Researcher, author and journalist Pankaj Sekhsaria, 52, has been assiduously chronicling the ecology, culture and development issues of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for nearly three decades. An author of two books based on the island chain, Sekhsaria has now curated a new book ‘The Great Nicobar Betrayal’, which was launched earlier this month.

The book is a compilation of selected writings published on the ecological, legal, socio-cultural and environmental concerns surrounding the proposed Rs 72,000-crore government project in Great Nicobar Island. Sekhsaria spoke to The Indian Express on this project and more

Edited excerpts.

You have been visiting the islands for three decades and have chronicled different aspects. What do you think are the biggest challenges for this region?

These islands are located at a crucial trijunction of what might be called the geological, the ecological and cultural context. Which I think is true for most places, but in different ways. There are many unique dimensions to this place.

It’s a biodiversity hotspot with fantastic tropical evergreen forests. A lot of biodiversity is still undocumented, much of it is very rare and unique, and there are a lot of endangered and endemic species. So that is one dimension to it. Now the second dimension, which is very important, is the geological dimension. So we are sitting on a ring of fires, areas prone to high seismic activity. This region falls in seismic zone five. On average, earthquakes happen once a week in this landscape. We are in the 20th year of the 2004 giant tsunami, which was triggered off the coast of Sumatra, just 100 nautical miles from Great Nicobar.

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Any development paradigm has to account for the ecological diversity and sensitivity, but perhaps even more so, the geological vulnerability and volatility of the place. The third dimension which has linked up to this is the socio-cultural dimension. We have had communities of indigenous people there for a very long time. You have, over the last 100 years, a whole set of people coming from mainland India, pre-independence and post-independence. So you have a very unique combination of people there.

So, in my view unless we consider all these unique dimensions and place the issue at this tri-junction, we will invite troubles. We should have had course corrected after the tsunami as far as the vision for the islands is concerned and we don’t seem to realize that it cannot be business as usual.

What was the genesis of the new book?

The genesis of the books is in the project. Around three-four years ago, this massive, Rs 72,000-crore project was asked for by the NITI Aayog, and it was proposed and pushed aggressively.

Environmental clearances and other clearances have been obtained. Much has happened in the last two-and-a-half years. The project’s scale is something the islands have never seen. It’s almost a nine or maybe $10 billion investment in the Great Nicobar Island, which is in the extreme south of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

I want to point out that when the 2004 earthquake happened, the lighthouse of Indira Point, which is the southernmost tip of India, was many meters above the high tide line. But if you see pictures after the tsunami, including the cover of the book, it is surrounded by sea.

This area saw a permanent subsidence of 15 feet and on this very coastline, we are going to construct a port. Then there is the issue of felling of nearly a million trees, which a minister submitted in Parliament. We also saw the tribal welfare department supporting the project to get clearances in tribal reserves. All these issues seemed very problematic and thus I have been writing on it for the past three years.

You have in the past talked about the existing military assets, missile testing on the island and how the state looks at the region through a specific prism of strategic issues. Could you elaborate on this?

This is my perspective and there could be other ways of looking at it. Looking at the region through the strategic and defense perspective, while important, cannot be the only lens we can use to look at it. What about the local people, their history, the geological issues and ecological history. In that context, we cannot look at it only from a strategic lens.

There have been discussions on the potential strategic interests but my submission is that the entire framing of the project is an out and out commercial one. In fact Admiral Arun Prakash in his piece in The Indian Express expressed that the defense and commercial aspects have to be addressed separately. While it may be of importance strategically, and that can be best answered by a defense expert, my submission is that it is a commercial project.

Also, the question to be asked is, can strategic interest not be looked into in different ways?

Would you say that successive governments have looked at this region only from a mainland perspective, serving a purpose which is removed from the local people?

To some extent, I would agree with that. The local context cannot be adjunct to other interests. There is so much else that is at stake over there. In fact, if you look at the stories from the tsunami, one of the entities to be most affected was the defense establishment. The defense base at Car Nicobar was badly affected and damaged. So these establishments are also vulnerable.

How will this project impact people living on the Great Nicobar Island, especially the tribal communities?

I will illustrate with an example from the project document. As part of the proposal by 2050, they project that the population of this island will be three lakh people. Today, there are around 7,000-8,000 people. Even by a conservative estimate, that’s a 3,000% increase in the population of this one island. The total population of the chain of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is about five lakh people. We don’t know whether this projection is about tourist inflow or those who will settle here.