Economic development and opportunities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) are set to undergo a sea-change with the launch of a submarine Optical Fibre Cable (OFC) connecting Chennai to Port Blair, the capital of ANI. The undersea cable connection, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated recently, also links Port Blair to Swaraj Dweep, Little Andaman, Car Nicobar, Kamorta, Great Nicobar, Long Island and Rangat. High-speed broadband connectivity will not only boost the local economy but also enable the island’s residents to avail the benefits of e-governance, tele-medicine and tele-education. The government also plans to develop a trans-shipment port at Great Nicobar. The development of ANI has always been a topic of debate. While some want the fruits of development to reach the people of this Bay of Bengal archipelago, others fear that the impact of modernity would adversely impact the identity, health and even survival of the ANI’s endangered indigenous communities. As a result, the ANI has suffered neglect. In recent decades, there have been efforts to improve travel and other connectivity to boost local economies. The Rs 1,224-crore submarine OFC project will take forward these efforts.
The ANI is strategic territory. It provides India with reach into the heart of the Bay of Bengal, right up to the mouth of the Straits of Malacca, a key channel through which East Asian countries conduct trade. Much of China’s oil imports from the Persian Gulf and Africa is transported via the Malacca Straits. This has given rise to China’s ‘Malaccan Dilemma’ due to the vulnerability of its economy in the event of a closure of the Malaccan Straits. A strong Indian presence at the mouth of this strait – India has been building its military capabilities on the ANI since the early 1990s – will provide India with strategic options in the event of conflict with hostile powers. Importantly, developing military and port infrastructure on the ANI will give muscle to India’s Act East policy and its strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
India’s Act East Policy and its earlier avatar the ‘Look East policy’ are almost three decades old now. However, their implementation has lacked energy. Last year, Modi invited leaders of the BIMSTEC grouping to his government’s swearing-in, signalling Delhi’s renewed attention to the region. Implementation of the OFC project benefited from this renewed interest; it has been completed ahead of schedule. However, it is important for Delhi to sustain the momentum. If India is keen to be regarded as a serious Indo-Pacific power, it needs to develop connectivity to areas, waters and lands that link it to this region and the proposed trade port.