Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands : Location, History and Significance | UPSC

Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Location, History and Significance | UPSC


  • The realisation of the critical importance of ocean power, and the rapid enhancement in the capabilities of the Chinese People Liberation Army (PLA) Navy have brought a degree of seriousness to the imperative of developing Indian island territories in general, and the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) group in particular.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

  • The Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal consist of about 836 islands/islets, only 31 being inhabited.
  • The entire group of islands is divided into two broad categories – the Andaman in the north and the Nicobar in the south. They are separated by a waterbody which is called the Ten degree channel.
•  Some important mountain peaks in Andaman and Nicobar Islands are:

  • Saddle Peak (North Andaman – 738 m),
  • Mount Thuiller (Great Nicobar – 642 m),
  • Mount Diavolo (Middle Andaman – 515 m), and
  • Mount Koyob (South Andaman – 460 m)
  • The islands are located 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) southeast of the Indian mainland. Sabang in Indonesia is 90 nautical miles southeast of Indira Point (the southernmost tip of India located on Great Nicobar island), and Coco Island (Myanmar) is barely 18 nautical miles from the Landfall Island, the northernmost tip of the Andamans.
  • Should Thailand build the Kra Canal connecting the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea, its mouth would be about 350 nautical miles east of Port Blair.
  • The two sets of islands became a union territory of the Republic of India in 1956. Port Blair (on South Andaman Island) is the territorial capital.
Strategic Significance Of Andaman & Nicobar Islands ⛰️| #upsc #news #newstoday #currentaffairs

Geography of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

  • Both the Andaman and Nicobar groups are formed by the above-sea extensions of submarine ridges of the Rakhine Mountains and the Patkai Range to the north and the Mentawai Ridge (the peaks of which form the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia) to the south.
  • Some smaller islands are volcanic in origin. Barren Island, the only active volcano in India, is situated in the northern Andamans.
  • The highest elevation of the Islands is at Saddle Peak (737 metres) on North Andaman, followed by Mount Thullier on Great Nicobar and Mount Harriet (365 metres) on South Andaman.
  • Formed of sandstone, limestone, and shale of Cenozoic age (i.e., formed during the past 65 million years), the terrain of the Andamans is rough, with hills enclosing narrow longitudinal valleys.
        • Flat land is scarce and is confined to a few valleys. The coral-fringed coasts of the islands are deeply indented, forming safe harbours and tidal creeks.
  • The terrain of the Nicobars is more diverse than that of the Andamans. Some of the Nicobar Islands, such as Car Nicobar, have flat coral-covered surfaces with offshore coral formations that prevent most ships from anchoring.
        • Great Nicobar is the only island in the territory with a significant amount of fresh surface water.

History of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

  • Located on the trade routes from India to East Asia, the Andaman and Nicobar island groups have been known from earliest times.
  • The 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk I-ching, the Arab travelers of the 9th century, and Marco Polo (c. 1254–1324) are among those who mentioned the islands.
  • Chatham Harbour, situated in the South Andaman district, was the first site of the British settlement in the Andaman Islands. Here, they established their first penal colony for offenders from British India in 1790. However, it was abandoned just a few years later.
  • In the mid-19th century, concern over native attacks on shipwrecked crews and the need for a penal settlement after the Indian Mutiny (1857–58) led the British to return to the Andamans.
        • In 1858 they founded a new penal colony, named Port Blair. In subsequent decades, many political prisoners were housed in the Cellular Jail at Port Blair, also called Kala Pani (Black Waters).
  • Meanwhile, the Danish, who had been the claimants of the Nicobar Islands—the ownership of which had since the 17th century shifted variously between France, Denmark, Austria, and Great Britain—relinquished their rights to the territory to the British in 1868.
Tavarikh-i ‘ajib

• Tavarikh-i ‘ajib (Black waters: The strange history of Port Blair) is an account of the British penal colony of Port Blair.

Muhammad Jafar (1838–1905) was deported to the Andaman colony for his part in the 1857 uprising.

