Once a penal colony under the British Raj, the isolation of the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain has endured since India’s independence. In the last few years, New Delhi has stepped up its efforts to develop these islands, strengthen their connectivity with the mainland, and leverage their strategic location for India’s security. However, India will have to overcome multiple challenges to realize the potential of this island chain.
Carnegie India hosted Shakti Sinha, director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and the former chief secretary of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, for a roundtable discussion to analyze the development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The discussion was chaired by C. Raja Mohan.
- History: Participants said that early accounts of the islands can be traced back to scholars and travelers such I-Tsing and Marco Polo. They noted that the East India Company, and consequently the British Raj, were the last colonizers to gain access to the islands, although the Japanese briefly occupied the islands during the second World War. Participants explained that the islands became an important aspect of India’s freedom movement and were briefly independent under the leadership of Subhas Chandra Bose. They also mentioned that the Japanese were instrumental in developing the infrastructure of the islands, some of which is still in use today.
- Strategic Importance: The geography of the islands, and their strategic position in the Bay of Bengal, made them an important strategic location for all its settlers, participants said. Some participants stated that the British capitalized on the islands’ location to gain access to trade in South East Asia and colonize nearby regions, such as Rangoon. Other participants highlighted that the isolated environment of the islands made them the perfect penal colony under the British Raj. Participants discussed how, post-Independence, the islands were coveted by Pakistan, Myanmar, and other former British colonies in the region because of their strategic location. They stated that the government of India realized the value of the islands and avoided military buildup that might come across as aggressive to neighboring nations.
- Impact of the 2004 Tsunami: All participants emphasized the devastating effect of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They noted that the islands suffered loss of lives and great damage to infrastructure. This, they claimed, put a renewed emphasis on increasing the pace of infrastructure development on the islands and rehabilitation efforts to support displaced inhabitants. They stated that in the aftermath of the disaster, the island’s inhabitants did not receive the psychological support they needed.
- Creating Sustainable Development: Participants stated that the government has undertaken various development schemes to turn the islands into an economic hub. However, they noted that oil palm plantations on the islands had not been a major success since they were executed by a public-sector unit, and did not generate backward-forward linkages. Participants noted that the lack of sufficient employment opportunities is a major cause for concern in the region, especially given the high literacy rate among the island population. They underscored the need to create an environment conducive to local entrepreneurship and employment opportunities, and reducing citizens’ dependence on timber. Participants also stated that the lack of internet access and limited availability of goods and services, infrastructure, and healthcare has forced the island habitants to migrate to mainland India. Participants suggested that the government focus on developing the market for niche tourism, such as water sports, to generate employment for the local island community.
- Creating Democratic Institutions: Participants agreed that the local population should have a greater role in determining their own future, noting that the islands have a sole minister of parliament who has no executive authority. The absence of a territory-level council has meant that there is no local accountability, they said, while the administration reports to the central home ministry, which is a distant presence. Participants stated that the goodwill of well-meaning bureaucrats cannot compensate for this lack of voice. They emphasized that despite the good quality of physical infrastructure, the absence of a vibrant investment climate as seen in other island territories globally is glaring. The miniscule private economic activity and lack of jobs can be partly attributed to this lack of representation to different elements of local society, they noted.
This event summary was prepared by Rhea Menon, an intern at Carnegie India.