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Great Nicobar development plan, Nicobar islands, India


Great Nicobar is the southernmost island of the Nicobar Islands Archipelago. It covers 103 870 hectares. A background to the Nicobar islands (that belong to India), can be found (among other sources) in the anthropologist and ecologist Simron Singh's work (before and after the tsunami of 2004). [11]. Now the Great Nicobar island is threatened by a massive "development" plan. 

Denotification of Galathea Bay Sanctuary

At a meeting held on 5th January 2021 the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) recommended the denotification of Galathea Bay Sanctuary, with a number of conditions. This decision was made after local authorities cited a proposed international shipment project. Located on the southeast coast of Greater Nicobar Island, the southernmost and largest of the Nicobar islands, an archipelagic island chain in the eastern Indian Ocean, Galathea Bay Sanctuary is one of the world’s most important nesting sites for leatherback turtles. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists leatherback turtles as a vulnerable species. They are migratory and highly sensitive to temperature extremes. Their name is derived from their tough rubbery skin; they are the world’s largest turtles and the only species without a hard shell and scales. Kartik Shanker, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Ecological Sciences, said:

“Great Nicobar Island and Little Andaman Island host the largest nesting population of leatherback turtles in the central or northern Indian Ocean. Galathea is one of the few leatherback sites monitored over the last 30 years and is an iconic beach for leatherback nesting. Any  development that impacts these nesting beaches will have an adverse impact on the population.”

Minutes of the NBWL meeting stated, ‘The mitigation plan needs to be developed through a detailed study so that marine turtles continue to nest on the beaches near Galathea Bay during both the construction as well as operational phases of the international shipment project.’ The minutes also stated that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration sought to declare Galathea Bay as a sanctuary covering 11.4 square kilometres through notifications issued in 1997, but the final notification for the sanctuary had not been issued.[1]

Negligible eco-sensitive zone around Galathea National Park

Two weeks later, on 18th January, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) expert committee approved an almost negligible eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around the Galathea National Park (GNP), which adjoins Galathea Bay Sanctuary and is a habitat for many rare species of animals and plants. An ESZ provides a buffer zone around a protected area, thereby helping to safeguard faunal and floral diversity. According to the Indian government the GNP is ‘one of the best-preserved tropical rain forests in the world and shows a high degree of endemism’. The area consists of mangrove forests with at least 14 species recorded, littoral forests, low-level evergreen forests, tropical evergreen forests, southern hill-top evergreen forests and ferns. GNP is also home to an exceptional variety of wildlife including threatened fauna such as Nicobar crab-eating macaque, Nicobar wild pig, Nicobar tree shrew, spiny shrew, Nicobar flying fox, Nicobar leaf-nosed bat, Nicobar pipistrelle, Andaman water monitor (a large lizard), Tiwari’s garden lizard and estuarine crocodile. Avi-faunal species include Nicobar tiger bittern, Nicobar cuckoo dove, Great Nicobar crested serpent eagle, Nicobar paradise flycatcher, Nicobar megapode and Nicobar black-naped oriole.

Designation of such a small ESZ around the GNP means that the international shipment project - comprising a major port, an airport and a strategic defence project - faces no impediment in the future. Greater Nicobar Island is regarded as one of the most strategically important areas in the Andaman and Nicobar Island region due its southern position closer to Myanmar and Sumatra than to the Indian mainland. The MoEFCC’s expert committee was informed that the justification behind such a small ESZ was the strategic location of Greater Nicobar Island, very close the major international sipping route of Malacca Strait. Officials said that a 750-metre buffer was proposed from the coast and near the GNP boundary. The risks of a tsunami and rising water level require the developable area to be located away from the coast and near the GNP boundary. The government selected the GNP site from four potential sites, stating that as over 95 per cent of the island is national park, protected forest or tribal reserve there is little room for development projects. GNP is also the home of the Shompens, one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG), a classification created by the Government of India aiming to improve conditions for communities with very low development indices.

