Power crunch in paradise

  • 29/09/1995

Power crunch in paradise BATHED in a halo of neon and sodium lights, Port Blair looks very attractive at night. For a few undiscerning moments, you are impressed by the fruits of development. But it"s not long before the effect wears off, revealing the sordid picture underneath.

The entire town draws its electric fuel from diesel generators, much of which is used up in lighting the bungalows of vips and pleasure spots such as the water sports complex: The public, in the meantime, has to willy-nilly put up with power rationing.

The picture assumes an even more ridiculous angle when one reckons the economics of generating this power: it costs the government about Rs 6 per unit, but is sold at a mere Re I per unit. And cheap electricity is just one of many subsidies the government pampers the public with. Going by one guestimate by Samir Acharya, founder of the NGO called Society for Andaman & Nicobar Ecology (SANE), the total subsidy per capita in the islands couldn"t be less than Rs 15,000 (compared to the per capita income of India which is only Rs 6,000).

The Andaman archipelago hides many such absurdities. And perhaps nothing illustrates this propensity for procrastination and inefficiency more forcefully than the story of the decline of the Island Development Authority (IDA). Set up in 1986 at the behest of the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, IDA was supposed to come up with an integrated environmentally sound development strategy for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Am).

In all fairness to IDA, It did come up with such a strategy in 1986 under the chairmanship of M G K Menon. But whatever became of the report? Uhat tangible contribution has IDA made to the development process of the islands and what is its relevance today? To seek answers to these questions, probably the best thing would be to compare IDA"s 1986 development strategy for the ANi with the changing contours of AM"s development scenario.

In the area of agriculture, the island more or less remains where it was a decade ago. The archipelago is still dependent on the mainland for all its food requirements - rice, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, chillies, you name it. And with rising prices, the food subsidy per capita has also gone up substantially.

Furthermore, the state of agriculture remains way behind the times. The local farmers clear the forests to plant crops, which makes the soil less fertile and less firmly bonded to the earth. So with more forests being cleared for cultivation, soil erosion is as rampant as before. To make matters worse, the soil conservation scheme of the agricultural department has had little effect.

The problem is further compounded by excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers. As a result, when the rains arrive, the clayey topsoil mingles with the rainwater and drains into the sea, carrying along toxic fertilisers and pesticides. As a consequence, the surrounding sea gets choked with sand and the marine life poisoned with fertilisers and pesticides. The surrounding colonies of dead corals underline the gravity of the situation. Yet, there is little effort to popularise organic farming using manure or earthworms or blue green algae.

The government"s fascination for monoculture is intriguing, considering that it is slowly destroying the fertility of the soil. The Port Blair-based Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), for instance, has found that in all typeg of monoculture, such as palm oil plantations, the calcium carbonate content has decreased at an alarming rate. The severe erosion has also resulted in preferential removal of organic matter and clay. Says A K Bandopadhyay, director Of CARI, "The soils under natural regeneration, lost 0.74 per cent organic carbon whereas in a similar watershed but under a monoculture, the loss was 1.7 per cent for groundmit and 2.18 per cent for paddy. The micronutrients, such as manganese, have also gone below critical limits." Unfortunately, in ANI, a lot of problems faced by farmers are not taken up as priorities for research. Says Bandopadhyay, "A case in point is the viability of irrigation ponds and their real impact on the expansion of area under irrigation and productivity of land. Another case is the impact of soil conservation works on controlling soil and water erosion and improvement of productivity. Often the research conducted in these areas may not be relevant to the local needs and problems."

The government has also made little effort to involve local communities, credit marketing societies and banks to persuade farmers to adopt innovative technologies, such as water-shed technology. As a consequence, says Bandopadhyay, more and more area is being brought under traditional agriculture in a manner detrimental to the environment.

Lack of sensible policies is also hindering the growth of healthy agriculture. For instance, all the allotted hilly lands have not been utilised by the settlers. Presently, they have only non-occupancy rights on them. They can get occupancy rights only after they develop the land allotted to them. But to develop these lands needs a lot of money - first they have to clear the forest and" then plant fruits and other plantation crops.

