Sunday, May 10, 2020

Water Crisis: Beyond the Obvious!

Water Crisis: Beyond the Obvious!

By Zubair Ahmed

Rain seems to be back. With the sky overcast and with a spatter of rains, there is a sense of respite in the air that the acute water crisis, the Island territory is facing may pass soon. The South West monsoon is on schedule, hopefully!

This sense of relief that rain brings along usually makes the Island Administration to forget and withdraw into its shell, as if nothing happened.  However, blame game and rhetoric about dream projects that would have sailed the Islands through the crisis keeps everyone busy for a while.

The year 2020 won’t be remembered just as the year of Corona by the Islanders. It also inflicted upon them the severest of water crisis, the worst in two decades.

Looking back, the north-east monsoon has been failing with frightening regularity from 2001, plunging the islands into severe crisis intermittently, and now right from day one of the year 2020.

Water crisis always made headlines when it hit Port Blair urban area. However, it was equally harsh in rural South Andaman with water being supplied once in a week. A unique feature added this year!

The extreme and desperate measures like transporting water from Little Andaman to Port Blair by a passenger ship, and plying tankers from Port Blair to rural areas like Namunaghar are unprecedented.

The Islands on an average receives 3000 mm rain. Two major water projects – raising the height of Dhanikhari reservoir by five metres, and commissioning of Kamsarat Nallah earthen dam in Wimberly Gunj should have solved the water crisis in both Port Blair urban area and major villages of rural areas of South Andaman respectively in such dire times when monsoon failed. However, both the projects couldn’t save the district from the imminent crisis.

What came as a rescue was the lockdown due to the Corona pandemic. Before the nationwide lockdown was declared from March 25, the Islands was already under shutdown with govt and private offices, educational institutions, hotels, restaurants, resorts and even places of tourism closed. There were no floating population with movement strictly restricted. Even, all construction work was stopped during the peak of the working season. It eased the demand of water especially in Port Blair, or else, it would have created chaos and mayhem on unparalleled scale. Blaming failure of monsoon or measures like transporting water from far-flung Islands wouldn’t have sufficed to overcome the crisis. The strict lockdown also helped in keeping the frustrated residents locked up in their homes, allaying all kind of protests.

Surprisingly, it all seems to be a replay of events from 2001, when the situation had turned even worse. The desperate measures resorted to also seems to be same as during the dawn of the new millennium, which didn’t augur well for the Islands.

In 2001, it had turned into an emergency. Schools were closed and the government employees were encouraged to go on leave. Water, for the first time was carted by barges from Rutland and distributed through tankers. There was total chaos and mayhem in the town. And in a knee jerk action the Port Blair Municipal Council undertook urgent repair and restoration of discarded wells. Tankers had field day transporting water from one corner of the island to another. The main sources of supply were the perennial streams and nallahs running along the road from Calicut to Kodiaghat. 

There were fervent parleys and revived interests on various water related projects in pipeline. Major projects like raising the height of Dhanikhari Dam, Rutland, Flat Bay Freshwater Lake and Kamsarat Nallah earthen dam became hot topics of discussion.

And as soon as the skies opened up and rained, the proposals and projects were also put on the backburner. Water crisis followed perennially every year after tsunami, and renewed interests on the projects too.

The scenario would have been worst, if there was no lockdown, and all normal activities were on. Tourism sector would have added to the woes. The steps taken now to mitigate the crisis wouldn’t have helped much.

After a decade of conception, the height of Dhanikhari Dam was raised by 5 metres and completed in 2014. Meanwhile the demand had gone up. But, the elated statement that it would solve water problem in Port Blair city for another 25 years came as a surprise, as it didn’t. Such skewed up projections were quite misleading. The crisis continued unabated.

In rural South Andaman, the work on Kamsarat (Commissariat) Nallah dam in Wimberly Gunj also commenced and was completed in record time during the period of Lt Gen A K Singh. Despite its completion, the surrounding villages still face acute water crisis. Water is supplied once in a week in the villages surrounding the dam.

That says much about the ambitious projects, and the perpetual neglect of untapped water sources in and around the villages in the rural areas. There are such a large number of projects in the pipeline that the pipeline itself is choked!

Rutland has been garnering all the attention since decades.

The ALHW had come up with a proposal that envisages construction of weirs at nine nallahs, connecting these to a large reservoir at Purana Dera, the old operating base of ATI and pumping that water through a submarine pipe in McPherson Strait to Bada Balu, Landfall Point in South Andaman Island. From there it would be pumped into the Dhanikhari Dam for further transmission, treatment and distribution. A massive job projected to cost more than Rs 100 crores. Had this project reached completion, it would have made another 7 million litres available to the grid during January-February and 3 million during the worst period in April.

The project took off, but got mired in controversies and corruption charges. A crisis of confidence somewhere within the hierarchy about technical competence in laying submarine pipeline connecting Rutland and Phongi Balu made all the efforts go in vain.

However, the Chief Secretary has announced that the project will be revisited and completed before next summer.

In Port Blair town, daily water supply is still a far-fetched dream even during rainy season.

The long delay between conception of project and actual commissioning is a reason why all projections and planning go haywire. Hence, instead of working on one project, multiple options need to be explored concurrently.  

Of late, there has been excessive focus on beautification and creating tourism centric projects. There was extensive coverage on a four-lane Marina connecting Minnie Bay with Hathitapu and Dundas Point, which would be an ambitious addition in tourism infrastructure. But many wouldn’t know that the marina was just one spin-off of the Flat Bay Freshwater Lake project.

Flat Bay Fresh Water Project, the most ambitious one was developed taking into consideration the long term demand of water in the year 2050. According to the projections drawn up by the Andaman and Lakshadweep Harbour Works, the demand for drinking water in 2050 would be of the order of 105 million litres per day taking into account the present pattern of population growth.

The project would have connected the Crown Point at the back of Minnie Bay in Port Blair to Mithakhari in South Andaman. There would be a 1540 metre main embankment, 2725 metres of secondary embankment and a 750 metre long RCC barrage between Crown Point and Mithakhari.