The Shompens people are solely dependent upon forest resources for their hunting and gathering. Manish Chandi, a human ecologist and senior fellow with the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team,  said the question that must be answered is whether the development will really benefit the islanders, or would they have no choice but to work as labourers or domestic help in other peoples’ houses, resorts or offices. He said:

“There are so many pressing needs of the local communities that are overshadowed by the Rs.10,000 crores for the transhipment terminal, which in itself is an economic sinkhole of dubious future, as everything and everyone to make it function will have to be imported.”

Chandi suggested funds be spent instead on improving infrastructure for the local community and enhancing their capacity to create and augment their own income-generating opportunities through nature-based tourism.

At the meeting on 18th January 2021 the expert committee was informed that NITI Aayog, a public policy think-tank of the Government of India, ‘has proposed to construct an airport, requiring 21.64 of land at the southernmost part and construction of rapid mass transit system originating for Campbell Bay and terminating somewhere in the western part and running parallel to the coastline’. It was also stated that ‘besides the development of a major transhipment port, the area is also earmarked for future strategic defence use in view of the developing geopolitical scenario in the area’.[2]

Impact on marine turtles and indigenous Shompen

Conservation India expressed many concerns about the transhipment port plans. The 126-page pre-feasibility report prepared for NITI Aayog by AECOM India Private Limited, entitled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’, contained minimal acknowledgement of Galathea Bay being an important leatherback turtle nesting site. Significant changes to legal frameworks were made to allow for situating the transhipment port in Galathea Bay. It is estimated that the project will cover an area of 166 square kilometres, mostly consisting of pristine coastal ecosystems and tropical forests. Several experts argued that the location decision violated both the letter and spirit of the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA). To Conservation India, a non-profit information portal, it is almost as if the unique diversity of life ‘suddenly stopped existing because of an arbitrary line drawn to allow a slew of high value projects’. AECOM’s report suggests that 650,000 people will inhabit Great Nicobar upon full implementation of the project. This is an enormous increase on the current population of 8,500 and there would be major physical and cultural impacts on the indigenous Shompen, numbering only a few hundred.[3]

The Shompen are the indigenous people of the interior of Great Nicobar Island. The Shompen are a designated Scheduled Tribe in the legislation of India.

Overall, the port project plan entails use of about 244 square kilometres of land, almost 18% of the 910 square kilometre island. Writing in The Hindu about NITI Aayog’s supposedly ‘holistic’ and ‘sustainable’ vision for the island, Pankaj Sekhsaria points to the significance of ‘the speed and co-ordination with which it has all unfolded’. On 4th September 2020 the Director, Tribal Welfare, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, constituted an empowered committee to examine NITI Aayog’s proposals. Part of the communication was a copy of the 2015 Policy on Shompen Tribe of Great Nicobar Island which noted that the welfare and integrity of these people should be a priority, indicating the aims of the committee. The proposed project areas are important foraging areas for the nomadic, hunter gatherer Shompen community. The port project could make large forest areas inaccessible for them. Sekhsaria draws attention to new protections for marine turtles that have been ignored by project planners. The NBWL meeting on 5th January 2021 which decided to denotify Galathea Bay Sanctuary, was seemingly unaware that India’s National Marine Turtle Action Plan was at that time under preparation. Released on 1st February 2021, this document lists Galathea Bay among the ‘Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas’, and ‘Important Marine Turtle Habitats’ in the country.[4]

EAC grants ToR in spite of flagging serious concerns

Following meetings in March and April 2021 the Environmental Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the MoEFCC removed the first hurdle standing in the way of the port project, recommending it for granting of terms of reference (ToR) for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies. The EAC was responding to the pre-feasibility report prepared by AECOM India Private Limited and flagged a number of serious concerns, both procedural and substantive. The cost of the project was estimated at US$9.96 billion. The EAC also noted lack of details on the number of trees that would be felled, a number that be enormous as 130 square kilometres of the project area contains some of the finest tropical forest in India. Site selection for the port had been conducted mainly on financial and technical criteria, ignoring environmental aspects.

