Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interview: Lt Gen A K Singh, Lieutenant Governor | Shedding the Shroud of Secrecy

Interview: Lt Gen A K Singh, Lieutenant Governor
Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Shedding the 
Shroud of Secrecy

By Zubair Ahmed

After taking charge as Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 16 months back, Lt Gen (Retd) A K Singh, has brought a sea-change in the approach of the Administration breaking the shroud of secrecy around everything. Departing from the '"ignore and be secure" attitude of various Administrators that the Union Territory has seen, Lt Gen A K Singh is more visible, vocal, responsive and accessible. In a long chat on various issues lingering around for quite sometime, the Lieutenant Governor clears the perceptions and apprehensions of the Islanders. He delves in-depth into almost all issues including his idea about the Islands and the way ahead.

What is your idea of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and its significance to the nation?

Andaman and Nicobar Islands are as much an integral part of India as any part of the mainland, notwithstanding the fact that they are 1200 kilometres away. The territory has a historical connection that goes back many centuries. It is also deeply rooted in our freedom struggle.

The territory has a great strategic location. The Islands straddle the maritime gateway to the Bay of Bengal. The world’s busiest shipping lanes pass just to the South of us. Because of the unique location of the Islands, India can dominate both the Bay of Bengal and play an important role in Indo-Pacific transit. Recognizing this, the nation has located the first tri-service operational command in these Islands.

Of late, there is an idea that the Islands rather than a Strategic Post can act as a Springboard for economic engagement with South-east Asia and beyond. Does this sentiment resonate in the Centre or is it a voice emanating from the Islands?

Yes, there is a difference in India’s position today. With these Islands as its base, India can be both a net security provider in the region as well as act as a catalyst in the economic engagement with the countries in the Southeast Asia and beyond. I think the time has come, where we have to also explore the advantages that Andaman and Nicobar Islands offer us. And I am happy to state that this fact is now being appreciated by the Central government too.

In today’s globalised economy, national security is an outcome not just of creation of military assets, but is also dependent upon economic dynamism.

The location of the Island enables India to play an important role in the region to extend assistance to our neighborhood in crisis such as the earthquake cum tsunami of 2004, as also deal with maritime security threats such as piracy and terrorism.

The concept is understood and articulated very well, but translating it into action is the real challenge.

Will this initiative be driven from Andamans or Centre?

I think, the initial drive has to be from the Islands with full support from the Centre. We have to play the role of a catalyst and once the platform is set, major initiatives will happen at the behest of Govt of India, which has the capability. I have great faith that in the next five to ten years, we will see a changed Andaman Islands keeping intact our ecological and tribal concerns.

As I mentioned, the real challenge is translating this concept into action. We are lagging behind in communication as well as connectivity. You may find, some slow but sure steps are being taken in this direction. I hope by next year, we will have reasonable bandwidth that might help us overcome the existing satellite based problems.

It is also heartening that all our initiatives have been approved by the Centre. Our thrust this year has been on both transport connectivity and communications infrastructure. For the later, we have obtained a special allocation from Govt of India for hiring transponders from ISRO/abroad.

Moreover, Government of India has accepted and earmarked Rs 1700/- crores for laying the undersea cable. And when that happens, the Islands will be ready to take off. And the purpose is to make Andaman and Nicobar Islands fully economically self-developed so that all other activities can start.

We are also looking at more international flights landing here, and restarting connectivity between Port Blair and Phuket in collaboration with Andaman Chamber of Commerce.

The Australian mission, which recently paid a visit to the Islands were very forthcoming in engagement in the field of fisheries and skill development.

In the last ten years, our diplomatic relations with the littoral countries were at the worst. And China was successfully setting up the string of pearls. And now, the Ministry of Home Affairs have rejected the proposal of Andamans being part of the Vanilla chain of Islands. Does this bode well for the Islands?

There is a change in our foreign policy now. The recent visit of our Prime Minister to Japan, interaction with China and now to Myanmar manifests the change.

