On February 7, 2017, news reports from across the country carried information that is guaranteed to bring joy and enthusiasm to all the travellers and railway enthusiasts. The Ministry of Railways announced that Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a Union Territory (UT) that is often considered either a distant outpost or a tropical tourist destination, is now set to get its first railway track. The Railway Ministry said that it had given the nod to the construction of a 240-kilometre broad gauge railway track between Port Blair, the UT capital in the south and Diglipur, the largest urban settlement in the north of the Andaman island. For the first time, then, will India’s best-known archipelago be plotted on a rail map.
This news will certainly bring great relief to the locals, who suffer from dismal connectivity, and to the tourists. But if you thought that this was a move merely taken to promote tourism in the UT, think again.
Any mention of protecting the Indian territory, our boundaries, airspace, or waters brings to mind the dedicated Armed Forces – the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force, and the Indian Navy. Or perhaps even our paramilitary forces such as the BSF and the Coast Guards.
The Indian government has, however, gone ahead and proved that major national assets such as the Indian Railways can also be effectively put to use as a strategic tool in securing the frontiers of our nation. With the introduction of train services connecting various parts of the islands, India is one step closer to securing the southern and often vulnerable reaches of the country.
Why Focus On Andaman & Nicobar Islands?
The strategic importance of Andaman and Nicobar Islands has long been recognised but ignored by the government for decades. Let us consider the following facts –
- Of the 572 islands that make up this archipelago, only 37 are inhabited. These islands are spread over 450 nautical miles making it extremely difficult to patrol the waters. Lack of human presence and lesser security makes the UT very vulnerable to foreign intrusions and smuggling activities.
- These islands are very close to Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Some of the northern parts of Andaman are only about 22 nautical miles from Myanmar while Indira Point, the southernmost tip is only 90 nautical miles from Indonesia.
- Coco Island, only about 70 kilometres from Andaman was leased to China (by Myanmar) in 1994. China claims it is a listening post while Indian intelligence reports suggest that China is constructing a well-equipped air base on the island.
- Its proximity to the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important shipping routes in the world, makes the UT of immense economic importance.
- China has been busy building up the “String of Pearls” – a chain of vital ports in the Indian Ocean. These ports bear immense defence and economic bearing.
- Port Blair host India’s first and only tri-service command. The Army, Navy, and Air Force serve under a unified command here, referred to as the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). Despite having been set up in 2001, the command remains riddled with dismal logistics and lack of infrastructural support.
- Car Nicobar is home to the southernmost air base of India, extremely important from defence and surveillance perspectives.
- Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the first territories under attack in case of a maritime invasion against India. Not for nothing is Andaman and Nicobar Islands called India’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier”.
History Of Neglect
Despite its great importance, Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been neglected by successive governments, perhaps because of its distance from the mainland and continued pressure from the northern frontiers. India has failed to build up a strong impenetrable presence in the islands that could have been a formidable bastion. A major part of the challenge faced by the people and the troops here is the lack of effective communication. The route between Port Blair and Diglipur which is now to be connected by train would ordinarily take 14 hours by bus and 24 hours by ship. The route is not linked by air connectivity. Bringing in railways to bridge this logistical gap is a hitherto unattempted master stroke.
The construction of the proposed railway track in Andaman and Nicobar Islands is expected to cost Rs 2,413.68 crore. The R-O-I (return on investment) is likely to be a negative one (-9.64 percent). Despite this, the Planning and Finance directorate of the Railway Ministry has shown the green signal to the project due to its “uniqueness and strategic importance”.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands is not the only frontier that India plans to add to its rail map. The Railway Ministry also announced its decision to connect Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh with a 1000-kilometre rail network. The three railways tracks will connect Bhalukpong with Tawang, Silapathar with Bama, and Murkongselek and Rupai with Pasighat. This is clearly another step to consolidate Indian territory. China considers the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh and Tawang in particular, as its own territory. This project will involve an investment between Rs 50,000 to Rs 70,000 crore.
Both the projects that the railways plans to undertake will be among the most challenging and arduous of undertakings. The wilderness and the terrain are the enemies and the weather gods act unseen foes. Even as the Indian Railways promises to complete these engineering marvels, the people of Arunachal Pradesh and Andaman and Nicobar Islands have started to cheer.