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The Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Indian Territory, Regional Potential

Often referred to as among the most strategically located island chains in the world, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are critical for India’s strategic interests. The islands comprise the sole archipelago in the Bay and they straddle important sea channels. As the long-standing protectionist regime in the islands morphs into a more flexible form of governance that will balance development with conservation, the stage appears set for India to cultivate the islands’ potential. The country is undertaking initiatives to boost connectivity in the islands and explore its prospects as a military base. This brief examines these strategic manoeuvres being undertaken by India.


Sohini Bose and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, “The Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Indian Territory, Regional Potential,” ORF Issue Brief No. 495, September 2021, Observer Research Foundation.


Legend has it that the Malays sailed west to capture aboriginals for slave trade from a nearby chain of islands, which they named ‘Handuman’ after the ancient Indian monkey deity Hanuman.[1] Later, in 1014 AD and 1042 AD, the southern islands of this archipelago were used as a strategic naval base by the Chola Dynasty,[a] who referred to it as ‘Ma-Nakkavaram,’ a Tamil word meaning “open land”.[2] At the hands of Venetian explorer Marco Polo, the name morphed to ‘Necuverann,’ and eventually under the British, who also used one of the islands as a small naval base, the entire island chain came to be called the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.[3] The genesis of the names of these islands provides an insight into how connected the island chain had been to the countries in its proximity, and also its geographical significance as a naval base. Currently, it is these two characteristics of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) that are in the focus of India’s strategic attention, especially in the context of pursuing its interests in the Indo-Pacific region.

The ANI are two groups of islands—the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands, covering an area of 8,249 sq km. The entire island chain consists of 836 islands including islets and rocky outcrops, of which some 38 are permanently inhabited by a population of over 430,000. The islands are governed as a single Union Territory by the Central Government of India, through the Andaman Nicobar Administration. The capital city of Port Blair is the seat of the Administration, headed by the Lieutenant Governor, who serves as direct link with the Central Government.[4] The ANI are also home to India’s only integrated tri-service command of the armed forces—the Andaman and Nicobar Command for maritime surveillance and enhancing India’s strategic presence in the eastern Indian Ocean[5] as it merges into the Pacific.

Source: “The Little People of Andaman Islands.”[6]

Referring to the combined geographical expanse of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the Indo-Pacific is essentially a geostrategic realm of opportunities and challenges. For India, it stretches “from the shores of Africa to that of Americas,” as declared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018.[7] ‘ASEAN centrality’ lies at the heart of India’s conception of the Indo-Pacific and therefore, strengthening ties with the countries of Southeast Asia defines its Indo-Pacific aspirations and forms the basis of its ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies.

Being the common maritime space between India and Southeast Asia, the Bay of Bengal and the adjoining Andaman Sea are cardinal for peninsular India’s strategic manoeuvres. At the same time, India’s aspirations in the Bay co-exist with its apprehensions over the belligerent rise of China in these waters. As the sole archipelago of the Bay, striding important Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) and overlooking the Malacca Strait, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are extremely critical for India’s strategic interests. However, for years since independence in 1947, the Indian government regarded the development of the islands with “benign neglect”, despite repeated proposals for the establishment of a transhipment port and bunkering facilities, amongst others. While this passivity has made it difficult to undertake rapid construction measures, it had not been cultivated without reason. 

Developmental Conditions

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to different indigenous tribes as well as biodiverse species of flora and fauna. They also contain about 30 percent of India’s Exclusive Economic Zones. Historically, the Indian government has sought to preserve the islands in its “existential setting against the pulls of exploitative enticements.”[8] The governance parameters of the islands were regulated under a protectionist regime to ensure the preservation of natural resources. The state machinery was also designed in a way that imposes structural limitations on development projects. These were further sustained by environmentalists, anthropologists and social scientists and backed by the Supreme Court, which favoured environmental conservation in its judgements regarding the islands.[9] For example, in 2002, the Supreme Court responding to an appeal by three non-profit organisations, stated that, “There should be no expansion of monoculture or commercial plantations on Forest Land. The existing plantations of oil palm, rubber and teak are reportedly no longer viable and should be phased out.”[10]

Again, in July 2011, in T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union Of India & Ors, the Supreme Court ruled that “Tropical rain/moist forests, particularly in areas like Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Andaman & Nicobar Islands should be totally safeguarded. No forest should be permitted to be worked without the government having approved the management plan in a prescribed form and in keeping with the National Forest Policy.”[11] Over time, the Islands’ protectionist governance practices, reinforced by these legal judgements, led to the isolation of the islands from the surge of development in the mainland. Today the primary livelihood activities of the residents of the islands continue to be agriculture, forestry and fishing. The territory contributes the lowest to India’s overall GDP amongst all other states and UTs.[b],[12]

