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Nicobar Nightmare: Guest Column

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands need development

Published : Jan 12, 2023 10:30 IST

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The Andaman and Nicobar Islands need development

Lived realities: A woman carries fish to a market in Port Blair, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Lived realities: A woman carries fish to a market in Port Blair, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. | Photo Credit: BRENT LEWIN

But it should not come at the cost of its unique ecology and people.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands are one of India’s key assets both in terms of strategic location and natural bounties. So far, we have endeavoured to preserve the islands through a policy of protectionism that is articulated through environmental restrictions and regulation of their societal and economic affairs. This policy has worked well to preserve the pristine nature of the islands as well as its avowedly nationalist citizens in a state of equilibrium. However, times have changed, and in step with the rest of the country, people of the islands now aspire to benefit from the government’s development initiatives.

The islands, being located close to South-East Asia, have the potential to strengthen India’s Look East-Act East policy. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands constitute just 0.2 per cent of India’s landmass but account for 30 per cent of the country’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The past decade has seen the arrival of new technologies which make it possible to harmonise progress with nature. This period also witnessed the rising geo-strategic importance of the islands. All-round progress of the islands is, therefore, a desirable goal.

I have travelled extensively all over the islands, visiting even the remotest areas. In my understanding, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have four centres of gravity: the strategic nature of the islands, the people and their aspirations, the environment, and the original inhabitants, particularly the vulnerable tribes. If all these four centres are in harmony, nobody can stop the islands’ progress. So, let’s examine each of these aspects, their current status, and desirable future.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands, which stretch over 750 km in the Bay of Bengal, give India a tremendous reach. They give India a commanding position over the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and the considerable traffic that flows to and fro between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through the Malacca Strait.

Strategic and security issues

Their strategic location enables India to play an important role in the region, both in disaster situations (as during the tsunami of 2004) and in dealing with maritime security threats. With these islands as their base, India in concert with other countries can be a net security provider to the region and the SLOCs. Fortunately, the basin countries of the Andaman Sea have resolved most of their issues amicably and the maritime boundaries are well delineated. This is in sharp contrast to the disputes that arise in the South China Sea; maybe there is a lesson for them based on the Andaman Sea resolutions.

Peacetime threats and challenges arise from illegal migration and human trafficking, poaching, and subversive threats from the seas, which, though not very pronounced, cannot be discounted.

“I have travelled extensively all over the islands, visiting even the remotest areas. In my understanding, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have four centres of gravity: the strategic nature of the islands, the people and their aspirations, the environment, and the original inhabitants, particularly the vulnerable tribes. ”

The security responsibility of the islands lies with the Andaman and Nicobar Command established in 2001, the Coast Guard, and the Andaman Police with its small maritime component. All these organisations are being strengthened as per a long-term Capability Development Plan based on infrastructure augmentation and force accretion. The security of the islands has to be a mix of human and technological surveillance to keep the vast coastline and uninhabited islands under constant check. There have been some issues with respect to environmental clearance for radar sites, especially at the Narcondum extinct volcano and on the west coast in tribal areas, but I believe these have been resolved amicably. The disaster alert system is well-matured and has been incorporated into a regional framework.

Development vs environment

After Independence, the islands saw an influx of settlers, job-seekers, labourers, and migrants that has created socioeconomic problems periodically. The high cost of living, lack of employment opportunities, distance from the mainland, and social issues have led to a sense of negativity among the islanders. There is a tendency to view every development initiative with a sense of suspicion and fear. The spirit of free enterprise so essential for development is lacking in the islands.

During my tenure as Lieutenant Governor of the islands from 2013 to 2016, my vision was: “Promote sustainable and inclusive growth while being sensitive to the fragile ecosystem and the concerns of our indigenous tribes.” Health and education received major attention, with almost 18 per cent of our budget earmarked for them. We established a medical college despite manifold challenges within one year, with the Central government’s backing. One of the first medical insurance schemes in the country was also launched successfully, covering the bulk of the islanders. But this essay is not about my tenure, so I will not dwell on it further.

So far, the parameters of administering the islands have been rooted in the imposition of regulatory restrictions upon its natural resources, strengthened in the past by highly committed environmentalists, anthropologists, and social scientists backed by Supreme Court orders. But structural limitations of the State machinery have aggravated the lack of development. This can be rectified if we find ways to rationalise progress with ecological-environmental preservation—the two aspects which can no longer be pursued in exclusivity. The latest expertise in technology and business practices must be harnessed in harmony with the socioeconomic potential of the islands. The change must respond to the increasing threats posed to their pristine environment by adversarial forces.

The islands have been in the news for the mega project in the Great Nicobar Islands which has obtained environmental clearance recently. News reports suggest that under the Rs.72,000 crore project, the Campbell Bay area is to be developed in three phases over 30 years. This has raised great concerns about the ecology and rights of the primitive tribes, as also about the environmental vulnerability of the area. Much has been written on this issue so I won’t repeat the same.

During my stint in Andamans, I received the first project report and visited the area. After deep consideration, we came to the conclusion that the project was fraught with major risks. We had recommended that before any decision is taken, a detailed study should be undertaken regarding various concerns and risk factors. It is pertinent to mention here that during the tsunami of 2004, the southern part of the island had sunk by half a metre. I learn that the study has since been completed and the government has given the go-ahead.

My advice to all stakeholders would be: “Hasten but with care, whilst remaining sensitive to environmental concerns, rights of the indigenous tribes who live there and the fragile nature of the seismic zone.”

Protection of indigenous tribes

The islands have been the home of aboriginal tribes for thousands of years. There are six scheduled tribes—the Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas, Sentinelese, Shompen, and Nicobarese. Excepting the Nicobarese (the majority), they are recognised as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). The Andaman And Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956 provides for protection of the interests of the tribes and specifies the areas reserved for their exclusive community ownership. Despite this, there is constant friction among the local people, who continue to encroach into the reserved area.

There are two schools of thought as far as the future of the PVTGs is concerned. One holds that we should leave the tribes in splendid isolation, for any contact with modern civilisation has proved to be detrimental to their well-being. The other school argues, who are we to deny them the fruits of modernisation. To get clarity, we called for a conference of leading anthropologists and framed a pragmatic forward policy. Leading anthropologist Dr Vishwajit Pandya was appointed as adviser to the Lieutenant Governor. After much deliberation we decided that we will move forward, but only after determining the will of the tribes through specialists who understand them and could communicate with them in their language. It was a step-by-step approach, in tune with the tribes—how far they wanted to go and at what pace. To ensure the documentation of their heritage and encourage research, we established the Andaman Nicobar Island Tribal Research Institute during my tenure.

In conclusion, we should resist the temptation to develop these islands as a copy of some well-known tourist destinations. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are unique. They might  no longer be the Frontier Outpost but are a springboard for India’s Look East policy. But the four centres of gravity outlined above need to move in harmony, not at the expense of each other.

Lt Gen Ajay Kumar Singh, former GOC of the Army’s Southern Command, was Lt Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands between 2013 and 2016.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 27, 2023.)

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