In the Bay of Bengal, far removed from the mainland, lie the 572 islands of Andaman and Nicobar, which form India’s southeast border. While the northernmost part of the archipelago is only 22 nautical miles away from Myanmar, the southernmost point, called the Indira Point, is a mere 90 nautical miles from Indonesia. These islands dominate the Bay of Bengal and the Six Degree and Ten Degree channels which more than 60,000 commercial vessels traverse each year.
Among the nine major bottlenecks that control entry to this region are the Malacca Strait and the Six Degree Channel. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie in this strategically important zone, meaning that India with its growing naval capabilities could play a significant role in controlling access.
India’s Navy chief, Admiral R K Dhowan recently acknowledged that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a “very very important aspect” of India’s security, acting as extended arms of the country. Dhowan said that India needed to deploy naval assets to the islands for surveillance in important sea lines of communication.
Yet over the past 15 years successive governments have been slow to act, even after having declared their intention of beefing up the security infrastructure on the islands. A unified land, sea and air command was created more than a decade ago, but the command still faces turf wars, funding issues, and glacial decision making.
In the meantime, other countries – notably China – have expanded their presence in the region. Naval vessels camouflaged as fishing boats have been sighted, while other ships make port visits to Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
The inability of India’s civilian bureaucracy to recognize the geostrategic importance of the islands is evident in the fact that the only radar station at Port Blair is switched off every evening. When Malaysian authorities sought information about the missing MH370 from India there was none to share.
Soon after coming to power last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi brushed aside environmental concerns and cleared a decade-old proposal to set up a radar station on an island lying a few miles from Coco Islands, which Myanmar has leased to China for the purpose of setting up a listening post. Reportedly, infrastructure development on Coco Islands was completed in short order, and besides a radar station the Chinese have also built an airstrip. In contrast, India took ten years to decide to build a radar station on the nearby Narcondam Islands.
Plans to improve the infrastructure are welcome but the Modi government needs to acknowledge the strategic importance of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and push an indifferent bureaucracy to faster decision-making. India could be using these islands to project power into the region and signal China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy about its readiness to counter any intervention.
Of the 572 islands that make up the Andaman and Nicobar group, only 37 are inhabited. The absence of a human presence on hundreds of these islands has made them vulnerable to narcotics smuggling, intrusion by foreign vessels, and other incursions. The home ministry needs to seriously consider suggestions to encourage migration from the mainland and open up some of these strategically located uninhabited islands to tourism. That would give India a stronger physical footprint and would help the country track the movement of vessels and people.
The northern islands are separated from the southern group by the Ten Degree Channel, which is 80 nautical miles wide. Close watch needs to be kept over the movement of ships and military vessels that pass through these waters.
Recognition of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as strategic assets would ensure a change in government policy. The slow pace of development and indifferent bureaucracy has ensured that after several years an undersea cable link between India’s mainland and the islands remains incomplete. Internet connectivity, even at the naval base in the capital Port Blair, is reported to be erratic.
Road building, airstrip construction, and even the building of jetties has been slow or non-existent. More than a decade after the tsunami of 2004 an important road that helps link North with South has still not been rebuilt.
Heavy rainfall restricts building activity to six months a year and the distance from mainland adds to the cost of construction as all material must be shipped to the islands. Few companies are willing to work on the islands because of the distance and cost. For some materials, importing from Indonesia would be far cheaper and more cost effective than sending shipments from the Indian mainland.
Surveillance in the southern group of islands is a major challenge. The destruction of the road by the tsunami has meant that the two groups of islands are linked only by air and sea. Rather than expedite the work, the pace of development has been caught up in red tape. The landing strip on Campbell Bay is only 1,000 meters in length and plans to extend it have moved slowly. The runway in capital Port Blair took more than three years to repair.
While India wants to neutralize Chinese presence in the region, the decision-making in New Delhi has been slow and lacking in focus. Efforts to strengthen India’s military presence have not kept pace with Chinese activity. Modi’s outreach to Japan, which has been added to Malabar, hitherto a U.S.-India bilateral military exercise, signals a change in direction by New Delhi, which has traditionally been very sensitive to Chinese concerns.
Modi has an opportunity to make Andaman and Nicobar Islands an important element of his “Act East Policy” of engaging with countries in the region east of India. A policy of benign neglect towards the islands should be transformed into something more robust, which develops the island territories with an eye to India’s larger geopolitical interests.
Sunil Raman is a Delhi-based journalist and author. In the last two decades he has worked with leading media organizations including the BBC World Service and The Economic Times in Delhi, London and Bangalore.