In recent years, the growing aspirations of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ residents—and the national interest to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia—have prompted the government to seek a strategy that would rationalise economic growth with environmental protection to ensure “all round national development.”[13] Thus, changes are gradually being witnessed in how the territory of the ANI is being governed.[14]

In 2015, the government announced a INR 100,000-million plan to develop the islands into the country’s first maritime hub under the supervision of the Andaman and Lakshwadeep Harbour Works, funded by the Ministry of Shipping and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration.[15] The project aims to develop the infrastructure necessary for a maritime hub and other facilities needed for its functioning, such as telecommunications, electricity, and water. Also as a mark of the ANI’s increasing importance in India’s strategic discourse, PM Modi visited the islands in December 2018 for the first time, inaugurating several development projects on connectivity, energy and tourism, signalling an end to the islands’ isolation.[16] In a further manifestation of declining protectionism, tourism received a boost in 2019, when a new Island Coastal Regulation Zone Notification was promulgated, allowing land reclamation for ports, harbours and jetties. This is expected to usher in luxury tourism in Smith, Aves and Long Islands, and water aerodromes in Neil and Havelock islands.[17] For many years, only 7 percent of the entire island chain had been developed, with the rest demarcated as protected areas.[18]

Most recently, in 2020, the Chennai-Andaman and Nicobar undersea internet cable was inaugurated to provide high-speed internet connection to seven remote islands of the ANI chain—i.e., Swaraj Dweep (Havelock), Little Andaman, Car Nicobar, Kamorta, Great Nicobar, Long Island, and Rangat. This will also facilitate trading and tourism on the islands.[19] If the geographic significance of the islands is to be converted to strategic utility, development must percolate into all aspects of its administration. To do so and, consequently, to leverage the proximity of the island chain with Southeast Asia, India has entered into a number of ventures in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 

Current Initiatives and Partnerships

To make the Andaman and Nicobar Islands more relevant to India’s development goals, key is geography: the islands are located much closer to the countries of Southeast Asia than they are to the Indian mainland. The Landfall Island, for example, situated at the northernmost tip of the island chain is 20 km away from Myanmar’s Coco Island and the southernmost tip is 80 km from Sumatra in Indonesia.[20] Port Blair, the capital, is 668 km away from the coast of Ranong in Thailand.[21] India can use the island chain’s location to strengthen linkages with these countries.

Beyond just the physical proximity, the geographical layout of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands also endows it with the potential to play a vital role in ascertaining maritime security in the region, especially in terms of maintaining freedom of navigation. This is because the ANI straddles the Preparis Channel, the Duncan’s Passage, the Ten Degree Channel and the Six Degree Channel, all of which are important shipping routes for India as well as other shipping destined for East and Southeast Asia.[22] It therefore creates a series of chokepoints close to one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes—the East-West shipping route—which passes just eight nautical miles below the ANI. The island chain also lies almost at the juncture of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans and is the first land connection from the Malacca Strait. Indeed, the ANI has often been referred to as one of the “most strategically located island chains of the world.”[23]

Connectivity linkages

The ANI have long been deemed suitable for the establishment of a transhipment port as it provides the advantage of a deep draft (18 meters minimum) capable of accommodating mainline container vessels, unlike most ports on the Indian mainland. Little headway has been made, however, owing to objections from the environment ministry despite the losses being incurred. For instance, in 2013-2014, the Indian port industry suffered a revenue loss of about INR 15,000 million as trade cost increased as a result of the transhipment of containers, destined for India, at nearby foreign ports such as Colombo (Sri Lanka), Singapore, and Klang (Malaysia).[24]

In August 2020, the government announced plans to develop a transhipment port at the Great Nicobar Island.[25] The location provides a draft of 20 meters, which is adequate to accommodate container vessels of over 15,000 twenty-foot equivalent units. As a shorter distance effectively translates into reduced expenditure, a transhipment port at the Great Nicobar is likely to be the preferred choice for countries in its proximity, such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. Strategically, the port will also be located close to the Malacca Strait and the East-West shipping route, which connects Europe and Africa with Asia. This gives it the potential to serve as an alternative transhipment facility in the region; a share of even five percent of the total shipping traffic[c],[26] in this area will be lucrative for India.[27]

The government has also entered into international partnerships to enhance the connectivity and prominence of the island chain. The Thai government, for one, is keen on connecting its port of Ranong with countries in the region and developing linkages with the ANI may be a possibility.[28] In 2018, India and Indonesia, under the rubric of ‘Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’,[d],[29] set up a special task force to enhance connectivity between the ANI and the port of Sabang in Aceh to promote trade, tourism and people-to-people contacts.[30] In 2019, the Aceh Chamber of Commerce also dispatched a merchant vessel, KM Aceh Millennium, carrying 150 tonnes of cargo for exhibition at Port Blair, which symbolised the viability of such a shipping link.[31] This partnership may develop into direct short sea shipping between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Aceh.