Andaman Lakshadweep Harbour Works was hired in late nineties to conduct a survey and come up with a detailed project report. Extensive surveys and studies were conducted in consultation with reputed agencies like Water & Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS) India, Central Water Power & Research Station (CWPRS), Pune, Danish Hydraulic Institute, Denmark, IIT Delhi and Chennai and HR Wallingford, UK.

But the project got bogged down with the Environment Ministry since about 40 hectares of mangrove would be affected by the project.

There were some reservations about viability of the project in the minds of intellectuals, scientific community and naturally, amongst the environmentalists. One simple reason was that there was only one example of turning the part of a creek into a fresh water lake or reservoir - Plover Core Water Supply Scheme in Hong Kong.

What we hear now is only about the Marina, which was in fact an offshoot of the freshwater lake project.

When policymakers lose track and grope, priorities get skewed. Instead of focusing on providing essential infrastructure and fulfil basic needs, they see opportunities in creek tourism overlooking the perennial streams like Koila Nallah in Mannarghat.

The Koila Nallah Water Supply and Minor Irrigation Scheme at Mannarghat, South Andaman has an approved capacity to supply 1250 lakh litres of drinking water to the residents of Mannarghat, Malapuram and Wright Myo apart from irrigation. The preliminary report was prepared in 1988 and the Geological Survey of India had conducted a study too.

Mithakhari Nallah Water Supply and Minor Irrigation Scheme at Mithakhari village in South Andaman have the capacity to supply 6000 lakh litres of drinking water to Mithakhari and the adjoining villages.

Indira Nallah Project at Maymyo village for an estimated 15 lakh litres a day is a classic case of neglect at the hands of those who manage the water supply schemes for the people of this territory. The scheme was conceived sometimes in eighties. A sum of about Rs 10 crore was sanctioned in 1995, the foundation stone was laid by Vakkom Purushothaman, the then Lt. Governor with great fanfare on September 14, 1995.

Rural areas can fend for themselves in most of the cases. There is no dearth of untapped water sources across rural South Andaman. Simple methods can be adopted to conserve the rain water, recharge ground water and harvest it through processes based on traditional wisdom. Small check dams, planting shady trees along the perennial nallahs and keeping it clean from dumping waste, digging wells near the check dams on seasonal nallahs would solve the problem of most of the rural villages. In Mithakhari, small gravel pits on river beds are providing water to clusters of families in this season too.

Addition of facilities to increase existing storage capacity also needs to be taken up near the existing check dams and weirs. But, the major issue would be inter-departmental coordination.

Coordination and involvement of local bodies like Panchayats in water sector will help in finding enduring solutions rather than knee jerk actions like transportation of water from far-flung islands. An order passed in 2015 abolished allocation of funds to Panchayats in water sector. However, the order also gave options to Panchayats to come up with projects without any fund constraints. But, the Panchayats find it difficult to get no objection from APWD and Forest Department.

Most of the intricacies involved in water management can be sorted out only if it gets unflinching attention. Water can’t be just a section of Public Works Department, if a comprehensive approach has to be evolved for the entire territory. 

The territory would need a full-fledged water authority for policy framework, planning and execution of water projects. Lack of synergy between departments and institutions has severely affected or delayed many projects, which can be overcome, if a separate agency is constituted. Survey, study, identification and augmentation of water sources, grid management and subsequent works can be carried out throughout the year.

The onus of conserving non-existent water is always forced upon the Islanders. Recently, a diktat was issued to construct or add rainwater harvesting structures to existing buildings, both in rural and urban areas. Rainwater harvesting like solar energy is a good proposition. But, it becomes viable and practical, only if it’s done at large scale, especially in a tropical Island territory.

The year 2020 has exposed us to many challenges. All the years lost in pushing ambitious tourism projects including the ones NITI Aayog promotes needs to be reviewed in the light of present crisis. Without water management, not only tourism, but lives of the Islanders too will be poorly affected.

The indiscriminate earth-cutting, pulling down hillocks and clearing green spaces will destroy the ecology completely, thus making lives unbearable. There has to be a fine balance between ecology and development with a paradigm shift in our approach.

There is sufficient water for the needs of the Islands, which requires proper management. However, it can only be stretched to an extent, the Islands can take in.

We can feel good, cheer and applaud the efforts of transporting water from far-flung Islands by passenger ships to mitigate the present crisis at Port Blair. But, can we envisage a situation, where water was airlifted to Maldives from India six years ago! 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

PM Visit: Rhetoric is Enough!

PM Visit: Rhetoric is Enough!

By Zubair Ahmed

Our Prime  Minister Narendra Modi is poised for a visit to Andaman and Nicobar Islands next month. Many records will be created and many others broken. Many firsts will be added to the history of the Islands. A 150-ft high flagmast will come up at a location on Port Blair coast commemorating the ‘first’ tri-colour flown by Netaji Subash Chandra Bose on 30th Dec 1943, while the Islands was under the occupation of Japanese forces. The tri-colour will have Gandhian Charkha instead of the 24-spoke Chakra on it.

Going by the current trend in our country, presently caught in the frenzy of renaming places, a few new names will be attributed to new found Islands. The Andaman Administration had sought suggestions from the public for names. A few enlightened citizens have already suggested names of prominent citizens who contributed to the social milieu in various capacities. Names need not be about persons. It can be about events, incidents that are etched in the memory of the Islands. There are enough names in the Islands itself, and there seems to be no need to look outward for it. But, nobody can speculate what’s in the mind of the rulers.

Of late, after the right wing coalition, NDA came into power; the fervor of jingoism has been blown to such an extent, that every word or deed is measured on the scale of an overblown balloon of nationalism. With 2019 approaching fast, there is an urgency of over-pumping the sentiments to harvest maximum benefit out of it. Yogi Adhityanath, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh is on a name-changing spree. The demand of a relative of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose to rename the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as Shaheed and Swaraj Dweep is the latest one. There is no doubt; the MP will surely fail a quiz on the Islands, especially on the ‘Swaraj’ part of it, if he is put through one.

Appropriation of people, places and also events to inflate nationalistic fervor and take undue political advantage of the same without any change on the ground realities is the ‘latest’ national trend. It also helps in deflecting attention from the real issues. Big press releases and huge advertisements boasting unprecedented development on all fronts doesn’t really show up on the ground. One of the recent write-ups, a PR exercise in the government-run bulletin of Andaman and Nicobar Islands goes micro-level bragging the state of kilometers of urban and rural roads. Whether the roads, rural or urban, are smooth as the reams of newsprint printed upon is another issue. The common man is bombarded with proposals and plans, instead of completed projects. News about proposals to switch from fossil-fuel based power to eco-friendly power generation is repeated on a daily basis.  