Explains Bandopadhyay, " As long as credit is not available to the landowners, they will not be able to develop these lands scientifically. And credit will not be available to the settlers as long as they are not in a position to mortgage their hilly lands. Because credit is not easily available, these lands are being cultivated in an environment-unfriendly manner."

The persistence of these problems only displays the brilliance and wisdom with which the Andaman administration and IDA have sought to resolve the complex problems of Andaman"s development.

Islands stumped
Despite government strictures on clearing of forests, deforestation continues unabated, often at the connivance of and in collusion with forest officials. Besides, given the strength of the forest department, it is well-nigh impossible to check intruders from felling trees. In fact, all along the Andaman Trunk Road, which cuts through the dense forests of middle and southern Andaman islapds, one is impressed to see dense tree cover on either side of the road. "But," says Samir Achar)@, "go a little inside the forest and you will discover large pockets of land cleared of vegetation "by the settlers."

"So long as the forest department is expected to earn revenue from the forests and not looked upon as their protectors, deforestation will not stop nor will the nexus between timber merchants and forest rangers," warns John Lobo, a retired deputy conservator of forests.

Lobo has even made a controversial estimate that the forest cover in ANI may have gone down from 86 ppr cent to about 75 per cent. If one looks at the pattern of rainfall decadewise, Lobo"s figures may not look so implausible. For instance, at Mayabunder in Middle Andaman the average for 1981-90 is 2376.3 mm compared to 2902.7 mm in 1951-60. At Car Nicobar it is 2804.7 min in 1951-60 compared to 2634.6 mm in 1981-90. This decline, says Lobo, could be attributed to the fast decreasing green cover.

Furthermore, rainforests continue to be cleared for agricultural purposes. Bandopadhyay believes it is nothing short of an ecological disaster for the established system. The ultimate effect of deforestation is the degradation of soil which is the "soul of the humid tropical ecosystem." Degradation in certain areas is so severe that the soils have become completely barren, says the cARi director.

Here again, the AM administration and iDA have cut a sorry figure.

Bermudas in the Andamans
Tourism is perhaps the only industry that can earn the ANI administration some revenue. But it is also a subject of heated controversy because of its impact on the islands" ecology. The two actors in this debate are the environmentalists and the ANI administration. While the latter, it appears, wants to develop the islands modelled on Phuket (in Thailand) and Barbados, the former is totally opposed to it. The government, however, is going ahead with its plans of promoting island tourism in a big way - regattas, five-star hotels, golf courses, beach resorts, and so on. This, argue the environmentalists, is bound to put pressure on the d1ready strained resources of these islands.

This brings us to the vexed question of the carrying capacity of the islands. Carrying capacity is defined in terms of that population whose living does not lead to irreparable environmental damage. This figure for the islands varies from 0.3 million to 0.85 million based on different formula of calculation. The latter figure, however, is a widely accepted value. The islands had already crossed the critical figure of 0.3 million in 1986. IDA had then urged the government to check the invasion of settlers in the islands, but apparently people from the mainland continue to stream into ANI without much hassle. Says Acharya, "These figures are at best guesstimates. Nobody has really calculated the ecological cost of sustaining such large human m8 numbers. What"s even more irritating is that government still hasn"t come up with a plan to @12 check the immigration to the islands."

The population stress is already beginning to tell on the resources of the islands. For example, over the past bne year, 32,000 il@etric tonnes of foodgrains and 3,000 metric tormes of sugar was brought from the mainland and almost the entire population is covered under the Public Distribution System.

Furthermore, over the past few years, the traffic between Port Blair and the mainland has increased manifold due to unchecked migration of people from the mainland, commercial activities and tourists. And the existing transport facilities are just not enough to take this load. So there is always a shortage of tickets, both maritime and airlines.

Population increase has also put tremendous pressure on water and power resources. The entire power requirement of these islands is met by 30 diesel-based power houses, which generate electricity upto 30 mw. And of late, there have been power cuts for at least an hour every night. Likewise, a few months before the monsoon, Port Blair is plunged into a water crisis! - households get water for half an hour every alternate day.

