Andaman & Nicobar Islands: Infrastructure Up-Gradation and Strategic Transformations

Sub Title : Strategic Transformation through increased development of infrastructure and better connectivity with the mainland.

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2020

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Page No. : 58

Category : Geostrategy

: October 2, 2020

The strategic importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Island is considerable. This will enhance further with increased development of infrastructure and better connectivity with the mainland. The author has discussed the challenges and opportunities that exist

Thailand’s recent announcement of pursing the Kra Canal or Isthmus of Kra project to link Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand is being seen with mounting trepidations in India as it would impact on the security of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Although the Kra project has been under discussion for several decades, but in its current avatar it comes with the backing of the Thai military led by General PongthepThesprateep who is supporting this Chinese led $30 billion project.

Meanwhile, the Andaman & Nicobar (A&N) islands are in throes of infrastructure up-gradation and strategic transformation since the last few years. A number of initiatives by the Indian government have provided the much-needed impetus to harness the potential of the Islands, and position these on the international economic landscape as also marshal their strategic value for national security. At the heart of these initiatives is the geographic layout of the A&N group of islands and these, as their ‘grouped name’ denotes, can be divided into the Andaman Group and the Nicobar Chain. Although the A&N group of islands collectively have enormous economic and military-strategic value, it is fair to divide them into the Andaman Group and Nicobar Chain, which helps to obtain a clearer understanding of their importance, economic value and strategic role.

The Andaman group lie north of the 93 nautical mile wide Ten Degree channel, an important international sea route, connecting the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The Andaman islands are connected through maritime transport (ports at Rangat, Mayabander and Diglipur), and National Highway 4 (NH 4) or the Great Andaman Trunk Road, a 230.7 kilometers long network, connects Port Blair, the capital city, to the port town of Diglipur through Ferrargunj, Baratang, Kadamtala, Rangat, Billy Ground, Nimbudera, Mayabunder and Diglipur.

The Nicobar Chain lies between the Ten Degree and the Six Degree channel; the latter is a major international sea lane connecting the Indian and the Pacific Ocean through Straits of Malacca. The Nicobar Chain is serviced through maritime transport and its natural deep depth (over 20 meters) can allow large ship to call at Campbell Bay. Besides, a safe anchorage off Car Nicobar is the only way to provide logistic support to the people on the island.

The A&N islands also have commercial air connectivity at Port Blair which is connected to mainland through direct (Kolkata and Chennai), and transit-routed flights (Vishakhapatnam and New Delhi). In the Andaman Group INS Kohassa, Shibpur, Car Nicobar (Air Force Base) and in Great Nicobar Island (INS Baaz) are for military air traffic including stationing of fighter jets and possibly larger maritime surveillance aircraft such as the P8-I.

The Andaman Group

The road and maritime connectivity in the Andaman Group has been high on the government’s agenda and its development is significant given that basic construction materials (cement, aggregate and steel) are transported from mainland and unloaded at Port Blair. This must then be re-transported to other destinations over road or through inter-island shipping. The government allocated INR 10,000 Crore for development of roads, waterways and ports, and NH4 was expanded from 330.70 kilometers in 2014 to 422 kilometers in 2018. These investments in infrastructure prompted the Indian government to explore connectivity between Port Blair and other ports in the Andaman Sea such as Aceh, Indonesia, Ranong port in Thailand and Mongla Port in Bangladesh.

Among these, Port Blair-Aceh maritime link is operational. In 2019, the Aceh Chamber of Commerce dispatched an Indonesia merchant vessel KM Aceh Milenium with 150 tonnes of assorted cargo of “coffee, vegetables, spices, vegetable oils, furniture and construction materials (sand, rocks and cement)” for exhibition at Port Blair. Although these are low value products, the shipment was hugely symbolic and signaled the viability of such a shipping link. Such voyages can be expected to gather momentum and the number of transits between Malahayati Port, Aceh and Port Blair could gather momentum and provide the much needed impetus to short sea shipping in the Bay of Bengal region.

The Port Blair-Ranong shipping link appears to have been delayed after the Thai government announced plans in 2019 to connect Ranong port with Chennai, India.  The other good candidate for connectivity with Port Blair is Mongla Port in Bangladesh. In essence, Port Blair-Aceh-Mongla-Ranong network for short sea shipping in the Andaman Sea has a bright future.