• In this book, he describes the life and customs of the islanders, the rules and regulations for the management of the convicts in the period 1858–79, and the people in authority at the penal colony.

• He also highlights major events, such as the 1872 assassination at Port Blair of Governor-General Lord Mayo.

  • Japanese forces occupied both the Andaman and Nicobar island groups from 1942 to 1945 (during World War II); after the British recaptured the islands, the penal colony in the Andamans was abolished.
  • Administration of the Andamans and Nicobars was passed to India when it gained independence in 1947. The Andaman Cellular Jail, where Indian political prisoners were held, was declared a national monument in 1979.

Importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

  • The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, hold immense geo-strategic and geo-political significance due to their unique geographical location and geopolitical dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region.

a) Geo-strategic Importance of the A&N Islands:

  • Strategic Location: Situated at the crossroads of major sea routes connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands serve as a gateway to crucial maritime routes, including the Strait of Malacca. This location enhances their significance for naval operations, trade, and maritime security.
  • Security Buffer: The islands act as a natural barrier, offering strategic depth to India’s eastern coast and serving as a buffer against potential maritime threats from the east. They play a crucial role in safeguarding India’s maritime interests and maintaining maritime domain awareness in the region.
  • Access to the Indian Ocean: With their location near key chokepoints and sea lanes of communication, such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca, the islands provide India with strategic access to the Indian Ocean region, enabling it to monitor and respond to maritime activities effectively.
• Of significance for Indian strategists is the location of the Great Nicobar Island, which sits astride the western entrance/exit of the Malacca Strait and can comprehensively dominate all shipping — merchant as well as naval — in transit.

• This was the reason that as far back as 2003, Chinese Premier Hu Jintao warned the PLAN about a future “Malacca Dilemma”.

b) Geo-political Significance of the A&N Islands:

  • Maritime Connectivity: The Andaman and Nicobar Islands serve as a linchpin for enhancing maritime connectivity and promoting economic cooperation among countries in the Indo-Pacific region. India has initiated projects like the “SAGAR” (Security And Growth for All in the Region) vision to leverage the islands’ geo-strategic location for fostering regional connectivity and economic integration.
  • Regional Stability: As a responsible stakeholder in the Indian Ocean region, India plays a pivotal role in ensuring peace, stability, and security. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands contribute to regional stability by facilitating humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, counter-piracy efforts, and joint maritime exercises with partner countries.
  • Diplomatic Engagement: The geo-political significance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands extends to India’s diplomatic engagements with neighboring countries and major global powers. India’s “Act East” policy emphasizes strengthening ties with Southeast Asian nations, and the islands serve as a platform for fostering closer economic, cultural, and strategic cooperation with these countries.

c) Economic Importance of the A&N Islands:

  • Tourism: The Andaman and Nicobar Islands boast pristine beaches, lush rainforests, and diverse marine life, attracting tourists from around the world. Tourism is a major economic driver, contributing significantly to the islands’ revenue and employment generation. Efforts to promote eco-tourism and develop tourism infrastructure further enhance the islands’ appeal as a tourist destination.
  • Fisheries: With abundant marine resources and a rich biodiversity, the islands support a thriving fisheries industry. Fisheries contribute to local livelihoods, food security, and export earnings. Sustainable management practices and technological advancements have the potential to boost fisheries production and value-added processing industries.
  • Natural Resources: The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are endowed with natural resources such as timber, minerals, and medicinal plants. Responsible exploitation and sustainable management of these resources could spur economic growth and diversification, while also ensuring environmental conservation and biodiversity preservation.
  • Exclusive Economic Zone: They Islands give India substantial ocean space under the United Nations Conference on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) in terms of exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Why has the pace of developing strategic infrastructure in A&N been slow?

  • First, it is fairly recently that political decision-makers have realised that the islands are strategically critical for India’s security. The reasons behind the realisation include the unprecedented expansion of the PLA Navy.
  • Second, the distance from the mainland and difficulties of developing infrastructure have been used as an excuse to delay and stall various projects.
  • Third, complex procedures for obtaining environmental clearances even for small projects have been a dampener. Regulations on the conservation of forests and native tribes have complicated issues of land acquisition.
  • Fourth, the development of islands and strategic infrastructure is a multi-dimensional project involving several ministries, departments, and agencies, that presents significant coordination challenges.
  • Finally, the conflict between a long-term strategic vision and immediate political gains has often tilted in favour of the latter.

