Cablegate: Andaman and Nicobar Islands Retain the Scars of the 2004

DE RUEHCI #0086/01 0721237
P 131237Z MAR 07





E.O. 12958: N/A


REF: A) 05 CALCUTTA 186 B) 06 CALCUTTA 00103

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. March 2-7, ConGen visited the Union Territory
of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to assess recovery from the
December 2004 tsunami and related issues such as the
environment, economic conditions and strategic concerns. Two
years after the tsunami devastated parts of the island chain,
causing 3,513 deaths (436 dead, 3077 still missing), inundating
20,000 acres and making 46,000 people homeless, progress has
been made in housing and providing financial assistance and
social support. However, the resultant culture of dependency
could make the transition from government largesse to
self-sustaining employment difficult. Unemployed tsunami
victims appear reluctant to seek work while receiving free
rations, housing and even television and radios. As a result,
companies managing the many recovery projects and those in the
resurgent private sector are bringing in workers from the
mainland. The influx of outside labor is straining an already
fragile island eco-system, with water available to the people
only one hour every three days. The Joint Andaman and Nicobar
Islands military command was also seriously affected by the
tsunami, suffering the almost complete destruction of its air

force base at Car Nicobar. However, according to its senior
commanders, the air field was soon operational after the tsunami
and the command is looking to expand its role in the region and
to conduct more joint exercises as evidenced by the presence of
an Indonesian frigate that was paying a port call at the time.
The military was focused on protecting the islands from a
regular flow of Thai, Burmese and other illegal fisherman and
marine poachers. With only 38 islands inhabited of a total of
in 572 in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, much of the
region's environment is well preserved but population pressures,
growing commercial development and infiltration by illegal
poachers threaten this bio-diversity hotspot. END SUMMARY.


2. (U) Geography. The Union Territory of the Andaman and
Nicobar Islands is an archipelago of 572 islands, about 38 of
which are inhabited, with its capital in Port Blair. These
islands are divided into two groups -- the Andamans to the north
and the Nicobars to the south. The entire chain, 800 km in
length, lies closer to Burma and Indonesia than to mainland
India. Their contiguous waters comprise 30 percent of India's
maritime exclusive economic zone. The southern islands are of
particular strategic importance given their location overlooking
the Six Degree Channel near the entrance to the Straits of
Malacca. Some 50,000 vessels transit these Straits each year,
carrying between one-fifth and one quarter of the world's sea
trade. Half of all oil shipments carried by sea come through
the Straits, an estimated 11 million barrels a day.

3. (U) Population. The islands population numbers are vague,
ranging from an official figures of 375,000 to 550,000; of which
the indigenous population comprises a small, but highly
protected minority of about 30,000 people. These include some
of the last true Neolithic cultures. In the Andamans, these are
the Onge, Great Andamanese, Jarawa, and Sentinelese, all tribes
of apparently African origin. The Nicobars are home to two
groups, the Nicobarese and the Shompen, both of apparently East
Asian origin. While all the groups remain secluded to some
extent, only the Sentinelese are fully isolated, and extremely
hostile to outsiders. The vast majority of the islands'
inhabitants are migrants from mainland India. Early migrants
were primarily Bengalis; whereas later migrants are mostly
Tamil, and some friction has developed between the two
linguistic groups.

4. (U) Economy. The government is the largest employer.
Tourism continues to show enormous growth potential, despite a
sharp decline since the tsunami. Until a 1996 Supreme Court
decision protected the Andamans' forest resources, timber was a

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major source of revenue. Plantation agriculture - coconut and
rubber -- is significant, although many coconut groves in
Nicobar were devastated by the tsunami. The islanders fish
actively near to shore, but the rich offshore pelagic resource
is largely untouched except occasionally by poaching vessels of
other nations.

5. (U) Politics. Because it is a Trust Territory, the Indian
Home Ministry appoints a Lieutenant Governor, currently
Lieutenant General (retd.) Bhopinder Singh, to govern the
islands. Although it has one elected Member in the Lok Sahba,
Manoranjan Bhakta of the Congress Party, it has no elected
island legislature. As a result, the government is run entirely
by bureaucrats appointed to serve temporary duty in the islands.

6. (SBU) Security. Port Blair is the headquarters of an
integrated command, the Joint Andaman and Nicobar Command.
Indian forces have significant peacetime operational roles such
as combating poaching, piracy, drugs and gun-running, being near
the Malacca Straits and the Six Degree Channel, and the Indian
Navy is involved in intense patrolling of the sea-lanes. The
Indian military presence has also been increased at Diglipur in
North Andamans in response to the presence of a Chinese
listening post on Burmese territory in the nearby Coco Islands.
The Coast Guard is active in monitoring illegal movements,
especially fishing and smuggling, in Indian territorial waters.
A large air and military base on Car Nicobar was practically
wiped out by the tsunami with heavy loss of life, but was
rapidly rebuilt. Due to security concerns,all foreign visitors
are required to have a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) in order to
visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. While tourism is
important in the Andamans, few foreigners are ever granted
permission to visit the Nicobars (REF A).