The Nicobar Chain 

Till very recently, the Nicobar Chain of islands had remained insulated from commercial economic activity, and the priority was on building strategic infrastructure given its close proximity to the western end of the Straits of Malacca through which commercial and naval traffic particular Chinese naval tasks forces enter/leave the Indian Ocean. As noted earlier, INS Baaz on the Great Nicobar Island (GNI) is strictly meant for military aircraft and Indian Navy vessels are regular visitors at Kamorta and Campbell Bay.

However, this strict ‘military insulation’ of the GNI may now be a passé after the Indian government allocated INR 10,000 crore to build a container transshipment hub. The proposal has been under discussions since 2019 after the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Administration called for Expressions of Interest for the “container transshipment terminal with the Free Trade Warehousing Zone in South Bay, Great Nicobar Island to provide Indian shippers an alternative to Colombo, Singapore and Port Klang (Malaysia) transshipment ports”.

Digital Connectivity

In August this year, Prime Minister Modi inaugurated an undersea 2,312-kilometre long optical fiber cable (OFC) linking Chennai and Port Blair which also fans out and makes landfall in the Andaman group at Long Island, Rangat, Swaraj Dweep (Havlock), Hutbay; and in the Nicobar Chain at Kamorta, Car Nicobar and Great Nicobar. The digital connectivity (400 gigabytes (Gb) per second for Port Blair and 200 Gb per second for other islands) would potentially spawn a number of development, health, education, tourism, transport connectivity and ocean and weather monitoring programmes in the Islands and Andaman Sea-Bay of Bengal region.

The OFC also has critical use in numerous other commercial and military activities and operations.  As far as Industry 4,0 technologies ( Artificial Intelligence (AI), Bigdata, IoT, etc,)  or 4IR are concerned, this could also be the beginning of an idea of AI enabled autonomous shipping and smart ports for short sea shipping in the Bay of Bengal connecting Smart Ports in Asia. In the military domain, A&N could emerge as the optimal destination for testing naval and maritime 4IR enabled platforms for which facilities can be developed jointly under public-private partnership as envisaged under the Defence Testing Infrastructure Scheme (DTIS).

Challenges of Kra Canal

The Kra Canal project envisages a channel across south Thailand which will cut shipping distance by at least 1,000 kilometers. The economic benefits of this connectivity projects are quite understandable but its impact on the fragile ecosystem is a major issue of concern. Also, Kra Canal would potentially divide Thailand on religious ground i.e. Buddhist in the north of the canal and Muslim in the south have further precluded interest in Thailand.

The Indian Navy chief has acknowledged that Chinese warships are a common sight in the in the Arabian Sea- Gulf of Aden but experts argue that it is not unthinkable that Andaman Sea could be the new destination for the PLA Navy (PLAN) given China’s close naval cooperation with Bangladesh, Myanmar and now Thailand which is planning to acquire a submarine. In this context, in 2019, Shiyan-1, or Experiment 1, a Chinese Academy of Sciences survey vessel was detected while it was engaged in research activities near Port Blair.

The Indian Navy maintains a very strong vigil around the A&N Islands and its ships and maritime patrol aircraft are primped to detect and track enemy warships and submarines.  These operations place enormous operational load on the fleet given that detection of enemy submarines at sea is a long and laborious activity. An array of underwater sensors networked thorough the newly installed OFC can potentially offer greater dividends compared to the traditional practice of deploying naval air, surface and underwater assets.

A number of countries have set up underwater monitoring systems, and prominent among these are the US-Japan ‘Fish Hook’ sound surveillance SOSUS network, and the US Navy’s Fixed Distributed System-COTS (FDS-C) and Advanced Deployable System (ADS). China has a real-time global ocean observation network which includes 100 to 150 floats positioned in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These are capable of obtaining critical information about sea water temperature and salinity for submarine operations.

In the context of the latter, OPC-supported underwater sensors have the ability to transmit data instantly.  In the Bay of Bengal, the Indian National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) has set up Bottom Pressure Recorders (BRR) which transmit, through an acoustic link, to surface buoys. This data is then retransmitted through a satellite link to central stations. It will be useful to examine if OFC can be laid along the western sides of the A&N islands and BRRs modified to serve as submarine detectors.

In conclusion, China is aggressively pursuing strategic projects across the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea-Bay of Bengal region is not an exception. It possess enormous fiscal heft and its deep pockets support new maritime related projects such as ports and canals. These help China to push the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) among Indian Ocean littorals particularly the small island states and these serve as ‘double edged sword’ for economic and military gains.

India is not in a position to support similar projects due to fiscal and technological constraints but its investments in infrastructure in the A&N Islands is noteworthy and would help India thwart Chinese naval presence in the Andaman Sea-Bay of Bengal region.