‘Development Dilemma: Shompen Tribe vs. Greater Nicobar’


Team Udayavani, Feb 21, 2024, 9:48 AM IST

India’s President Droupadi Murmu recently visited Great Nicobar Island, which is planned for major development into a shipping and tourist spot.

While the government believes this will benefit the area, some experts warn it could severely harm the local Shompen tribe, possibly threatening their survival.

Earlier this month, 39 experts wrote a letter to President Murmu, warning that transforming Great Nicobar into India’s version of Hong Kong could lead to the extinction of the Shompen tribe.

Despite the letter attracting global attention, there are concerns that it hasn’t prompted the government to rethink its development strategy. It’s important to note that while President Murmu is the country’s ceremonial leader, she does not have the authority to make policy decisions.

“Callum Russell from Survival International told BBC Media House that President Murmu’s trip to Great Nicobar might lead to severe consequences for the indigenous Shompen population,” suggesting that the government’s plans for major development on the island could be detrimental.

Survival International highlights that the Shompen, a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers numbering between 100 to 400 individuals, reside in the island’s rainforests. They are one of the five tribes identified as extremely vulnerable in the Nicobar and Andaman archipelago, with Great Nicobar being their exclusive or only one habitat.

The Shompen’s limited interaction with the external world is partly due to the island’s sparse population of about 8,000 people and its remote location, several hundred kilometers east of mainland India in the Indian Ocean.

The government’s plan, valued at $9 billion (nearing to INR 72,000 Crores ), anticipates that up to 650,000 individuals will move to the island following the construction of a town, shipping port, international airport, and power plant.

The government believes the island’s strategic location makes it ideal for benefiting from international shipping commerce and also serves as a counterbalance to China’s expanding regional influence.

A marketing video released by India’s Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways features visuals of towering buildings emerging behind the newly established port, along with what seems to be expansive vacation resorts.

The video claims that the maritime port and additional elements will enhance the “living standards for the existing and upcoming inhabitants of Great Nicobar.”

However, according to Survival, these new projects will not just encroach on the territories where the Shompen reside and hunt, but also heighten the possibility of interactions with outsiders.

Any interaction could be catastrophic for the tribe. In their correspondence, the group of experts, headed by Dr. Mark Levene from the University of Southampton, cautioned that “mere contact… is bound to lead to a drastic decline in population numbers” due to the Shompen’s “virtually nonexistent immunity to external infectious diseases,” as he conveyed to the media house.

Moreover, even without direct contact, the effects of the development could trigger a “widespread psychological crisis” among the community.

The government’s own analysis admits that “any disruption or change to their natural surroundings could pose a significant risk to their survival.”

Despite these concerns and alerts from various organizations about the risks to both the Shompen and the island’s distinct ecosystem, the government is anticipated to proceed with the plan within the year.

Mr. Russell informed the media house that they persist in urging for the cessation of this “fatal project” to protect the Shompen.

“It’s utterly impossible for them to withstand this disastrous alteration of the island – their sole known habitat. The authorities have been explicitly cautioned about this unavoidable outcome,” he conveyed to the media house.

Girish Linganna
Aerospace & Defence Analyst

Disclaimer: The opinions and assertions expressed in this article are solely those of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Udayavani. The publication holds no legal responsibility for the content presented.

(The author Girish Linganna of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach out to him at: [email protected])

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