NITI Aayog’s Delusion: Urbanization of Little Andaman


The NITI Aayog, the Indian Government’s policy think tank, recently released a plan titled the ‘Sustainable Development of Little Andaman Island - Vision Document’. As the title suggests, the plan aims at the sustainable and holistic development of Little Andaman Island, by leveraging its strategic location and natural features, with the long-term aim of transforming the island into a mega financial-tourist destination rivaling the likes of Hong Kong and Singapore.


This proposal is in continuation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s declaration of developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a maritime and start-up hub.


Importance of A&N Islands

The A&N Islands are at the intersection of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and further to the Pacific Ocean, an important fulcrum of the strategic concept of the Indo-Pacific.


In the past, the focus has been on developing military infrastructure and securing the islands, resulting in the establishment of India’s only tri-services command.


The economic potential of the islands, however, has largely remained untapped. Located strategically in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), Andaman and Nicobar Islands can provide India with a commanding presence in the Bay of Bengal and access to South and Southeast Asia. Important sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) carrying global commerce, including energy trade, between Asia, Africa, and the Pacific are in the vicinity of the islands.


Owing to their location, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are poised to become important transit hubs. Cities such as Singapore were established in a similar fashion and have now transformed into sizeable economies.


The GoI is prioritizing this proposal also because of geopolitical reasons. China has been increasing its economic and strategic interests in the Indian Ocean through a continuous deployment of its naval forces, arms sales, creating bases and access facilities, ramping up military diplomacy, cultivating special political relations with littorals, and lavishly disbursing developmental finance for strategic ends. Its relatively new presence is being seen as disruptive by powers like India, the U.S., France, and Britain - who have long maintained territory, populations, and a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, going back an extended period of time.


Thus, New Delhi by developing the A&N Islands wants to keep Beijing’s IOR ambitions in check while simultaneously increasing its influence.



Figure 1 Source: Survey of India

The Vision Document

The objectives of the Vision Document formulated by NITI Aayog are:

  • To utilize the strategic location of the island for India’s security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

  • To provide better connectivity and infrastructure to the island, enhancing India’s military and naval strength around the islands.

On the ecologically fragile Little Andaman Island of 680 sq. km, the planned urban development would span 240 sq. km and will be divided into 3 zones:

  1. Zone 1: Spread over 102 sq. km along the east coast, this will be the financial district and medi-city and will include an atrocity, and a tourism district.

  2. Zone 2: This will be the leisure zone and will include a film city, a residential district, and a tourism SEZ. The plan is for this zone to cover over 85 sq. km of pristine forest land.

  3. Zone 3: On 52 sq. km of pristine forest, this will be a nature zone, further categorized into three districts: an exclusive forest resort, a natural healing district, and a nature retreat, all on the western coast.

The plan also talks about improving the connectivity of the island by constructing an international airport capable of handling all types of aircraft. A 100 km greenfield ring road will also be constructed parallel to the coastline, from east to west, and will be supplemented with a mass rapid transit network with stations at regular intervals. Proposals for development projects include ‘underwater’ resorts, casinos, convention centers, golf courses, plug-and-play office complexes, a drone port with a fully automated drone delivery system, nature cure institutes, and more.


In the document, NITI Aayog directly compares Little Andaman to Singapore by juxtaposing their maps over each other along with the following statistics: “The population density of the Andaman and Nicobar is 47 people per sq. km while it’s (sic) 7,615 persons per sq. km in Singapore. Its per capita income is $1,789 compared to Singapore's $55,182.”


Impediments to “Development”

According to the Vision Document, certain factors are “stopping us from developing these (islands) into veritable jewels for the country”:

  • Lack of good connectivity with the Indian mainland and global cities

  • Fragile biodiversity and natural ecosystems: 95% of Little Andaman is covered in a pristine evergreen forest. Some 640 sq. km of the island is Reserve Forest under the Indian Forest Act.

  • Certain notifications from the Supreme Court of India also pose an impediment to development.

  • Another key factor is the “presence of indigenous tribes and concerns for their welfare”: nearly 450 sq. km of the forest is protected as the Onge Tribal Reserve, creating a unique and rare socio-ecological-historical complex of high importance.

To such complex problems, the solutions offered by the plan seem simple and straightforward: de-reserve 32% of the reserved forest and de-notify 138 sq. km or 31% of the tribal reserve. And, the document simply suggests that if the tribals become an impediment they “can be relocated to other parts of the island”.

This unmethodical approach runs through the entire proposal.

The document contains maps with no legends or explanations and uses plagiarized unprofessional photographs. It talks about the conservation of a national park/wildlife sanctuary on the island when none exist and it has no mention of the geological vulnerability of the place, which was amongst the worst-affected in the earthquake-tsunami combination in 2004.


In fact, it has been 3 years since NITI Aayog called for investments for ‘island tourism’ in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, but few have responded due to the questionable economic and environmental sustainability. Pankaj Sekhsaria, Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, who has extensively written about the problems of the islands, said that the islands are located over one of the most seismically active zones in the world, with earthquakes occurring almost twice a month, and any development activity should take into account the geological, socio-cultural and ecological factors of the islands.


