The 572 big and small Andaman and Nicobar Islands that are of enormous economic and strategic value to India are increasingly vulnerable to a Kargil-type foreign invasion, and the Union government has no policies to prevent this.
The Indian Navy is setting up the Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) off Port Blair in the islands to give it "blue-water" status but naval officials admit that the strategic command could become vulnerable if the foreign invasion is not checked.
One-and-a-half-year-old official estimates of the foreigners in the Andamans top 50,000 but officials say the numbers are larger. The mainland Indian and aboriginal population is roughly 4 lakh though official figures are 2 lakh.
Foreigners from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have permanently settled in the islands using fake Indian ration cards while citizens of Thailand, China, Indonesia and Malaysia have migrated temporarily to plunder the natural resources and leave. "Port Blair, Havelock Islands, Diglipur, Middle Nicobar, Campbell's Bay, Neil Islands and Rangott are mostly overrun by foreigners," said an official.
The nightmare for officials is a Chinese takeover of the Andamans. China has already leased Coco Islands from Myanmar and set up a listening post against Indian naval activity in the Eastern naval command and the Bay of Bengal and the missile testing facilities in Orissa.
Naval officers say that China could enforce a sea denial on India in an emergency from its warships stationed in Coco and other islands leased from Myanmar. Coco Island and the northern-most tip of the Andamans are separated by just 18 kilometers of sea. Officials say that Coco is visible from the Andamans and plenty of Chinese fishermen can be seen in its port. Chinese fishermen also sell consumer goods to the Andaman people in mid sea.
Officials say that China is encouraging the Burmese to take up residence in the Andamans. The Burmese and the illegal Bangladeshi migrants are not known usually to establish themselves in the islands directly from their home countries. "They infiltrate into India in the Northeast states or West Bengal and pick up ration cards and other residency documents, head to Kolkata, and take a 500 rupees bunker-class passage on the boat to the Andamans," an official said. "There is little or nothing you can do about this."
Bangladeshi migrants, for example, identify themselves as Indian Bengalis. They provide false addresses and backgrounds in the mainland. Ranganath, a poor Bangladeshi from Chittagong, told this reporter that he reached the islands after crossing into West Bengal and acquiring Indian documents.
In 1995, the Indian government decided to settle some 300 islands with the mainland population to act as its "eyes and ears". The foreigners have taken advantage of this policy. The worst-case scenario is that the Burmese could grab some 20 islands close to one another and raise Myanmar's flag under Chinese instigation.
"China could then sue for arbitration and have the Burmese keep 10 islands as settlement," a naval officer said. "That would be our worst day. China would pose a direct threat to the Far Eastern Command when it is operational and thereby limit India's maritime maneuverability in the east."
And this is the position despite the presence of a joint command of the Indian Navy, Army, Air Force and coast guards in the remote island Union territory.
Why can't the Indian Navy and coast guards prevent Kargil-type squatting in the Andamans? One reason is that the majority of squatters carry Indian documents and don't come clandestinely to the island. Also, the Indian administration has barely penetrated a large number of the islands. The Andamans straddle the southeastern part of the Bay of Bengal in a narrow broken arc 800 kilometers long. The local administration is short of men and boats to access this huge island mass. Where police stations exist, there are no jeeps for the policemen.
And finally, the Indian Navy and coast guards find it physically impossible to police all the waters around the islands. "You need local intelligence and satellite surveillance," said a naval officer. "No enemy is big enough to fight the Indian Navy. But you cannot have an Indian destroyer going after a squatter boat. And the Indian coast guards are grossly under-equipped."
The result is a sort of free for all. Gunrunning is a major occupation. Indian military intelligence busted one such racket in Operation Leech in February 1998 but it is business as usual now, officials concede. "Arms smuggling is a very profitable business in this region," said a naval officer.
But the plunder of natural resources also provides big returns. Rare teak trees have been felled and logged out. Medicinal plants growing only on the island have been taken away. Forest produces are being illegally shipped out. Agricultural land is being grabbed.
But officials say that the trading of shells of rare aquatic species is the most alarming. The Indian Supreme Court banned the trading of 20 shell types but it carries on nevertheless. "The Andaman biosphere is being destroyed rapidly," said an official.
Part of the problem is that India was double-minded about retaining the islands until the May 1998 Pokhran explosions. Top officials say that the original plan was to abandon Andaman and Nicobar Islands after exploiting its natural resources.
In 1998, the Vajpayee government woke up to the islands' huge strategic importance. They sit aside the vital sea-lanes of the Straits of Malacca through which 300 tankers and merchant ships passed daily for the mega economies of Japan and the Asian tigers from the energy-rich Middle East.
Simultaneously, the government realized Andaman's massive tourism potential. Its beaches are pristine and its waters warm and dark. And yet, Indian government representatives in the islands look upon their posting as a Kalapani punishment. The Lieutenant-Governor, N.N.Jha, a former Indian foreign-service officer allied to the BJP, has failed to energize the administration to develop the islands.
Parts of Andaman and Nicobar Islands could be lost forever unless the Indian government moves on a war-footing.