India’s Maritime Achilles Heel
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
Port Blair: The sun rises early in India’s easternmost territory, almost two hours before the mainland. But life doesn’t stir with the rising sun. Following the mainland clock, work in Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands begins well past the morning and finishes only after darkness starts to creep in.
At 6.30 am by the clock, the sun is almost overhead, its sharp reflection in the still water of the sea almost blinding. Closer to the horizon are silhouettes of merchant ships, about half a dozen of them, waiting for their turn to berth at the jetty. Of all the other shortfalls in these islands, infrastructure is the most glaring and the most ironical. Andaman and Nicobar depends upon the mainland for everything — fuel to run the diesel-generators which supply power (there is no organic electricity supply), food (barring seafood), building material and equipment (both military and civil) — all of which comes via the sea route through the port of Chennai traversing the distance of nearly 1,180 km over three days or more. And sometimes the cargo ships have to wait just as long outside the Port Blair harbour before they find space to squeeze in.
The irony that the only link India has with its strategic island territory is extremely tenuous because we have failed to build infrastructure even 70 years after Independence seems to have escaped the nation obsessed with the vulnerabilities of the Himalayas and shadows inside the country. Perhaps, a few statistics would put the issue in perspective. The southernmost tip of India, called Indira Point in the Car Nicobar chain of islands, is a mere 215km from Indonesia’s Banda Aceh. Port Blair, which is home to India’s first tri-service command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) raised in October 2001, is 733km from Indonesia. The coast of Myanmar is 770km; and the Kra canal, which China has proposed to build in Thailand as part of One Road (maritime silk route) will open into Andaman Sea, barely 600km from Port Blair. China has been in talks with Thailand for some time now for the construction of the canal, which will be fully financed and built by China. If this comes about, then the Andaman Sea would be crowded by hundreds of ‘supposed merchant vessels’ of all sizes. It is only logical that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would also be sailing these waters to protect its merchant shipping.
While several western experts are already debating the strategic changes this canal would bring about in the region, including the possibility of Andaman and Nicobar reaping economic dividends from the increased commercial activity in its vicinity, most Indian experts hope and believe that Thailand would not agree to this. Their argument banks on topographical nuance that the proposed canal would cut the country into two. The flaw with this argument is that the idea of the canal originated several centuries ago from within Thailand. Successive Thai kings, in the 19th and the 20th centuries explored the possibility of building this canal with foreign help, including French, British, Russian and American over the years. Each time, lack of funding and technology came in the way. China has merely revived the idea at a time when it has both.
Yet, the atmosphere at ANC, which suffers from the same malady as the rest of the military establishment, that is to avert eyes from the real threats, is one of sanguinity for the incremental developments that have taken place here in the last 17 years. Indian military officers posted at this outpost talk too much about the non-military threats to the island chain like smuggling, drug trafficking, gun-running, piracy, poaching including island-occupation by miscreants and so on; and too little about the biggest military threat facing the command: China.
The stated mission of the ANC is purely defensive (surveillance being a part of it). According to ANC’s spokesperson and the chief staff officer (operations), Air Cmde B. Ahluwalia, “The command is tasked with defending the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands, and to keep a watchful eye on the Indian Ocean North (ION), 10 and six degrees channels.” Given the meagre assets here, even this is an awesome mission.
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