There are two corridors in our engagement with Southeast Asia -  air/ship corridor and the Northeast corridor. And when infrastructure, connectivity and communication develop here, Andaman and Nicobar will become a natural corridor for engagement.

On Andamans being not part of the Vanilla chain of Islands, it’s the decision of Govt of India and we support that decision. These are issues of strategic nature to be decided by the Govt of India. I think, it won’t be proper for me to comment on what the aim of this initiative is.

It seems there is an underlying principle that the Islands will remain a Defence fortress. If we accept that fact, why can’t we have a roadmap keeping in view the limitations, without expressing so much excitement and hope?

Excitement and hope has to be there. It’s a wrong notion that we are a Defence fortress. I don’t think India is scared of anybody. There was a time; when we lacked the capability of monitoring these 572 Islands spread in 750 kms. Today, we have a tri-services operational command, which may not be fully endowed with. However, the plan is in place. The problems that we face here are  peace-time threats – poaching, illegal fishing etc.

India’s stature today is of a different nature. Except for lingering problems across the Line of Control or Line of Actual Control in Pakistan and China, we hope that in due course, that too will get resolved. But, in Andaman and Nicobar, there is no dispute or conflict. We are fully committed to develop the Islands.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands comprises of Ecology, Tribes, Strategic Outpost, Settlers, Tourism & Development. There have been conflicts between different factors. Recent example is the spat between Tribals in Kamorta with Defence regarding land. It’s going on for a long time now.

There are basic inherent issues that exist sometimes. And, Andaman and Nicobar Admn is fully conscious and committed to resolve such conflicts. Mostly, issues arise because of wrong perceptions. The Administration’s objective is to clear those perceptions.

In the Kamorta issue, the tribals has been assured that their lives and their way of passage is fully protected and the Defence setup in Kamorta is there to provide them security and not detrimental to them. I can’t see any inherent conflict here. It was an issue of mishandling at local level.

I personally visited the place, and spoke to their leaders. And, the Chief Secretary and DGP were also flown immediately and the situation was brought under control. We have also told the Defence to handle this issue with more sensitivity unlike done in the past. The people should feel secure and not threatened as the Defence belongs to every one of us. In my view, the Kamorta issue is just a perception.

There is no conflict between Tribals and Defence.  The Defence requires land for infrastructure development, as part of their larger plan.  And, we also need to realize that Defence has not denied use of their facilities to the civilians. The airstrips in Port Blair and Car Nicobar belongs to the Defence, and its being used for civilian purposes. Wherever it's possible there has to be sharing of resources without prejudice to the Defence.

The land requirements of Defence will be met by the Andaman Administration and they have to keep those needs to what actually is required rather than base it on authorization. An army unit is authorized so many acres of land, and the same method of authorization cannot be applied in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as we are land deficient.

Coast Guard is also separately demanding land in Kamorta. They have been informed to share the land with Navy.

Is there a mediation going on between the Tribals and Defence to break the deadlock?

There is no question of mediation, as we already have a civil-military liaison, which is a formalized affair.

LG's Advisory Council seems to be an esteemed body with good representation. But, don't you think the Admn is approaching issues with a closed and prejudiced mind? Most of the decisions are already taken and the representatives become just bystanders without much say? For eg. ANCOL, AYUSH etc...

The LG’s Advisory Council has been re-activated after 3 years and attempt has been made to broad base it by including representatives from all stakeholder groups. I agree that the Council does not have mandatory powers. However, issues which have far reaching consequences for the Islands are being placed before the Council.

I think the impression that stakeholders are ignored is wrong. Even in the case of sports, there were two views.

The Admn wanted to merge sports with education department, for easy management. But the overwhelming sense of the Advisory Council was against merger, and to empower and reinforce Sports Department.. And, based on the opinion of the majority in the Council, we changed the view.

In some other Administrative as well as legal issues, we have to abide by the rules and laws in force. We cannot base our decisions on majority view.

On Ayush, clear instruction was given that the hospital should not be shifted to any temporary location, against the wishes of the stakeholders. But, the Ayush personnel themselves wanted it to be shifted for a larger benefit.

