Race to the sunrise
In this excerpt from Islands in Flux, Pankaj Sekhsaria remembers when a remote Nicobar island almost lured tens of thousands over a non-event, before common sense prevailed
The Royal Greenwich Observatory had announced a few years ago that the first sunrise of the new millennium would be visible from the island of Katchal in the Nicobar group of islands in the Bay of Bengal. The recent few months have seen the tourism industry and the A&N administration in a tizzy as they went about planning a huge millennium tamasha. Efforts were on to get more than 20,000 tourists (largely foreigners) to the tiny and remote island of Katchal, which was advertised as the only place in the world where the first sunrise of the millennium will be visible.
It appeared to be the perfect situation for a huge tourism event — an exotic, remote island, an occasion that will never come again, and a government eager and willing to lay out the red carpet. However, the entire event came to be seriously questioned and opposed by a number of environmental groups from across the country as there were serious flaws. The opposition was strong and sustained and eventually the administration had to respond. In a secretary-level meeting held in Port Blair in early August 1999, a decision was taken to scale down the plan substantially.
The campaign that was coordinated by SANE was based on detailed research and solid facts. The very fact that Katchal was being promoted as the only place where the first sunrise of the new millennium will be visible is incorrect. A clarification issued by experts of the internationally renowned, Pune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) categorically asserted that these claims were preposterous and that there were at least two falsehoods that were being perpetrated — one that the new millennium begins on January 1, 2000, and the other that Katchal is the only place where the sunrise will be visible.
Experts all over the world, and this includes the United States Naval Observatories, the National Bureau of Standards and Technology of the US and the Royal Greenwich Observatory, England (before its demise in 1998) have accepted and adopted January 1, 2001 (and not 2000) as the beginning of the new millennium.
The explanation for this is rather simple. There was no zero year and we actually began this calendar with the year 1. Accordingly, the first year was completed at the end of year 1, the first century at the end of year 100, the first millennium at the end of year 1000 and this, the second millennium, at the end of year 2000. Therefore, January 1, 2000 is only the first day of the last year of this millennium and not the beginning of the new one. The Y2K problem seems to have struck here as well, but in an entirely different way.
The second issue is of the site where this first sunrise would be visible. From a technical point of view, the issue of the first sunrise is not as simple as it initially seems. The US Naval Observatory in its document titled ‘First Sunrise of the New Millennium’ discusses some of these issues in detail: “(…) It is important to realise that on any January 1, the sun is continuously above the horizon across most of Antarctica.” So, very simply put, the place where the first sunrise of the new millennium will be seen is Antarctica. However, beyond this, the question becomes more involved. Does the new day begin at local midnight, in the time defined by the local jurisdiction? Or, does it begin at midnight on the meridian of Greenwich in England, which is the zero longitude meridian, ie, 0 hours GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) also known as 0 hours UT (Universal Time)?
Significantly, the paper states that at 0 hours UT, which is generally taken to be the start of a new day, the sun is rising simultaneously along an arc that runs 650 km east of Kerguelen Island in the Indian Ocean to about 640 km east of Amsterdam Island, through the Nicobar Islands, up along the Burma-Thailand border, through China, along the China-Outer Mongolia border, along the China-Russia border, through Siberia, and out into the Arctic Ocean just north of the Poluostrov Peninsula. All places along this line will experience sunrise simultaneously at 0 hours UT in 2000 or 2001 or any other year. There is simply no unique ‘first sunrise’ location. The other interesting dimension is that the time of sunrise is always calculated for sea level. This means that if you go higher, the sunrise is seen earlier. For example, if one was to move 1,000m above sea level, the sunrise would be visible four minutes and 3.8 seconds earlier than a person at sea level at the same point. Theoretically, this also means that if a person is roughly 100 km west of Katchal but 1,000m above sea level, he will see this sunrise at about the same time as an observer at Katchal who will be at sea level. The basic argument is that there is nothing spectacularly unique about the sunrise at Katchal. Various permutations and combinations would give the same results.
The arguments over the timing of the new millennium, the time of the sunrise and the exact location could well have been discarded as academic. The logic of raising these points can also be questioned if this unique opportunity had been beneficial to all. But that was precisely the point. There are far greater and serious issues involved in allowing this incorrectly nomenclatured event on the tiny island of Katchal, says Samir Acharya of SANE, who was the first to realise the problems with an event of this nature. The resident population of Katchal is only 12,000, and nearly 4,000 of these are the Nicobari tribals. The impact of suddenly inducting an additional 20,000 outsiders on this island for a day or two can well be imagined. Acharya points out that this could create a huge health hazard. The presence of 20,000 people means that a minimum of 20,000 to 30,000 kg of human excreta and thousands of litres of liquid waste will be added to the local environment and this will be in addition to unknown quantities of other solid waste like paper and plastic, to name the common ones.
There is another important aspect that was also being ignored. Katchal is the traditional home of the Nicobari tribals. It was designated a tribal reserve under the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) of 1957, and special permissions have to be obtained if outsiders want to visit.
Additionally, the entire group of Nicobar Islands has always been considered a sensitive area and the entry of foreigners is strictly prohibited. In fact, in the last 30 years, except for one single occasion, not a single tribal pass has been issued to any foreigner to visit the Nicobars. The only exception was the permission given to Rene Dekkar who was specially invited by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), government of India, to study the endangered bird, the megapode, which is found in these islands.
It is significant that in the past, as eminent a person as the legendary Captain Cousteau (of Calypso fame), who wanted to study corals off the Nicobars was denied permission. Renowned institutions like Cambridge University, England, and the Vokkenmuseum (Museum of Anthropology), Berlin, too had their requests to study the wild boar and the famous pottery of Chowra Island turned down. Why then, questioned Acharya, is the island administration taking the retrograde step of permitting 20,000 tourists of unknown vintage to visit Katchal to celebrate the non-event of a pseudo-millennium sunrise? This is the ultimate degenerate step that the government can take, he says.
Besides, there are other fears too. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are unsurpassed in their botanical wealth, and the ethno-medical knowledge of the tribals who live here is astounding. The possibility cannot be ruled out that the event will become a convenient entry point for bio-prospectors and pharmaceutical multinationals who are always on the look out for virgin areas to explore. Prevention and even a little over-cautiousness is certainly far better than any corrective action that may be suggested in the future.
A lot of resources and public money are being spent on the event. Recently, a new circuit house in the island, which violates the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), was inaugurated on the island. New work was also being undertaken for the laying of pipelines and the construction of a power-generating station.
For the present, however, the brakes have been applied, though the event itself has not been called off. The decision taken was that the number of tourists will be scaled down from 20,000 to only 2,000. No foreigners will be allowed to land on Katchal or any other island in the Nicobars, but those interested in viewing the sunrise could view it from ships. It has also been decided that a Doordarshan crew will be allowed to land on Katchal and record the sunrise for posterity.
The only problem, and surprisingly nobody seems to realise it yet, is that this is the wrong sunrise!
(This article was published in The Hindu on September 19, 1999)
Pankaj Sekhsaria researches issues at the intersection of environment, science, society and technology