India's Strategic Islands

From tourist havens to strategic assets, unlocking the potential of India's islands, harnessing them for prosperity and security

January 10, 2024 By Major General Atanu K Pattanaik (Retd) Photo(s): By PIB, X / narendramodi
The Author is former Chief of Staff of a frontline Corps in the North East and a former helicopter pilot. He earlier headed the China & neighbourhood desk at the Defence Intelligence Agency. He retired in July 2020 and held the appointment of Addl DG Information Systems at Army HQ.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits pristine beautiful beaches at Bangaram, in Lakshadweep on January 2, 2024.

Who would have imagined that a simple trip by Prime Minister Modi to the islands of Lakshadweep on January 2, 2024 and a tweet on 'X' highlighting its pristine beauty and untapped potential would cause an international-relations storm of epic proportions.

Diplomatic Turmoil and Upheaval in Tourism

Maldives President Muizzu

Some disparaging and derogatory tweets later, three junior ministers of the new Maldives government stand suspended. The social media is on fire, with celebrities calling for Indian tourists to boycott Maldives and head for Indian island destinations like Lakshadweep and Andamans instead. The Maldives Ambassador has been called in to South Block and conveyed a stern message about India's disapproval of the obnoxious behaviour of its officials. There is a call for a No-Confidence motion by Maldivian Opposition in their Parliament. Under the new pro-China regime of President Muizzu, who had called for immediate withdrawal of Indian troops on the island on assuming office, the Indo-Maldives relations have hit rock bottom. These 75 odd troops had been stationed to maintain disaster relief assets such as ships and helicopters.

Development Challenges and Controversies

As travel-bugs flood the net with searches for tour packages to Lakshadweep, the issues surrounding their development and facilities to be an alternative to hot destinations like Maldives and Mauritius come under the lens. As expected, a cabal of critics decry the lack of infrastructure and rue the state of neglect by the Government in promoting these island destinations. But it is the same set of people with vested interests who earlier tried their best to thwart any efforts to develop Lakshadweep. Over two years back, in mid-2021, there was a big controversy surrounding four reform proposals brought in by its Administrator Praful Khoda Patel. There were agitations in Lakshadweep and neighbouring Kerala. On a petition by Ajmal Ahmed, the Kerala High Court stepped in and passed a slew of interim injunctions. Kerala Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a resolution demanding the recall of the island Administrator Patel. Union Home minister had to step in to assure that all changes will only be brought in after consulting the local people.

At the core of the controversy were steps like right to acquire land for developmental projects and allowing sale of liquor for tourists. With a 95 per cent Muslim population, most of the Lakshadweep islands have long had an alcohol ban in place, which apart from lack of accessibility and adequate tourist infrastructure, sometimes deters tourists. Agitators accused a threat to the cultural identity of the residents of Lakshadweep. Government cites the example of Maldives which is also a Sunni Muslim nation and yet allows alcohol for non-Muslim visitors. Finally, the Kerala High Court dismissed the plea against administrative reforms being implemented in Lakshadweep. Administrator Patel is still firmly in saddle and plans are in motion to add 1,000 new accommodations, with 225 rooms already under construction. Additionally, water villas in Suheli and Kadmat are being developed. Two ultra-high-end Taj resorts are under works.

As travel-bugs flood the net with searches for tour packages to Lakshadweep, issues surrounding their development and facilities to be an alternative to Maldives and Mauritius come under the lens

Untapped Potential, Balancing Ecology and Economy

Comparisons are odious but one can't help wondering why India with 1,382 offshore islands hasn't leveraged their tourism potential. While tiny Maldives with just 298 square kms of dry land attracts over 1.7 million tourists each year, Andamans with 7,950 square kms land mass spread over 572 islands with similarly large pristine coral reefs gets barely four lakhs, mostly domestic tourists, and the scintillating Lakshadweep which looks like emeralds embedded on a turquoise sea allows just about less than ten thousand tourists annually. Of course, there are those clichéd homilies, preserving their fragile ecosystems and such like environmental brouhaha etc which our cabal of critics throw as perfect excuses. As a result, over two million Indians flock to Thailand each year generating at least $2.5 billion for that country. Even Sri Lanka attracts over five lakh Indian tourists each year and Maldives about 2,00,000. Hardworking men and women, students and pensioners, homemakers and entrepreneurs, writers and artists, officials and alcoholics, all need a decent break to unwind. Is it just sheer negligence why the state of affairs with regard to the development of our island assets are what they are or is it, as Admiral Arun Prakash, the venerable former Naval Chief had put succinctly in a column sometime back, about "Delhi's Sea Blindness!"