Tsunami's Impact


7. (U) In the morning of December 26, 2004, the Andaman and
Nicobar archipelago was rocked by one of the more severe
earthquakes experienced in the region in recent times and were
then battered by the resulting tsunami waves. The Nicobar group
of islands, only 163 kilometers from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, was
hardest hit. The shifting grounds and the resulting waves
changed the geography of Nicobar. The tremors were measured at
a magnitude of 9.3. There were 22 tremors of 5+ magnitude on
that day itself. Since 2004, there have been at least 5,000
tremors with 5+ magnitude. Administration officials, quoting
geologists, said that this was in a way better for the
archipelago to stabilize as stored energy is being released
fast. As a result of the earthquake, 10,000 acres of island
were submerged, along with 350 acres that has risen up from the
sea. Geologists have found that the earthquake also caused a
northeast-southwest tilt of the island landmass. New shorelines
have been formed in the North Andamans, whereas Indira Point, at
the southern-most part of the island has decreased in elevation
by 1.8 m. To the north, the more populated and developed
Andamans experienced greater damage to infrastructure.
According to official numbers, 3,513 people were killed or
missing, 10,000 families were displaced, 10,837 hectares of
agricultural land were lost, and 85 schools, 34 health centers
and 24 jetties damaged. In response, over the past two years
the GOI provided a USD 190 million relief package, shifted
15,000 metric ton of construction material from the mainland and
built 9,565 intermediate shelters spread over eight islands.


8. (U) ConGen visited the Choldari intermediate relief camp to

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see the conditions of those made homeless by the tsunami. 132
families with 491 people were lodged in blocks of 10ft by 11 ft
rooms in galvanized metal sheet shelters. The camp was run by
the territory government with the support of NGOs World Vision
and the Christian Covenant. The camp was clean and well
maintained with a one room school, community center and a basic
health care center. Residents at the camp said that although
they were provided shelter, free rations, televisions and
radios, employment was difficult to obtain. ConGen visited the
shelter of a local carpenter who complained that there was no
work for him as contractors doing reconstruction projects were
bringing in labor from the Indian mainland. ConGen subsequently
visited the nearby permanent shelters being constructed for the
Choldari relief camp. None of the temporary shelter residents
were employed in the work on the permanent shelters. SEEDS NGO
representative Mr. Rehman said that the tsunami victims were
reluctant to work given the free rations and benefits they were
receiving. Another camp official claimed that the contract
companies like to bring in outside workers because they are
easier to control and manage. All the officials and NGO workers
noted that when free rations end in the next few months, the
tsunami victims will face a serious shock and may not be able to

quickly adapt to economic independence.

9. (U) The territory government plans to complete the permanent
shelters for the Choldari camp residents before May 2007, prior
to the monsoon season. However, progress is slow, given
disputes over housing designs and other delays. March 2008 is
the goal for completion of 9,797 permanent shelters for all the
tsunami refugees. The territory government is posting on-line

pictures and status reports on the permanent shelter
construction at

10. (U) The Andaman Chamber of Commerce (ACC) believes that in
addition to the many recovery projects, the local economy is
seeing an upturn with key sectors such as tourism and fishing,
now at pre-tsunami levels or better. Agriculture was slower in
returning, due to loss of land from inundation or salinity.
Port Blair's businessmen were unanimous in saying that they were
facing an acute shortage of labor and that they were
consequently paying higher wages. ACC president Mohammad Jadwet
and his colleagues claimed that prolonged relief operations by
the island administration had made people relief dependent.
They argued that people in intermediate shelters - used to free
ration and accommodation -- were unwilling to work, rather than
unable. An ACC businessman in shipping said that he could not
find local labor for stevedoring and was bringing in workers
from Tamil Nadu. Bengalis were another pool for labor and in
some cases illegal Bangladeshis have been able to pass
themselves off as Indian nationals from West Bengal. To
further develop the local economy, territory officials have
submitted to the GOI a proposal to construct a large
transshipment port in the southern tip of the Great Nicobar
Island to service the massive shipping traffic in the area.