Many projects and schemes of the central government have no serious consequence on the Islands. Appropriating such schemes and showing it as achievements doesn’t change anything on the ground except earning brownies. For example, Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao was one such scheme, which was dear for some governmental agencies as well as NGOs to glass case their existence. There is no unusual change taking place, but going gaga over normal developmental activities is something, which is a new tendency. Nobody can clearly point out what is so ‘smart’ about Port Blair city, which ranks somewhere on the national scale. The rainwater which used to clog the city drains a decade ago still clogs and inundates the bazaar without any obvious change. Taking credit for the yet to land undersea fibre-optic cable, which started its journey a decade ago is no solace for the bandwidth-deprived digital service consumers who are overloaded by digital and online services launched every month. The perennial streams flowing from the tropical forests quench our thirst. It’s our inability to even tap those sources properly, but there is no scarcity in announcing new schemes and projects instead of executing them.

People have stopped ruing the inter-island ship connectivity. They are shown shipyards where new ships are under construction every year.

The government of the day seems to be in a competition in defining and redefining the adjectives - biggest, largest, tallest and first. Tallest statue of Sardar Patel on one hand in Gujarat, the Andaman Islands is going to witness a gala of superfluous changes and developments with the proposed visit of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi next month, who is supposed to hoist the flag commemorating the first Indian national flag being hoisted by Netaji Subash Chandra Bose on 30 Dec 1943. Erection of a 150-ft tall flag mask near to the coast of Port Blair town is one of the major events being planned. Whether the post will withstand the wind pressure of Andaman Sea is of course a technical issue, not a political or administrative one.

The recent revelation that the Islands archipelago contains not 540 but 836 Islands, including rocks, islets etc in itself is seen as a great achievement by the present dispensation. Earlier, out of 540 Islands, only 150 were named Islands. Other Islands remained un-named and it did not create any national or international embarrassment. Now, the Andaman Administration has sought suggestions from the public for 20 un-named Islands. Naming and renaming itself are ideological appropriation, symbolizing political goals. There has been a row every time naming and renaming of Islands were raised by various quarters. There is also a convenient method to renaming, where Havelock Island is excluded for the reason that the Island already features on the world tourism map. The exclusion is obviously not a nationalistic decision, but a market-driven one. There was a demand by a BJP MP in Rajya Sabha in 2017 to rename Havelock Island which is named after the British General Henry Havelock who fought the Indian patriots in 1857. The BJP MP, L Ganeshan had cited it to be an insult to the freedom fighters that the Island had been named after an East India Company General. A list of names of persons, who fought the British for different causes, including independence from the foreign yoke, is always suggested. Those who seek such cosmetic changes conveniently forget that almost all Islands once belonged to the aboriginal tribes and had their own original names.  But, every name change signifies a social, cultural or political struggle for control.

In fact, nobody disregards the contribution of the freedom fighters, who fought the British and other foreign powers including the Japanese, and it’s not a matter of contest on who stands on top of the ladder. But, when one enters the Cellular Jail, the focus is on one person named Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was imprisoned in the jail like many other hundreds of political prisoners and later released after he submitted a mercy petition. There is no evidence or documentary proof that the last cell on the first floor being assigned as Savarkar’s cell is truly the one where he was lodged. It’s the convenience that the cell provides for various reasons like the Sound and Light Show and its content that the cell is appropriately chosen.

To quote Prof Satadru Sen, in his epitome: “Disciplining Punishment”, he wrote:
 “Thus, the structure of the prison both anticipated resistance from inmates, and provided for countermeasures. It is significant that the countermeasure suggested in this particular case involved moving disorderly prisoners central to the watchtower. The tower was the literal and metaphoric embodiment of the regime’s power within the Cellular Jail. The closer the prisoner had to the tower, the more secure was the regime’s control over him.”

Netaji Subash Chandra Bose is the second great revolutionary leader being appropriated by the present power, which gives them sufficient leverage to encash on various counts. His visit to the Islands during the Japanese occupation, as the Supremo of Azad Hind Fauz, an ally of Japan in its fight against the British, needs to be relooked from various angles. The Islands, which was under the occupation of British forces was abandoned by the British before the Japanese landed. The Islanders weren’t too cozy about Japanese occupation as they were accustomed to the ways of the British. In fact, a colony had already come up with mundane activities going on uninterrupted. While David Barrie, the notorious jailor was tormenting the revolutionaries inside the Cellular Jail, his daughter, a soft-spoken woman was teaching the local kids English in a school nearby.

When Netaji visited the Islands and hoisted a national flag declaring the territory free from the British rule, the Islands were virtually under the occupation of another foreign power, the Japanese. The dummy administrator from the Azad Hind Fauj appointed by the Japanese was nothing but eyewash, which the Islanders vouch for. The Japanese had their share of torture for the Islanders. The jail which used to lodge anti-British prisoners become home for anti-Japanese prisoners, who were Indians too. Netaji wasn’t taken to that part of the jail by the Japanese, where the Islanders were imprisoned. Today, when we find modern allies, we try to connect it with history and appropriate them according to convenience. Why should one have myopic view of foreign occupation by various forces? In fact, when Japan fell to the Allied Forces, and surrendered to the British, the people in the Islands lined up along the coast to welcome the British force back.

It isn’t yet out in the open whether the Administration has any plans to rename the Islands. But, there were marathon meetings on renaming Islands a couple of months back, it seems the proposal was later dropped for reasons unknown. In fact, the Islands have always been in the middle of such naming-renaming riddle, which seems to give a high for some.

The whole exercise of naming Islands and erection of 150-ft tall flag mast and hoisting of the tri-colour national flag with a Gandhian weaving charkha instead of the 24-spoke chakra on it have no real significance to the lives of common man, except being a political symbolic gesture.

