Development risks on Andaman isles

A general view of the runway controlled by the Indian military at Port Blair airport in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, is seen in this July 4, 2015 file photograph.
A general view of the runway controlled by the Indian military at Port Blair airport in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, is seen in this July 4, 2015 file photograph. PHOTO: REUTERS

JIRKATANG (India) • Bollywood music blares from a line of food stalls serving tourists outside the entrance to a thickly-forested tribal reserve on India's far-flung Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Beyond the barrier patrolled by police, a few hundred members of the Jarawa tribe hunt the lush rainforest for turtles and pigs and shoot fish with bows and arrows, largely unseen and untouched by the outside world.

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government seeks to accelerate development on the islands to promote its military, trade and tourism, preserving the pristine environment and handful of unique tribes is likely to get harder.

"The islands are fragile, they are in a seismically active zone not far from Indonesia's Aceh coast," said Mr Pankaj Sekhsaria of Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh.

"Above all, they are home to indigenous tribes. This is their land, their history. There are serious concerns about the impact of tourists... If history is any indication, interaction between our world and their world has proved damaging for them."

Tourism is just part of New Delhi's vision for the Indian Ocean islands. Lying on a busy shipping route between mainland India and South-east Asia, they are seen as ideal for extending India's economic and military reach.

With that in mind, Mr Modi's government is determined to push harder than previous administrations to develop the islands, while at the same time protecting tribes and landscapes.

"The support we have got from the central government over the last year has been phenomenal. They want things to happen," said Mr A. K. Singh, lieutenant-governor of the Andaman and Nicobar islands and India's top official there. "We want comprehensive development of the islands and its people while protecting the interests of the tribes as well as the environment. Ours is a transparent, deliberate policy. There is nothing to hide."

The dark-skinned Jarawas, numbering around 400 and one of six tribes believed to have lived on the islands for up to 55,000 years, refused until recently to have any contact with the outside world.

"There are two schools of thought. One is to protect and preserve their cultural identity and avoid intermingling with the outside world," said the islands' tribal welfare secretary D.M. Shukla. "The other is to mainstream them into the outside world so that they enjoy the fruits of the development."

The latter argument is gaining momentum, with government officials saying economic development must not be held back.

However, boosting tourism and other industries is not easy in a territory where over 90 per cent of land is off-limits forest.

The military is already lengthening runways at airfields in the north and south of an archipelago that generals believe is a key but neglected outpost to counter the Chinese navy's thrust into the Indian Ocean.

The civilian administration, energised by Mr Modi's push to boost development, plans direct air links to South-east Asia, an undersea cable to improve communications, as well as a free port area.

State carrier Air India will begin flights this year between the Andaman capital Port Blair and Thailand's Phuket, which gets more tourists than all of India put together, according to island officials.

"If we get even a fraction of that traffic to our beaches, it would transform the islands," said the islands' chief secretary Anand Prakash.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2015, with the headline 'Development risks on Andaman isles'. Subscribe