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India’s treasure islands

 Debashish Saha |  2015-08-30 20:45:36.0  |  New Delhi

India’s treasure islands

A walk through the well-painted and restored Cellular Jail in Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ capital city doesn’t evoke the gloom that was once thrust upon it by its cruel jailer David Barry that “God does not come within three miles of Port Blair”. The strong words still hold true for this dazzlingly beautiful island and Union Territory as the nearest port city on the mainland is located at least 1,200 km away. For Delhi, Mumbai, which is around 1,400 km away, is closer, and for its leaders, the archipelago is a lost cause, an island by itself.

<g data-gr-id="64">If</g> on the one hand, Kerala is God’s own country, then on the other hand, Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be termed the ‘godforsaken country’. The islands’ significance to India will be referred to as a “once upon a time” story.

The Andaman Islands were very closely associated with the Indian Freedom Movement ever since it began in 1857. Innumerable political prisoners were jailed in prisons and even made the supreme sacrifice here and every act of these great sons conveyed the spirit of national unity, integrity and the struggle for the salvation of India. Among its high-profile political prisoners were Maulana Liaquat Ali, Noni Gopal Mukherjee, Batukeswar Dutta, Sohan Singh, Nand Gopal, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Yogendra Shukla, Vaman Rao Joshi, Barindra Kumar Ghose, Upendra Nath Banerjee, Birendra Chandra Sen, and Bagha Jatin's companion Jatish Chandra Pal.

A symbol of undaunted spirit, a mute witness to the untold sufferings and the valiant defiance of the Indian freedom fighters, the Cellular Jail represents an irony, where the price of the freedom of a nation was the captivity of these warriors. The Jail was built in 1906, originally to introduce stringent corrective reforms to prisoners associated with dangerous criminal activities. The Cellular jail, so known for its isolated cells, was spread across seven wings, of which only three remain today. The current well-painted building with its green gardens <g data-gr-id="73">are</g> quite a contrast to what one might imagine <g data-gr-id="74">to be</g> a site of many an unspoken torture and stories of determined defiance.

Almost a century later, today the islands are left with little to thrive on. The Government of India and the top leaders of the nation have virtually deserted this archipelago while focussing on issues which are more demanding. The Narendra Modi government at the Centre has taken several special initiatives to ensure economic development of Jammu and Kashmir and efforts have been made for employment of Kashmiri youths. During the UPA regime, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi took a host of top industrialists of the country including Ratan Tata to attend a two-hour interactive session with about 1,500 students from Kashmir University and affiliated colleges. Kashmiri youths deserve special attention. But why similar efforts can’t be made for people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands? The government can, well, do a lot to develop tourism infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. A lot can be done in terms of basic infrastructural facilities like roads, transport facilities, hotels and accommodation.

Emphasising on natural and cultural tourism will keep in focus the benefits for local communities, which are currently faced with limited economic opportunities. The tangible benefits from a successful tourism strategy include increased employment rates, additional revenues for the economy, improved infrastructure, and increased tax revenues that would contribute to the improvement of health care, education, and other social developments. Less tangible benefits include confirmation of local culture and traditions, creation of opportunities to keep the young generation interested in residing in the Andaman Islands or returning to their towns, and exchange of contacts with people of different cultures.

Andaman & Nicobar Islands are developing into a major tourism hub with its exotic looking beaches and pristine islands having equally exotic names, wonderful opportunities for adventure sports like snorkeling and sea-walking.

In Port Blair, the main places to visit are Cellular Jail, Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Andaman Water sports complex, Chatham Saw Mill, Mini Zoo, Corbyn’s cove, Chidiya Tapu, Wandoor Beach, Forest Museum, Anthropological Museum, Fisheries Museum, Naval Museum (Samudrika), Ross Island and Viper Island. Other places include Havelock island famous for Radhanagar Beach, Neil Island for Scuba diving/snorkelling, Cinque island, Saddle peak, Mt Harriet and Mud Volcano. The southern group(Nicobar islands) is mostly inaccessible to tourists. Indian tourists do not require a permit to visit the Andaman islands but if they wish to visit any tribal areas they need a special permit from the Deputy Commissioner, Port Blair. Permits are required for foreign nationals. For foreign nationals arriving by air, these are granted upon arrival at Port Blair.

According to official estimates, the flow of tourists doubled to nearly 3,00,000 in 2012 from 1,30,000 in 2008-2009. The Radha Nagar beach of Andamans was chosen as Asia’s best Beach in 2004. Apart from this, the small-scale, village and handicrafts units, numbering 1,374, can be scaled up with proper vision and planning. Two units are export-oriented in the line of fish processing activity. Apart from this, there are shell and wood based handicraft units. There are also four medium-sized industrial units. SSI units are engaged in the production of <g data-gr-id="80">polythene</g> bags, PVC conduit pipes and fittings, paints and varnished, fiberglass and mini flour mills, soft drinks and beverages, etc. Small scale and handicraft units are also engaged in shell crafts, bakery products, rice milling, furniture making, etc.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation has spread its wings in the field of tourism, fisheries, industries and industrial financing and functions as authorised agents for Alliance Air/Jet Airways and SpiceJet. The Islands have become a tourist destination, due to the draw of their largely unspoiled virgin beaches and waters. A major source of revenue for the Andaman and Nicobar administration would be to aggressively attract Bollywood and the film industry of various regions for shooting films in the exotic locales spread across the island territory. 

As I watched the light and sound show at Cellular Jail, which sheds light on the history of the prison in both music and dialogue forms and takes one back into the bygone era of suffering and repression, I strongly felt that everyone in our country, especially our politicians, should come and visit this memorial and spend some time. It will definitely make them contemplate about how our country and its people, irrespective of caste, religion, language or state, won freedom, which should not be taken 
for granted. 

The author is a leading member of the Aeronautical Society of India

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