In the election year, everyone will take this opportunity to attract some limelight. The internecine warfare inside the BJP between the President and the Member of Parliament is talk of the town. The State president of the party won’t leave any stone unturned to undermine his counterpart, whereas the Member of the Parliament has already locked horned with both his adversaries in the party as well the Lt Governor over trivial matters. What holds in surprise for both of them will be exciting to watch.

Undoubtedly, a Potemkein’s village will be erected soon around the spots the PM will pay a visit. The recce by various agencies to identify spots, where they presumed to be safe and away from trouble has been a norm of the day.

On a positive note, hope the Administration unlike Japanese, doesn’t treat Modi like Netaji Subash Chandra Bose, and take only to those spots of the city, where the picture is rosy with un-waterlogged roads and particularly on those stretches of urban road mentioned in the publicity article, which is without potholes, and to be specific, on the bridge connecting Haddo-Chatham. There are kilometres of potholes with a little stretch of roads splattered here and there.

A visit of any VVIP is a matter of pride for the Islands. But, aggrandizement will only bring more criticism and indifference. There is a genuine need to address the real issues – the rising unemployment, not jargons and acronyms like Standup India, Startup India, Make in India and many others. Act East Policy remains in papers and tax-financed visits. There is a serious need to look into the boundaries of the Islands, which is flawed from the day go. China can be a poll plank. If the Government of India is serious about development of the Islands, it needs serious efforts to balanced and sustainable exploitation of resources, which as of now seems a far cry.  There is no dearth of rhetoric of eco-friendly development, whether it’s NITI Aayog or Island Deveopment Agency. One needs to see it happening on the ground. In short, the Islands need basic amenities that will cater to both tourists as well the local dwellers. Tourism should be a local affair, not a corporate one, which will only serve crony capitalism.

Hope the Administration rises above the Potemkein’s village and bring out real development to the Islands going beyond mere words, keeping in view the local sentiments, tribal concerns and foremost the pristine environment, in fact a god-gift.

The writer is a Island-based journalist and researcher

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Alcoholism in Islands: Apocalypse Now!

Alcoholism in Islands:
Apocalypse Now!

The per capita consumption of liquor in our Islands is 13 litres far ahead of the national average of 4.3 litres. The data on alcoholism and extent of liquor sales in the Islands indicate the abyss, that we are heading to. Illicit brew, hooch tragedies or tourism aren't enough justification against total prohibition anymore.

By Zubair Ahmed

The earthquake of 2004, which shook the ground beneath our feet and the killer waves of tsunami which took away many lives and razed down properties worth crores still remains etched in our memory, bringing back nightmares of the scary days and nights that followed. We mourn the death and loss. But, we are conveniently caught unaware about a more disturbing scourge shaking the very foundation of our existence. Alcoholism is devouring the Islands and the Islanders like never before. This plague does not discriminate between rich or poor, villager or townsman, young or old, rural or urban, tourist or Islander.

Last year on Teachers Day, a group of senior students of a rural school in South Andaman came up with a shocking idea. Following the footsteps of a few teachers, they came to classes to teach in fully inebriated state. They were drunk! A bunch of students from another school were found near a waterfall, again drunk!

Undoubtedly, alcoholism is stunting the overall social and economical growth making the majority of the miniscule population of the Islands addicted to this scourge. The fervor shown by those at the helm to make the bottomline of the corporation - entrusted to sell this poison - look impressive by promoting sale of liquor indicates the utter disregard or apathy towards the well being of the people. No wellness centre or seminar can compensate the enduring loss to human resource in the Islands. When the authorities were seen making calls to the bar owners demanding increase in sales pitch shows their lack of concern and skewed priorities.

The extent of damage is beyond imagination. The devil lies in the details. The Island population of 4 lakhs and a couple of lakh tourists consumed not less than 52 lakh litres of liquor in 2015-16, an increase of 2.21 lakh litres from 2014-15. ANIIDCO, the sole distributor of IMFL sold liquor for Rs 150 crores last year and made a profit of Rs 16.36 crores from liquor sales alone out of Rs 19.03 crores net profit of the Corporation. All other heads including POL, milk, steel, air ticketing and tourism activities combined made a profit of just Rs 2.66 crores.

Out of total sale of 52 lakh litres, 37.11 lakh litres of hard liquor, 15.17 lakh litres of beer and 0.39 lakh litres of Ready to Drink (RTD) alcoholic beverages were sold in 2015-16.

While South Andaman consumed 35.58 lakh litres, other Islands from Campbell Bay to N&M Andaman consumed 17.10 lakh litres.

What is astonishing is the fact that Little Andaman with no proper boat connectivity and a population less than 20,000, with no mentionable tourism footfall consumed liquor to the tune of Rs 7.17 crores while Havelock, the face of brand Andaman, the tourism paradise, registered liquor sale of Rs 7.18 crores. There are 5 bars in Little Andaman and 12 bars in Havelock.

Port Blair and surrounding areas of South Andaman with around 125 bars registered a sale of Rs 102 crores, 68% of the total liquor sales in the territory.

In outstation sales, Rangat spent Rs 12.83 crores consuming 4.58 lakh litres and Diglipur with a population of 43183 consumed 4.43 lakh litres spending Rs 12.42 crores in the year 2015-16. Mayabunder residents spent Rs 80.13 lakh consuming 2.85 lakh litres of liquor. Diglipur has 19 bars and one ANIIDCO wine shop. In Mayabunder and Rangat, there are 6 bars and one wine shop each.

Ready to Drink (RTD) alcoholic beverages have alarmingly made inroads with its consumption rising every year. From 25,034 ltrs in 2013-14 to 39,332 litres in 2015-16, there has been a steep increase of 14298 litres in two years. A lot of youngsters, especially those trying out alcoholic beverages for the first time opt for Ready-to-Drink bottled beverages with alcoholic content. This is how initiation is happening among the young generation especially school going children, eventually shifting to hard liquor. RTD seems to be  socially acceptable, and preferred by youngsters and women.

According to NSSO, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Arunachal Pradesh, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Andhra Pradesh, Daman & Diu, Sikkim, and, Puducherry are clearly among the highest consumers of alcohol and spirits in the country.

On the WHO’s ‘Years of Life Lost’ (YLL) scale  – a measure of premature mortality – alcohol attributed years of life lost puts India on a precarious 4 on a scale of 1 to 5.

While the national per capita consumption of liquor is 4.3 litres, our Islands is far ahead with 13 litres.

Its widely accepted and acknowledged that suicide deaths are on a steep rise in our Islands. The Islands figure among the top three states in suicide rates. Alcoholism overtly or covertly plays a decisive role in such deaths. In the last five years, 701 suicides were reported in the Islands. Last year, 158 cases of suicides were reported. 38% of suicide cases are either alcoholism-related or broken families or depression.

Humane Touch, a voluntary organization actively working against alcoholism in South Andaman recently conducted a survey in two wards of Bindraban panchayat. The data from the two wards of the obscure Panchayat was quite shocking. Out of 100 families surveyed, 72 families were affected by alcoholism. Out of 195 males, 111 consumed alcohol. In the last ten years, seven suicides and 15 alcohol related deaths were reported from these two wards. Out of 111 males who consumes liquor, there were 23 addicts. And, out of 100 families, 34 families are under serious financial duress due to alcoholism of the head of the family or the sole bread earner.

Peddlers buy bottles from ANIIDCO run wine shops and peddle it in villages. Police also find it difficult to check this menace as they carry bills. If one checks the number of cases registered at each police station, the highest number would be cases related with excise violations. But, do the data have any bearing on our policing? They keep filing cases against violators and still violation keeps going on. The graph never shows a declining trend in cases related with excise. Out of 3800 cases registered in 2014, 1933 cases were related to Excise Regulation, more than 50% cases!

Whenever, the issue of complete prohibition is raised, the scarecrow named hooch tragedies are cited extensively. As per data available, since independence till 2016, hardly 2000 people died in hooch tragedies in the country, whereas, our country registers more than 3 million deaths attributed to alcohol consumption alone every year as per data released by NSSO. Alcoholism is one of the leading causes of liver cirrhosis and failure. About 10 percent of strokes, tuberculosis, hypertension, and epilepsy are caused by excess alcohol consumption.

It's a farce that the Islands need liquor to sustain tourism. The figures from Rangat, Diglipur and Hutbay says a different story. The amount of alcohol consumed by the Islanders is shocking, which will have devastating long term effect on the socio-economic condition and health of the Islanders. If the trend is not arrested by bringing in total prohibition, all the efforts by the Administration and Govt of India to develop the territory would make no sense. Comparatively, the revenue from liquor makes no major financial contribution to the exchequer, but the social cost is very high with people spending more on health. Every rupee the government gets off the bottle, it loses more than Rs. 2 in terms of healthcare expenses and lost productivity. Road accidents are also on the rise with many young lives wasted due to drunken driving.  

Had the hard earned money of Rs 100 crores spent on liquor by Islanders spent on families, it would have brought positive changes in their living standards.

Its high time the Administration wakes up and takes drastic steps to check this menace or the future of the Islands with an unhealthy and unproductive population looks very bleak. The logic that prohibition doesn't work is a lame excuse to continue with the status quo. For an healthy and active Andamans, prohibition seems to be the only way out, after all, prohibition is also a directive principle in our Constitution under Article 47.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

When Winter Comes Calling!

When Winter Comes Calling!
Au Revoir Lt Gen A K Singh, Welcome Prof. Jagdish Mukhi

By Zubair Ahmed

Setting aside all differences and prejudices, like a seasoned politician, who accepts defeat with dignity and victory with humility, its time for a balanced and impartial look at the emerging situation in the Islands after the recent change in guard.

Unlike Delhi with frequent skirmishes between the elected government and nominated Lt Governor, Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a different ball game altogether. With the Lt Governor as the Administrator and head of the territory with all powers vested upon him, the Member of Parliament is an ornamental post! And to be precise, the elected MP is like the frustrated caged fox squirrel scuttling around appearing quite busy, but flicking its tail furiously when it can't get at the nuts.

After Vakkom Purushotham, the Islands have not seen any seasoned politician as its Administrator.  For a long span of time, the Islands were governed by retired army generals as Administrators. Some of them were good at administration, but failed miserably in governance. Many of them whiled away their time. But things did change with Lt Gen A K Singh. He did prove to be a good administrator with an ear to the ground. In a short span of time, many projects which had been lying dormant were revived. Many projects fructified especially in the field of education, health and aviation. These were not without opposition or its share of criticism. And some of the achievements as well as criticism were indeed blown out of proportion too.  The criticism was not always out of place. A major share of it he inherited from Mr Anand Prakash, the Chief Secretary, who followed the ancient 'divide and rule' policy.

Despite all these, Lt Gen A K Singh doggedly pursued the projects at all levels and could materialize it. The Commissariat Nallah Dam, Multipurpose Indoor Stadium, Medical College, ANCOL, Chartered Flights and even the Flea Market, there are many contributions, one can keep counting in the years to come.

Meanwhile, he also drew flak for taking sides, showing favours and ignoring genuine voices. Shifting the project ANCOL from rural South Andaman to Port Blair despite objections and displeasure of many stakeholders was just one of them. While his focus on improving air connectivity is widely appreciated, neglect of the shipping sector with majority of vessels remaining non-operational during the last three years effecting services to Southern group and Middle and North Andaman cannot be ignored. Despite various long term and short term plans drawn after an extensive audit of transmission and distribution of power, the situation has worsened with frequent power cuts and interruptions.

On the social front, awareness about many social issues like alcoholism and suicide did get attention through seminars and setting up of committees, but nothing percolated to the grass-root level bringing any changes on the ground with sale of alcohol and suicide increasing manifold. He did try to bring some positive changes, but the system could not cope up with his pace.

Reconciliation had been always his forte. The bickering of Bishnu Pada Ray at various platforms including Lok Sabha could not get on the nerves of A K Singh, who maintained a dignified image in the public. Bishnu held Adalats where he sought the support of people to raise voice against the Lieutenant Governor to get him out mid-way. Sense prevailed and the Home Ministry took cognizance only after his stipulated term was over. AK Singh too invoked all gods in every heaven for furthering his stay is not a secret. The subtle turnaround by AK Singh from UPA to NDA only made things difficult for the MP. On the contrary, Vishal Jolly played the role of a ruling party.

