Developing the sister islands of Indian Ocean
In March 2021, for the first time, Japan’s government approved a grant aid of approximately ₹265 crore toward developmental projects in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Although this is the first overseas development assistance (ODA) initiative toward the islands, the hesitation was more in Delhi than in Tokyo.
Both India and Japan, as well as Delhi’s other key maritime partners such as the United States, Australia and France acknowledge and recognise the strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar. These islands not only provide Delhi with a key maritime space but also carry significant potential in shaping the strategic and military dynamics of the Indian Ocean region.
Despite its significant military and strategic possibilities, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will have to be first developed sustainably in order for Delhi to maximise its potential — given its economic, ecological, and environmental constraints as well as the laws to protect the indigenous tribes on the islands. A sustainable island development framework is not only important for the Andamans but will also be applicable and of interest to other island nations across the Indian Ocean.
In continuing its Indo-Pacific collaborations, India and France have the opportunity to create an island development framework for the region.
Similar to the Andaman and Nicobar group of islands, France’s La Reunion in the Southwest Indian Ocean lies near strategic waters and away from its capital. The Andaman and Reunion islands are part of series of island territories under key maritime players in the Indian Ocean. Australia and the US too have similar island territories in the Indian Ocean with Cocos Keeling and Diego Garcia, although the latter’s sovereignty is disputed by Mauritius, which has garnered support through a United Nations (UN) resolution.
However, among the four island territories, Reunion is perhaps the most developed with a framework that supports both the island’s economic needs as well as France’s military priorities in the Indian Ocean. With a population of almost a million on the island, Reunion is an excellent case study to develop strategic islands in a sustainable manner.
The similarities between Reunion and Andamans are manifold, from strategic location and military bases to strict conservation and environmental laws as well as governing bodies, climate and marine ecosystems. Yet, the difference in the level of development and connectivity between Reunion and Andamans stand in stark contrast.
As India continues to recognise the strategic potential of the Andamans and seeks methods and ways to developing these islands, there is scope for collaboration with France, in creating a sustainable framework not only applicable to these two islands but also across the island nations in the region.
While the concept of sister cities is quite common, this could be extended to a framework of “sister islands” addressing specific concerns and challenges for islands. Similar to sister cities, a sister island concept would allow India and France to co-develop a sustainable framework for island development. The ecosystems, environment, constraints, challenges and laws surrounding cities, towns and islands are distinctly different. If India is to invest in capacity building initiatives and maritime projects in the Indian Ocean, there is a need to research and create an island model for development. Such an approach also creates a new avenue for Indian-led initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.
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The primary issues facing island nations in the Indian Ocean are sustainable development, illegal fishing, disaster management, the climate crisis, renewable energy and other aspects of the blue economy. Add to it issues of waste management, which impacts both tourism as well as ecosystems specific to islands, and it is clear that there aren’t enough dedicated initiatives in developing models specific to small islands, let alone under a regional framework.
As India and its partners compete for access and influence across the Indo-Pacific toward achieving common interests, there is a need to engage with and address regional concerns and challenges of strategically located island nations. India and France should lead an effort, utilising their island territories of Andaman and Reunion in developing a concept of sister islands aimed at creating a foundation for a sustainable model for island development across the Indian Ocean.
India could also borrow lessons from France’s island experiences in both the Indian Ocean as well as in the Pacific. To that end, France, in late May 2021, took over as the Chair of the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC). IOC is the only island driven organisation in the Indian Ocean bringing together the African islands of Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius, also known as the “Vanilla islands”. France, too, is a member of this group through Reunion. United by language (French speaking nations) and an island identity, IOC plays an important role in voicing the concerns and challenges of the islands of the western Indian Ocean. India in 2020, formally joined the group as an Observer. This perhaps provides an opportunity for Delhi and Paris to lead an island-focused development model — a gap in the Indian Ocean.
As Delhi looks to maintaining and strengthening its advantages in the Indian Ocean, it should look to leveraging its island territories and non-traditional security issues in offering solutions and addressing regional concerns and challenges. The Andaman and Reunion provide an excellent starting point to do so.
Darshana M Baruah is an associate fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, where she leads the Indian Ocean initiative
The views expressed are personal
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