Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, the Shompen and Great Nicobarese, despite resistance and protest stand to lose much of their traditional forest foraging grounds –habitat and livelihood says the Constitutiona Conduct Group (CCG) in an open letter to the NCST.
Stating that the group is a collective of former civil servants of the All India and Central Services who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of our careers, the letter points out that despite an earlier communication (Open Letter to the President of India) on the proposed port and container terminal on the island of Great Nicobar that will virtually destroy the unique ecology of this island and the habitat of vulnerable tribal groups, this has gone unheeded. Neither this letter, nor the very many others written by other individuals and groups, about the flaws in the environment and forest clearances, seem to have had any effect in making the Government of India re-examine the project. It is only very recently that the National Green Tribunal has ordered a closer look at some of the environmental issues raised.
Hence this second communication to the NCST, not about the environmental and ecological destruction that the project is likely to wreak, but about the fate of the two groups of tribal people that the island of Great Nicobar harbours, viz., the Shompen, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group who stand to lose much of their traditional forest foraging grounds, and the southern Great Nicobarese, a Scheduled Tribe, who have already been badly affected by the tsunami of 2004, having had to move out from their ancestral villages and be resettled closer to the administrative hub of the island. The project will be extremely detrimental to both these groups: hence, this letter to you.
According to the earlier timeline of events as learnt by the CCG and communicated, on August 12, 2021, the Directorate of Tribal Welfare, A & N islands, a body meant to protect the rights of the tribal communities and to ensure that the various regulations and policies are implemented, issued an undertaking that any exemptions from the regulations, laws and policies required for the project would be obtained by it, thereby violating the very objective of the Directorate.
A year later, on August 12, 2022, a special Gram Sabha meeting was held in which it was decided that part of the tribal reserve land within the boundaries of the island would be diverted for the “holistic development of Great Nicobar” and another portion of land, outside the current tribal reserve, and on a different part of the island, would be added to the tribal reserve.
The CCG points out that such a “switch” of what is tribal land to another in unheard of in law or statute making it ultra vires. Besides, all this has been effected without even the consent or willingness of the tribal groups concerned. Four days later, on August 16, 2022 the NOC for the diversion of tribal reserve land was signed by the BDO, the Pramukh, Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti representative (AAJVS) (for the Shompen), and the Chairman of the Tribal Council (for the Nicobarese).
It was on August 25, 2022 the Nicobarese, having become aware that the land that was agreed to be diverted was their own former ancestral home lands, wrote to the Lieutenant Governor requesting for relocation to their pre-tsunami villages of Chingenh and Pulo Babhi (this area was now the proposed site for the port and the airport of the project). On September 23, 2022, a meeting chaired by the DC Nicobar was held with the Tribal Council to discuss the matter of their relocation. The officers again tried to persuade the Nicobarese not to insist on going back, with the promise of making available all facilities at their current resettlement sites. But the Tribal Council stuck to their stand. Therefore, another meeting was proposed to be held by the officers. This meeting was, however, never held.
Despite the Nicobarese’s insistence on returning to their ancestral settlements, both forest clearance and environment clearance were given to the Great Nicobar Holistic Development Project on October 27 and November 11, 2022 respectively. The lands involved covered the original home lands of the Nicobarese. Shortly thereafter, on November 22, 2022, the Tribal Council sent a letter withdrawing their NOC for diversion of their lands, mentioning that they had not been informed earlier that the land being earmarked for development included areas where the group lived prior to the tsunami. They stated that they were completely dependent on forests in their original homes and they wanted to go back to foraging and tending to plantations on their lands, and rearing domestic animals, rather than working as manual labour in menial jobs, as they do at present. They said that losing access to their lands would be damaging both to their future generations and to their ‘Shompen brothers’.
Hence it can be seen that the Nicobarese have consistently been unwilling to give their consent to the diversion of their ancestral homelands, which they had used until the tsunami of 2004. They have also been asking to be sent back to their pre-tsunami settlement areas since 2007. That they agreed at one point of time to the diversion of tribal reserve land can be ascribed to their lack of knowledge of the areas proposed to be used for the project, their lack of awareness of their rights, and the insistence of the administrative authorities. Even so, the Tribal Council (of the Nicobarese) withdrew the consent they had given earlier for diversion of their tribal reserve land as soon as they could.
