India has drawn up an ambitious, Rs 10,000 crore plan to transform the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into the country’s first maritime hub, taking advantage of its strategic location and making it the base for infrastructure that will include an expanded dry dock and ship repair industry in the capital Port Blair.
The Narendra Modi government has readied a blueprint of the plan that also entails protection of the original Jarawa inhabitants while boosting the tourism potential of locations such as limestone caves and mud volcanoes.
“Plans for the projects that are to be undertaken over the next two years have already been formulated,” shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari told ET. “Action is being initiated.”
Projects that entail an investment of Rs 2,000 crore have been sanctioned and work on the rest of the programme will start soon.
The shipping ministry has prepared a 15-year perspective plan for the development of shipping and port infrastructure on the islands, which are home to India’s eastern and southern tips, putting them within close distance of an international shipping route.
Apart from ship repairs, the plan includes the development of port infrastructure, the acquisition of vessels to run mainland-island services, the purchase of tugs for safe berthing and sprucing up docking capacity.
“Andaman is a very sensitive zone. So, all these projects will have to be undertaken after assessing the impact on environment,” said a senior government official. “Tribal areas and tourist areas would be bifurcated. We are creating sea routes so that these areas are not disturbed.”
Over the past decades, the Jarawa indigenous peoples have been hit by the arrival of settlers from elsewhere in India and the limited development that has taken place, especially the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road and the rise in tourism. As is typical in such instances, this has meant the spread of disease among the Jarawa, sexual and other forms of abuse by outsiders, incursions into their territory and rampant poaching.
Campaigners have demanded that the government shut the trunk road and that there should be no forcible attempts to ‘mainstream’ them.
To be sure, the islands are a big tourist draw because the pristine waters make it ideal for diving.
To promote the area as a destination, the government has sanctioned a Rs 50 crore project on the development of a sea route from Port Blair to Baratang, one of the islands and home to the mud volcanoes. The project is being implemented by Andaman Lakshadweep Harbour Works and will be completed by October 2017. To augment the dry docking capacity in Port Blair, the existing facility will be expanded with an investment of about Rs 120 crore.
The government doesn’t want to be the sole participant in creating modern port and shipping infrastructure in the islands.
“For the ship repair industry, we are expecting private participation. The government has also set aside Rs 1,000 crore for the same,” said the official cited above.
Around the islands, 23 sites have been identified for development into ports, with seven of these being small facilities. The government plans to spend about Rs 4,000 crore on this project and also to create direct connectivity with Chennai and Vizag ports.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a chain of 572 islands of which a little more than 30 are inhabited. They constitute 0.2 per cent of India’s land mass but provide for 30 per cent of the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In keeping with their strategic location, the ministry is also collaborating with the ministry of defence through the Andaman and Nicobar Command to undertake some of the projects. The islands are scattered between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea and are closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than the Indian mainland. Parts of the islands were devastated by the 2004 tsunami that originated off the Indonesian coast.
The ministry of defence is undertaking three different projects in the islands that will be of key strategic importance to India. Officials, however, didn’t provide details about the projects, saying all of them were critical in nature.
The southern islands lie near the Malacca Straits, a gateway to the Indian Ocean through which China gets some of its oil.
The southernmost tip, known as Indira point and located in the Greater Nicobar area, is 100 nautical miles away from Sumatra and 200 miles from Singapore. It’s an overnight journey to Phuket through the sea route from Greater Nicobar. However, no ship currently operates on this route.
“This region has huge potential for us as the international trading route that originates from Singapore and connects with the east-west corridor is hardly 15 nautical miles from Indira point,” said another government official.
The government has also planned a container transhipment terminal in the area to tap into the potential of the international trading route to cut down on freight costs. However, getting environmental clearance will be tough as the Greater Nicobar area has dense forests.
The Andaman and Nicobar administration is also planning to declare Port Blair a free trade area. But only clean, non-polluting industries will be allowed. The move is aimed at boosting employment opportunities, said an officer of the Andaman administration.
The government aims to acquire 60 small and large passenger and cargo ships for around Rs 5,000 crore.
“These ships would provide better connectivity with Chennai and Vizag port,” said one of the officials cited above. “We have already ordered two ships with capacity of 1,200 passengers and 100 tonnes of cargo each. Four small ships with capacity of 500 passengers each for inter-island connectivity are also being acquired.”
There is a plan to buy luxury cruise ships for wealthier visitors, to replace the aging, basic vessels that are available.