Secondly, I have directed to make the present Ayush to be better than the earlier location. I also want a group of eminent persons, and media persons to visit the Ayush building and offer their suggestions. Moreover, I have directed that an hourly bus shuttle service to be started between Ayush and GB Pant Hospital from 9 am to 5 pm.

But on some issues like the Andaman College, there was a general feeling that we could have looked at rural area. The students overwhelmingly wanted it in Port Blair. I did not go by this argument too.

The final decision to locate the college at Chakkargaon was based on the opinion by APWD that building cannot be completed by next academic session. The land at different locations examined by the Admn were either not meeting the mandatory land requirements or had CRZ issues requiring more than 5 months to clear. And, there was an ultimatum from Pondicherry University  to withdraw the affiliation, if we do not have the next batch.

We are committed to develop all areas with equal focus including North Andaman and Campbell Bay. There are many projects in the pipeline. We are in an advance stage for setting up of a community college in rural Andaman. We are also planning to reactivate the process of bringing a NIT, which we want to establish in South Andaman. I reiterate that the impression that LG's Advisory Council is just a rubber stamp is wrong.

My understanding about the problem here is that the reason behind many pending projects are the shroud of secrecy around it and lack of a platform for people to express their feelings. Once, they get a chance to express themselves, things look clear.

In the medical college issue too, the response is tremendous. For a post of Dean, we have more than 10 candidates. For forty posts of specialists, we got 269 applications.

In the absence of a democratic setup in policy making, the onus is on bureaucracy to frame policies as well as take decisions. There is rampant indecisiveness among them, blaming  incompetence as well as lack of expertise in various sectors. Isn't the past baggage of the bureaucracy the root cause of pessimism and negativity in the Islands?

No, I think it is a generational issue. The present generation, unlike the old is positive. And, its not just applicable to Andamans, its a pan-Indian phenomenon. Its quite obvious in Andamans as its a small place. The ethos of the old generation was "Let me not lose" - a very defensive mindset. But the present generation is - I can, I shall and I will.

I can speak of my tenure only. When I joined the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, I attempted to analyse the reason why some of the sectors were in a limbo - either the required projects had not been conceived or the projects had not taken off. I think there was a diffidence regarding sharing details of various aspects related to projects with the public. I attempted to break through this shroud of secrecy and bring in some transparency by sharing the details with all the stakeholders. This becomes especially important for long term projects.

As far as the bureaucracy is concerned, the same people who work here works in Delhi too. Bureaucracy like any other section of the society, is a mixed bag. We have officials who are highly motivated, self-driven and outstanding but we have also officials who need cajoling and pushing. Let me however add, that working in the environment prevalent here is challenging and we must give credit where it is due.

In the last 16 months, there is a change in attitude. I am driving it as it is possibly my style. I don't have the patience to wait for the file to circumvent and reach me. I am driving myself in fifth gear. And from neutral, they have come up to third gear. They too will reach their high point when there is passion, and they connect to the job in a desirable manner.

I can assure you that at the senior level, there is no corruption. Maybe, you can blame for lack of passion for addressing the issues of the public. It all starts top down top first. There is passivity because of lack of infrastructure and opportunities.

However, I feel that self-correction is needed even by the media on some issues. One is the streak of negativism that prevails in the reporting. Surely, something good must be happening. It is important to recognize and highlight the good work being done. This will boost the morale of both the public as well as those doing good work.

There are many announcements made by you at different occasions specially related with infrastructural deficiencies. - In construction of roads, you ordered for a technical evaluation for long-lasting roads, in  a meeting at Kanyapuram, you made APWD commit to make a children's park operational within a month. But in most of the cases, there is no follow up. Don't you feel that the monitory mechanism is unable to catch up with your announcements?

As a Lieutenant Governor, my aim is to allow the administrative chain to function and monitor itself. However, key projects are monitored at both in the Raj Niwas and at the level of the Chief Secretary.

As you have pointed out, monitoring mechanism might be lagging at times.  At senior level, monitoring needs to be there, which is sometimes missing. I have been telling why everything has to be done by the Lieutenant Governor.

