The Overloaded Archipelago

note: in december 2004, while writing for businessworld, i sailed to the andamans to report on the acute water crises these islands in the bay of bengal faced every summer. things had reached a point where the administration, the largest employer in the isles, was granting mass leave to employees every summer, hoping they would return to the mainland leaving more water for those who stayed back. this shortage suggested that population had crossed the archipelago’s carrying capacity. and that the islands had indeed encountered a malthusian future the rest of the planet is still moving towards.

the postscript to this story is that i finished my reporting, set sail again for calcutta, and the tsunami struck the isles three days later. this gives me the inglorious distinction of being the first reporter to return from the isles to the mainland after the tsunami. sigh.

take a look.


Over the past month, reams have been written and miles of footage filmed about the crisis facing the Andaman and Nicobar islands. However, the coverage missed an important point. Even if the tsunami hadn’t lashed it, this sun-soaked, rain-drenched archipelago, recommended by the Lonely Planet for its “unique fauna, lush forests, white sandy beaches and exquisite coral”, would have faced a bleak future.

Unlike the tsunami, this is a man-made catastrophe. Over the past 54 years, the population on the islands has soared. Rising from just 30,000 in 1951 to a staggering 480,000 now. As the population has grown, the island’s water problem has worsened. Today, households in Port Blair get water once every two days, for thirty minutes. Three summers ago, water supplies ran so low that the local administration, the largest employer by far in this Union Territory, took the unprecedented step of granting mass leave to its staff, hoping they would return to the mainland, leaving more water for those who stayed back.

In the middle of December, I spent a week in the Andamans. What I found was that the ills of the islands went beyond a simple water shortage. In this third most bio-diverse region in the country after the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, forests are receding, fish catches are falling, croplands are going barren faster. As for the tribals, the less said, the better. It is simplistic to blame all on overpopulation. Ultimately, the islands are in trouble because of poor development.

In the weeks and months ahead, the local administration will rebuild the islands. This is, perhaps, a second chance. A chance when old mistakes must not be repeated.

The population bomb

The Andamans have historically been sparsely populated. In the beginning, there were only the native aborigines. Even after the British colonised the islands in 1858, the population did not surge immediately. The 1901 Census counted 24,649 people there. By 1941, there were just about 9,000 more. During the Second World War, Japan annexed the islands. After Independence, aware of the islands’ immense strategic value, the Indian government began settling mainlanders in the islands. And the population started expanding fast.

The government gave land to ex-servicemen and emigrants from East Pakistan. To help in administration, it exported bureaucrats and clerks from the mainland. Mind you, it was not easy to lure people to the islands. Tropical paradise or not, even today, the isles are two to four sea-tossed days away from the mainland. The government had to dole out goodies. Transport to the islands was subsidised. Education and healthcare were free. The settlers were promised that in an emergency they would be airlifted to the mainland, gratis. Around the same time, local contractors brought in cheaper migrant labourers. Most of them never went back because it made economic sense for them.

While waiting to board the MV Akbar, one of the ships plying between Kolkata and Port Blair, I chatted with a fellow passenger, an electrician from Behrampore in West Bengal. He had been working in the islands for 10 years. At Blair, he was making Rs 180 a day. Back home, he could scrape in about Rs 70 a day. Once on the islands, many such labourers would get themselves registered as locals and eventually hunker down.

By 1961, the population had reached 63,548. Three decades later, it had increased more than fourfold to 280,661. And then, in the last decade, it moved into overdrive. A senior official at the Planning Commission’s Island Development Authority (IDA) pegs the islands’ population at 480,000 now. In effect, the influx that happened over three decades earlier happened in just one decade. And this overloaded mass is huddled into just 38 of the 500 islands dotting this lazily-curving archipelago.

The local administration says there aren’t as many people on the island. We’ll come to that contradiction later.

The administration has a reason to fret about the number – a lot hinges on it. In the mid-1980s, the IDA, whose recommendations weigh in when the Centre gives out the subsidies, pegged the archipelago’s carrying capacity at 450,000. (The carrying capacity of a land mass estimates the supply of resources like water and cropland, and divides that by the desired per capita consumption to arrive at a sustainable population.) And it suggested that the build-up be gradual. “The islands were supposed to hit that number by 2011,” says the IDA official.

The islands have crossed that mark seven years in advance. And its impact on the land has been jarring.

