14 May :By : S. Balakrishnan : It was a revisit to India’s emerald islands in the east embellishing the Bay of Bengal. Reflections of life and times in Port Blair three decades ago flashed through the mind as Indian Airlines carrier touched down Veer Savarkar airport.
The images of the past and the realities of the present were quite striking. The transformation that the Andaman Islands have gone through was palpable during a recent week-long crisscross of the islands. From buildings to bridges, from roads to bye lanes, beaches to skyline, the canvas of this coral island portrayed a sea change.
For an island territory lying away from the mainland and spread North-South across the deep sea over a length of 800 kilometers, transport is the lifeline. Whereas initially there was only a once-a-week flight from Kolkatta, and later from Chennai, now there are daily flights from these two cities, even by private airlines. Additional services are also operated as and when necessary. Similarly, for inter-island transport, helicopter service has been introduced linking Diglipur, the farthest town of North Andamans to Campbell Bay located in the southernmost part, in Nicobar Group of Islands. Talking of sea cruise, both the mainland to island service and inter-island services have improved a lot. As far as surface transport is concerned, privatization has eased the problem to a great extent. The ubiquitous auto rickshaw has also reached the islands. Construction of Great Andaman Trunk-road (now National Highway 223) has certainly paved the way for improved infrastructure. However, the road building, which started in 1970s, had turned controversial as it cuts through the ‘reserved’ forest areas of the Jarawa tribe, a Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) group. The current plans to widen the road have further aggravated its impact on the habitat of the Jarawas.
The advent of cell phone has turned out to be a great boon to the nearly four lakh population in the islands. Not only one could converse with people in the mainland at the press of a button, but could also speak with the same ease and clarity to an acquaintance in the southernmost island of Great Nicobar, where the inter-island ferry takes two days to reach. Postal facilities have also markedly improved, the efficient speed post service scored where a private courier service failed to reach the remote Baratang.
With silver sands, lagoons and enchanting seamless greenery, Andamans had always been a destination worth visiting. Tourism is the bread butter of the people of these exquisite islands. Unlike the vignettes of Port Blair more than a quarter century ago, one can today find many eateries and lodges that suit one’s taste buds as well as budget.
Over the years, new places have been thrown open to the tourists, like the Ross Island where the settlement’s headquarters was first established, the Viper Island where penal settlement was first established, and Chatham Island where Asia’s first and biggest saw mill was established and is still functioning. New museums like the Samudrika marine museum, forest museum and aquarium boast of rare collection of flora and fauna of Andamans. The Anthropological Museum is worth a visit, what with Old Stone Age Jarawa and Sentinel tribes still surviving in the islands against all odds.
Snorkeling and cruising in glass-bottomed boats and scuba diving for the trained and experienced are the new attractions. Watching lakhs of jelly fish gently float by in the waters of Mahatma Gandhi National Marine Park was like watching Discovery Channel live. Near Baratang, the Parrot Island, mud volcano, limestone cave and mangrove canopy walk are the added attractions for tourists who love to be with Nature.
At the same time, responsible tourism that protects and conserves nature is also strictly followed. Tourists are not allowed to pick and bring back prohibited sea shells and corals.
A lot of renovation and beautification works have been done in and around the cellular Jail, now a National Memorial in honour of our freedom fighters who languished under colonial oppression since 1857. A museum has been created depicting the history of penal settlement and the sacrifices made by our freedom fighters so that we could be free. Watching the sound and light show in the premises of the Cellular Jail that chronicles the courage and sacrifice of our freedom fighters was a time worth spent.
Cut off from the hustles and bustles of mainland, the social life on the island, lacks luster. However, it is made up by satellite and Cable TV and DVDs, that throw open the whole world at the flick of the remote. Take a stroll through the National Highway 223 – the memories etched thirty years ago get overlapped by the transformation over the years. The look of the bazaars has changed. From what used to be a lazy marketplace that got to life only when ships from the mainland arrived, is now bustling with regular shops that include gold jewellery marts and mini supermarkets stocking almost everything and anything. Local handicrafts sector has improved vastly. LPG cooking gas has reached the islands and so has milk, where milk powder was the only source for milk then, Local production of fruits and vegetables has seen a marked improvement yet, much of the demand is still being met from the mainland and hence a bit costlier.
Power & Water
Despite a manifold increase in power consumption, diesel generators are still the only source of power supply. Other sources of energy like gobar/bio gas, solar, wave, and wind can be tried in a big way. Similarly, there seemed to be a perennial shortage of water despite rains for more than six months a year. Saline water treatment plant could be established and water harvesting, even in small quantities, should be encouraged.
Though life in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands has improved a lot in general, development is always at the cost of Nature. We have to tread very carefully, at least as far as the tribes are concerned.