In the last eight years, Islands witnessed two scenarios with Bishnu Pada Ray as the constant and three LGs as variables.  First, it was UPA at the centre with UPA appointed LGs with BJP MP, Second, NDA at Centre with UPA appointed LG and BJP MP in the Islands. In both cases, Bishnu, the constant had been at loggerheads, either with Centre or with the LG. And, he broadly blamed the scenarios for his helplessness.

And now Bishnu cannot ask for more, and blame anybody. Everything seems to be falling into place with the third scenario - NDA at the Centre and both MP and LG from BJP! Its a rare combination and will be interesting to watch how this arrangement functions, rather how Bishnu Pada Ray gets to perform as a Member of Parliament without pointing fingers. Till now, despite increased visibility in the House and raising vital issues, the output has been negligible. With upsetting the whole administrative setup, he could not achieve anything even in the village he adopted under the Pradhan Mantri Adarsh Gram Yojana. He had the LG to blame for all the failures. Was LG the impediment? Or the system itself where the role of MP is limited? With change in guard and the crescendo of the accompanied euphoria reaching higher and higher, it might look promising only if our MP could get his election manifesto translated into action.  Many lost promises need to be reminded. Retention of tsunami affected land by the farmers is just one among them.

With a seasoned politician with ample experience as MLA and minister especially from Delhi,  Prof Jagdish Mukhi, the appointed LG, realizes the constraints of an UT, and its right time for BJP as a party to push for a democratic setup for the Islands. With ample exposure of the way of bureaucrats especially DANICs and AGMUT cadre, he knows the dynamics of the system very well. But, the priorities of an Island territory needs to be spelled out very well. An Island territory cannot forget its lifeline - the shipping sector.

Alcoholism is one social scourge which needs immediate attention. A territory with less than half a million population consumed more than 5 million litres of liquor last year. There is a need to push for complete ban on liquor and arrest the downward trend in the socio-economic condition of the Islanders. The ecology and tribes give the Islands its distinctive identity, which cannot be overlooked in all  developmental initiatives.

The good things that happened under the leadership of A K Singh needs to continue. The institutions and initiatives have to be sustained. While setting new goals, old projects like undersea OFC cable shouldn't be put to backburner. Moreover, maturity needs to prevail with people and institutions not targeted for their allegiances and affiliations.

When the King changes, the King's Guard and the King's Hand at King's Landing shouldn't turn whisperers.

While appreciating the good work, recourses and reorientations wherever required needs to be done.

As an Islander, we must realize our fate that we are going to confront such situations every three years. Strangeness breeds alienation and skepticism.  Hope is the only constant that can take us through forward. Au revoir Lt Gen A K Singh! Lets welcome our new Administrator Prof Jagdish Mukhi.

Monday, July 18, 2016

ANIIMS: Why Robinhood Plan Boomeranged?

ANIIMS: Expulsion of Tribal Students
Why Robinhood Plan Boomeranged?

By Zubair Ahmed

Indeed, all actions are based on intentions. And, the intentions might had been noble in admitting tribal students from Nicobars in the newly opened Medical College, by lowering the criteria set by Medical Council of India (MCI). But, the plan has boomeranged with the expulsion of a few ST students and the backlash from the Nicobari community.

The students belonging to Nicobari tribe scoring less than 40% marks in ANIIMS conducted entrance exam, ANIPMT were expelled after seven months on the direction of MCI, which has stirred up a hornet's nest with the Tribal Councils of Nicobar district giving a clarion call for reinstatement of the students or face boycott. The Councils had appealed Nicobari students to boycott schools from 18 July if their demand was not met. And, following the decision, around 700 tribal students did not attend schools yesterday.

After an emergency meeting called at the District headquarters, the Tribal Council has conceded to the appeal of the authorities to send their children to school on the condition that the issue will be resolved in their favour by this weekend.

Medical College was one masterstroke from the Administrator Lt Gen A K Singh and was termed a game-changer. The most ambitious project of the Administration, and it went all the way to realize it. From day one, it was a challenge for the Administrator with the elected representative and many others creating one hurdle after another. But, the college became a reality, against all odds. He knew that it wasn't possible if he went the civil administration way and on war-footing got a set of defence personnel as consultant, director and even the dean, which too created heartburn.

Without its own building, the college started functioning at Ayush complex with additions and modifications. A few other buildings around it were also occupied and tweaked to fulfill the MCI guidelines. Many more buildings - Teal House, Hornbill Nest, Dugong Guest House - were occupied, and now the Medical College in its second year is spread throughout the city. In short, the Administrator could silence all his critics by making the Medical College a reality.

The weather was conducive and the sail smooth for the medical college, but with the departure of a few trusted officials of the Administrator including Anand Prakash, the Chief Secretary, there has been a turnaround and the activities of the Medical College has come under the scanner. The autonomy enjoyed by the Dean in all matters - administrative as well as academics is also learnt to have been curtailed. It is alleged that procedures and norms were flouted from the beginning with Medical Council of India too looking the other way.

Medical College had become a prestige issue for a group of officers led by the Chief Secretary who enjoyed free-hand, and many others were sidelined, who would question overriding procedures and norms. In fact, they had no say. Similar approach of his predecessors had met the same fate during his time. What goes around, comes around!

Medical College is a boon for the Islands and a need, and its sustainability should go beyond personal ego and prestige. The way the project was arbitrarily executed had raised many eyebrows. The frequent skirmish between the specialists and the tussle over the control of the lone referral hospital had created bad blood among many. Instead of resolving the bitterness, things were swept under the carpet. Many officials who were not in the good books of Mr Anand Prakash had to face the music.

The intention to admit tribal students reducing the minimum marks criteria might have been very noble and an example of inclusiveness. But, the decision had also created bitterness among many as they felt the decision to be arbitrary and against the norms. The predicament of the expelled students and the call for boycott by the community against the expulsion, are issues with serious repercussions. Whether the Administration as a single entity would support the cause of the students or would stick to the norms set by MCI? The signs of alienation of a community from the mainstream seems to be the larger issue at hand. Moreover, bridging the various mini Islands inside the bureaucracy without fear and favour would define the fate of many ongoing developmental projects and sustainability of the newly established institutions.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Elusive Bridge!

The Elusive Bridge!

By Zubair Ahmed

Boat journeys often bring out interesting moments and conversations. Though, it might be a little different if you are traveling between Chatham and Bambooflat with every conversation beginning or ending up discussing the elusive bridge.