The Shompen, meanwhile continue to live, cultivate and collect food resources from the forests, little aware that some of their forests would soon be taken away.
Several people have written to the government objecting to the use of tribal reserve land for the project, among them the anthropologists of the Indian Anthropological Association. They wrote to the Andaman Nicobar Pollution Control Committee ahead of the public hearing, stressing the need to take great care when clearing the project, particularly where it concerned the lands of the Shompen and the Great Nicobarese. They emphasised the damage that would occur if the project came too close to the dwellings or foraging grounds of the Shompen. They too mentioned that the Nicobarese were anxious to return to their pre-tsunami settlements. Yet all these calls for caution have gone unheeded and the project has been cleared despite the damage it will cause to these defenceless tribal people.
Incidentally through a constitutional amendment, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), you are mandated under Article 338 of the Constitution to oversee the implementation of the safeguards provided to the Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution or under any other law for the time being in force. For the tribes of the islands this would mean, the Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956. This Regulation governs the statutory safeguards applicable to the tribes in these islands and overrides any law, agreement, court decree or order inconsistent with it. All Acts, including the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, would, in our opinion, be subordinate to this regulation.
Under Art 338A (9) of the Constitution, the Union and every State Government is meant to consult the NCST on all major policy matters affecting Scheduled Tribes.
The CCG group reiterates that in this major matter of a mega project coming up in Great Nicobar, displacing the vulnerable tribes from their traditional forest and tribal reserve areas, this consultation has not been done. The CCG has also noted that on learning of this, a notice has been sent on April 20, 2023 by your Commission to the Andaman and Nicobar Administration asking them to explain the facts of the matter within fifteen days. This letter was sent on a complaint made by Dr. EAS Sarma, a former Secretary in the Union Finance Ministry, and an expert on tribal matters.
The CCG has therefore added its voice and strength to that of Dr. Sarma and of the many others who have expressed their concern about the many flaws in the clearances given and the damage that the displacement will cause to the tribal groups. It has been strongly urged that the NCST goes into the matter thoroughly and ensure that a project meant for the holistic development of Great Nicobar does not result in the immiseration and ultimate extinction of these highly vulnerable tribal communities, whose original and only home the island is.
Seventy signatories of the CCG are listed below:
|Anita Agnihotri||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Department of Social Justice Empowerment, GoI|
|S.P. Ambrose||IAS (Retd.)||Former Additional Secretary, Ministry of Shipping & Transport, GoI|
|G. Balachandhran||IAS (Retd.)||Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal|
|Vappala Balachandran||IPS (Retd.)||Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI|
|Gopalan Balagopal||IAS (Retd.)||Former Special Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal|
|Chandrashekar Balakrishnan||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Coal, GoI|
|Sushant Baliga||Engineering Services (Retd.)||Former Additional Director General, Central PWD, GoI|
|Rana Banerji||RAS (Retd.)||Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI|
|Sharad Behar||IAS (Retd.)||Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh|
|Aurobindo Behera||IAS (Retd.)||Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Odisha|
|Madhu Bhaduri||IFS (Retd.)||Former Ambassador to Portugal|
|Ravi Budhiraja||IAS (Retd.)||Former Chairman, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, GoI|
|Sundar Burra||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra|
|R. Chandramohan||IAS (Retd.)||Former Principal Secretary, Transport and Urban Development, Govt. of NCT of Delhi|
|Rachel Chatterjee||IAS (Retd.)||Former Special Chief Secretary, Agriculture, Govt. of Andhra Pradesh|
|Kalyani Chaudhuri||IAS (Retd.)||Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal|
|Gurjit Singh Cheema||IAS (Retd.)||Former Financial Commissioner (Revenue), Govt. of Punjab|