To be sure, there continue to be concerns about the shortage of tradable items from the islands. India must engage in deeper consultations with countries in the region to identify more of these commodities. This will ensure the viability of trade links and robust and sustainable ties between India and Southeast Asia. However, for trade and connectivity to prosper, the seas need to be secured—this makes military cooperation an important aspect of India’s priorities in the ANI.

Security collaboration

In recent years, China’s efforts to expand its footprint in the Indian Ocean Region to overcome its ‘Malacca Dilemma’ (China’s fear of a maritime blockade at the Straits of Malacca) and fulfil its ‘Maritime Silk Road’ ambitions have fuelled apprehensions about freedom of navigation in these waters. Consequently, the littoral countries as well as the global powers have sought to engage in security collaborations to ensure free movement along the SLOCs. The strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands makes them well-suited to serve as the nodal point in such collaborations. India has sought to leverage the potential of the islands to protect its own interests and burnish its image as the ‘net security provider’ in the region.[32]

Accordingly, India has begun enhancing the capacity of the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), which is responsible for monitoring the shipping routes passing through the islands. Following the Ladakh stand-off with China in May 2020, India has sought to expedite plans for stationing additional forces, warships, aircraft, and missile batteries in the ANI. There have also been reports of naval air stations INS Baaz and INS Kohassa expanding their support operations.[33] Leveraging the locational proximity to Southeast Asia, the ANC conducts joint maritime exercises such as the Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercise and Coordinated Patrols with Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia. It also conducts MILAN, a biennial multilateral naval exercise, to build friendship across the seas. Twenty countries participated in the 2018 edition, making it the largest naval exercise in the Andaman Sea.[34]

However, building bridges of connectivity is rarely without its share of challenges, and they can be traced some decades back. In the 1980s, Malaysia and Indonesia interpreted India’s attempts to develop the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a move to dominate the region and project power east of the Malacca. Although the circumstances have changed since then, many observers maintain that regional countries could still be cynical of the heavy militarisation of the islands. Furthermore, India continues to be uneasy about the involvement of foreign powers in the ANI, as manifested in the absence of its facilities in the Indian Navy’s plans to offer logistical support to partner navies.[35] However, an India-Japan cross-servicing agreement, which has provisions for the ANC to host Japanese warships, is under consideration.[36]


Given its physical location, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the natural platform for collaboration between India and Southeast Asia. By most accounts, political will in India and other countries to develop these islands is high. However, it is important that the resolve survives the atmosphere of cynicism that has otherwise shrouded the prospects of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

This skepticism at either end may be attributed to the nascence of initiatives in the ANI, a palpable ambiguity about India’s ambitions, and the prevailing underdeveloped conditions on the islands. Improved communication and the fulfilment of the terms of existing agreements as they pertain to the islands is a high priority to truly realise their regional potential as India’s strategic node in the Indo-Pacific.

(This paper is an expanded and updated version of an earlier essay on the subject published in the ORF-Global Policy volume, ‘Brass Tacks: Unpacking the Indo-Pacific Template,’ July 2021.) 

About the Authors

Sohini Bose is a Junior Fellow and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury is a Senior Fellow at ORF, Kolkata.


[a] The Cholas were one of the longest ruling Tamil dynasties of southern India. They reigned approximately from the 9th to the 13th century. A prominent king of the dynasty, Rajendra Chola, maintained the Nicobar Islands as a naval base to launch attacks on the Srivijaya kingdom based of the Sumatra islands of present-day Indonesia. This naval expedition was a unique event in Indian history and its legacy of peaceful relations with Southeast Asia.

[b] According to latest available data at the Reserve Bank of India, 2017-2018, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands contributed to a mere 0.49 percent of India’s entire GDP. It has consistently recorded the lowest since 2009-2010, before which (2004-2009) it was second lowest, exceeding only Sikkim in terms of contribution to the national GDP.

[c] Global Containerised trade along the Mailane East-West Shipping Route is 39.1 percent of the total market share, and is the highest among all other major shipping routes.  The share of the non-Mainlane East West shipping route is 13. 1 percent.

[d] The “Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” is a joint statement based on the discussion held between Indian PM Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, during the former’s official visit to Indonesia in 29-30 May 2018. It affirms both the countries decision to become Comprehensive Strategic Partners.

[1]Government of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, “History North And Middle Andaman,” North and Middle Andaman District.