Today, afternoon with the sun beaming its hottest rays, the little space with shade on the boat was brimming with passengers trying to evade the scorching sun. There was shade, but no escape from the humidity. Agitated with the delay in departure, a lady was seen shouting why the boat is not leaving. A guy answered the lady and also added a line about the relief the bridge would bring in.

This triggered a journey-long discussion between two friends, and I was a mute spectator to the conversation that started with a note on the bridge and finally ended up questioning our existence itself!

One of the guys said that the bridge is not economically viable, and raising his eyebrows enquired about the population of the Islands and the feasibility for such an expensive bridge. This hit the other guy so hard that he reeled out a list of questions that numbed my senses for a while.

"Do you think, the boat that you are traveling is economically viable? You pay eight rupees and the government spend more than a hundred rupees on your each trip."

"Do you think whether the water that you get through pipeline is any less expensive than the bottled water available in the market? Add the expenditure of the water section of APWD plus the hundreds of tankers carrying it from east to west and north to south, and finally landing up in your glass!"

"Do you know, when you go home, and switch on the fan, and the tariff that you pay for one unit of electricity that it consumes is nowhere economically viable."

"For that matter, you know your existence itself is not economically viable in the Islands!"

"Your every breath is maintained and sustained by Plan and Non-Plan fund from the Centre. The fresh oxygen that you inhale is no more free as all of us think. Do you have any idea about the expenditure incurred by the forest department in 'conserving' the forests?

"And, how does it matter, if the bridge is not economically viable?" he asked emphatically.

"You should also know that whether the elected representative, the state president of ruling party or for that matter, the Lieutenant Governor can't be very assertive about their demands, as what they have in their hands are nothing but begging bowls, of course, of different sizes and shapes."

So whom should you blame? he asked thumping on the fuel tank of his bike.

Yes, if you have to blame, you should blame Capt. Archibald Blair who surveyed the Islands in 1789 for finding the place suitable for penal settlement.

Yes, the blame should be on J P Walker, who landed on Chatham Island with the first batch of 200 mutineers on 10th March 1858! Had he not landed on Chatham, there would not have been a demand for bridge between Chatham and Bambooflat.

Yes, the blame should be on those British guys, who thought Chatham suitable for a saw mill, and the ones who were culpable for connecting the Island with Haddo by a causeway, which further raised hopes of the people living on the other side to have bridge connectivity.

How can you not blame the Andamanese tribe, who lost the Battle of Aberdeen fighting the Colonial forces? Had they won, there would not have the British and the settlement, and the demand for a bridge too!

How can you not blame Colonel Michael Lloyd Ferrar, Chief Commissioner, a man who lent his name to the largest Tehsil, Ferrargunj, in South Andaman? Had he not seen a vision for development of the place, there would not have so many villages contently living amidst their agricultural land and homesteads dreaming of a bridge between Bambooflat and Chatham.

Jarawas cannot be spared from the blame! Had they strongly resisted the Settlers and not remained content being pushed to one corner of the Island, the dream of Col Ferrar would have failed and there would not be a demand for a bridge later!

There was some hope still left till the Japanese occupied the Islands. The Allied Force pilots who bombed Chatham Island, failed to sink the Island keeping the hope for a bridge still alive!

After Independence, blame lies primarily on the Defence forces, who without take into account for a bridge built their harbour as well as the many ships of different sizes and heights!

How can you not blame the aircraft carriers to be built or inducted in the future? Though INS Vikrant did not come inside the harbour in 1980s, it raised the hope for INS Virat to enter the harbour later!  Blame is due for the hope of the aircraft carriers entering the harbour for the hopelessness of the bridge between Chatham and Bambooflat!

You should also blame the nuclear powered submarine, which once entered the harbour. Had it anchored on the mouth of Port Blair harbour near Ross Island, tunnel could have been a possibility.

When economics, history and geography have to be blamed for the elusive bridge, how can someone point finger at the ruling dispensation in the UT or at Centre?

Maybe, they are aware about the predicament and also ashamed of their position. That's why the Administration is not coming out with any conclusive answer to the queries raised by the public about the status of the bridge, promised by Gadkariji.

When the boat reached Bambooflat, the guy who questioned the viability of the bridge suddenly changed topic and emphatically said,

"Modi is very powerful. He will surely send Sonia and Rahul behind bars in the AgustaWestland chopper deal."

Indeed a respite in the otherwise hot weather!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Strategic Springboard for India

Andaman and Nicobar Islands:
Strategic Springboard for India

By Dhan Singh*, BTech, MBA
IIT Kanpur, India

It is imperative that our country has to craft its foreign policy in such a way so as to meet the numerous challenges of the twenty-first century. The challenges that the foreign policy has to contend with include inter-continental terrorism, piracy over high seas, global gun-running syndicates and the looming threat to disruption of sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and illegal exploitation of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) critical for the growth of the economy of our country.

Strategic location of Andaman and Nicobar Islands:

India is strategically located in the centre of Asia and at the head of the Indian Ocean. By virtue of its geographical location, Andaman and Nicobar Islands enjoys a strategic location as the far south-easternmost part of India. Landfall Islands, the northern most island in the Andaman archipelago, is just about 20 km from Myanmar's Coco Island (which is reportedly under Chinese control) while Indira Point at the tip of Great Nicobar, the southernmost island in the Nicobar archipelago, lies about 80 km from the tip of Sumatra in Indonesia. Thus, Andaman and Nicobar Islands is located at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca which is a significant trade route through which majority of trade occurs amongst various countries over the seas.

Evolution of the Defence Architecture in Andaman and Nicobar Islands:

The evolution of Andaman and Nicobar Islands from being simply an outpost in the Indian defence architecture to becoming an important strategic base has indeed been a long-drawn one. The Indian Union set up the Indian naval base named INS Jarawa in late 1960s which had primarily amphibious ships and to protect the Islands post the Sino-Indian war of 1962.The INS Jarawa was renamed Fortress Andaman (FORTRAN) in 1981.The naval air component in the form of INS Utkrosh was established near INS Jarawa in 1985.
The paradigm shift in the defence architecture of Andaman and Nicobar Islands occurred when the first integrated theatre command of the Indian Armed Forces was set up in the form of ‘Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC)’ at Port Blair in 2001.But with the limited joint capability among the three armed forces, ANC, hitherto, has had mixed results. ANC definitely is a step forward for the eventual reorganization of armed forces of our country into integrated theatre commands which will be better suited to deal with the security challenges decisively in a holistic manner.
With the nature of warfare changing from being manpower-intensive (as during the World war periods and some decades thereafter) to more technology-centric, there is an urgent need to institute a Force Structure Commission with an aim to improve the tooth-to-tail ratio resulting in an agile and responsive defence force.

