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CWA # 2, 18 May 2018

India
Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s underutilised asset?

  Samreen Wani

Commercially, its accessibility to the Southeast Asian nations places it at a crucial transit point that can be exploited not just to increase business but also to ensure safety of maritime trading routes. Development and upgradation of ports on the island will boost the value of trade that transits these sea lanes which stands at $5 trillion per year.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands are very strategically located at India’s maritime fringe. What scope does it have in serving India’s larger security interest? Should the environmental concerns of the islands be overlooked to ensure security and trade?

Andaman and Nicobar- An unrealised strength?

Security deliberations among policy makers in India have circled around the land boundary question for too long. The idea of securing the maritime frontier has often been either given insufficient attention or neglected altogether. India’s ascend to the aristocracy of global militaries cannot happen with the existing negligence of its maritime fringes. The Andaman and Nicobar islands despite having a strategic location in the Bay of Bengal, are India’s most underutilised asset. Though its strategic value has always been recognised, successive governments have consistently been hesitant to expand infrastructure in the region given its local ecological complexities. Some even raise pertinent questions on the viability of building and investing in the islands.

Those in favour of expanding infrastructural footprint on the Andaman islands argue that the geographic location of the islands gives it a unique advantage in being India’s eyes and ears in the Indian Ocean region swarm with Chinese presence. Keeping ocean waters under constant surveillance becomes important under such circumstances. Also the capacity to serve as a forward base due to its proximity to the scene of action, makes launching operations like anti-submarine warfare from the islands possible.

Commercially, its accessibility to the Southeast Asian nations places it at a crucial transit point that can be exploited not just to increase business but also to ensure safety of maritime trading routes. Development and upgradation of ports on the island will boost the value of trade that transits these sea lanes which stands at $5 trillion per year. Also, the islands could be used as a springboard for launching humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations on a scale similar to that of Operation Sahayata in 2008.

An unnecessary investment:

Not everyone however, is convinced of the merits of investing in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Sceptics point out that having assets on the islands may make it susceptible to attacks. Launching pre-emptive strikes from the base of the island makes no sense in the absence of any such kind of a security doctrine. To make the islands commercially viable, massive infrastructure build up would be needed like setting up communication lines,container terminals, custom offices, police stations- all of which would need vast tracts of land. Moreover, just the availability of a harbour does not make it a viable commercial port. The government needs to maintain just the minimum required forces as deterrence and to mount defensive attacks when needed. A huge military or naval base is unnecessary as the islands are under no immediate threat.

Regardless of the advantages, the overriding environmental concerns cannot be ignored. Many have protested against the idea of carrying out infrastructural development at the cost of harming the local aboriginal population. Moreover, ensuring that the locals have a stake in the islands is also important.

Although New Delhi has made some efforts in trying to engage this island chain and integrate it with the larger vision for the Indian Ocean Region, much needs to be done in securing this vital maritime frontier. According to Vice Admiral RN Ganesh, former Commander Andaman and Nicobar islands a “mature, balanced and enlightened approach” for the islands is needed that looks at sustainable development without harming the ecosystem. Admiral Ganesh goes on to add that “Instead of building Greenfield projects the government should focus on upgrading and improving the existing infrastructure on the islands”.

In conclusion, harnessing the full strategic potential of the Andaman and Nicobar islands cannot happen at an ecological cost.

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