The use of Polythene bags has increased tremendously in recent years. Since there is no industry for recycling such waste materials, plastics are going to pose a serious threat to marine ecosystems.

Another environmental hazard posed by population pressure is building construction. The largescale removal of sand from different beaches for construction purposes has resulted in the disappearance of goo4 beaches and the destruction of traditional nesting sites of sea turtles and many other marine animals such as the dugong, or sea cow.

Ironically, an analysis of "the past 10 years" data indicates that there was no substantial Ocrease in foreign tourists until 1993 and out of 40,000 touri4s only 2,500 were foreigners, which the ANi administration says are their major target. This only exposes the shortsightedness of government policies. Going by IDA"s projections maae in 1986, ANi should have had 15,000 tourists by 1991.

These are some of the mo?e glaring failures of the government policies. There are several others that only bolster the inefficient image of the administration. For example, government departments still complain of paucity of staff. The forest department is certainly very poorly staffed and equipped to guard over the scattered forests of the islands. Likewise, the Tourism: the cure that could kill Zoological Survey of India has just two scientists for surveying the entire archipelago. The "Botanical Survey of India, the Geological Survey of India, and the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) all face the same problem.

The result: you can only guess as to how many endemic species, both flora and fauna, are surviving and how many are extinct on the islands today. There is very little attempt to preserve and catalogue the traditional knowledge, skills, language, and customs of the various ANI tribes.

Settling in problerng
Yet another instance of the government"s stupid ways is the inept handling of the settler-tribe conflict. By allowing people to settle along the Andaman Trunk road, which cuts through territory belonging to the Jarawas, a fierce Andaman tribe, the government has unleashed a never-ending war between them and the Jarawas. And the constant confrontation with the settlers has changed the Jarawa lifestyle for the worse - they now raid the settler camps for liquor and tobacco.

Furthermore, despite anthropologists" advice to leave these tribes alone, the government has continued its policy of "civilising" the primAive tribes., In a recent tourism fair held in Port Blair, the ASj displayed a photograph of an Onge (another tribe) couple proudly displaying a medley of modem consumer products, implying, quite insensibly, that these people have been "civilised".

One can endlessly stretch this litany of charges against the governmenf.-The actions of IDA and the AM administration leaves a lot to be desired in areas like education, employment, industry and preservation of dlife. It"s at once comic and tragic - comic because one can"t help laughing at the humpty- dumpty style of government functioning and tragic because it might ruin one of the world"s last surviving pristine rainforests.

But what do IDA officials have to say about these, accusations? Not much, unfortunately- For one, most the old members of this body have gone elsewhere and the new ones are reluctant to talk about it. They even refused to divulge the various studies conducted by IDA during the past decade, saying they were confidential. Nevertheless, many confided that IDA was now a more or less defunct body, especially after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, who took a personal interest in these islands.

Says N G Nair, deputy advisor with IDA, IDA"s role in the develdpment of these islands has been largely advisory. We carried out studies and based on thestudies we made certain recommendations to the various central ministries. Our job ended:there. After this, it was between the ministriesand the ANI administration to implement those recommendations. What has changed between.now and then is That earlier our counsel was taken seriously, now Nobody cares."

Nair"s statement is borne out by the actions of the AM administration. For instance, last year it cleared a project to culture European fishes in Andaman waters, despite a ministry of environment and forests" injunction not to do it. Likewise, it recently allowed some developers to build resorts right on the beach, thus violating the coastal zone regulations. The administration has also been organising regattas for the past two years, indiscriminately giving permission to the participants to dive around several islands. Says Acharya, "What" is irksome is that none of the actions of any of these groups are monitored for any illegal activity."

It seems not a little intriguing why IDA is still there. Either give it more teeth or scrap it. But that"s not how the government works. As in Kafka"s novels, it will one day disappear of its own. Till that happens, it will keep reminding us that islands in the sun are also the most fragile.