Role of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in furthering the national interests of India:

Since the foreign policy is guided by the national interests of India,viz.,securing a peaceful and an amicable external environment to ensure the sustainable development of India so as to pull out the remaining millions from poverty and to ensure equitable development inside the country. In order to achieve a conducive external and internal environment for our country’s inclusive development, securing national borders is as significant as securing the exclusive economic zones which are repository of natural resources of various kinds and protecting the SLOCs from disruption in coordination with other countries both in immediate and extended neighborhood of India.

About 90% of India’s trade and oil imports are moved by sea lanes of communications (SLOCs), the prominent one passing through the Straits of Malacca to which Andaman & Nicobar Islands have geographical proximity. As our country’s economy becomes more globally integrated, it would become more dependent on the oceans.

The re-emergence of China has led to renewed interest in the Indian Ocean. Indian Ocean has acquired a great salience not only because of the various trade routes that pass through it but also as a bridge to connect the various countries located in the Indian Ocean region through initiatives like ‘Project Mausam’ and with the help of multilateral organizations like Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). ‘Project Mausam’ (being coordinated by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts IGNCA, New Delhi) aims to revive the historic maritime, cultural and economic ties with the 39 Indian Ocean countries including China and Pakistan.

In order to secure the maritime interest of India, Andaman and Nicobar Islands acquires a significant place because it hosts the first tri-services command of our country (Andaman Nicobar Command) which aims to provide a holistic security solution to strengthen the strategic position of India in the vicinity of the all-important Malacca Strait.

Evaluation of the Security & Strategic Policy in relation to Andaman & Nicobar Islands:

In present times, jointness amongst the various arms of the defence forces is the essential component of the military doctrine of any country. This is evident in the recent reduction in the size of the People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China which has gone in for organizational restructuring of its armed forces in favor of increasing jointness and has set up Theatre Commands (to have a holistic view of the war zone) in the place of separate commands of army, navy or air force.

Recently in March 2016, Indian Navy, Army and the Indian Air Force participated in joint war game named 'Jal Prahar' in Andaman & Nicobar Islands under the aegis of Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC) where joint exercises in amphibious battlefield scenarios was practiced. Though such joint exercises which are being carried out at tactical levels are a step forward but for a leap forward in enhancing jointness amongst the three wings of Armed Forces and also the Coast Guard will happen only when there is jointness at strategic level amongst the various armed forces of our country.

The present obsession of the security establishment of our country with Pakistan has to give way to a more balanced approach to future security scenarios in which China should be given due importance in the long-term since China, the economic power that it is already, is also asserting itself militarily both in the South China sea and also in the various islands of the Indian ocean region. Andaman & Nicobar Islands becomes important because the maritime approach to South China Sea is through the Malacca Strait. Apart from being the storehouse of natural resources underneath the South China Sea, South China Sea is also important because more than 50% of India’s trade comes through the South China Sea if crude oil is excluded. Indian oil exploration companies like ONGC-Videsh has won contracts to prospect petroleum in blocks in South China Sea under the territorial jurisdiction of Vietnam. So, it would be prudent for our country to conduct joint exercises with Vietnam in the region of South China Sea (under the territorial jurisdiction of Vietnam) to protect mutual interests. India has rightly decided to stay put in Vietnam despite Chinese protests because ONGC-Videsh is prospecting in territories under the sovereign control of Vietnam from whom ONGC-Videsh had won a competitive contract. ONGC-Videsh should remain in Vietnam despite poor prospects of oil in order to maintain India's strategic interest in the South China Sea.

With the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy of United States coming into play, US has deployed a large number of its forces and military equipment in the Asia-Pacific region which includes the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, in April 2016 US and India have concluded the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) vide which respective militaries of each country can access each other’s military bases for repair and refueling purposes. LEMOA is a step forward because it has formalized the existing arrangements of sharing of repair and refueling facilities between the militaries of US and India that had been existing earlier also. For China, it is important that India does not become the ally of US. Thus, India can use its strategic closeness to US as a bargaining chip with China to secure its national interests including an amicable settlement of the boundary dispute.

Since the trade routes converge in the Northern Indian Ocean, therefore China is primarily interested in the Northern Indian Ocean. The Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago located in the Northern Indian Ocean could thus be used as a ‘metal chain’ to block Chinese access to the Straits of Malacca, as argued by naval analyst Zhang Ming. While China is embarking on the grand plans of infrastructure development across the Indian Ocean region through its One Belt One Road (OBOR) that comprises the establishment of Maritime Silk Route through which it proposes to connect the various Indian ocean countries by developing ports (like Gwadar port in Pakistan, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, Marau which is close to Male in Maldives), our country while being a part of the OBOR also needs to explore other strategic alternatives as it is attempting through Project Mausam by leveraging its core competencies, most notably its soft power and its age-old civilizational ties with the Indian Ocean countries. The Indian diaspora in Indian Ocean Region countries can be an added advantage that India enjoys unlike China, which is another important player in the Indian Ocean.

The way forward:

The stated policy of India is to become a net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands by virtue of its strategic location is well suited to become the springboard using which our country and its military, most notably its navy (which is steadily developing its blue water capability) can project power deep inside the Indian Ocean and protect India’s national interests which extends from the strait of Hormuz in West Asia to the strait of Malacca in the East. To realize India’s full strategic potential in the Indian Ocean, Indian Navy needs to fast track its efforts in building maritime capacity especially in island states that occupy critical locations in the Indian Ocean and in these efforts Andaman and Nicobar Islands can become the winning ace.

The writer from the Islands is a Research Scholar in Management Department in IIT Kanpur. He also had a seven year stint as a Commissioned Officer in Defence.