The EAC requested an independent study of the proposed site with specific focus on leatherback turtles along with Nicobar Megapod and dugong. Yet the importance of Galathea Bay as a turtle nesting site is already borne out by surveys conducted over three decades by the island’s Forest Department and research agencies such as the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team. Ecological surveys in recent years have reported a number of new species, some only found in the Galathea region, including the Great Nicobar crake (a bird), Great Nicobar frog and a type of skink (lizard). An island expert, requesting anonymity, said “None of these are even mentioned in AECOM’s pre-feasibility report of the EAC’s observations. We don’t even know what exists here, leave alone understanding the many fragile interlinkages of the Great Nicobar’s complex systems.”[5]

Manish Chandi told The Wire Science that AECOM’s pre-feasibility report recognises only seven revenue villages on the island, not the tribal villages. He said the agency’s oversight “is problematic and unfair” for these inhabitants who have not been accounted for. Port Blair based journalist Zubair Ahmed described the port plans as “a death knell for the already minuscule Shompen tribe and an obvious ecological disaster for leatherback turtle nesting sites”. He explained that the port plan is not new but has been discussed “for over twenty years”, only to be dismissed because it wasn’t economically or  environmentally viable and “stood to cause more damage than benefit”. But this time the project seemed set to take off. Ahmed said what is needed on Great Nicobar is basic infrastructure like schools and hospitals and connectivity to Port Blair, capital city of the islands. Residents also endure regular power outages, especially during monsoons, and paucity of basic groceries such as vegetables, rice and salt. Ashwini Mohan, an evolutionary biologist who has worked in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for a few years, raised the concern that the project might be unrealistic due to prevailing water scarcity; islanders depend upon rainfall for their freshwater need. He said, “There may not be enough freshwater for a large-scale development project over the long run”.[6]

Concerns over turtle nesting sites

Pankaj Sekhsaria’s 4th June 2021 article in The Wire Science details the concerns of many other organisations and individuals about the impact of the port on leatherback turtles. Neha Sinha, head of conservation and policy at the Bombay Natural History Society said “India is currently president of the Convention of Migratory Species. We are in a leadership position to support conservation of these leatherback turtles and this does not include denotifying protected areas which are their breeding sites”. According to coastal researcher Aarthi Sridhar NWBL’s denotification decision suggests “pre-judgement of clearance outcomes and values, and signals lack of interest in the legally mandated process of examination of diverse ecological, economic and social reasons”.

Muralidharan Manoharakrishnan and Adhith Swaminathan, turtle biologists at the Dakshin Foundation monitoring turtle population in the islands for many years explained that the ideal site for a port is a sloping beach with deep offshore waters, the exact coastal features preferred by leatherback turtles. Manoharakrishnan said it was unlikely that leatherback turtles would continue to nest in the bay if the entry to it was narrowed by the port; “The breakwaters and the construction will only erode the beach and the associated disturbance from dredging, lights and increased human presence will dissuade leatherbacks from nesting.”[7]

Under the leadership of the Chennai-based Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) several turtle researchers banded together to launch a signature campaign against NINI Aayog’s port plans. Arun Venkataraman of SSTCN, leader of the campaign, said “We have written to a number of Union government officials in the environment ministry, the Lieutenant Governor of the UT as well as forest officials.” Efforts to preserve turtle nesting sites could be bolstered by the aforementioned listing of Galathea Bay in the National Marine Turtle Action Plan which was released on 1st February 2021.[8]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Great Nicobar development plan, Nicobar islands, India
State or province:Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Location of conflict:Nicobar Islands
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Urban development conflicts
Ports and airport projects
Land acquisition conflicts
Specific commodities:Land

