Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Islands in the Sun


A 2-pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

Introduction: One of the (admittedly minor) effects of the tsunami was that I visited a part of our country that I had never seen before – an increasingly rare occurrence in a career spent roaming around at other people’s expense. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a chain of 562 islands in the Bay of Bengal, in which the population of about 362,000 inhabit 38. Port Blair, its headquarters, is about 2 hours by flight east from Chennai or alternatively about 60 hours by ship. The Nicobar islands are quite distinct from those in the Andamans and are separated from them by the ten-degree channel, they have a population of about 40,000 consisting mainly of Nicobarese tribes, government servants and Tamil settlers. The Andamans consist mainly of settlers from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Bengal, descendants of prisoners who settled here and ‘primitive’ tribes such as the Jarawa, the Onge and the Sentinelese. What follows are my observations from the twenty or so days I spent in the state.

The Place: A region, in my opinion, should be judged on three indicators only – the visual appeal of the place, the beauty of its women, and the quality of its cuisine – all else is unimportant. A&N scores a 911! The islands are astoundingly beautiful from any angle, many of them just green forested circles with a continuous yellow ring of beach around them. The sea is also multicoloured, with light green and then aquamarine rings around the islands giving way to deep blue as one moves further out. About the women, suffice to say that your eyes won’t be under strain here! A young lady reporter (with looks like the hero’s sister in Hindi films, who has to say “Bhaiya” a few times and heat his food when he returns from his nocturnal adventures) from the Telegraph had come down from Kolkata and was given Aishwarya Rai like treatment. Not much scope for the likes of me, you would think, except that we happened to sleep together on a ship between Hut Bay and Port Blair (as my wife, mother and father also read these 2-pagers I will reluctantly mention that the Reuters correspondent and the Deputy Director of the Shipping Department were sleeping in between us) and shared a comfortable friendship and several evenings together thereafter, to the consternation of the blades of Port Blair.

The Distances: The distances in A&N hit you. All internal journeys have to be done on ship (except for the favoured few who have helicopters at their disposal) and travel times are massive. The journey from Kamorta Island in the middle Nicobars to Port Blair in the southern Andamans took me 48 hours – all of which was spent on the deck because no cabins were available (only for babus) and the bunks were full of puke. This wasn’t particularly unpleasant, nights under the stars and all, except for crossing the rough ten-degree channel that had the ship rocking and rolling (apparently Bernoulli’s Principle applies here) and the likes of me contemplating life at the wrong end of the food chain in these shark infested waters. The shorter journeys in smaller ships across open and rough sea were much worse, especially when one travelled against the waves, as were the journeys on boats to get from the ships on to land because the jetties were destroyed.

The 26th of December: What actually happened? First, the earthquake! I was on Kachal on the 24th of January when an earthquake of 6.2 centered in Sumatra hit the island (there have been more than 100 earthquakes over 5 in the past few weeks) and can only imagine what a 9 must have been like. People came out of their houses, and, a few minutes later, saw the sea recede. Those who ran for their lives away from the sea and on to the central higher ground are alive today – those who were curious, or stopped to pick up belongings, or to pray, or to help others, did not make it. The police inspector in Kapanga tried to do his duty by shepherding others to safety (dead), another settlement of 1050 people in West Bay held a community prayer after the earthquake (4 are alive today). In Little Andamans, much further to the north, there were a series of four waves with about ten minute gaps in between, of which the third and the fourth were particularly vicious, twenty meter walls of water arriving at you at the speed a plane takes off.

