You can see him cycling on the streets of Port Blair. You can also spot him talking with ordinary people and sipping tea with them at a roadside shop. Meet Lt. General Ajay Kumar Singh, the new lieutenant governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory ruled from Delhi and located in the Indian Ocean at the very strategic juncture of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
By focusing on transparency and efficiency, the new LG, as he is popularly known, has introduced a new work ethic. Coming from an army background, Singh has been trying to inject new energy and ideas into the civilian administration. The former military man has visited almost all of the 570-plus islands that make up the territory in the last four months. His agenda is clear: protect India’s strategic interests in the Andaman and Nicobar and promote the territory as a novel tourist destination – without compromising the interests of the indigenous inhabitants of these ecologically rich islands.
Only 32 of the islands of Andaman and Nicobar are inhabited. The territory is known for its pristine beauty and rich flora and fauna, and the administration sees great tourism potential. Still, it is cautious and wants to open the territory to the world without affecting its rich diversity.
The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke to Singh recently in the capital Port Blair, about the issues and concerns affecting the islands.
What do the Andaman and Nicobar Islands mean for India?
They are as much an integral part of India as any part of the mainland, notwithstanding the fact that they are 1200 kilometers away from the mainland. The territory has a historical connection that goes back many centuries. It is deeply rooted in our freedom struggle. Large numbers of political prisoners were brought here. There is a Cellular Jail here, which you may have visited. There are deep links to Andaman and Nicobar in the minds of Indians, especially because of their association with our struggle for freedom.
Today, the territory has a great strategic location. It is located 1200 km away from the mainland. Just to give you an example, our northern coast is just 45 km from Myanmar, and our southern coast, called Indira Point, which is also the southernmost point of India, is just 140 kilometers from the Malacca Strait. Traveling to mainland India from here takes two hours, but you can get to Singapore in an hour. So you can see the significance of these islands. The world’s busiest shipping lanes pass just to the south of us. Recognizing this, the nation has organized the first tri-service command, called the Andaman and Nicobar Command, and it is located here.
You aim to promote the island as a major tourist destination, but during my trip I noted some inadequate infrastructure and alack of facilities. What are your plans for working on this?
There is an effort to improve the infrastructure in keeping with our vision, which is to ensure development that accommodates our tribal and ecological concerns. We cannot allow uncontrolled development. There has been a lack of space for development on some of the islands that are popular with the tourists, but we can certainly provide better facilities there. I give you as an example Havelock Island, which has some the best beaches in the territory. One of the complaints that I often hear is that people cannot use the ATM, because the spectrum is so low. This is something I am rectifying. We want to develop a footpath and cycling track, and that will happen in due course.
Yes, if you have the Maldives model in mind then you can say Andaman and Nicobar are slightly behind. This is a conscious decision . We want our island to develop as a very special tourist destination that focuses on ecology, takes care of tribal concerns and promotes adventure tourism, and we have to reconcile all these things as we move forward.
The tribal issue has been one of the contentious topics here, considering the controversy surrounding Jarawa tribe.
Tribal concerns are foremost in our mind; after all, they are our people. They are the original inhabitants of this place. There is a certain legacy that we have inherited prior to independence. Some of the decisions taken at that time did not result in the best welfare for the tribal people. Post independence, there has been a tribal welfare policy that is in place with the Indian government and with the Union Territory administration. We have dynamically revised it time to time. We are absolutely committed – let me tell you through your medium loud and clear – that we are absolutely committed to the welfare of the tribes living on the island. We are not only responsible but also accountable. We are conscious of that.
For the Jarawa tribe, the administration has set 1028 sq kilometers of land as a Jarawa tribal reserve. Entry into this area by non-tribal personnel is prohibited, unless permitted by the statutory authority under the law. Non-tribal persons are also prohibited from acquiring an interest in the reserved area. The regulation has been amended in 2012 and there is a provision for severe punishment ranging from 3 to 7 years imprisonment for offenders who poach and exploit the tribal people. In the recent past there have been some cases of poaching.
I am very serious about this. I am ensuring that in the tribal area there is no activity that is against the interest of the tribes. The passage of vehicles through the Andaman Grand Trunk Road, which passes through the Jarawa area, has been strictly regulated by introducing a convoy system where vehicles are allowed in a group to pass at a particular time. No individual vehicle is permitted. No interaction with the indigenous group by outsiders is allowed. To reduce traffic on the Grand Trunk Road we are taking steps to develop an alternate sea route, but this will take some time.
That Grand Trunk Road has received quite a lot of flak and negative publicity because of tourist traffic.
There has been an intense, misinformed campaign by many people who want stop the traffic. They ask us to stop the movement of tourists on that route. In 2002, for a short duration, traffic on this road was banned. But let me explain that along this road there are villages with a population of 150,000. Surely we cannot deprive such a large population of their only lifeline. Therefore we went back to the Supreme Court with all the facts and figures and after convincing the apex court of our earnest effort to ensure the protection of the tribal people, this road has been opened with the stringent conditions that I have explained. Yes some people in the past must have exploited it when some photographs may have been taken, but today the convoy system is such where you have one police vehicle in the front, one in the middle and one in the back and all tourists operators are made very aware of the stringent conditions in place. They know the kind of penalties they will attract. I am personally monitoring this. When I went to that grand trunk road I also went in the convoy. I have made it strictly clear that no one will go there independently .
The success of the policy can be measured from the fact that in the last few years the Jarawa population has more than doubled, to over four hundred. Nobody sitting outside is deciding the future of the Jarawa. Very slowly and surely, we are working with the best anthropologists who will interact to see what is the will of the Jarawas and how they would like to move forward. You know the system of government in India: every policy will have to go through the government of the union territory, calling on the best specialists, then it will go to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and various forums before any change comes about.
One of the factors that has enabled us to ensure the welfare of the tribes are the medical benefits and medical attention that has been provided to them. This has been welcomed by the tribal people.
Do you see a future in which the Jarawa are integrated into the mainstream?
We are not working on that. What we are working on is the welfare of the tribes, which is the bottom line. Our job is to ensure that they are protected and their livelihood is not encroached upon, that their health is taken care of. Then, through the specialists who can interact with them, we would like to see that they are in a position to decide how far and at what pace they want to go forward. We don't have any predetermined notions and it is for the tribes themselves to decide. Our job is to ensure that we provide that protection, provide the special focus and ensure the welfare of the tribe – not only the Jarawa but also other tribes. We have Nicobarese today who are in the mainstream and part of administrative and police services. We have not opened the Nicobarese area, it is still protected. They have come a long way, but I can't predict what the Jarawas will want. I think slowly but surely they will decide for themselves,
Where you see Andaman in the coming time?
I wish I could foresee, but I can tell you what would be my desire. We want to see Andaman and Nicobar become a very integral and strong part of the country, contributing in every facet of India’s life, we want to see the territory as a shining example of the preservation of ecology and tribes. We want to see it visited by tourists who are seeking the beauty of nature in all its glory. We want to see a place where adventure tourism flourishes. We want to see that almost 400,000 inhabitants find fulfillment of their dreams within the parameters that I have described.