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Securing Andaman and Nicobar islands

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  • July 09, 2010
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Admiral (Retd.) P S Das
    Discussants: Cmde Ashok Sawhney and Cdr Shishir Upadhyaya

    Paper Summary

    India’s forward presence in the eastern Indian Ocean is enabled by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The location and geography of these Islands impart them with immense strategic importance. The archipelago forms India’s southeast frontier. It is also nearer to Southeast Asia than to the Indian mainland (approximately 1200 km away). The 780 km linear extension of the island gives it an extensive north-south spread in the Bay of Bengal, ideal for generating domain awareness, which could be utilized for countering traditional and non-traditional threats. The propinquity of these islands to the busy shipping lanes, especially Malacca strait, not only provides India with an opportunity to play an important role in the security of the sea lines of communication, but also to use these islands as a transshipment hub, a bunkering facility or a duty free port. Proximity of the archipelago to the Southeast Asian countries enables India to foster friendly relations by engaging them through joint operations. It also helps India in keeping abreast of the political and military developments in its extended neighbourhood.

    At the same time, the physical distance and remoteness of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from the Indian mainland contribute to their vulnerability to both conventional and non-conventional threats. At present, the probability of a conventional threat to the island chain from its immediate neighbours appears remote. However, a military threat to the islands could emanate in the form of a possible intervention in the Bay of Bengal by an extra regional power, especially China, given its dependence on sea borne supply lines in the Indian Ocean and the need to secure them both from non-state actors and potential adversaries such as the United States and India. Towards this end, China has been diligently developing port and other infrastructural facilities in the Indian Ocean littoral. While China and the littoral states have maintained that the infrastructure being established is purely for commercial use, utilization of these facilities by China during a conflict cannot be ruled out. And as part of its distant sea defence strategy, China now seeks to project its naval supremacy as far as West Asia and to the shipping lanes of the Pacific by deploying warships as escorts for its commercial vessels. Moreover, for tracking India’s capability and strengths in the Bay of Bengal, China has been allegedly engaged in gathering intelligence stealthily through various means. Existence of a Chinese naval fleet in the vicinity would also greatly limit the range and extent of Indian naval operations.

    However, currently what seem to be a cause of immediate concern are non-conventional threats like poaching, illegal settlements, gunrunning and use of A&N’s uninhabited islands as hideaways by terrorist groups and smugglers, and natural disasters. Poaching has emerged as the biggest problem for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Several factors have contributed to the emergence of these islands as a magnet for poachers. Firstly, the fishing industry in the islands is underdeveloped. Secondly, the existence of isolated and uninhabited islands scattered far and wide serves as ideal hideaways for poachers. And finally, the existing policy of detaining the arrested poachers in a camp, and then repatriating them to their country in conformity with international law, has taken away the element of deterrence. Another security concern for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is the issue of illegal settlements. The trend of illegal Bangladeshi settlers has increased in the aftermath of the Tsunami Rehabilitation work. Dearth of labourers has meant that they are hired from the mainland but who continue to reside in the Island group permanently. The misuse of the Andaman Sea and various uninhabited islands of the archipelago for drug trafficking and gunrunning remains another issue of grave concern. Anti-smuggling operations have revealed that many islands of the archipelago are used as sanctuaries or trans-shipment bases by gunrunners, terrorists and insurgents. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are also prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcano eruptions. The Tsunami of 2004 bears testimony to the destruction of life and property caused by gigantic sea waves, especially to the Nicobar Islands.

    Following the India-China border in 1962 war, the security of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was reviewed and the Indian Navy was assigned the responsibility of defending the Island territory. This led to the establishment of a forward naval base, INS Jarawa, at Port Blair in 1964. In 1981, INS Jarawa was rechristened as FORTAN. In 2001, the Group of Ministers’ Report on ‘reforming the national security system’ recommended replacing FORTAN with a joint Andaman and Nicobar Command. Broadly, the functions of ANC can be divided into three categories - military, diplomatic and constabulary. The military role, especially during peace time, involves maintaining deterrence through Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), ensuring physical presence in the area of interest, and conducting joint exercises. On the diplomatic level, ANC has been involved in initiatives like Milan, a biennial gathering of navies of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for the purpose of promoting regional cooperation and mutual understanding of maritime issues of common concern. Constabulary function for the ANC primarily involves enforcement of the rule of law at sea and conducting low intensity maritime operations to prevent poaching, illegal migration, narcotics and arms smuggling.

    Challenges to securing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands come from a variety of factors. Prominent among them are a difficult topography, inadequate infrastructure and manpower, lack of coordination, inefficient intelligence and pervasive under-development. Concerted efforts are being made by the government to plug the infrastructural gaps for enhancing surveillance, air defence and coastal security. Assets and manpower are being strengthened. For example, plans are afoot for building two air bases at Shibpur and Campbell Bay after the airstrips there are lengthened and night operation facilities are provided to enable them to operate all types of aircraft round the clock. A proposal for establishing additional Coast Guard stations at Havelock and Ranggat has been forwarded. The marine police have completed vulnerability gap analysis and have proposed the augmentation of manpower and assets. Besides the development of infrastructure, grey areas that hamper the effective functioning of the security forces need to be addressed. Firstly, better coordination between various security agencies, especially between Coast Guard, police and forest department has to be ensured. A MDA among them should be created and the SOP needs to be standardized at the earliest. For the intelligence gathering process both HUMINT and TECHINT need to be made strong and fluent. Above all, a holistic development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has to be undertaken. Tourism can act as a catalyst for the development of the islands as a tourist hub.

    Discussion and Suggestions

    • There needs to be a change in India’s attitude towards Andaman and Nicobar. Instead of defending it, Andaman and Nicobar islands should be viewed as the first line of defence.
    • The main aim of India in Andaman and Nicobar region should be to assess the threats from China and Pakistan and build measures to counter them.
    • The importance of the trade routes surrounding the archipelago is bound to increase as India’s trade with China and ASEAN is set to increase in future.
    • India has not fully realized the importance of the 10 Degree Channel and 6 Degree Channel, while China is fully aware of the importance of these two important trade routes.
    • The isolated location of these islands is the major problem that India faces.
    • A highly efficient surveillance network is a must to monitor non-conventional threats.
    • The communication network needs to be developed to carry out efficient surveillance and monitoring.
    • More manpower and modernization of equipment is a must.
    • People are as vital an aspect as they can be in the region and genuine attention needs to be paid to grievances of the tribal people of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
    • The internal political disturbances in South East Asian nations could have a spill over effect on the archipelago.
    • Biological threats, diseases like, malaria, SARS, etc. should also be considered as part of non-conventional threats.

    Report prepared by Sana Hashmi, an Intern at IDSA.