|F.T.R. Colaso||IPS (Retd.)||Former Director General of Police, Govt. of Karnataka & former Director General of Police, Govt. of Jammu & Kashmir|
|Anna Dani||IAS (Retd.)||Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra|
|Vibha Puri Das||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GoI|
|P.R. Dasgupta||IAS (Retd.)||Former Chairman, Food Corporation of India, GoI|
|Pradeep K. Deb||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Deptt. Of Sports, GoI|
|Nitin Desai||Former Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, GoI|
|M.G. Devasahayam||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Govt. of Haryana|
|K.P. Fabian||IFS (Retd.)||Former Ambassador to Italy|
|Prabhu Ghate||IAS (Retd.)||Former Addl. Director General, Department of Tourism, GoI|
|Arif Ghauri||IRS (Retd.)||Former Governance Adviser, DFID, Govt. of the United Kingdom (on deputation)|
|H.S. Gujral||IFoS (Retd.)||Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Govt. of Punjab|
|Meena Gupta||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forests, GoI|
|Ravi Vira Gupta||IAS (Retd.)||Former Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank of India|
|Siraj Hussain||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Department of Agriculture, GoI|
|Sudhir Kumar||IAS (Retd.)||Former Member, Central Administrative Tribunal|
|Subodh Lal||IPoS (Resigned)||Former Deputy Director General, Ministry of Communications, GoI|
|Harsh Mander||IAS (Retd.)||Govt. of Madhya Pradesh|
|L.L. Mehrotra||IFS (Retd.)||Former Special Envoy to the Prime Minister and former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, GoI|
|Aditi Mehta||IAS (Retd.)||Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Rajasthan|
|Sonalini Mirchandani||IFS (Resigned)||GoI|
|Deb Mukharji||IFS (Retd.)||Former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and former Ambassador to Nepal|
|Shiv Shankar Mukherjee||IFS (Retd.)||Former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom|
|Gautam Mukhopadhaya||IFS (Retd.)||Former Ambassador to Myanmar|
|Surendra Nath||IAS (Retd.)||Former Member, Finance Commission, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh|
|P. Joy Oommen||IAS (Retd.)||Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Chhattisgarh|
|Amitabha Pande||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI|
|Maxwell Pereira||IPS (Retd.)||Former Joint Commissioner of Police, Delhi|
|R.M. Premkumar||IAS (Retd.)||Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra|
|N.K. Raghupathy||IAS (Retd.)||Former Chairman, Staff Selection Commission, GoI|
|V.P. Raja||IAS (Retd.)||Former Chairman, Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission|
|K. Sujatha Rao||IAS (Retd.)||Former Health Secretary, GoI|
|M.Y. Rao||IAS (Retd.)|
|Satwant Reddy||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Chemicals and Petrochemicals, GoI|
|Vijaya Latha Reddy||IFS (Retd.)||Former Deputy National Security Adviser, GoI|
|Julio Ribeiro||IPS (Retd.)||Former Adviser to Governor of Punjab & former Ambassador to Romania|
|Aruna Roy||IAS (Resigned)|
|A.K. Samanta||IPS (Retd.)||Former Director General of Police (Intelligence), Govt. of West Bengal|
|Deepak Sanan||IAS (Retd.)||Former Principal Adviser (AR) to Chief Minister, Govt. of Himachal Pradesh|
|G.V. Venugopala Sarma||IAS (Retd.)||Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Odisha|
|N.C. Saxena||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Planning Commission, GoI|
|A. Selvaraj||IRS (Retd.)||Former Chief Commissioner, Income Tax, Chennai, GoI|
|Abhijit Sengupta||IAS (Retd.)||Former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, GoI|
|Aftab Seth||IFS (Retd.)||Former Ambassador to Japan|
|Ashok Kumar Sharma||IFoS (Retd.)||Former MD, State Forest Development Corporation, Govt. of Gujarat|
|Ashok Kumar Sharma||IFS (Retd.)||Former Ambassador to Finland and Estonia|
|Navrekha Sharma||IFS (Retd.)||Former Ambassador to Indonesia|
|Avay Shukla||IAS (Retd.)||Former Additional Chief Secretary (Forests & Technical Education), Govt. of Himachal Pradesh|
|Tara Ajai Singh||IAS (Retd.)||Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Karnataka|
|Parveen Talha||IRS (Retd.)||Former Member, Union Public Service Commission|
|Anup Thakur||IAS (Retd.)||Former Member, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission|
|Geetha Thoopal||IRAS (Retd.)||Former General Manager, Metro Railway, Kolkata|
|Ramani Venkatesan||IAS (Retd.)||Former Director General, YASHADA, Govt. of Maharashtra|
|Rudi Warjri||IFS (Retd.)||Former Ambassador to Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica|