In the age before tourism, these were ‘impure’ heathen homes of cannibals. The chroniclers in the Chola dynasty called them thus. Then these morphed into British penal islands with the wheel-shaped Cellular prison, the tenebrous Kalapani, as the painful centerpiece. When the colonialists left, these wind-swept, coral-fringed atolls and sun-soaked, jungle-clad beaches became India’s off-grid frontiers—taken from Burma in exchange for two Manipur districts during the remapping of territory. And they remained so, their raw beauty mostly unexplored and their naked minimalism untouched. But now, Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the east are at the front edge of the conservation versus development battle; as is Lakshadweep to the west.
These two pretty-as-a-peach archipelagos are goldmines waiting to be prospected. And the prospectors will soon fly and sail from the mainland. The government has a ‘holistic’ scheme, a NITI Aayog brainchild for promoting tourism on these islands in collaboration with global hospitality players. In other words, it’s a head to head competition with popular touristy tropical islands around the world to attract foreign and high-rolling vacationers, and their money.
The plan includes six projects for Andaman and Nicobar and five for Lakshadweep. Luxury resorts will be built there, with roads as well as air and sea connectivity. Bids will open soon. People will enjoy this picturesque real estate with all the modern tourist traps: seafront resorts, safaris, games and the nightly glook in a palm-fronded nook. Or go glamping—short for glamour-camping. Smith, Aves and Long islands of Andaman and Nicobar, and Kidmat, Minicoy and Suheli of Lakshadweep will be on the market for a 50-year lease. Permits for accessories such as bar licences will be fast-tracked. Minicoy and Suheli were chosen for offshore water villas, a first in the country. “These will bring us forex. Our islands are richer, much more beautiful and have a lot to offer than Maldives and Phuket,” a senior NITI Aayog member says.
Proposed water villas for Lakshadweep
The coral-reefed, azure atolls and lagoons of Lakshadweep depend on tourists. Andaman and Nicobar have been a holiday destination too, and the number of domestic tourists doubled from 2 lakh in 2011 to 4 lakh in 2016. But foreigners arrive only in dribs and drabs—just about 15,000 since 2011. They don’t find this Indian outpost as exciting as Maldives, Mauritius or Phuket because the amenities and attractions are not more than the hard-saddle thali—the industry standard for any Indian pop beachfront that massages the value-for-money spirit of middle-class families. Loudspeakers blaring Bollywood music, dirigible carts selling paani-puri… That’s far from the giddying excitement of Phuket, so close to our eastern islands yet so distant in terms of tourism money. We don’t earn even a fraction of what Phuket does or the Caribbean islands do.
But the move, environmentalists warn, could lead to disaster. Conservationists say the islands’ ecological stability, tribal population and safety of the tourists should not be trifled with. “People at the policy-making level are either unaware of the realities or deliberately ignoring them,” says Pankaj Sekhsaria of environmental group Kalpavriksh. The flaws are many and he points out one: “Dugong Creek, where a harbour is proposed, is deep inside Little Island’s Onge Tribal Reserve that has the most important settlement of Onge tribe.” Agrees Vishvajit Pandya, professor of anthropology at Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, saying we have ignored our failed experiments on Neil and Havelock islands. “These were opened five-six years ago. Both are littered with plastic bottles and waste now. The government has drawn inspiration from Singapore. But let’s not forget Singapore, the port, has an altogether different history than Great Nicobar.”
Conservationists caution that our thirst for fancy beach resorts must not override lessons learned in these living laboratories, though they agree that tourism is imperative for economic development. “There are limits to growth,” says environmentalist Manish Chandi. These islands inspire awe because they have maintained their pristine nature—almost isolated because of local laws, restrictions and above all, their isolation. Like North Sentinel island—the detached and protected home of the world’s last known ‘uncontacted’ people, the Sentinelese, currently headlining for killing an American ‘intruder’ with their pre-Neolithic arrows and clubs.
But as part of the tourism push, the Union home ministry relaxed in August the mandatory travel restrictions for foreigners, called the restricted area permit (RAP), for North Sentinel and 28 sister islands in Andaman and Nicobar. The curbs returned to North Sentinel after the American’s killing, but six sensitive places such as Strait and Tillangchong islands considered sacred to Nicobari tribes remained open, contradicting the administration’s hands-off policy.
Quayside carts selling snacks on Andaman
NITI Aayog argues that ecological and tribal-related issues were carefully accounted for. “Take for instance, Smith Island, where 25 hectares have been marked for 70 tree houses and glamping. Only 140 tourists can stay there at a time,” says a senior official. The eco footprint will be minimal because of sustainable use of resources such as solar and wind energy in place of diesel-guzzling generators. “If the plan works out, over 100 more islands will be on the list in another 10 to 15 years,” the official informs.
But will the islands stand the test of time? Andaman and Nicobar comprise 572 islands, about 38 permanently peopled. The much smaller Lakshadweep—about 300km off Kochi—has a dozen atolls but only 10 of its approximately 39 islands are inhabited. These islands sustain a fragile marine and tropical ecosystem, but they are contending with existential threats of warmer temperatures, rising seas, freak storms. Andaman and Nicobar fall in the earthquake-prone seismic zone 5; the Barren Islands has the country’s lone confirmed active lava volcano. These are vulnerable to tsunamis too. Remember December 2004?
The warning signs are aplenty. There are islands in Lakshadweep only a meter above sea level; and Parali I of the Bangaram atoll, a biodiversity-rich uninhabited island, disappeared last year because of coastal erosion. Hundreds of islands around the world might vanish because of rising sea levels. Mass tourism is already pushing many holiday islands to the brink of collapse. Like Boracay in the Philippines that had to be shut down this April, or the British Virgin Islands where rapid development to cater to tourists disgorged by cruise ships had damaged natural defences.
Above all, there are indigenous people such as the Jarawas on Andaman and Nicobar. The law prohibits close contact with them as they have not developed immunity to common infections, but they often become subjects of ‘human safaris’. A 2012 video shows Jarawa women dancing half-naked as tourists threw biscuits and bananas. They were being taught to beg for tobacco and food. This could just be a tester of what’s to come later.