The Ban: The Nancowry division, consisting of the islands Chowra, Kachal, Kamorta, Nancowry, Teresa and Trinket, is off limits to outsiders unless the government issues you a tribal area permit. I got one by hanging around government officers in Port Blair, meeting the Lt. Governor and kissing a lot of backside, nobody else did. A ban on media and NGOs after the tsunami is being strictly enforced. The reasons are not being articulated and rumours are rife – that the government is mismanaging relief, that the bodies are much more than the official figures, that there is something to hide, etc. There has been controversy over the numbers here, mainly because a large number of Tamil labourers had been illegally brought in by contractors and settled in coastal hamlets, and there is no record of who these people are, how many, and how many have died. Certainly, the numbers don’t match! The relief, too, is being mismanaged in this region, with the relief camps getting enough food and water but little else, with the whole area still looking like the tsunami had hit yesterday, with bodies still coming in with the tide and with huge quantities of everything on earth lying around in Port Blair but very little making its way here. But this would be the result of a media ban and not the cause of it.

More likely is the fact that the Nicobars sit at the head of the Mallacca Straits, the busiest shipping lane in the world, and are thus of strategic importance in the great game being played between China, the US and India. About 90 percent of China’s external trade passes through here, and thus we have a hold that counters any aggression in the Himalayas. The mandarins simply don’t want people poking around in this region.

The Taipans: Life must have been nice here! The Nicobarese tribals on these tiny islands lived in little settlements along with their school, church and football field, with all financial requirements being met by coconut plantations that were plentiful. They are governed through a system of elected village captains who deal with the outside world and managed government schemes. My quest for institutions through which to implement relief and rehabilitation activities on the islands led me to the tribal federations and the cooperative marketing federations that buy and sell the copra – all these turned out to be fronts for trading empires a la some of James Clavell’s novels. There is a constant game of chess between the Gujarati Jadwets, the Kamorta-based Rasheeds and the Tamils, all trying to outmaneuver each other with their ships, their fronts, their alliances and their patronage systems. They are now competing for the rehabilitation cake.

Infrastructure and Accommodation: Interestingly, no buildings in the state were destroyed in the earthquake – it was the tsunami that caused all the destruction to infrastructure. A local wag said that this was because the state public works department did all construction and they made their money by over-invoicing and not by under-constructing. The destruction of infrastructure was complete in the Nicobars, where all the jetties and all buildings on the coast, schools, churches, hospitals, police stations, government quarters, don’t exist any more. The temple left standing on Kachal had settlers of a certain mentality feeling that ‘mine is bigger (oops, better!) than yours’.

A list of places to stay across Nancowry division would begin and end with the PWD Guest House in Kamorta, fabulously located on a hill that overlooks the harbour and having a running kitchen, well worth being on the right side of the local Assistant Commissioner who controls the right to stay here. Kachal was the pits, with severe food, water, electricity and accommodation shortages. The poor head of administration there, an IAS officer from Delhi who was sent there for relief duty and turned out to be a friend of my batchmate Amir, is staying along with five others in a two-room office where they also work, eat, and do everything else. An army Colonel and his men and a 19-member relief team from Sirsa in Haryana were putting up in the church in the high center of the island, to the consternation of my namesake Father Ajit Ekka and his staff. He tried to get them to leave by bringing in a batch of trainee nuns from Jharkhand, but I suspect it had the opposite effect.

Will the Place Recover? Difficult to say! Jetties take a long time to rebuild, and all supplies depend upon the jetties. Coconut trees take seven to ten years to grow back, what will the Nicobarese do until then? The banking system has been washed away, and no records exist either with the account holders or with the bank, what will people do for their immediate cash requirements? 79 children on Kachal are supposed to be sitting for their class X and XII, how that will happen with all schools on the coastlines, and all their teachers, washed away. Earthquakes are hitting the Nicobars every day, undermining the little remaining confidence. Most of the village captains are dead and there is a serious leadership vaccum. On the other hand, time is a great healer. And other disaster areas in India have, in the long run, become better places for those who survived with the huge investment in infrastructure. A&N may not be an exception.

1 comment:

A_N_Nanda said...

It's a very informative topic. I've experience of staying at Port Blair for almost three years between 1995-1998 and I can really feel for all the ravages that nature has perpetrated on the islanders.

By the by, I've written a Short story book, wholly devoted to Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Mr RUSKIN BOND has written foreword for it.

Please visit my site to know more about my effort and comment on it.