Shompen & Great Nicobarese, both vulnerable tribal groups face livelihood threats, Nicobar islands ecological destruction: former civil servants to NCST

Over six dozen former civil and foreign service servants has written to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) urging intervention to protect both these vulnerable tribal groups who’s habitats and livelihoods are threatened as the union government seeks “development” in violation of Art 338A (9) of the Constitution, that compels both Union and every State Government to consult the NCST on all major policy matters affecting Scheduled Tribes

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 AgnihotriIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Department of Social Justice Empowerment, GoI
S.P. AmbroseIAS (Retd.)Former Additional Secretary, Ministry of Shipping & Transport, GoI
G. BalachandhranIAS (Retd.)Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
Vappala BalachandranIPS (Retd.)Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
Gopalan BalagopalIAS (Retd.)Former Special Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
Chandrashekar BalakrishnanIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Coal, GoI
Sushant BaligaEngineering Services (Retd.)Former Additional Director General, Central PWD, GoI
Rana BanerjiRAS (Retd.)Former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, GoI
Sharad BeharIAS (Retd.)Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
Aurobindo BeheraIAS (Retd.)Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Odisha
Madhu BhaduriIFS (Retd.)Former Ambassador to Portugal
Ravi BudhirajaIAS (Retd.)Former Chairman, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, GoI
Sundar BurraIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
R. ChandramohanIAS (Retd.)Former Principal Secretary, Transport and Urban Development, Govt. of NCT of Delhi
Rachel ChatterjeeIAS (Retd.)Former Special Chief Secretary, Agriculture, Govt. of Andhra Pradesh
Kalyani ChaudhuriIAS (Retd.)Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
Gurjit Singh CheemaIAS (Retd.)Former Financial Commissioner (Revenue), Govt. of Punjab
F.T.R. ColasoIPS (Retd.)Former Director General of Police, Govt. of Karnataka & former Director General of Police, Govt. of Jammu & Kashmir
Anna DaniIAS (Retd.)Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
Vibha Puri DasIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GoI
P.R. DasguptaIAS (Retd.)Former Chairman, Food Corporation of India, GoI
Pradeep K. DebIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Deptt. Of Sports, GoI
Nitin Desai Former Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance, GoI
M.G. DevasahayamIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Govt. of Haryana
K.P. FabianIFS (Retd.)Former Ambassador to Italy
Prabhu GhateIAS (Retd.)Former Addl. Director General, Department of Tourism, GoI
Arif GhauriIRS (Retd.)Former Governance Adviser, DFID, Govt. of the United Kingdom (on deputation)
H.S. GujralIFoS (Retd.)Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Govt. of Punjab
Meena GuptaIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Ministry of Environment & Forests, GoI
Ravi Vira GuptaIAS (Retd.)Former Deputy Governor, Reserve Bank of India
Siraj HussainIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Department of Agriculture, GoI
Sudhir KumarIAS (Retd.)Former Member, Central Administrative Tribunal
Subodh LalIPoS (Resigned)Former Deputy Director General, Ministry of Communications, GoI
Harsh ManderIAS (Retd.)Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
L.L. MehrotraIFS (Retd.)Former Special Envoy to the Prime Minister and former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, GoI
Aditi MehtaIAS (Retd.)Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Rajasthan
Sonalini MirchandaniIFS (Resigned)GoI
Deb MukharjiIFS (Retd.)Former High Commissioner to Bangladesh and former Ambassador to Nepal
Shiv Shankar MukherjeeIFS (Retd.)Former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom
Gautam MukhopadhayaIFS (Retd.)Former Ambassador to Myanmar
Surendra NathIAS (Retd.)Former Member, Finance Commission, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
P. Joy OommenIAS (Retd.)Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Chhattisgarh
Amitabha PandeIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI
Maxwell PereiraIPS (Retd.)Former Joint Commissioner of Police, Delhi
R.M. PremkumarIAS (Retd.)Former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
N.K. RaghupathyIAS (Retd.)Former Chairman, Staff Selection Commission, GoI
V.P. RajaIAS (Retd.)Former Chairman, Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission
K. Sujatha RaoIAS (Retd.)Former Health Secretary, GoI
M.Y. RaoIAS (Retd.)
Satwant ReddyIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Chemicals and Petrochemicals, GoI
Vijaya Latha ReddyIFS (Retd.)Former Deputy National Security Adviser, GoI
Julio RibeiroIPS (Retd.)Former Adviser to Governor of Punjab & former Ambassador to Romania
Aruna RoyIAS (Resigned)
A.K. SamantaIPS (Retd.)Former Director General of Police (Intelligence), Govt. of West Bengal
Deepak SananIAS (Retd.)Former Principal Adviser (AR) to Chief Minister, Govt. of Himachal Pradesh
G.V. Venugopala SarmaIAS (Retd.)Former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Odisha
N.C. SaxenaIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Planning Commission, GoI
A. SelvarajIRS (Retd.)Former Chief Commissioner, Income Tax, Chennai, GoI
Abhijit SenguptaIAS (Retd.)Former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, GoI
Aftab SethIFS (Retd.)Former Ambassador to Japan
Ashok Kumar SharmaIFoS (Retd.)Former MD, State Forest Development Corporation, Govt. of Gujarat
Ashok Kumar SharmaIFS (Retd.)Former Ambassador to Finland and Estonia
Navrekha SharmaIFS (Retd.)Former Ambassador to Indonesia
Avay ShuklaIAS (Retd.)Former Additional Chief Secretary (Forests & Technical Education), Govt. of Himachal Pradesh
Tara Ajai SinghIAS (Retd.)Former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Karnataka
Parveen TalhaIRS (Retd.)Former Member, Union Public Service Commission
Anup ThakurIAS (Retd.)Former Member, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission
Geetha ThoopalIRAS (Retd.)Former General Manager, Metro Railway, Kolkata
Ramani VenkatesanIAS (Retd.)Former Director General, YASHADA, Govt. of Maharashtra
Rudi WarjriIFS (Retd.)Former Ambassador to Colombia, Ecuador and Costa Rica


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