A child plays with his mother at a beach in Port Blair, capital of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands. Tribal populations are endangered in the archipelago. Photo: Adnan Abidi, Reuters
A child plays with his mother at a beach in Port Blair, capital of India's Andaman and Nicobar islands. Tribal populations are endangered in the archipelago. Photo: Adnan Abidi, Reuters

Overland connectivity in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands is poised to get a boost, with the Ministry of Railways green-signaling plans for construction of a railway line linking Port Blair, the capital of the island chain, with Diglipur, the largest town of North Andaman Island.

The rail line, the first in the archipelago, is expected to ease travel and increase tourism. It also has strategic value.

A chain of 572 islands and islets of which only 38 are inhabited, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are scattered across 750 kilometers north to south in the Bay of Bengal. The archipelago’s turquoise waters and white sandy beaches have made it an attractive destination for tourists.

Speeding up

Currently, travel within the archipelago is possible only by road and sea. The journey between Port Blair and Diglipur via the 350km Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) takes 14 hours, while the ferry takes a whole day. By comparison, travel via the proposed 240km broad-gauge railway line will take just three hours.

According to Indian Express, Indian Railways does not consider the proposed Port Blair-Diglipur rail line to be economically viable. Others, however, are more optimistic about the rail link’s potential.

If it goes ahead, it could provide a shot in the arm to tourism in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. With improved connectivity between Port Blair and the tourist hub of Diglipur, annual tourist arrivals can be expected to increase from the current 450,000 to an estimated 600,000, Jagdish Mukhi, the lieutenant-governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, was quoted by Indian Express as saying.

Importantly, the rail link also has strategic value.

It would facilitate the transport of troops from Port Blair to Diglipur, should the need arise. Port Blair is the headquarters of India’s only tri-services command, which is based in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. To the north of Diglipur is Landfall Island, which is just around 20km from Myanmar’s Coco Islands.

Since the 1990s, India has alleged that China had set up a signal-intelligence facility on the Coco Islands, a claim that has been rejected by both China and Myanmar.

The location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has endowed the archipelago with immense strategic importance. The southern Nicobar Islands lie near the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, a strategic waterway through which a quarter of all the world’s sea-transported oil is carried.

To enhance its capacity to counter China’s mounting interest and presence in the Indian Ocean, India has been building up its naval capabilities. Its growing focus on its Eastern Naval Command, including establishment of the tri-services command at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, must be seen in this context. The Port Blair-Diglipur railway line is part of the effort to improve logistical capability in the strategic archipelago.

Threat to tribals

Unlike India’s security establishment and the tourism industry, however, anthropologists are concerned over the implications of the proposed railway for survival of the islands’ indigenous communities.

The archipelago is home to several of these communities. Five of them, namely the Great Andamanese, Onge, Sentinelese, Shom Pen and Jarawa, are already severely endangered. Their numbers fell drastically during British colonial rule because of disease, “development” and displacement.

Their populations have been shrinking since India’s independence, too. According to the 2011 census, for instance, the tribal population of the islands fell by 3.19% between 2001 and 2011.

Government officials attribute the recent decline in numbers to the 2004 tsunami. Anthropologists, however, blame “development” of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and outside intervention in the lives and culture of the tribals for their falling numbers.

The ATR, for instance, runs through the Jarawa reserve. The opening of this road brought a flood of settlers, outsiders, tourists and poachers to the islands in general and tribal areas in particular. And with them came diseases, sexual abuse of Jarawa women, sale of drugs and alcohol to the tribals, among other problems. Many tribals’ lives have been lost to disease, while their distinct culture and way of life have been undermined. All this has triggered conflict between the indigenous populations and outsiders.

Will the proposed railway line impact the Andamans’ indigenous communities as well?

This is likely, which means the survival of some of world’s oldest tribal communities is in jeopardy.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues.