NEW DELHI: In one of the first standoffs between the ministries in the Narendra Modi Government, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has shot down the Ministry of Tourism’s (MoT) proposal to include Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Vanilla Islands organisation in order to jointly promote tourism in the Indian Ocean destinations.
The concept of Vanilla Islands was founded in 2010 to bring all the tourism assets of the Indian Ocean together. Joining the Vanilla Island groups would have meant that Andamans would be jointly promoted along with other Indian Ocean destinations, including Seychelles, Maldives and Mauritius.
The Vanilla ball was set rolling when Seychelles Tourism Minister Alain St. Ange visited India in July. MoT warmed up to the idea and a proposal was sent to the MHA for approval.
But the Rajnath Singh-led MHA shot down the proposal, mooted by Minister of State for Tourism Shripad Yesso Naik, citing the strategic importance of the Andamans which could be affected if the Island is opened up for more tourism opportunities. “Andamans is a very sensitive region both strategically and environmentally. Opening it up further for tourism purposes does not augur well either to Andamans or to the country as a whole,’’ said a government source aware of the development. India is quite concerned about the increasing Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean region. China is the biggest player in the region and the ocean is an important aspect in China’s foreign policy as it links the country to African, Middle Eastern and European trade routes. To counter the Chinese presence, the Indian government feels that Andamans is the best bet as this group of islands which span 450 nautical miles sit strategically at the entrance of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Andamans’ strategic position will help India monitor Chinese maritime activity in the Indian Ocean.
No wonder, India feels that bolstering the Andamans’ defence infrastructure, which would help combat Chinese aggression, is more important than opening it up for tourism. According to the official, the Modi Government is looking at the strategic location of the Andamans in the Indian Ocean with all seriousness. “The government has taken note of the fact that people from abroad have managed to secure fake identities to infiltrate into Andaman & Nicobar Islands,’’ he said. The official added that Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijju had visited the Island recently to discuss the issue of illegal migration to this island with strategic importance. “At a time when the government is trying to put everything into order in the islands, there is no case of opening up,’’ said the official.
On the current status of the proposal, Vanilla Islands CEO Pascal Viroleau told The Sunday Standard that the organisation is still waiting for the official application from the Indian government. “We are waiting for the official applying of these islands,” he said replying to a mail.
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs is also learnt to have expressed its reservation to the MoT proposal citing the possibility of a threat to the already endangered primitive tribal groups including the Jarawa tribes whose total number is already below 50.
“Insensitive tourism will mean death knell to the primitive tribe,’’ said a tribal ministry official, recalling the instance of a Jarawa woman being made to dance naked in return for food by tourists. But naturally, MoT is upset. It feels that it would certainly have strengthened all Indian Ocean destinations, including the Andamans, as Vanilla Islands promote inter-island packages to help increase visitors to member-destinations.