An Officer on Special Duty has been appointed in the Raj Niwas specifically for this purpose. Now, I will seriously look into this and put in place a proper monitoring system, so that all announcements made are honored. As far as the technical evaluation of road construction is concerned, one sitting was held and now it needs to be taken forward.

What is the status of Bambooflat-Chatham bridge?

The Bambooflat Chatham bridge is an essential requirement of the Islands, especially people of rural South Andaman. The cost of the project is going to be very high. it is not possible to support this bridge from the Andaman and Nicobar plan fund. Therefore, it has to be taken up under Central assistance like the undersea cable. The feasibility report itself was coming to Rs 10 crores. If we don't get a firm affirmation from the Centre, the amount spent would be a colossal waste.

The matter is seriously being pursued and I already had a meeting with Cabinet Minister Nitin Gadkariji.

Till now, the issue of the bridge was of emotional nature. Economics doesn't work on emotional principles. From an emotional desire, we have already brought it into the centre stage up to the Ministry level.

Although, the economics does not suggest a bridge if we look at the number of people, and the Centre only funds bridges where National Highways are involved. We have apprised the Minister that in the long run, we can shorten the route of Andaman Trunk Road and take this route and reduce the distance by many kilometers. And we have also informed him that in the Islands, there is only one National Highway and we cannot apply the same logic here.

The Minister has also discussed it with his Secretary and asked to look into low-cost technology for the bridge. Both options of tunnel as well as bridge is being looked into. Eventually, a bridge or tunnel will come. As the issue is being examined we need to take the Centre along. And it will be my endeavor to get this bridge. I am of the belief that in a year or so, we will get a firm approval from the Centre.

We have acute shortage of land for developmental works. And the resources are also scarce and limited. Isn't it wise to implement Inner Line Permit to overcome such predicaments before its late? Are you opposed to the idea of Inner Line Permit?

I am not opposed to the concept of Inner Line Permit. It was discussed at length in the LG's Advisory Council. There are two issues - illegal migration of foreigners and Indians visiting the Islands and settling here. Indians have no restrictions except in tribal reserve areas. There are historical reasons for migration. People migrate for natural betterment of their lives. We are seriously looking into illegal migration of foreigners and police is on the job.

Now there is the question of carrying capacity. In the last officially stated position there is no problem with the population and is sustainable as of now.

I feel that moving in the direction of Inner Line Permit or restricting entry of Indians needs to be with caution and care. Ministry of Home Affairs had their reservations too on this issue. As we know the original inhabitants of this place are the indigenous tribes. And the descendents of freedom fighters, and later people from various parts of the country have been settling here periodically. How philosophically can one who settled in the Islands in 1994 justify restriction of somebody coming here in 2014?

Secondly, a committee is appointed under the Chief Secretary with the MP and other leaders of political parties as members to sit together with all facts and figures and see how we have to take it forward, if at all we require it. We have to go about it in a very methodical manner and based on the report of the Committee, a decision will be taken.

I personally feel that the case should be based on facts rather than emotions. It is same as the case, where everybody had a perception that 90% of jobs will be taken by non-Islanders. I had a clear idea in my mind. If more than 20% of jobs had gone away from the Islands, I would have cancelled the recruitment process.

On rampant encroachment in various forms

I would like to unequivocally state that encroachment is no longer acceptable. regardless of what may have happened in the past, when the Islands were still developing, there is absolutely no justification for any kind of encroachment of public land under the present circumstances. I would like to make it clear to all that encroachment of land will be treated as a criminal offense. Cases of earlier encroachments will be treated in accordance with various rules and regulations and judgments of the Supreme Court.

The land in our Islands is divided into four zones. There are sufficient land in rural areas like Dollygunj, Beodnabad and Bambooflat, which comes under the CRZ -III zone. Why can't we take initiatives to convert it into Notified Developed Zone so that we don't have to be in a fix when we need land for developmental projects?

I don't think we have looked into this issue seriously. There is merit in this suggestion, and we have to take some serious initiative so that more land is available for future projects.

