A forgotten paradise
By Neelima Vallangi
17th March 2013 12:00 AM
During my two-week stay in the islands, this was one discussion constantly coming up no matter which island I went to. The beaches at Andaman and Nicobar islands are just as good. The waters here shimmer in a million shades of blue and the dive sites are one of the best all over the world. Everyone, from the tourism department to resort owners and private tour operators as well as the locals, talks about this.
They knew the answer lay in the lack of infrastructure. I can vouch for that. Having travelled to few remote islands in the Andaman group, I understood what they meant. My deep-rooted need to escape the crowd drove me to places as remote as Long Island and Little Andaman. I stayed in dingy places and stared alone, taking in the wondrous views. When my phone caught signal after a week, I called home. My family chided me because I didn’t take them with me to Andaman. I retorted saying they wouldn’t be able to stay at the places that I did and travel the way that I did. But in reality, I truly wished I could show them what I saw.
Port Blair and Havelock Island are the only places with good accommodation options. Elsewhere you are at the mercy of some enterprising locals who thought of setting up lodging facility. These places, mainly targeting the foreign backpacker, have put up extremely basic accommodation. Connectivity between the islands is a problem too, with ships running on limited schedules. While it sounds very exotic to stay in remote islands with absolutely no tourists and facilities, it doesn’t do much good to the locals.
Muthu, a migrant from Kovalam who now runs a surf board rental in Little Andaman, tells me the government decision to ban camping on the beaches has been good to the locals. “If everyone camps on the beach, then what do we get?” he asks. Indro’s family migrated to Andaman many years ago, even before he was born. Today, he lives in Kalipur with his wife and three children. Before the only private resort in Kalipur opened up, he couldn’t find much work and supporting his family wasn’t that easy. He tells me things have been much better since he got work at the resort. He now takes guests hiking up Saddle Peak among others.
In early 2000s, the three existing timber factories were shut down when the Supreme Court banned logging in the islands. This left the many migrant factory workers without a living. Today, they live off the island by fishing, few on pension and others take up small jobs here and there. But the youth still remains largely unemployed in most of these islands. Long Island is a remote island that can be reached by a six-hour boat ride from Havelock. Pawan, a teenager from this island, accompanied me on my three-hour trek to the pristine Lallaji Bay. When I asked him what he did for a living, spitting the tobacco, he answered very casually that he took up odd jobs on the island every now and then. Back at the resort in Long Island, a young girl named Soniya served me tea. Just about a month ago, having heard of this place, she convinced her parents in Rangat, a small town in Middle Andaman, to let her work here.
Tourism could be a key proponent in boosting the economy and solving the unemployment problem in the rising settler population. The islands have immense potential. But like any other place, this place is unique in its own right and tourism has to be managed carefully in a way not to disturb the delicate balance of the existing ecosystem. The forests are pristine and the marine life remarkable, lot of them endemic to these islands. In fact, the place is so remote and so pristine I have half a mind to not write anything about it and let it be the well-kept secret that it is today.
Havelock Island is already beginning to show effects of excess tourism. These islands survive on limited resources which makes it even more imperative to share the tourism load between different islands. In order to protect the islands, however, cutting down tourism at the roots is not the solution. The solution lies in managing tourism in collaboration with the locals to generate enough income and awareness.
Even before taking on tourism on a large scale, there are a few critical problems that have to be addressed first. The major one being that of power generation. Of the 572 islands, 38 are inhabited and almost all these islands depend on diesel for electricity! Considering diesel has to be imported from the mainland and electricity is provided at highly subsidised rates, the government incurs huge losses and I am scared to even consider the massive carbon footprint of the islands. Local resources such as solar, tidal, wind and bio-mass could be considered as alternative options for power generation. The second is that of solid waste management. I have seen parts of the pristine shore lines at Havelock and Neil filled with plastic waste that wash up from the sea.
When I was travelling from Port Blair to Neil by ship, many times the ship passed by plastic bottles floating in the blue waters. Apart from garbage generated by tourists, washed up plastic from the mainland also forms a bulk of the waste collected on the shore. As of now, most of the trash is either thrown into the sea or burnt. GreenLife Society, a local NGO, has tied up with several resorts in Havelock to collect and recycle the plastic waste and has seen some success. But steps have to be taken on a much higher level to deal with all the plastic in the islands.
Apart from these, the islands are also facing a lot of environmental issues, such as several endemic floras in the forests of Interview Island being destroyed by the abandoned elephants used for logging earlier or the introduced species of deer wreaking havoc on the growth of new forest or that of bleached corals. Despite all this, it is extremely sad that the only two occasions when Andaman & Nicobar was talked about was when Tsunami struck and the issue of Jarawas’ exploitation popped up.
About 1,200 km away from the mainland, we almost seem to have forgotten that this paradise is part of India too with its share of problems. These islands are too precious to be ignored and everyone deserves a chance to witness the extraordinary beauty here. The trick is in finding a balance between growing tourism and preserving the islands and that is a very delicate balance indeed.
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