A development model Jared Diamond wouldn’t like

In 2004, three students, Reshmi Nair from Kolkata’s Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management, and Venkat Ramanujam Ramani and Yachna Srivastava from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) studied the impact of human habitation on Neil, a small island 37 km north-east of Blair.

Till 1967, Neil was uninhabited, covered by virgin forest. That year, the first settlers arrived. Seeing the size of the island, the administration settled just 98 families of about 650 people here. But then, when the settlers were left to themselves, they pulled their relatives from the mainland. The 2001 Census counted 2,868 people on the islands, but the local police outpost estimated the population even higher, at 4,450. Whichever the correct number, they were living on a land no larger than that capable of housing 650.

With most of these people involved in agriculture, the settlers’ villages and cropland grew to cover 1,216 hectares out of the island’s 1,890 hectares, up from 750 in 1967. Continuous cultivation robbed the land of its nutrients. Farming, the students found, was no longer possible without fertilisers. Due to demand for more farmland, forests were cut down. Since it was the forests that recharged the groundwater, the two natural streams and the groundwater in the island dried up. Contractors dredged up from among the most extensive and diverse coral reefs in the country and used it in road construction. “Since fishes are found in the highest density in the shallows, around the corals, their numbers dwindled. So the fishermen’s catch has fallen,” says Sarang Kulkarni, a marine biologist studying corals on the islands.

This story is being repeated on every inhabited island in the archipelago. A couple of years ago, while conducting a survey on the islands’ biodiversity, Samir Acharya, the chain-smoking, cynical convenor of the leading local NGO, SANE (Saving Andaman and Nicobar Ecology), was surprised when he couldn’t find any rice field that was over 25-30 years old. With the soil of their older fields spent, farmers had hacked out new ones from the forest.

Overpopulation isn’t the only thing to be blamed here; other factors are at play. The first is inappropriate development coloured by a continental mindset. The other is the hijacking of development goals by corruption and petty politics.

At first, farmers started growing vegetables and paddy. Both the crops made heavy demands that the tropical soil couldn’t bear. It’s only now that farmers on Neil have started switching to less water-intensive crops like areca nuts and coconuts.

The mainlanders’ mindset also favoured big projects – like dams and the use of building materials better suited for the mainland. Concrete trumped timber as the chief construction material on the islands. Both were terrible calls. The first, because this area lies on a faultline. The second, because concrete needs sand, which in this case, was dug up from the local beaches. And that triggered another unhappy chain reaction.

To see the impact of the sand mining, I travelled one noon to the gateway of the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park in Wandoor, one and a half hours west of Blair. At first glance, the beach here will score high on any parameter. The colours are striking. The sand is an impossible shade of white. The exposed corals are dark enough to pass for rocks. At regular intervals lie tree trunks, bleached white by a long exposure to sun and tide. The sky itself is a rich blue. In the distance, dark green islands float on an azure sea. Wandoor is a rhapsodic vision of a tropical paradise.

But first impressions can mislead. The story this beach in South Andaman had to tell was more cautionary than hymnal to nature. Right till the 1990s, sand was trucked away from here for use in construction. That resulted in unintended effects. The first to go were the trees. Washing higher up the shore, the waves toppled them. When the waves also threatened the beachfront road, the administration erected a wall – using, ironically, sand from the same beach. But this stopped the waves from depositing the sediments they carried, sand particles and the like, at the end of their glide up the beach. These particles drifted down, settled on the corals, and killed them. The fish population fell. Local fishermen are now sailing out for 3-4 hours to net their daily catch; they used to catch all they wanted within 30 minutes earlier.

By the way, this sand should not even be used for construction. Unlike sand from the mainland, the one from these islands is just 45 per cent silica. The rest is crushed coral, seashells and the like. Also, being saline, it corrodes the steel scaffolding of buildings. No wonder buildings in the Andamans die within an average of 30 years of construction.

But the starkest example of mainland thinking is the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR). The ATR’s 340-odd kilometres connect four islands – winding northwards from South Andaman, it links Baratang, Middle Andaman and North Andaman. Before it came up, locals used to rely on steamers. It was an imperfect arrangement, insist the ATR’s supporters. According to them, the road connects the towns regardless of the weather.

Early one morning, I took a bus ride on the most disputed stretch of the ATR – the part connecting Port Blair to Baratang. This is the stretch that cuts through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. The only primary forest in the South Andaman, primeval dense tropical forests that have been never logged, was inside the Jarawa reserve. Till we reached the reserve, signs of mankind were never too far away. We passed farmlands, secondary forests, and new buildings made of cement. A few dozen shacks were selling cigarettes, food and coconuts, a line houses were straggled along the ATR. And then, the road was alone again.

The ATR is where the debate on development gets interesting. At Baratang, thanks to the road, an unorganised tourism industry had cropped up. Tamilian immigrants were running tours to the local beach, a local ‘mud volcano’, and limestone caves. It was a good business, the driver informed. He and his brothers were earning Rs 100 a day.

On the islands, development has involved tradeoffs. The road had been good for these Tamil immigrants, but catastrophic for the Jarawas and their jungle. Jarawa youngsters have begun begging by the roadside for biscuits, alcohol, gutka and other stuff. Eventually, worried about the impact of the road, Acharya and Kalpvriksh, a Pune-based NGO campaigning for the rights of native dwellers, filed a Public Interest Litigation. In May 2002, the Supreme Court instructed the Union Territory government to close down this stretch of the ATR within three months. It’s, of course, still open.

Two years after the ruling, the territory’s government appealed to the court to reconsider the order. V.V. Bhat, chief secretary, Andaman and Nicobar, says: “That petition is yet to come up for hearing. In the meantime, we have set regulations in place to regulate the traffic. Traffic is now allowed to run only between certain times of the day and vehicles run as convoys.”

It’s not clear how the territory’s government avoided implementing the order in the two intervening years. I am not even sure if the road is needed. A couple of years ago, another TISS student, Richa Dhanju, studied the traffic on the ATR. She found two things. One, most of the locals still preferred the steamers, as they were cheaper and faster. Two, nearly 65 per cent of the people using the road were bureaucrats and tourists. During the recent relief operations, supplies were despatched by boats because the road had cracked. Bad weather or not, there haven’t been any accidents with the steamers in all these years, comments Acharya of SANE.

In the bus, a fellow passenger is not convinced of overpopulation in the islands. How can there be overpopulation in an area with so much forest? True, we are too anthropocentric in our outlook, even at the cost of the sustainability of development itself. Having to choose between the livelihood of a family and the extinction of, say, a turtle species, is a no-brainer for some. And that same logic seemingly extends to tug-of-land between the settlers and the so-called uncivilised local tribesmen and the area’s flora and fauna.

Yet, excessive anthorpocentrism might be fatal. As Neil and Wandoor show, islands are very fragile. Given their finite resources, everything exists in a delicate equilibrium. When that is disrupted, the results are quick to show. When the tsunami struck, the islands fringed with intact corals and mangroves were not as severely affected as the ones without. This fragility makes the need for sustainable development all the more important. How does one ensure that the threshold stocks of soil quality, forestland, etc. are maintained even in the face of rising numbers and affluence?

It’s not that the government, which employs 86 per cent of those working in the organised sector, isn’t fighting the perils of unplanned development at its own doorstep. The per capita economic output of this Union Territory has stagnated – what, at Rs 12,901, was twice the national average in 1981-82, was just 20 per cent higher (at Rs 15,703) in 2001-02. A visit to the Employment Exchange revealed that between 3,000 and 4,000 people submit their resumes every year. Of them, just 600-700 land a job.

To address the unemployment problem, the government has identified three industries it wants to boost – tourism, high-value agriculture and fisheries. The first two of these three, ironically, are going to be hobbled by the water shortage.

The water problem, the Andaman Public Works Department told me, would be fixed once the height of the dam on Dhanikari Creek was upped by 5 metres. The forest cover, the administration insisted, was still 86 per cent. Aerial photographs of the islands by the National Remote Sensing Agency, however, show that it’s much lower, at 66 per cent. But to the island authorities, what we see is apparently not what they have.

But the authorities were at their dodgiest when quizzed on the issue of overpopulation.

Development as a incidental outcome

I began to understand why, when, a few days after coming to Blair, I met the former BJP MP from the islands, Bishnu Pada Ray. According to him, there is no need to curb migration yet. He said: “Migrants are not coming to the islands any more; people are leaving.” He added that the islands could easily accommodate another 100,000.

Oddly, the local Census department supports Ray’s claim. The 2001 Census counted 356,152 people living on the islands. That was a shock – the IDA figure was a good third higher. And other data corroborated the IDA view as well. The local office of the Shipping Corporation agreed that their ships were always coming in full, and going out half empty. Numbers from the port authority corroborated this.

