It is not often remembered that India’s eastern coastline does not run from Sunderbans to Kanya Kumari, but is actually a thousand kilometres to its east. The Andaman & Nicobar Islands stretch 800 kms from north to south. East Island and Landfall Islands in the north are barely 20 kms from Myanmar’s famous Coco islands, often seen as China’s entry point in the Bay of Bengal. The southernmost point of Great Nicobar Island is around 140 kms from Banda Aceh in Sumatra (Indonesia), and just 30 kms off the main shipping route leading to the Malacca Straits. Around one third of global trade, one quarter of global oil flows and over two-thirds of China’s oil imports passes through these Straits.
There are 572 islands, islets and rocks; census lists 36 inhabited islands but in around half of such inhabited islands, there is only a police or forest post. Due to wind and sea conditions, most of the habitations are on the eastern sides of the islands and large sections of North, Middle, South & Little Andamans, and Great Nicobar have absolutely no human presence. Nor are these areas easily accessible from the land side.
Though a conscious policy was taken in the early 1950’s to populate the islands, this was later given up by the end of the 1960s. Consequently, large numbers of displaced persons from erstwhile East Pakistan were brought to the Andaman Islands from relief camps in Odisha and settled as agriculturists. There were smaller groups of settlers from Andhra Pradesh (fishermen) and Kerala. Consequent on the repatriation of plantation Tamils from Sri Lanka as part of the Shastri-Srimavo accord (1964), over 100 such families were settled on Katchal Island, part of the (restricted) tribal areas of the Nicobars, for whom a rubber plantation was set up. (These have now grown to over 350 Tamil families in legal limbo, ineligible for Islander identity cards necessary for availing of many facilities like reserved seats in higher education institutions etc.). A similar number of ex-servicemen families was settled in Great Nicobar Island, over six villages especially established for them outside the tribal areas. Incidentally, India’s southern-most point falls in Great Nicobar, which was hard hit by the 2004 Tsunami.
The population of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, which saw decadal population increases of almost 50 per cent, seems to have stabilised at around 4 lakh. The population of the Andaman Islands is highly cosmopolitan, with Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam spoken widely with Hindi as the lingua franca. Heath and education indicators are far above the national average. Though there are three general colleges, an engineering college and a medical college has also been established recently, tens of thousands of school graduates go to mainland India for higher studies. In the absence of employment opportunities, most, especially those with professional qualifications do not come back. Instead, there is a flow of manual labour into the islands since the high per capita income means a shortage of labour.
The islands are home to India’s only unified joint services command, with the three services holding the post of commander-in-chief by rotation. Port Blair has a relative concentration of defence assets. There is an Air Force Station at Car Nicobar with minimal assets – it had seen huge casualties in the tsunami and is slowly rebuilding its infrastructure. There are air strips at Diglipur (North Andamans) and at Campbell Bay (Great Nicobar Island), which would need upgradation to handle bigger aircrafts. The Navy has declared the latter as a naval air station but that is basically aspirational at present. There is the presence of an army establishment at Birchgunj, just outside Port Blair.
The biggest challenge facing the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) is that being a joint command, it is nobody’s responsibility. Leaving the Coast Guard aside for a moment, none of the three services see it as integral to their planning. Hence, there is reluctance to transfer assets – ships, aircrafts, battalions, artillery – to the ANC. The ANC is the responsibility of the Integrated Headquarters, which is still in an incipient stage. The net result is that though the ANC prepared acquisition plan has been approved by the government, the actual flow in assets is at an early stage and it will be almost a decade when the Command would be properly equipped. The Malaysian airlines MH 370, which flew over the airspace of the islands, coming quite close to the main islands, remained undetected since the main tracking station was shut down at night. This reflects the state of defence preparedness.
It must be appreciated that the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the islands is 1,80,000 sq. kms, almost one third of India’s 6,00,000 sq. km EEZ. In earlier years, fishing trawlers from Thailand and even distant Taiwan used to regularly poach in these waters. In recent years, Myanmarese fishers harvest sea cucumbers, which serves the lucrative Chinese market. At certain times, there are over 1000 Myanmarese fishers in custody awaiting trial/undergoing imprisonment, including many repeat offenders. Ever so often, desperate Rohingyas’, trying to reach Malaysia, Australia and other countries wash up on the Andaman shores. Till now, none of these have posed a threat to national interests or security. But we should not wait for an incident to then focus on the security and development challenges of the islands. Therefore, the defence ministry should prioritise the acquisition and transfer of assets to make the ANC, minimally functional.
Lack of connectivity, physical and virtual, is the primary development challenge that must be addressed. Port Blair airport used to shut down by 12 noon due to lack of ATC staff till recently; the Navy has since added more staff and it operates round the clock. Due to lack of competition, it is often more expensive to travel to Port Blair from Kolkata and Chennai than it is to go to Thailand and stay there for three days. Most interisland journeys, except in the main Andaman group, is by ships. There has been inadequate investment as a result often there is crisis due to lack of ship availability. The Andaman administration runs helicopter services linking different parts of the islands by hiring the services of Pawan Hans. And some areas are covered by an amphibious aircraft. Since there are air strips at different locations, it makes much more sense to run fixed-wing services that carry more passengers, are economic and are safer
Internet connectivity outside Port Blair is patchy, and practically non-existent in the Nicobar Islands. This is because the islands are on the edge of ISRO satellites’ footprints. Having dedicated satellites makes little sense because of the large scale redundancy and paradoxical need for back-up. It makes much more sense to take branch cables from undersea cables running between Chennai and Singapore. Improved connectivity would not only lead to better quality of life and improved security preparedness but can be used to leverage the growth of tourism. The tourism potential of these islands includes world class beaches, water sports, high-end diving, game fishing and dense equatorial forests. Even the tribals of Nicobar, so far sheltered from the outside world through restrictions on movement, are increasingly asking for opening up tourism that would create jobs. Presently, blanket one-size fits-all environmental regulations restrict development works over most of the territory, 92 per cent of which are forests. In fact, the environmental ministry had turned down the defence request for clearance for a radar facility on Narcondam Island; fortunately, the change in government had led to the clearance being given. It must be understood that smart regulation could drive growth and sustainability.
The location of the islands so close to the main shipping routes presents another opportunity – that of transhipment facilities and ship repairs at Campbell Bay (Great Nicobar Island). This port could serve ports on the eastern coast of India as well as ports in Bangladesh, Myanmar and western ports of Thailand.
It is clear that the old approach of keeping these islands isolated has not worked. The absence of human presence means that it is relatively easy for outsiders to take shelter in our waters and in our islands. Such intrusion has been benign till now but in changed circumstances – an active China in our neighbourhood, the spread of jihadi terrorism and related growth of Wahhabism among Muslim communities of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, means that India’s approach must change to meet these challenges. In fact, the government must now proactively push economic development in the national interest. The bottom line is that converting the islands into an economic dynamo backed by a strengthened defence establishment would not only be India’s robust outer defence ring, but more importantly, enable India to project its power into the broader Indo-Pacific space.
An IAS officer of the 1979 batch, Mr Shakti Sinha has held positions in different capacities at the federal, provincial and local levels, including as Private Secretary to the former Prime Minister, Shri A.B. Vajpayee, as head of Delhi’s power utility, Finance Secretary in Delhi Provincial Government, and as Chief Secretary of the Andaman government, among others. He took up voluntary retirement in 2013. Presently, he is Director, Nehru Memorial Museum and Trust, New Delhi.