A shining outpost

Print edition : December 21, 2007

LT. GEN.BHOPINDER Singh, Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar. -

Interview with Lt. Gen. Bhopinder Singh, Lieutenant Governor.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL (retired) Bhopinder Singh took over as Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar islands on December 29, 2006. He brings to the post 41 years of experience in administrative, instructional and operational assignments with the Army. He was Military Secretary to Presidents A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and the late K.R. Narayanan. Some of his prestigious assignments were as Director-General of Military Training, Provost Marshall, and Assistant Director-General (Organisation and Manpower Planning) of the Army.

Bhopinder Singh was also posted as the Military, Naval and Air Attache for East and Southern Africa, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He had commanded troops in the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, and led counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir, Mizoram and Assam. He was decorated with the Param Vishisht Seva Medal, the highest military award for distinguished service, in 2006.

Lt. Gen. Bhopinder Singh spoke to Frontline about the challenges involved in boosting the tourism and fisheries sectors in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and speeding up the relief and rehabilitation efforts after some of the islands were ravaged by the tsunami of December 2004. He is proud of the pluralistic society and the communal harmony that exists in the islands. Excerpts from the interview:

What is your vision for Andaman and Nicobar islands?

My vision for Andaman and Nicobar islands is that it should be a mini profile of an empowered India. The empowerment should be based on the progressive principles of sovereignty, dignity of life, solidarity of its inhabitants and equality in distribution of the administrative, social and natural wealth and resources of the island to its people. The vision itself encapsulates the lofty concept of India, and our islands are replete with the rich and proud saga of our freedom struggle.

What does it mean for the Andaman and Nicobar islands?

It envisages the islands as a shining outpost for India, making it a model and inspiration for the rest of the country and the very idea of India itself peaceful, progressive and integral, and development-led with the celebration of the pluralistic, rich diversity which exists on the islands.

What will be the challenges in realising your vision?

At the outset, we have to overcome the economic and social separation borne out of the geographical distance of the islands from the mainland. From the administrative perspective, we have to promote aggressively communitarian, cooperative and associative forms and strategies of development, democratic institutions, and equitable distribution of wealth and resources for the overall development of the people of the islands.

What would be your specific agenda to achieve that?

I have set forth clear-cut objectives so that we can focus on our priorities with the efficacy of the administrative efforts. The priorities are: critical infrastructure development; tapping the islands natural and greenfield sectors such as tourism, fisheries and agriculture by entailing an optimum, efficient and sensible utilisation of the islands natural resources; and working towards the psychological-socio-economic security of the islanders and strengthening the Indian agenda.

What are your plans for the tourism sector?

The Andaman and Nicobar islands have a natural, untapped beauty that is simply enchanting, virtually incomparable, and critically for us, has all the potential of becoming an engine of economic and social progress. The turquoise blue sea, talc-like beaches and the sheer richness of tropical fauna and flora, complemented by a strong history and multi-ethnic and cultural diversity, are all the ingredients of a booming industry. We have to frame policies to develop adequate infrastructure that would facilitate the realising of the potential.

Unlike many of the better-known tourism destinations in the world, we have to build in a nationalistic agenda my primary accountability is to the islanders and my country, and hence no development which is at the cost of the islands or contrary to the sensibilities or the security of the country can be allowed in an ad hoc manner. My moral compass is the socio-economic standard of living of the islanders and we, therefore, will marry the relevant opportunities with the overall agenda of the administration and the national policy.

We should encourage more of our countrymen and their children to visit the treasures of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. These islands promise the best of the holidays while simultaneously building up a nationalistic fervour. My focus is to encourage my countrymen to visit Andaman and Nicobar islands and bridge the geographical gulf between the islands and the mainland. I want them to realise that these islands are not kala pani [black waters] any more but they form the most beautiful paradise on earth. I want to create an infrastructure which will attract both middle-class and high-end tourists. I would be very interested in driving such initiatives and working towards building world-class facilities and infrastructure for the overall development of our islands, our people, and for securing a sustainable and progressive [tourism] industry. We would like tourism to generate both revenue and employment.

How do you propose to expand the fishing sector?

There is enormous potential in the fishing sector. We are already in the process of building fish-landing centres and modern fishing harbours. We intend to procure modern fishing trawlers and mechanised boats for our fishermen to tap the existing wealth of tuna and other varieties of fish fully and export them to the South-East and East Asian countries. This will not only generate revenue but promote employment opportunities for my islanders. We [the islands] have only 1 per cent of the fishing boats that are available in the country. But the islands boast one-third of the exclusive economic zone in the country. Even the 1 per cent of boats in the islands are country boats, not modern mechanised trawlers. My aim is to tap the wealth of fish in the waters around these islands, build fish-storage and processing facilities and export them. For these to be done, we need good fishing boats, good fishing harbours, fish processing centres, packaging facilities, and so on.

What are the reasons for the delay in the relief and rehabilitation process after the December 2004 tsunami that struck many of the islands in the archipelago?

One would not like to look for any excuses in the delay in the completion of the various relief and rehabilitation projects. However, there are serious challenges in undertaking these projects in the islands. These include rough sea and [bad] weather conditions for most of the year, limited working season of four to five months [in a year], bringing all the construction material from the mainland, movement of men and material across small and isolated islands that stretch 800 km from north to south and are segregated by deep sea channels.

Notwithstanding all these challenges, the administration and all the agencies concerned are working on a war footing to complete the projects in a time-bound manner. The process of the tsunami-affected populace moving to permanent shelters has already begun and I am confident that by the end of 2008, all the affected people would be in their permanent settlements.

Given the tsunami experience of 2004, how prepared are you for any emergency in the future?

The previous experience has taught us many things and we have clearly geared ourselves for any eventuality and disaster management. Key things such as early warning system and evacuation to safer places are in place and I have given top priority to the relief efforts pertaining to the after-effects of the 2004 experience and have built into them the lessons learnt to ensure maximum preparedness in the future for both a pre-emptive and reactive process and an administrative gear-up.

How are you coping with the aftermath of the previous experience?

We are standing side by side with the survivors and rebuilding communities and lives, and trying to expedite relief efforts. Training in job skills to develop new businesses and sources of income has been initiated. Longer-term projects to reconstruct [affected] water systems, roads and other critical systems are under way. The true test of our ability to bounce back lies in learning from experiences and channelising the partnership between all the stakeholders such as the affected populace, the administration, the humanitarian agencies and the non-governmental organisations towards the common goal of effective and speedy recovery.

What is your stand on the tribal people of the islands?

The tribal people are the original inhabitants of our islands and their rightful place should be respected and acknowledged. We do not interfere or disturb their experience because we do not want to impose our presence on them.

However, the tribes that have been amalgamated with the mainstream are encouraged with all possible socio-economic opportunities. No other place on earth can boast of the diversity of the tribes that are dispersed on these islands. They are our wealth and we feel proud to see their peaceful coexistence.

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