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The 126-page pre-feasibility report entitled ‘Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ prepared by AECOM India Private Limited for NITI Aayog, proposes a project comprising an international container shipment terminal, a greenfield international airport, a power plant and a township complex. The development would take up an area of 166 sq km, nearly 18% of Great Nicobar Island.[3] The area is also earmarked for a strategic defence project.[2] The overall plan envisages use of about 244 sq km. Projects planned for execution in Phase 1 include a 22 sq km airport complex. A transhipment port at South Bay, a parallel to the coast mass transport system and a free trade zone and warehousing complex on the southwestern coast.[4] The project of building a coastal city, that will be developed as a free trade zone, aims to strengthen India’s status in the spheres of the economy, trade and tourism. The goal of the major transhipment centre is to strengthen India’s presence in the Andaman Sea and Southeast Asian region. The proposed international airport would cater for Airbus A-380 aircraft, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, with peak capacity of 4,000 passenger per hour (PHP). The 450 MVA power plant envisages gas and diesel generating stations, solar plants and an additional 50 MW LNG power plant. It is proposed that diesel would provide about 15% of the total of 450 MVA, about 10% solar and the remaining 75% would be gas based. The development plan demarcates 75 sq km for an urbanised area, 42 sq km for a residential area and 32 sq km for commercial development.[9]

Prof. Sekhsaria's report : a Monumental Folly. [10]. Associate Professor, Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA) & Associate Faculty, Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), IIT-Bombay, Pankaj Sekhsaria, who is also a member of the Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group, brought out a compilation "A Monumental Folly: Niti Aayog's Development Plans for Great Nicobar Islands" on "the devastation that will be wrought by the project". The report has documented the ecologically fragile value of the pristine islands and "how the administration is hell bent on destroying it".

Recounting the developments since January 2021 in connection with the project - the de-notification in January 2021 of the Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for locating the port in the bay, the notification, also in January 2021, of a 'zero' extent ecosensitive zone (ESZ) of the Galathea National Park to allow for the low-lying coastal area to be made available for the projects, the release in March 2021 by AECOM India Pvt Ltd of the pre-feasibility report titled 'Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman and Nicobar Islands' with the NITI Aayog being the client for the same, and the formation in mid-September 2020 of a committee for de-notification of tribal reserves in the islands, Sekhsaria said: "The EAC recommendation was the latest in a concerted and co-ordinated effort to smoothen out the regulatory and legal processes to facilitate the implementation of these projects."

"The Andaman and Nicobar Island system lies at a very fragile and vulnerable intersection of the geological, ecological and socio-cultural. NITI Aayog's Great Nicobar plan is deeply ignorant of these multiple realities even as it aggressively pursues a completely illusory agenda of economic growth and development. To go ahead with it will be to perpetuate a monumental folly the price paid for which cannot even be comprehended," he wrote in the report.

Project area:24,400
Level of Investment for the conflictive project9,997,305,000
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:05/01/2021
Company names or state enterprises:AECOM India Private Ltd. from India - Pre-feasibility study
Water And Power Consultancy Services Limited (WAPCOS ) from India - Issue of tenders Traffic Study For “creating Transshipment Port At South Bay, Great Nicobar Island Of A&N Islands Conducting Techno-economic feasibility & REIA Studies for creating transhipment port at south bay, Great Nicobar
Relevant government actors:Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited (ANIIDCO)
NITI Aayog
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC)
National Board for Wildlife (NBWL)
Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways
Environmental Appraisal Committee
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Andaman Nicobar Environment Team -
Dakshin Foundation -
Conservation India -
Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network (SSTCN) -

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
The Shompen, a scheduled tribe, will be impacted
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Official complaint letters and petitions
Arguments for the rights of mother nature


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity, Oil spills
Health ImpactsPotential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Other Health impactsIllnesses caused by pollutants emitted by aircraft
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Violations of human rights, Other socio-economic impacts


Project StatusProposed (exploration phase)
Proposal and development of alternatives:Manish Chandi, a human ecologist and senior fellow with the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team, suggested funds allocated for the transhipment port project be spent instead on improving infrastructure for the local community and enhancing their capacity to create and augment their own income-generating opportunities through nature-based tourism.[2]
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The transhipment port project would take up about 18% of Great Nicobar Island having major negative impacts on leatherback turtles and many other species. Many types of forest are also at risk. The Shompen tribe would lose access to important foraging areas. The proposal has moved forward quickly with the designation of a minimal eco-sensitive zone (ESZ) around Galathea National Park removing a key impedient to implementation. Great impact on biodiversity (turtles and others), and on the Shompen indigenous people.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

