damage and the alignment of the road needs to be given careful consideration with stability as a primary factor. This development is also likely to facilitate access to Galathea beach, a primary nesting site for endangered leatherback turtles. Managing incursions of feral cattle, dogs and cats from nearby villages will also be problematic. Keeping in mind the ongoing seismic activity in the region, the instability of the terrain and the potential ecological damage that roads can cause (fragmentation, predation, invasive alien species), an alternate suggestion has also been voiced which warrants serious consideration. This is to maintain a trail or footpath around the island for general access and patrolling. In any case, it has to be stressed that a road which improves basic access may not be a problem in itself if it is built with the right environmental safeguards. It is the cumulative impacts of such structures in terms of bringing in additional development that needs to be guarded against.

At this point, it is clear that there are contesting claims on the island and its resources. On the one hand is a need to preserve a fragile environmental legacy and unique indigenous ways of life. On the other, there are calls for improving settler livelihoods and infrastructural access for security. While it is not evident now what changes will follow this critical juncture, it is important to understand these different perspectives and the need for a context-specific strategy focused on these islands. Such a strategy should first and foremost question the need for large-scale development projects in a zone of recurring seismic activity and ecological fragility, carefully weigh their potential benefits against ecologically less-damaging alternatives, and create appropriate checks and balances.