What Government Must Understand: In Andamans, It Can Protect National Security and Ecology

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What Government Must Understand: In Andamans, It Can Protect National Security and Ecology Blog Image

Why in News?

  • India's strategic and economic landscape has been significantly shaped by its geographical features, among which the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands hold a crucial position.
  • Despite their strategic importance, these islands have historically been neglected by Indian policymakers.
  • Therefore, it is important to delve into the historical oversight, the strategic necessity, and the recent developmental plans for the A&N Islands, highlighting their potential as a cornerstone of India’s maritime strategy and economic development.

Historical Context and Strategic Importance of A&N Islands

  • Early Recognition of Strategic Value
    • Sardar K. M. Panikkar, a visionary historian and diplomat, underscored the significance of these islands as early as 1945.
    • Panikkar argued that control over the Indian Ocean and effective defence of India’s coastline could only be achieved by establishing advanced bases on the A&N archipelago.
    • He pointed out that the islands’ location in the Bay of Bengal provided a strategic vantage point for maritime operations and coastal defence.
    • His foresight highlighted the potential of the A&N Islands to act as a maritime sentinel, overseeing vital sea lanes and ensuring the security of India’s eastern seaboard.
  • Evolution of Strategic Policies
    • It was only in the later decades that India began to acknowledge the strategic imperatives of the A&N Islands.
    • The economic opportunities in Southeast Asia and the ASEAN region, coupled with growing seaborne trade and energy interests in the Asia-Pacific, led to the formulation of the Look East and Act East policies.
    • These policies aimed at strengthening economic and strategic ties with East and Southeast Asian countries, thereby increasing the importance of the A&N Islands as a strategic asset.
  • Military Realisation Post-Kargil
    • The realisation of the A&N Islands' strategic importance was starkly brought to the forefront following the near-disaster of the Kargil conflict in 1999.
    • The conflict highlighted the gaps in India's defence preparedness and underscored the need for a robust military presence in the strategically located A&N Islands.
    • In response, the Indian government established the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) in 2001, a joint tri-service command based in Port Blair.
    • This move was a significant step towards integrating the defence capabilities of the navy, air force, and army in the region, although it faced initial resistance and neglect.
  • Renewed Focus and Fortification
    • Recent years have seen a renewed focus on fortifying the ANC and enhancing the strategic infrastructure across the A&N Islands.
    • Efforts are underway to establish naval and air force bases from Shibpur in the north to Port Blair, Car Nicobar, Kamorta, and Campbell Bay in the south.
    • These developments aim to transform the A&N Islands into a formidable eastern maritime bastion, capable of guarding the Malacca Straits and ensuring maritime security in the region.

Neglect and Complacency Towards A&N Islands

  • Post-Independence Neglect
    • Despite Panikkar’s warnings, India’s early post-independence years saw a significant neglect of the A&N Islands.
    • Several factors contributed to this oversight. The nascent nation was preoccupied with more immediate concerns, such as its adversarial relationship with Pakistan, which required attention to its western borders and waters.
    • Additionally, India had extensive trading links and a large diaspora in the Persian Gulf, drawing its focus westward.
    • The country also maintained traditional ties with Indian Ocean Island nations and the East African littoral, further diverting attention from the eastern maritime expanse.
  • Maritime Remoteness and Tenuous Hold
    • One of the primary reasons for the neglect of the A&N Islands was their perceived maritime remoteness.
    • The geographical isolation of these islands posed logistical challenges for their administration and defence.
    • Great Nicobar Island, the southernmost of the A&N group, is situated a mere 140 kilometres from Indonesia but is almost 2,000 kilometres from Chennai, highlighting the significant distance from the Indian mainland.
    • This remoteness made it difficult for the central government to maintain a strong administrative and military presence.
    • Furthermore, India's hold on the A&N Islands was tenuous in the early years post-independence.
    • In 1947, Britain considered retaining the islands as a Crown possession even after Indian independence, indicating their strategic value.

The Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island, Economic Potential and Development Challenges

  • The Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island
    • Recently, a plan for the Holistic Development of Great Nicobar Island was unveiled by the NITI Aayog.
    • This Rs 75,000 crore project aims to establish infrastructure including an international container transshipment terminal, an international airport, power plants, new cities, a coastal transport system, and a free trade zone.
    • While this project promises significant economic and strategic benefits, it has faced opposition from environmentalists and civil society groups concerned about its impact on the local ecology and indigenous tribes.
  • Economic Potential and Development Challenges
    • The A&N Islands have vast maritime resources, with an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 600,000 sq km, accounting for 30% of India’s total EEZ.
    • The waters are rich in marine life and potential hydrocarbon resources.
    • However, the islands' economic development must balance sustainability and the preservation of indigenous tribes like the Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese, and Shompen.
    • Traditionally, tourism and fisheries have been the most sustainable avenues for development.

Critical Consideration to Balance the Ecology and Development of A&N Islands

  • Sustainable Development Practices
    • Emphasising sustainable development practices is crucial for the A&N Islands.
    • Tourism and fisheries have traditionally been considered sustainable avenues for revenue and employment generation.
    • Any new development projects should integrate sustainability principles, ensuring that the ecological balance is maintained, and the livelihoods of local communities are enhanced.
    • Ecotourism, sustainable fisheries, and renewable energy projects could be prioritised over heavy industrial and infrastructural developments.
  • Replicating Successful Models
    • Aspiring to replicate the success of duty-free ports and free trade zones like those in Singapore or Hong Kong in the remote GNI faces practical challenges.
    • These established hubs benefit from robust industrial back-ups, extensive hinterlands, and strategic locations along major global trade routes.
    • GNI, on the other hand, is 2,000 km from Chennai and Kolkata, with limited industrial and logistical support.
    • The travails of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and airport projects, which have faced significant financial and operational challenges, serve as a cautionary tale for such ambitious projects in GNI.
  • Viability of a New Transshipment Terminal
    • The viability of establishing a new transshipment terminal in GNI is another critical issue.
    • GNI is equidistant (1,300 km) from established transshipment hubs and bunkering ports such as Singapore, Port Klang in Malaysia, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka.
    • The proximity to these well-established hubs raises questions about the necessity and economic feasibility of a new terminal.
    • Moreover, India has recently commissioned a transshipment terminal in Vizhinjam, Kerala, with great expectations.
    • The success of this terminal should be evaluated before embarking on a similar venture in the remote and ecologically sensitive GNI.

Conclusion

  • The Andaman and Nicobar Islands hold immense strategic and economic potential for India.
  • A balanced approach that addresses both security and sustainable development is essential for harnessing this potential.

By considering alternative development strategies and ensuring the protection of the islands’ unique ecological and anthropological heritage, India can transform the A&N Islands into a strategic asset and a model of sustainable development.


Q) Why are the Andaman and Nicobar Islands strategically important for India?

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are strategically important for India because of their location at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. This allows India to monitor the crucial sea lanes of communication that connect the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. The islands provide a strategic military outpost for India, enabling it to project power and ensure maritime security in the region. They also play a vital role in India's ability to counter Chinese naval presence and activities in the Indian Ocean.

Q) How do the Andaman and Nicobar Islands contribute to India's maritime security?

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands enhance India's maritime security by serving as a strategic base for the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. This positioning allows India to effectively monitor and control the movement of commercial and military ships through the Malacca Strait, one of the world's busiest maritime chokepoints. The islands also facilitate India's ability to conduct surveillance, anti-piracy operations, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the Indian Ocean region.


Source:The Indian Express