National Marine Turtle Action Plan, Government of India Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (2021-2026)

Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman & Nicobar Islands: Pre-Feasibility Report, AECOM India Private Ltd., March 2021

Policy on Shompen Tribe of Great Nicobar Island, Andaman and Nicobar Administration Directorate of Tribal Welfare, 22/05/2015

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[9] Aabhas Pareek and Swadha Sharma, NITI Aayog’s Project for Great Nicobar Island, Indian Journal of Projects, Infrastructure and Energy Law (IJPIEL), 05/08 2021

[11] Simron Jit Singh. 1) The Nicobar Islands, Cultural Choices in the aftermath of the Tsunami, Vienna: Oliver Lehmann. 2006. 2) In the Sea of Influence: A World System Perspective of the Nicobar Islands. Lund Studies in Human Ecology 6. Lund: Lund University Press, 2003.

[12] Kalpavriksh, Monumental Folly report (Sekhsaria). March 2021.

[1] Denotify turtle nesting site in Andaman for shipment project: Wildlife board, Hindustan Times, 28/01/2021

[2] Great Nicobar’s protected areas to get near-zero eco-sensitive zones for “holistic development”, Mayank Aggarwal, 08/03/2021

[3] Proposed Development Tsunami will Engulf Great Nicobar Islands, Conservation India,

[4] NITI Aayog vision for Great Nicobar ignores tribal, ecological concerns, Pankaj Sekhsaria, The Hindu, 20/03/2021

[5] Green panel allows Great Nicobar plan to advance, Pankaj Sekhsaria, The Hindu, 10/05/2021

[6] NITI Aayog’s Vision for Great Nicobar Is at Great Odds With Islanders’ Reality, Rishika Pardika, Science, The Wire, 29/05/2021

[7] Location, Port Design Could Spell Doom for Turtles at Galathea Bay: Experts, Pankaj Sekhsaria, Science, The Wire, 04/06/2021

[8] India’s turtle researchers oppose development plans for Little Andaman, Great Nicobar islands, Ashis Senapati, Down To Earth, 10/06/2021

[10] A&N Islands to have public hearing for Rs 72K cr project, environmentalist cries foul, 27 Dec. 2021. New Delhi. |

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Petition - Save Galathea Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and Great Nicobar Island

Galathea Bay: Will the World's Largest Sea Turtle Return to Nest in India?

Video explaining the habitat and life-cycle of the Leatherback Turtle in Galathea Bay on the tip of Great Nicobar Island. In January 2021 the protected status of the sanctuary was cancelled for construction of a transshipment port. Roundglass Sustain, 08/10/2021

Other comments:January 2022. The Combined EIA has been published and there is a public hearing on 27/01/2022

Meta information

Contributor:Rose Bridger, Stay Grounded mapping, email: [email protected]
Last update06/01/2022
Conflict ID:5678



Leatherback turtle

Leatherback turtle on Galethea Bay nesting beach, The Hindu, 10/05/2021

Port plan map and turtle nesting beaches

A map of the port design from AECOM’s pre-feasibility report. Researchers from the Dakshin Foundation annotated the turtle nesting beaches, Science, The Wire, 04/06/2021

Greater Nicobar Island Concept Plan

Source: Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Limited (ANIIDCO)

Turtle laying eggs

Female Leatherhead turtle laying eggs on a Great Nicobar Island beach. Photo: Ashis Senapati, Down to Earth, 10/06/2021

Rain over Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve

Photo: Prasun Goswami, 05/09/2016, Wikimedia Commons

Preferred airport site

Map showing preferred site for an international greenfield airport, one of four main components of the Great Nicobar Island development plan. Graphic: Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island at Andaman & Nicobar Islands: Pre-Feasibility Report, AECOM India Private Ltd., March 2021