Steps taken by the Indian Government for the development of A&N

  • Recognizing the strategic and economic importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Indian government has undertaken various initiatives to promote their development.
  • These efforts encompass infrastructure development, tourism promotion, connectivity enhancement, and sustainable resource management.

a) Infrastructure Development:

  • Example: The Indian government has initiated the construction and modernization of ports in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, such as the expansion of Port Blair Port, to enhance maritime connectivity and facilitate trade.

b) Tourism Promotion:

  • Example: Eco-tourism initiatives have been launched, including the development of nature trails and eco-friendly resorts, to attract tourists while preserving the islands’ delicate ecosystem.

c) Connectivity Enhancement:

  • Example: The inauguration of a submarine optical fiber cable linking the islands with the mainland has significantly improved internet connectivity, supporting e-governance services and digital connectivity.

d) Sustainable Resource Management:

  • Example: Efforts to promote sustainable fisheries management include capacity-building programs and modernization of fishing fleets, ensuring the responsible utilization of marine resources.

e) Administrative Development:

  • Example: The Government of India constituted the Island Development Agency in 2017 for the development of islands. The focus is on creation of jobs through the promotion of tourism, seafood, coconut industry, etc.

Measures taken by the Government to enhance the security of A&N

  • The Indian government has implemented various measures to enhance the security of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Here are some specific examples:

a) Military Infrastructure Development:

  • The government has invested in bolstering military infrastructure in the islands. For instance, the Indian Navy operates INS Baaz, a naval air station located in Campbell Bay, Great Nicobar. This base enhances the Indian Navy’s surveillance and response capabilities in the region, contributing to maritime security.

b) Coastal Surveillance Systems:

  • Advanced coastal surveillance systems have been deployed to monitor the maritime activities around the islands. For example, the National Automatic Identification System (NAIS) has been installed to track vessels in real-time, aiding in the detection of suspicious or unauthorized vessels. Additionally, the Indian Coast Guard operates coastal radar stations across the islands to enhance maritime domain awareness.

c) Joint Military Exercises:

  • Regular joint military exercises are conducted in the Andaman Sea. One notable example is the biennial ‘Milan’ exercise, which brings together navies from various countries in the region. These exercises promote interoperability and cooperation among participating navies, strengthening maritime security in the Andaman Sea.

d) Strategic Partnerships and Agreements:

  • India has entered into strategic partnerships and agreements with neighboring countries and regional organizations to enhance maritime security cooperation. For example, India collaborates with countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia through mechanisms such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) to address common maritime security challenges.

Conclusion and the way forward

  • To obviate the possibility of intrusions by state and non-state entities, the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) will need to maintain three-dimensional maritime domain awareness through networked assets, including radars, aircraft, satellites and unmanned vehicles.
  • The command must be invested with adequate defensive and offensive firepower, as well as rapid-reaction forces with amphibious and airlift capabilities.
  • The frequent transits of PLA Navy (PLAN) warships, submarines and research/intelligence-gathering vessels in these waters portend a sustained Chinese naval presence, including nuclear attack submarines. This would require the Indian Navy to maintain a substantial anti-submarine warfare capability in the A&N.
  • In conclusion, while significant strides have been made in the development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, sustained efforts are required to realize their full potential as a strategic, economic, and ecological asset for India.
  • Continued investment, innovation, and collaboration are essential to address challenges and capitalize on opportunities for inclusive and sustainable development in the archipelago.


Practice Questions:

Topic: India and its Neighborhood- Relations. (GS Mains Paper 2)
Q. To what extent do the security challenges faced by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands intersect with their developmental requirements, and how can strategic initiatives be balanced to ensure both security and sustainable growth? (Answer in 250 words)

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