Thursday, January 17, 2008

A visit and the aftermath

A visit and the aftermath
President Pratibha Patil’s recent visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands came with a rich picking of embarrassments. PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

A grove no more: Denuded beaches in the islands.

When the President, Pratibha Patil decided to visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the third anniversary of the tsunami, it could only have been considered an extremely welcome gesture. For the people of a place ravaged by one of the biggest disasters in living memory, the interest and concern of the first citizen of the country could have been and certainly was a very important statement. Her handing over of 200 permanent houses to citizens in Car Nicobar on December 26 could have and should have made front page news for all the right reasons.

For all the potential and the “could haves”, that is not how it turned out in the end.

The President’s visit to the islands did make front page news, but it was for all the wrong reasons with the responsibility lying mainly at the door of the local administration.

Large scale tree felling

The one issue that perhaps got the maximum attention was the large scale cutting of trees. Some media reports indicated that nearly 400 trees had been chopped down across the islands for the visit. While this was not finally and fully confirmed, the administration found itself in a tight corner on account of what happened at Wandoor, near Port Blair. At least 60 full grown trees that included casuarinas and other local species were chopped down in just this one place, to facilitate the President’s visit here by helicopter. Wandoor is one of the most visited tourist spots around Port Blair and as a result there was significant photographic evidence of what had happened there.

A huge amount of money was also spent for increasing the size of the helipad that already existed there, for the construction of a special VVIP room and the widening and relaying of the road in the vicinity.

Other decisions taken by the local administration affected local people and the tourism industry in different, but equally unreasonable and hard hitting ways. All advanced bookings for Christmas and New Year’s eve in the administration-run Dolphin Resort on Havelock Island, for instance, were arbitrarily cancelled. Similar cancellations were forced in a number of other government-run accommodation places. Shipping services were disrupted, preventing tourists from accessing islands where they had planned a holiday many months ago and local fishermen were prohibited from going fishing in areas that the President was supposed to visit (see box).

There were also concerns over the huge expenses incurred on account of relaying a number of roads and refurbishing guest houses for the visit. The speed at which some of the works were executed has also given rise to fears regarding their quality and therefore of how long these will last.

Govind Raju, editor of the local weekly, The Light of Andamans, captured the mood and the reaction in his December 31 story titled “President’s 3-day avalanche”.

“President Pratibha Patil’s 3-day excursions in the South Andaman Islands,” he pointed out, “left a trail of misery for the people of Port Blair and adjacent areas. They were put to all kinds of harassments and discomfiture in the name of security of the first citizen of the country.”

Spate of clarifications

That the focus had been sustained and the issues raised were serious is obvious from the fact that the administration came out with an immediate clarification that the actions had to be taken for security purposes. Their initial explanation that only pruning was done and that only a few trees had been cut stood immediately exposed. The local Department of Environment and Forests also pointed out that the cutting of the trees would not create an environmental problem as the casuarinas were planted only to beautify the beach and that, in fact, the felling did not attract the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act.

Conservationists who have been working in the islands, however, point out that a large part of the beach at Wandoor has been destroyed in the last couple of decades on account of sand mining to feed the construction boom of Port Blair. Old uprooted trees that still dot the shoreline here are a grim reminder of that past. They further argue that the cut trees, even if they were a plantation of casuarinas, played an important role as a wind break and also as a protection for the coastal land.

The developments appeared to have even taken Rashtrapati Bhavan by surprise. In statements issued even as the President was still in the islands, it was clarified that neither the President nor her family was spending the new year in the islands and that Rashtrapati Bhavan had not sought cancellation of any room bookings of tourists in view of the President’s visit. A clarification has also been sought from the local administration regarding the tree cutting and instructions have been reportedly issued to undertake compensatory afforestation for the damage caused.

In a move that was clearly aimed at damage control, a symbolic tree plantation by the President was also organised. Photographs released by the Press Information Bureau showed her planting a casuarina sapling at the very site where the 60 trees had been cut at Wandoor. While this too can be considered a welcome gesture, it was clearly the classic case of too little, too late.

A researcher following the developments related to the Presidents’ visit to the islands had this to say following reports of the symbolic tree plantation — “ I visited Wandoor immediately after the President’s visit, but could not find the sapling she planted anywhere.”

Maybe he was looking in the wrong place or maybe it was just a tongue in cheek comment. Either way, the irony and the contradictions cannot be missed!

* * *
In the name of the President

Havelock off limit for tourists on December 26 and 27.

Fishermen of Wandoor, Guptapara and Port Blair not to venture out into the sea on December 28.

Wandoor out of bounds on December 28.

Fishermen of Neil and Havelock Islands prohibited from fishing on December 27.

Sound and Light Show closed for tourists on Deceber 25 and 26.

National Memorial Cellular Jail closed for visitors on December 26.

Private Harbour Cruise not to berth at Aberdeen Jetty on December 26.

All the sailings to Havelock and Neil Island cancelled on December 27.

Directorate of shipping services office closed on December 27.

Restricted holiday on December 24 cancelled.

Hotel bookings in Hornbill Nest and Dolphin Resort cancelled and advance returned.

Source: The Light of Andamans, Port Blair, December 31, 2007.

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