The 1382 offshore-identified islands of India hold immense unexploited potential for fostering growth and achieving cohesive socio-economic development of the region in particular and also, the nation as a whole. They can significantly contribute to the GDP by leveraging the gains from promoting infrastructure and tourism on a large scale.
However, care must be taken to safeguard and maintain the position of these islands as vital strategic assets for national security while keeping their nature and composition as biodiversity hotspots intact.
Given the strategic location of Andaman & Nicobar (A&N Islands) and the Lakshadweep Islands and China’s belligerent expansionist policy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), not only is there a need to develop critical infrastructure and upgrade the military base in these regions, but also to harness the multiplier effect generated as infrastructure connectivity strengthens. This in turn, is expected to boost tourism and spruce up economic activity in the region.
Why are they important?
Of late, the Islands have garnered special attention in the wake of the rising maritime territorial tensions at the international front. India’s only tri-service command is established at the A&N Islands at the entrance of the Malacca Strait, the 2.8 km long -world’s most congested choke point, and the primary route for Chinese oil supply. However, with the recent Indo-Japanese initiative to expand civilian infrastructure in its vicinity, China has started exploring alternative land routes to the Middle East for oil, most notably, through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Emerging Sino-Indian competition in the region can be seen through the routine deployment of submarines by China, development of underwater surveillance networks, expansion of Chinese naval bases with the establishment of a military base in Djibouti and extending the reach of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) mega-initiative as India joins hands with Japan, Australia and the US in the Malabar Naval Exercises. This sentiment is mirrored in the recent formation of the ‘Quad’ coalition group by the same nations. The Doklam standoff and the recent Chinese policy of forming strategic/ critical commercial alliances with India’s neighbouring countries as the United States displays a clear proclivity towards India, makes fast-paced Island development all the more imperative.
The Immense Latent Potential
The Islands host an unexplored Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with clearly demarcated boundaries that can be capitalized on in numerous ways; the varied ecosystem can be exploited for its medicinal plants and exotic plant species, sustainable agriculture and horticulture practices conducive to the agro-climatic conditions of the regions can be propagated, large-scale hydrocarbon explorations can be undertaken, and alternate renewable energy resources can be exploited so as to meet the energy needs of the nation.
Additionally, rainwater harvesting can be popularized so as to both conserve water and also narrow the critical water infrastructure deficit in the region due to scarcity of resources and inefficient management. Fisheries, the mainstay of the larger populace of these regions, can be given a thrust so as to develop modernized and sustainable inland fisheries and aquaculture ecosystem integrated with the ‘Blue Economy’ vision. Most importantly, the Islands can be developed as prime Tourist Hotspots for not just the country, but also internationally. The pristine beaches, coupled with rich tropical vegetation, can be turned into a more economical and attractive alternative to conventional destinations such as Bali and Maldives, thereby creating many forward and backward linkages and help boost the economy of the regions to a large extent.
Enter the Government:
The A&N Islands alone account for 30% of India’s EEZ-revenue. Given their unrealized potential, bridging the infrastructure gap becomes the next crucial step. Historically, Ship Building and Ship Repairing have been the high priority areas for infrastructure initiatives in the islands. However, acknowledging the urgency and potency of the pending development in these regions, the government in 2016, identified 26 Islands for promoting and implementing development based on sustainable approach to building a thriving economy of the project islands. The government has also announced laying of Rs, 1,102 Crore worth of submarine optical fiber cable between Chennai and A&N Islands so as to increase telephone and internet connectivity in the region by December 2018. Moreover, considering the unique maritime and territorial bio-diversity of the islands, the government has identified enhanced connectivity as one of the key priorities.
In 2017, the Island Development Agency (IDA) was established for the holistic development of the islands, focusing on community-based tourism. Key Infrastructure projects such as creation of jetties/berthing facilities, Roll-on/Roll-off ships; Bridges on Andaman Trunk Road; Upgradation of Diglipur Airport; Construction of Minicoy Airport; Modernization of existing Jetty at Kavarati; Augmentation of Satellite Bandwidth from 1.118 Gbps to 2.118 Gbps in Andaman & Nicobar; augmentation of helicopter services for Islanders and tourists etc. are being accorded priority accordingly.
With better communication services, Information Technology based and other Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) would be promoted in the Islands. Further, after carrying out systematic study, 18 Projects, both in Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep, have been identified for implementation, out of which 7 Projects are ready for launch through Public-Private Partnership.
Moreover, international collaborations can also be banked on for the same. The 2016 Indo-Japan Joint Statement on Bilateral Cooperation envisioned to develop “Smart Islands” on the line of the ‘Smart Cities’ project. Japanese capital and expertise can be both pioneering as well as beneficial to this endeavor. The development of the Reunion Islands by France can be a guiding example and also opens up the opportunity for prospective collaboration with Paris in implementation of such projects. The positive response by OECD countries in taking on ‘Smart Cities’ projects further demands similar international cooperation.
The Way Forward: Private Sector Participation
Collaboration is indeed, the need of the hour in this regard as provision of a robust regulatory environment by the government is needed so as to not encroach upon the natural and socio-economic rights of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PTVG) and also preserve the ecological balance of the region, while facilitating better connectivity and maritime security infrastructure. Moreover, the high financial costs entailed in such investments create a need for private sector involvement, where their operational and managerial expertise is required so as to optimally deliver on these projects. Similarly, International best practices can be modified suitably and replicated so as to maximize returns further.
Although, the need for civil infrastructure development in Island regions is unquestionable, in the wake of existing geo-strategic position of these islands, upgradation of defense facilities is equally important. This will constructively channelize the positive externalities of such assets to enhance the living conditions of entire populace.
However, due attention needs to be paid so as to not disturb the ecological balance, disrupt local livelihood-activities, and engage all stakeholders in the decision making process while ensuring that sufficient institutions and mechanisms exist for grievance redressal, compensation and rehabilitation. The road to development must sail through the islands.
Views are personal.
Neelashi Shukla is a Young Professional at NITI Aayog and works on Public Private Partnership and China.