To resolve the matter, I called the local civil supplies department. In 2001, how many people had their names on ration cards? About 370,000, the department informed. There, it was clear! Every settler doesn’t have a ration card. Many migrant workers would not have ration cards. The actual population was bound to be higher than 370,000. It was just what the three students had found at Neil. There, too, the Census numbers were lower than what the local police maintained.

Evidently, there is a lot of political opposition to stopping the influx. So much so that it has managed to derail a Supreme Court order. As a part of the same 2002 ruling on the ATR, the Court had ordered the administration to introduce an inner line permit regime. But migration continues unabated to this day.

The reasons aren’t too difficult to fathom. Both Ray and the current MP, Manoranjan Bhakta of the Congress, hail from Bengal. Between them, they account for roughly equal amounts of vote. It is the DMK’s support that decides who becomes the MP. And so, between them, the three parties encourage migration from West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

On this overloaded archipelago, development has being repeatedly hijacked by selfish considerations. It’s as if development has been evolving by chance, as the stepchild of decisions made for private gain.

Take the water problem. To resolve it, the APWD plans to increase the Dhanikari dam’s height. By doing that, said G.C. Khattar, chief engineer of the APWD, water needs for the next 10-15 years would be met. On a longer term, the APWD was mulling an ambitious project. It would build a giant wall at Flat Bay, where the Dhanikari Creek meets the sea, to keep seawater out. Over time, this would become an artificial fresh water lake in the sea. The cost for raising the dam’s height: Rs 100 crore; that for the Flat Bay scheme: Rs 350 crore.

There was a cheaper alternative the APWD wasn’t considering. The islands get rainfall around the year – from the south-west and the north-east monsoons. On my way back from Wandoor, I stopped at a diggi, a traditional rainwater harvesting structure. Its water was clean and clear. In contrast, the water being piped by the APWD to my guesthouse was rust brown in colour. And yet, the organisation had not even studied the potential for rainwater harvesting in the islands.

It’s now superfluous to add that given a sufficiently large quake, even the stoutest of sea walls will crumble. In the days after the tsunami, South Andaman was rocked by a series of aftershocks, ranging between 5.5 to 6 on the Richter scale. Ironically, this brought down even more concrete structures, while traditional wood structures stayed up. Hope the administration would heed the wisdom while reconstructing.

Development is for the long term; but the logic driving it in the Andamans has been short-term. The results have been predictable. Musharraf Ahmed, an auto-rickshaw driver, remembers the summer of 2002 vividly. That year, the rains came late. And water levels behind the Dhanikari dam dwindled. For two months that year, Ahmed’s family got 6-8 buckets of water – once every three days.

The isles as a synecdoche

After returning to delhi, I met M.N. Murty, professor at the Institute of Economic Growth. He wasn’t too worried about the water situation. Answers could be found, he said. What concerned him more was the outlook for sustainable development. Was it possible to make the people better off while ensuring that threshold stocks of resources are maintained?

There is nothing unique about what the islands are going through. As population rises, everyone places more demands on the land. Nor are the islands facing anything unique in terms of short-sighted development. The outlook for sustainable development is dim across India.

This hasn’t come about for want of proper regulation. India, said Murthy, has comprehensive legislation encouraging sustainability. And yet, we are unable to make a headway. That’s partly because monitoring and enforcement costs are very high, and partly because of corruption. Tax disincentives push companies towards cleaner technology. They can either pay tax for polluting, or install cleaner technology. But corruption offers another alternative. Formal regulation founders between these two.

One tiny ray of hope comes from the fact that informal regulation is, however, working. Local communities are getting more active – protesting, lobbying, filing PILs. This has also been visible in the islands. Four months ago, a forest department team went to Mannarghat, a village in South Andaman, to harvest wood. The villagers did not let them. This is our water resource, they said, you cannot touch the forest.

But even that can only go so far. The administration needs to act on the orders passed and the wisdom that’s staring them in the face.

I remember the first island I saw as MV Akbar neared the Andamans. Densely forested, they seemed to hang low over the sea. On one side, a flat lick of land, lower than the rest of the island, jutted out. On it grew three palms. It made a striking silhouette. On that darkening evening, as the islands floated by, they seemed small and fragile.

I hope we remember that. And that we don’t always get a second chance.

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