Why is Andaman still a bad investment destination? Private sector is apprehensive as we can see the inordinate delay in Taj project at Havelock, CG Earth at Long Island and Soma Project in Neil Island still hanging fire. Is it because of stringent laws or bureaucratic red-tapism?

A major focus area has been to revive the spirit of free enterprise in these Islands. People are now feeling confident and coming forward to look for investment opportunities or starting individual enterprises. Tourism has to be the mainstay of economy in the Islands. The vision is to promote sustainable tourism in a unique and eco-friendly manner keeping in view the fragile ecology and indigeneous tribes. We intend to position Andamans as a uninque brand of its own.

Yes, its a fact that there are challenging circumstances for private enterprises. They have to comply with various environmental, coastal regulation and Island Protection Zone related stipulations. The issue of delay in various projects might be related with the environmental regulations.

But, if there is an agreement between two parties, they need to honour it and comply with the laws in force.

Now, if somebody buys agricultural land without it being converted into commercial, how can someone blame for the delay?

I am very sure that with improvement in infrastructure, things will change. And, with the present infrastructure, we can easily accommodate another one and a half lakh tourists, that too if we extend it during off-season, when airfare and hotel fares are also low.

What about exploitation of marine resources and what is the status of Tuna Mission?

We are reviving and looking into this aspect too. As I told you, the Australian mission was forthcoming in the fisheries sector. They are also deliberating in starting food processing units and training with local collaborators. We need to also promote local entrepreneurs to sustain it.

There is so much talk about the experts being involved in the ANTRI project. Of late, its alleged that the bureaucrats are overshadowing the experts even in policy decisions. There is disgruntlement and resentment among the experts, who feels neglected and sidelined.

The Administration and the people of the Islands are conscious about the welfare of the indigenous communities of the Islands and all possible measures are being taken for the welfare and protection of the tribal population. All issues of the tribes are being handled with due care and attention in consultation with Anthropologists and other subject experts.

But, one thing needs to be cleared. We are responsible as well as accountable for our tribes. If a decision or policy fizzles out, the Administration is answerable. And, experts won't be held responsible. Hence, its mandatory for us to be cautious in every step concerned with the tribes.

The Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research and Training Institute (ANTRI) has been set up to carry out research based on the questions which may arise in the field and to suggest research driven welfare policy in consultation with the communities for whom such policies are being framed. A conference on the theme 'Thinking Futures: The PVTGs of the A&N Islands" is being organised in the first week of December 2014, wherein experts and researchers of repute will deliberate on the measures and offer their views.

There is severe shortage of research driven and well trained ground staff working among the tribes. Moreover it looks like hydra-headed with so many commands - ANTRI - Tribal Welfare Director - Secretary Tribal  - AAJVS - Executive Secretary etc..

I have already informed them to have proper coordination between various agencies and make the work more harmonious. We are aware of the shortage of staff and will surely look into it.

The recent Jarawa documentary by foreign filmmakers exposed the vulnerability of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. Your take.

The recent incident of some foreign tourists venturing into the Jarawa Tribal Reserve and making documentary on the community has been seriously viewed by the Admn.  Criminal complaint has been filed and legal notice issued to immediately remove all illegal material from the website and social media, which has been complied with.

I have also directed that the Police Forces, Forest, AAJVS/Tribal Welfare, Fisheries, Coast Guard and Indian Navy should work in a coordinated manner to ensure the security of Jarawa Tribal Reserve area in general and the Western Coast of Andaman Island in particular.

You have changed the way of functioning of the Administration. Are you satisfied with the pace of development?

While it would not be appropriate to comment on our achievements since that is for the people to say, I would like to state that right from day one, I have committed myself to bring about transparency in all dealings in the Admn., besides making it responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people of the Islands. I am reasonably satisfied in this regard, though more remains to be done.

All issues and projects that have been pending for decades have been galvanized, including welfare aspects. One can say without hesitation that a new vibrancy has been introduced in the way governance is being delivered in the Islands. Anyone is welcome to come and see for themselves, or offer positive suggestions for betterment.