The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) have been in the news for positive reasons in 2018 and 2019. In December 2018, three islands in the Archipelago were relieved of the burden of colonialism when the Modi government renamed Ross, Neil, and Havelock Islands to Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep, Shaheed Dweep, and Swaraj Dweep respectively. In January 2019, the current administration took another positive step, that is, commissioning a new air base in the ANI. The archipelago of 572 islands is strategically located in the Indian Ocean and has the potential to play a decisive role in the shaping of India’s Indo-Pacific policy.
The ANI is positioned between 8 and 14 degrees north latitudes and between 92 and 94 degrees east longitude. It makes India a maritime neighbor of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and also sits amidst vital International Shipping Lanes (ISLs) and Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). The ANI also contributes to more than one-fourth of India’s total Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as demarcated under the provisions of international law. Due to its geographical location, the islands can play a balancing role in the context of increasing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean by monitoring China’s growing dominance in littoral Asia. It can be a potential base for launching brown water operations in littoral Asia, and for maritime surveillance and reconnaissance operations in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Requisite military deployment in ANI can provide India with a more significant opportunity to be a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region.
There is an urgent need to equip further and develop the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), India’s only tri-service command. India has taken a step in the right direction by commissioning a new air base in the ANI. New Delhi also plans to implement a military infrastructure roll-on plan in ANC over the next ten years. Thorough implementation of the roll-on plan shall be instrumental in increasing India’s ability to deploy assets for surveillance and reconnaissance, and in raising India’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Abhijit Singh, writing for Observer Research Foundation (ORF), argued that the ANC is “an important marker of India’s strategic presence in the Eastern Indian Ocean”.
New Delhi may have to deliberate upon the challenges of militarily developing the ANI. The sceptics of large-scale militarization argue that investing heavily to utilize the military potential of the island may cause anxiety among the neighboring Southeast Asian nations. Such arguments are oblivious of the fact that India has a proven track record in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations during major natural disasters like the tsunami of 2004 and tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. New Delhi can reassure the sceptics by highlighting its initiatives in HADR during times of natural disaster, and by alluding to the role of a modernized ANC in enhancing the effectiveness of such operations. Furthermore, India’s history of non-aggression is well known to the ASEAN nations in the vicinity of the ANI. Military deployments in the ANI is about maintaining a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific instead of being detrimental to the interests of ASEAN nations. Hence, the Indian diplomatic establishment should take special care to highlight the goodwill that New Delhi has earned due to years of non-aggressive and responsible foreign conduct with ASEAN.
Apart from the humanitarian and military significance, the ANI has significant economic potential. New Delhi can utilize the islands for developmental purposes by developing logistics port, transhipment terminals and tourism infrastructure. The development of logistics port and transhipment terminals will help ships dock at the islands and has the potential to convert the ANI into a major shipping hub in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, the pristine tropical islands with lush evergreen forests, white sandy beaches, and a brilliant blue sea are an untapped source of tourism revenue. Boosting connectivity shall also be of paramount importance to developing tourism at the island. Hence, investment in maritime infrastructures like ports and tourism infrastructure like hospitality and transportation is necessary to tap the economic potential of the island. Increasing financial stakes in the island will also provide more incentives to the government for beefing up its security infrastructure.
The NITI Aayog, a policy think tank of the Indian government, has, however, cautioned about the need to make the development of the islands sustainable and holistic. Given that the delicate biosphere of the ANI may become vulnerable to threats due to massive infrastructure projects, such projects will have to take into account the ecological concerns of the island. A stakeholder-oriented development of the island, with long term military and economic prospects in mind, is the only way to go about it. Thus, balancing the commercial and military needs of New Delhi with ecological concerns about the fragile ecosystem of the ANI is vital.
The government should, therefore, pursue a multi-dimensional and stakeholder-led development on the islands. In addition to the role of the current policy establishment, the youth’s role in fostering such a development would be pivotal. Investing in the mind of the young Indians is particularly essential to establishing a long-term strategic vision. The Indian youth working in think tanks, civil society, media, and government can bring about focus on the development of ANI by discussing and debating about it in youth fora and elsewhere. India’s unparalleled young talent in the domain of engineering can be utilized for planning and implementing a sustainable economic infrastructure on the island. The youth can also play a role in shaping the debate about India’s strategic and foreign policy priorities and the importance of ANI in the same. However, the Indian school curriculum pays little attention to India’s strategic stakes in ANI and the youth end up getting trained in an environment of strategic vacuum in secondary schools.
There is a lack of exposure about the ANI among Indian youth, and the gap can be bridged by activities including organizing lectures at universities, secondary schools, and other places populated by the young. There is a need for coordinated advocacy with the Central Board of Secondary Education, Indian Certificate of Secondary Education, and state boards to include ANI in the regular syllabi of schools. Finally, promoting tourism to ANI will help in making the Islands a part of the popular imagination of mainland India. Prime Minister Modi’s push for boosting domestic tourism in his Independence Day address is a welcome move. The more integrated the mainland youth feels with ANI, the better its strategic significance will be understood.
The role of the ANI in the realization of India’s strategic priorities is crucial. It is essential to have broad-based discussions about subtle modalities of executing it. To have a broader public debate about the vitality of the ANI, a public outreach by government and private sector stakeholders is essential. Such an awareness shall help in shaping sustainable policies for fostering sustainable development of the ANI in the future.