“The 2004 tsunami sunk some parts of Nicobar by 15 feet and raised some parts of Andamans by 4 feet. Then, are tourism-driven properties closer to the coast not vulnerable? We have to acknowledge these problems and think of a solution. Also, conversion of land use and coastal regulation zones permissions should be put in the public domain,” said Professor Sekhsaria. Sekhsaria was talking about the fact that the government has not released documents on the conversion of land use (CLU) and coastal regulation zone (CZR) at the request of the bidders of various tourism projects. The government in New Delhi stated that it will share these details only with shortlisted applicants and that upfront CZR approval, as well as CLU, has been done for almost all of the proposed properties.


The officials aware of the projects have also stated that all these islands, not just Little Andaman, are very ecologically fragile zones, and are uncertain whether they have the carrying capacity to host numerous tourists and support staff. For instance, the nature resort complex proposed at West Bay on the western coast is to have theme resorts, floating/underwater resorts, beach hotels, and high-end residential villas. It is today a secluded and difficult to reach part, and one of the most important nesting sites of the globally endangered Giant Leatherback sea turtle which is being studied by the Dakshin Foundation, the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team and the island administration’s Forest Department.


Figure 2 Giant Leatherback Turtle in Andaman Source: The Hindu


According to wildlife conservationist Sanjay Molur, “the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are not fully studied for their biodiversity. New findings keep emerging regularly which indicates much work requires to be done. While researchers are finding new species from these precious islands, they are also finding new alien invasive species in the composition. Alien invasive species are an indication of negative human impacts.”

The unmethodical approach can also be recognized from the fact that the plan possesses no financial details, no budgeting, or even an inventory of forests and ecological wealth. Further, there are zero details about any impact assessment.

In a note dated September 26, 2020, the Divisional Forest Officer, Little Andaman, raised serious concerns about this vision document on grounds of indigenous rights, ecological fragility, and vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis.

The note said such large diversion of forest land would cause obvious environmental loss leading to irreversible damage (more than 2 million trees stand in the forest land sought for these projects), that habitats of various wild animals including endangered sea turtles would be affected, and that the impact could not even be assessed because there was no environmental impact assessment report and neither were there any detailed site layout plans for the proposed diversion.


Little Andaman, the new Singapore?


Figure 3 Source: southandaman.nic.in

If the Government of India does intend to create a mega financial-tourist destination rivaling Singapore, it needs to understand that their geographical location was only partly responsible for the immense economic success betrothed upon them. Friendly policies towards international investors and an efficient and honest government are equally, if not more, responsible for their success. In addition, there seems to be a close link between political stability and economic growth.


India, in the past few years, has seen massive protest movements against some of the policies of the government in New Delhi – whether it is the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 or the ongoing agitation against the new farm laws. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index, India fell to 53rd rank from 51st in 2021 and was labeled as a flawed democracy: “democratic backsliding by the authorities and crackdowns on civil liberties led to a further decline in their global rankings” – these are not signs of political stability that international investors espouse to.


India has also lost two international arbitration awards to Cairn Energy Plc and Vodafone Group Plc over invoking a controversial 2012 law that allows the government to claim taxes with retrospective effect. The government is currently studying these awards and undergoing consultations for the future course of action. If New Delhi does indeed want to develop ‘the new Singapore’, reformation in laws and policies to make them more appealing to investors should be another priority.


With regards to the planned development of Little Andaman, conservationist Sanjay Molur added “what’s bothersome are also the terms used for the proposed project—sustainable and holistic development. Anything that impacts nature irreversibly is not sustainable. Anything that impacts sustainability is not holistic.”


References:

  1. NITI Aayog Is Planning to Urbanize Little Andaman as a Rival to Hong Kong, Singapore, The Swaddle https://theswaddle.com/niti-aayog-is-planning-to-urbanize-little-andaman-as-a-rival-to-hong-kong-singapore/

  2. NITI Aayog's megacity plan for Little Andaman alarms conservationists, The Hindu, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/financial-tourist-complex-on-little-andaman-a-bullet-through-an-islands-heart/article33710255.ece

  3. NITI Aayog’s push for island tourism has no takers, The Hindu BusinessLine, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/policy/niti-aayogs-push-for-island-tourism-has-no-takers/article30617853.ece#

  4. Singapore: The Reasons Behind Its Economic Success, EHL Insights https://hospitalityinsights.ehl.edu/singapore-economic-success

  5. India slips two positions to 53rd spot in EIU’s Democracy Index, Hindustan Times https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-slips-two-positions-to-53rd-spot-in-eiu-s-democracy-index-101612396238531.html


Author:

Rishabh Ahuja is an undergraduate student of Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi. He is interested in International Relations, Public Policy and Philosophy. E-mail ID: Ris.ahuja@ducic.ac.in