[2]Historical Facts about Andaman Islands That Everyone Should Know, Andaman Holidays.

[3]Government of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, “Historical Background of Andaman,” South Andaman District.

[4] Government of India, Andaman and Nicobar Administration.

[5] Abhijit Singh, “Andaman and Nicobar: India’s ‘strategic anchor’ holds ground, Observer Research Foundation, February 05, 2019.

[6]The Little People Of The Andaman Islands, The Universe and Man, September 10, 2012.

[7]Government of India, “Prime Minister’s Keynote Address at Shangri La Dialogue,” Media Center, Ministry of External Affairs, June 01, 2018.

[8]Government of India, “Study Group Report on Comprehensive and Sustainable Development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” Secretariat, Andaman and Nicobar Administration, 2016, 2.

[9]Government of India, “Study Group Report on Comprehensive and Sustainable Development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” 2.

[10] Zubair Ahmed, “Andaman & Nicobar wants to take a reverse gear on oil palm, DownToEarth, April 05, 2019.

[11] Supreme Court of India, “T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs Union Of India & Ors,” July 06, 2011, India Kanoon.

[12] Gross State Domestic Product (Current Prices)”, Reserve Bank of India, October 13, 2020.

[13]Government of India, “Study Group Report on Comprehensive and Sustainable Development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” 3.

[14]Pratnashree Basu, Sohini Bose and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, “Andaman and Nicobar Islands: facilitating India’s connectivity in the Bay of Bengal, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 15, no. 3 (July 23, 2019), 309.

[15]Rajat Arora, “Modi government’s Rs 10,000 crore plan to transform Andaman and Nicobar islands,” The Economic Times, September 26, 2015.

[16]C. Raja Mohan, “Raja Mandala: Integrating the island, The Indian Express, January 02, 2019.

[17] Meenakshi Kapoor, “Indian government wants to strip even the Andaman Islands of their environmental protection,, April 09, 2021.

[18] Pratnashree Basu, Sohini Bose and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, “Andaman and Nicobar Islands: facilitating India’s connectivity in the Bay of Bengal,” 310.

[19]PM inaugurates undersea cable between Chennai and Andaman & Nicobar islands, The Hindu Business Line, August 10, 2020.

[20]Pratnashree Basu, Sohini Bose and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, “Andaman and Nicobar Islands: facilitating India’s connectivity in the Bay of Bengal,” 299.

[21]Distance from Ranong to Port Blair, DistanceFromTo.

[22] Sunjoy R. Chinoy, “Time to Leverage the Strategic Potential of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), June 26, 2020.

[23]Pratnashree Basu, Sohini Bose and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, “Andaman and Nicobar Islands: facilitating India’s connectivity in the Bay of Bengal,” 295.

[24]Government of India, “Final Report for Sagarmala, Volume 1,” Indian Ports Association, Ministry of Shipping, November 19, 2016.

[25]Government of India, “Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi launches submarine cable connectivity to Andaman & Nicobar Islands (CANI),” Press Information Bureau, Ministry of Communications, August 10, 2020.

[26] For more information on shipping traffic see, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), “Review of Maritime Transport,” 2020.

[27]Pratnashree Basu and Sohini Bose, “The Merits of a Transhipment Port at Great Nicobar: A Brief Assessment, Andaman Chronicle, August 18, 2020.

[28]Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, Pratnashree Basu and Sohini Bose, Exploring India’s Maritime Connectivity in the Extended Bay of Bengal (New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation, November 2019), 71.

[29] Government of India, “Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” Media Center, Ministry of External Affairs, May 30, 2018.

[30]India, Indonesia to set up task force to enhance connectivity between Andaman and Sabang, The Economic Times, May 30, 2018.

[31]Vijay Sakhuja, “Aceh to Andaman: Shipping Connectivity and Security, Vivekananda International Foundation, August 11, 2020.

[32]David Brewster, “India: Regional net security provider,” Media Center, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, November 05, 2013.

[33]Abhijit Singh, “Militarising Andamans: The costs and the benefits, Observer Research Foundation, July 29, 2020.

[34]MILAN 2018,” Indian Navy, February 26, 2019.

[35]Abhijit Singh, “Militarising Andamans: The costs and the benefits.”

[36]Ankush Wagle, “The rising tide in the Andaman Sea, The Strategist, April 03, 2019.

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Sohini Bose

Sohini Bose

Sohini Bose is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Kolkata with the Strategic Studies Programme. Her area of research is India’s eastern maritime ...

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Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury

Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury

Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury is Senior Fellow with ORF’s Neighbourhood Initiative. She is the Editor, ORF Bangla. She specialises in regional and sub-regional cooperation in ...

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