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Safeguarding Andaman & Nicobar Islands

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By Vipul Dhasmana

Andaman and Nicobar islands have changed a lot since I last visited Port Blair in the mid-1980s, sailing in and around the virgin group of islands during a special marine operation concerning a head of state. Geographically, it is the same but infrastructure wise it has grown multifold. Socio-economic awareness has increased more among the present generation as their exposure towards the outer world wisdom has been influenced with high speed internet connectivity. Moreover, the visiting tourists from our mainland and from in and around the world have impacted the growth of the status of the islanders, who mostly belong to the generations of the early settlers brought in by the then government, hailing mainly from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and few from North India.

The generations of families from Bangladesh and Burma have considerable social influence in the islands, beside the tribals who are happy in their own world. Particularly vulnerable Tribal Groups (PTGs) who have been identified in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are the Great Andamanese of Strait Island, Onges of Little Andaman, Jarawas of South and Middle Andaman, Sentinelese of Sentinel Islands and Shompens of Great Nicobar.

Today’s Andaman Sea has become a focal point for the international maritime sector, because of its strategic location in view of international trade and our national security. No wonder the Government of India is focusing on building up its military and economic strength to meet the trade and security requirements in the islands of Andaman and Nicobar. As for the tri-services military buildup over the years, the maritime takes the lead because of the vast and isolated island territories in the proximity, nationally and internationally, both.

Admiral DK Joshi (Retd), Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Vice Chairman, Islands Development Agency, has his hands full meeting the deadlines of strategic modernisation of the islands. The 21st Chief of Naval Staff, former Defence Advisor in the Indian High Commission at Singapore, assumed charge of as the Lieutenant Governor, Andaman & Nicobar Islands in October 2017.

Garhwal Post’s request for an interview with the son of soil hailing from Uttarakhand, could not materialise due to his busy schedule around the early third week of August.

The Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands have 836 islands/islets/rocky outcrops covering an area of 8,249 square kilometres. Port Blair, the Capital, acts as the gateway to Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Apart from providing a visual delight with its natural assets, its unique contribution to the freedom struggle of India holds significance in world history. The Andaman & Nicobar Islands are geographically located in the Bay of Bengal, Longitude 92 degrees to 94 degrees East, Latitude 60 to 140 North and a Distance of 1200 kilometres from Chennai/Kolkata to Port Blair. The capital of Andaman & Nicobar Islands has one airport, one major harbour and a number of other small harbours.

The sea shores of islands are very tricky for larger vessels to navigate and berth. However, it is easy to transport through cruise boats between the islands. Efforts are being made to introduce fast crafts which shall meet the purpose of tourism with an agenda to keep a watch on our nearby shores. Provision of seaplane operations is being made for much faster communication. The present road from one end of Andaman to the other takes a considerable amount of time, which is being modernised to meet multifarious needs of surface transportation.

With the unwanted venture of foreign fishing as well as naval crafts, specifically, their submarines, the security of the islands is being upgraded on a war footing. The challenge is how to counter the trespassing of such warships and submarines at an early stage. Our fishermen do their bit as a watchdog, but they too have restrictions by law. It is time to lend them an out of way supporting hand and benefit from their local wisdom in safety and security of the shores of the islands. Their indigenous wooden fishing boats could be promoted and modernised so that they venture out to nearby islands as well as the deep territorial Andaman Sea.

Further, establishing small fortresses like Ross Island could be a boon for maritime tourism promotion and national security. Ross Island was named after marine surveyor, Daniel Ross. In December 2018, it was renamed as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Island as a tribute to the great freedom fighter. Presently, one can see the ruins of the British era’s established bazaar, bakery, stores, water treatment plant, church, tennis court, printing press, secretariat, hospital, cemetery, swimming pool, the Chief Commissioner’s residence with its huge gardens and state grand ballrooms, the Government House, the old Andamanese Home, Troop Barracks. They stand in dilapidated condition, but are of great significance for the development of the inhabited Andaman and Nicobar islands.

On 30 December, 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Ross Island had been renamed as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Island. It was from 1942 to 1945, the island was occupied by the Japanese. The Government House became the residence of the Japanese Admiral for three years (from March 1942 to October 1945). It was during this period that Subhas Chandra Bose, who took the help of the Japanese in his fight against the British, stayed at the Island for a day in December 1943. Netaji also hoisted the national Tricolour at the top of the Government House. The Japanese too left their imprint on the island which stands in the form of bunkers used as watch points to safeguard the Island from any invasion.

(Vipul Dhasmana is a marine consultant and journalist based in Dehradun)