The ability of Pakistan-based militants and terrorists to enter India, specifically Punjab and later Jammu & Kashmir alerted India to the dangersof leaving our land borders unguarded. In the aftermath of Mumbai, the focus also shifted to upgrading coastal security, primarily through strengthening marine police infrastructure, purchase high-speed boats etc. The navy has gone in for a very comprehensive tracking and monitoring system in real-time of all maritime movements as part of maritime domain awareness (MDA).
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 Coco islands. 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.
The population of the islands, which was increasing by almost 50 percent in each decade, seems to have stabilised at around 4 lakh. The population of the Andamans is highly cosmopolitan, with Bengali, Tamil. Telugu, 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 and an engineering college, 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 Cambell 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 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 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/undergoing trial, including many repeat offenders. Ever so often, desperate Rohingya’s, 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; the Navy has since added more staff and it remains open to traffic till mid-afternoon. 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 inter-island journey, 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 nonexistent 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 breach 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 include world class beaches, water sports, highend diving, game fishing and dense equatorial forests. Even the tribals of Nicobar, so far sheltered from the outside world through restrictions on movement, are increasing 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 percent 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 transshipment 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. Government must 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.
Shri Shakti Sinha, a 1979 batch IAS officer, served as joint secretary in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PMO in late 90s and also served as private secretary to the then Prime Minister. He has served as the Chief Secretary of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and as the CMD of Delhi Transco Limited. Prior to taking up premature retirement in 2013, he was the principal secretary (finance and power) in the government of NCT, Delhi.