The Population Debate

11. (SBU) According to data supplied by Andaman and Nicobar
administration, the total population of the islands is 356,000
persons. However, most contacts, including government officers,
questioned the official numbers, saying the actual figure was
much higher, ranging from 450,000 to 550,000. The tribal
population is generally accepted at about 30,000. The
continuous influx of outsiders, especially for the
reconstruction projects, has prompted a serious debate on the
islands' carrying capacity. Environmental groups like Society
for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE) argue that the present
population figure of the Andamans is well beyond the islands'
capacity. SANE official Samir Acharya told ConGen that the
population figures quoted by the administration were suspect and
that the actual population could be well around 550,000. He

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also pointed out that study on Andamans' carrying capacity,
undertaken when Rajiv Gandhi was India's Prime Minister,
suggested that the archipelago's population should not exceed
480,000 in 2011. Environmental groups in the islands take this
figure as the population capacity. Although there are
differences over the Andaman's population size, there is broad
agreement among ecologists, civil society organizations and
activists that the islands have exceeded its carrying capacity.
For example, the island is already facing a shortage of fresh
water. The municipality supplies piped water for one hour every
three days.

Forest Ecology

12. (SBU) Mr. S.S. Choudhury, Andaman's Principal Chief
Conservator of Forest, reported that settlement of people was a
problem in the islands because 87 percent of the land is
notified forest area. About 80 percent of the forest is
protected. Different tribes, except for Nicobaris, live in the
forests and in most cases have a limited impact on the
environment. However, activists say that a regulation issued by
Andaman Administration in December 2006, declaring large tracts
of forests in Andamans as reserve forest, has in effect taken
forest resources away from the tribals. In addition, as with
Andaman's population, there is no agreement over the actual
percentage of area under forest cover. Again, Samir Acharya
notes that while the official statistic of forest cover is very
high, actual percentage is much lower as forestry officials do
not take into account the degradation of the forest cover.
According to Acharya, encroachment and grazing animals have done
significant damage to the forest cover and undergrowth.

Military Concerns

13. (SBU) Given the islands' strategic location, straddling
major shipping lanes, the Indian military has an important role
in the region. During his interaction with the ConGen, Air
Marshal P.P. Rajkumar, Commander in Chief, Andaman and Nicobar
(CINCAN) observed that CINCAN was an experiment by Indian
defense planners in an integrated command involving the Indian
Army, Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard. There was a
possibility that the Integrated Command model would be
replicated in other commands, although there were unresolved
difficulties of coordinating the command structure and hardware.
Such a view was, however, questioned by junior officers, who
believed that the Indian military was incapable of supporting
integrated military commands, combining all the services under
one chain of command. CINCAN and his staff agreed on the need
for joint patrolling with other countries of the busy sea lane
that passes within 20 nautical miles of the southernmost part of
the archipelago. CINCAN is already involved in joint patrolling
of the Malacca strait sea lane and was interested in joint
exercises with U.S. forces. During ConGen's visit to Port
Blair, Indonesian frigate Kri Iman Banjol called on Port Blair
as part of the ninth cycle of coordinated patrols with the
Indian Navy. The purpose of the coordinated patrol was to
prevent smuggling, piracy, drug trafficking and illegal fishing.

14. (SBU) These transnational crimes, especially illegal
fishing, are difficult to combat in such an expansive area with
over 500 uninhabited islands. According to Air Marshal Rajkumar
on average a ship a month, of mostly Thai and Burmese fishermen,
is detained. The detainees often remain imprisoned or in legal
limbo for several years. The presence of the fishermen has also
become a serious public health issue for the islands. The GOI
HIV/AIDS office Director Dr. Mishri Lal noted that there were
approximately 300 HIV positive persons in the islands, half of
whom were Burmese and Thai fishermen who were in prison for
poaching. An NGO official added that these 150 or so prisoners

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were allowed work outside confinement during the day, but
returned to the prisons at night. Dr. Lal said that since 1992,
there have been 38 known cases of AIDS and 37 have died. One
woman with AIDS recently left for Andhra Pradesh and her status
is unknown.

15. (SBU) COMMENT. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, recovering
from the ravages of the 2004 tsunami, remain a beautiful and
unique corner of India, being closer to Southeast Asia than
South Asia. The territory offers good opportunities for future
U.S. cooperation in helping the region preserve its great
biodiversity in the face of growing population pressures. In
addition, the islands' joint military command recognizes the
importance of closer cooperation with the U.S. military and
other militaries in the region and is receptive to more joint
exercises. The military officers readily conceded the
difficulty of patrolling such a large archipelago with their
present resources. Given the Islands' strategic position,
greater Indo-U.S. military cooperation would help to protect a
key shipping lane. As the Indo-U.S. relationship grows, even
remote areas such as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands warrant
consideration for closer Indo-U.S. cooperation.

© Scoop Media

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