Glimpses from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Lakshadweep

No doubt a careful balance must be achieved between development and conserving nature. Economy and ecology, both need a sustainable approach. Talking about environmentalists and how genuine are their passion, it is interesting to know that Al Gore, the former US Vice President and Noble laureate environmentalist's electric consumption for his 20-room mansion and pool house in Tennessee amounted to nearly 221,000 kilowatt-hours in year 2006 alone, more than 20 times the US national average of 10,656 kilowatt-hours and the Indian national average of a measly 206 kilowatt-hours. The environmental seminars like the COPS are routinely held in luxury conference halls in exotic locations, after large delegates fly thousands of miles in gas guzzling commercial and private jets, and stay in plush five-star hotels. Sometimes, it looks more like a poorly disguised agenda to hinder development in rest of the world without compromising in any way their own comforts and conspicuous consumptions.

Security Concerns and Strategic Imperatives

One serious fallout of keeping our islands underdeveloped is that this is exploited by international smuggling syndicates who use the relative remoteness and desolation of these island groups to carry out their activities with impunity. On February 21, 2023, three persons were nabbed in Manjeri, Kerala by Crime branch excise officials for carrying MDMA (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine) from a ship that was sunk by drug mafia four years ago in the sea near Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In the middle of March 2021, the Indian Navy had intercepted three boats of Sri Lankan origin off the Lakshadweep coast, carrying heroin, AK-47 and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Similarly, in December 2019, the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) had apprehended six people from Myanmar with banned contraband worth approximately 150 crore, about 125 nautical miles east of Little Andaman.

One serious fallout of keeping our islands underdeveloped is that this is exploited by international smuggling syndicates who carry out their activities with impunity

Earlier, on April 21, 2019, eight Sri Lankan suicide bombers with suspected linkages to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, carried out a series of sophisticated and coordinated blasts across Colombo and the western and eastern coasts killing over 250 people. The group then went on to announce a new Indian sub-continent province of Khorasan (ISKP), covering nine countries, including Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and the Maldives. Both Lakshadweep and the Andamans provide convenient transit points for transhipment, hibernation, storage and staging areas. The cost of neglect and inattention cannot be starker.

The strategic importance of these island groups, straddling the most heavily sailed international maritime trade routes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) needs no emphasis

The strategic importance of these island groups, straddling the most heavily sailed international maritime trade routes in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) needs no emphasis. China has created at least seven artificial islands in the South China Sea adding some 2,000 acres land mass to effectively dominate the vast swathe for future explorations and protect its energy flow from the Gulf region. The US has taken Diego Garcia, a 30 square kms blip just south of the equator on a 50-year lease from UK for its military baseuntil 2036. It is one of two critical US bomber bases in the Asia Pacific region, renamed 'the Indo-Pacific' recently, along with Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Pacific Ocean. One can grasp the strategic value and potential of over a thousand Indian offshore islands in the IOR with a combined land mass of over 8,000 square kms. India's peace-loving doctrinaire notwithstanding, the IOR is quickly getting militarised, turning out to be the ocean of decision of the twenty first century. The current Lakshadweep-Maldives row is a spark that should propel us to take resolute steps to develop our island assets and bolster India's maritime muscles.

Policy Initiatives and the Way Forward

The Government had constituted an Island Development Agency (IDA) to steer the 'Holistic Development of Islands' programme in 2017. Many programmes launched earlier like 'Sagarmala-2003', 'National Maritime Development Plan 2005', 'Maritime Agenda 2010-2020' and 'Sagarmala-2015' have to be taken to their logical conclusion. The taste of pudding is in eating. People should be able to look forward to spending sunny days there, lying on a hammock shaded by coconut fronds in those exotic white sand islands, watching the Indian Navy's fleet gently sail by while IAF fighter jets swish over the horizon reassuringly.