An undersea cable to provide high speed Net connectivity, improved power supply and a proposed $1.5-billion transhipment port in Great Nicobar will not only facilitate closer engagement with South East and East Asia, it will also help India gain a strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean Region.
On India's eastern seaboard, 1,350 km from the mainland, lies a 572-island archipelago called Andaman and Nicobar (A&N). This group of islands, only 37 of them inhabited existed on the outer peripheries of the national consciousness. It was only after Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, that New Delhi really woke up to the strategic importance of A&N, which stretch over 500 miles north to south at the western entrance of the Strait of Malacca, and the potential to develop the islands as a spring board for power projection in the region.
India can utilise these islands to monitor military and commercial traffic passing between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. This will enable the Indian military to play the role of gatekeeper to the Indian Ocean at a time when the Chinese navy has been spreading its footprint in what was till recently considered India's sphere of influence. Most importantly, these islands could facilitate a military blockade of the strategic Malacca Straits, through which China gets 80 per cent of its oil supplies, in case of hostilities.
These islands also provide India with strategic dominance over two channels west of the Straits of Malacca. Most ships have to pass through the 200 km wide Six Degree Channel between Indonesia's Aceh Island and Great Nicobar, which hosts an Indian Air Force base. Thus, a vast majority of container traffic between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean passes through India's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Then, there is also the 150 km wide Ten Degree Channel that separates the Nicobar Islands from the Andaman Islands. This is used by a much smaller volume of ships bound for the Bay of Bengal. If hostilities break out, these chokepoints can give India a unique strategic stranglehold over all shipping passing through this region.
Incidentally, though A&N accounts for only 0.2 per cent of India's landmass, it adds 600,000 sq. km to, comprising 30 per cent, the country's EEZ.
Keeping in mind the need to develop the infrastructure of A&N, Modi recently launched India's first undersea optical fibre cable project to provide high speed internet and improve mobile connectivity on these strategic islands. This is very important as the Indian defence establishment on the islands has frequently complained about erratic internet connectivity. The launch of high-speed internet will also help increase the flow of tourists to the islands and add value to the local economy.
“I am hopeful that through our efforts today, not only will the islands and its residents get new facilities in the coming decade but it will also establish Andaman and Nicobar on the world tourist map in a major way,” Modi said at the virtual inauguration of the undersea cable link.
His government is stepping up its efforts to improve the power infrastructure in the islands. Modi had laid the foundation stone of a 50 MW gas-based power project on the island in 2018. According to a report in the Hindustan Times, “one tender to establish the plant has been issued and the bids will be opened on August 28; bids to set up the gas infrastructure and supply of gas will be opened on August 18.”
Currently, diesel is the primary source of the electricity in the A&N islands. The new gas-based plant will be in addition to a 20 MW solar power project commissioned by a public sector company, which has an 8 MWh battery storage system. The islands also have a 5 MW solar plant that is already in operation.
The upgrade of infrastructure in A&N is a key part of the Modi government's Act East Policy, which envisages greater economic, strategic and diplomatic engagement with the countries of South East and East Asia, a senior government official told India Global Business (IGB).
It is in this context that the Prime Minister's announced plans for a $1.5-billion transhipment port at the strategically important Great Nicobar island. This deep draught port will be able to host the largest ships in the world and increase India's share of maritime trade and also create new employment opportunities.
Once ready, over the next 4-5 years, this port, at the mouth of the Malacca Straits, will provide competition to Colombo, Singapore and ports in Indonesia and Malaysia, which currently serve as the major transhipment hubs in the region.
“The idea is to turn Andaman and Nicobar into a major transportation hub and push India's Look East policy,” the official said.