The Jarawa Reserve Area is virgin jungle teetering on the edge of anarchy. The trees are menacing hulks touching the sky. Saltwater crocodiles terrorise intruders, wild pigs run amok, and at times tribals draw their bows. This is an area they don’t patrol too often but the Joint Anti-Poaching Team has received a tip-off, so they creep into the darkness. The team consists of police officers and tribal welfare staff from Tirur, a small village in South Andaman. An informer has spotted poachers chopping timber. Entry for outsiders is prohibited, as is timber extraction. Despite two days of trekking—traversing punishing paths, tiptoeing around crocodile-infested creeks—the team detects nothing out of the ordinary.

The thick forest can conceal not just man, but also his shadow.

So they halt at Lamba Balu beside huts that belong to the Jarawa tribe. The Jarawas have dwelled around the turquoise and emerald sea for about 60,000 years, at the edge of the white powder beach, by the mouth of the tropical forests. Life is as it was.

The sound of a dinghy’s engine jolts Mahesh Majumdar, driver of Joint Anti-Poaching Team dinghy. The Jarawas have no boats.

Enen. Outsiders.

After a brief chase, eight locals from Port Blair are arrested for infiltrating the Jarawa Reserve Area for poaching. But there are other smaller row boats. Halis dinghies imply deeper penetration, a voyage into the uninhabited island of Hiran Tikrey. The island is tiny, no bigger than South Mumbai; yet despite its smallness, it takes all evening to find six more poachers from Port Blair.

By then, the twilight has coagulated into dark, forcing the team to fall back and camp. At 5 a.m., Mahesh Majumdar is shaken again by the sound of another dinghy’s engine. Emerging ahead from the gloom are nine others.

Foreigners from the high seas. Burmese, or Myanmarese.

“Ai Bumma, kya maja re jail ma?” (Hey Burmese, why are you in jail?)

Mohammad Hanifa, jailer at the Andaman and Nicobar District Jail, has asked that question too many times. Each time, it’s the same response. Poacher. Prowling the waters for sea cucumbers. A crime that can lock you up for three years.

When he was a younger, more curious man, Hanifa went with a friend from the Forest Department to inspect the loot. “Brainless earthworms of the sea” is how he describes sea cucumbers. Vacuum cleaners; slugs that crawl the seabed and consume any organic detritus in their path. But they’re still gold in the city dump. Lumpy, brown, about the size of a cucumber, and a prohibited item in the Wildlife Protection Act.

“It’s got no value in India, it’s for the Chinese. They’ll eat anything,” he says confidently on a cloudless day in Port Blair. Sea cucumbers in soup, stir-fry, stew as a delicacy, the priciest of which can yield up to $2,000 per kilogram. This is why the men from Myanmar come here; the southeast Asian region has been overfished. “Poor Burmese,” he says; all 601 of them in his jail at the time of writing. The District Jail, Prothrapur bears the dubious distinction of housing more foreign nationals than any other jail in India.

Twenty years of service, a lineage that goes back to freedom fighters, and a degree in criminology has taught Hanifa a lesson or two. “All criminals, as they pass through those two gates, irrespective of their crime, get united as one. Terror unites them,” he says. The second lesson—after he’d interrogated a smuggler who had murdered another for whale vomit or ambergris (again a prohibited item, used in perfumes)—was this: the Andaman Islands, loaded with nature’s bounty, both on land and under the sea, was a gold mine waiting to be plundered.

The real rush was just beginning.

The borders of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are defined by waves. Mount Harriet, one of the highest points on the island and the vista on the Rs.20 note, offers a little perspective: on clear days, the glare from the sun silhouettes a wavy range of magmatic rocks that snake into the distance for about 1,000 kilometres.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the peaks of a submerged mountain range that forms an arc which stretches southward between Myanmar and Indonesia. It is Myanmar’s Rakhine range to the left and Indonesia’s Mentawai range on the right. Politically the Andaman and Nicobar islands are a part of India, but they are biogeographically more similar to Myanmar and other parts of southeast Asia.

For long the islands have remained outposts in New Delhi’s strategic calculations. That faraway territory, remote yet prized, has taken a backseat to the more pressing border trials with China and Pakistan.

Until the Seventies, a minimum strategic force—consisting of a naval officer in charge at Port Blair and a contingent in Karmota and the Nancowry group of islands in Nicobar—was tasked with managing the threats to the islands. Though an air force staging post had been created, no permanent aircraft patrols flew over the 8,249 square kilometres of Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal.

The inhabited islands—25 in Andaman and 13 in Nicobar—and the uninhabited ones (556 in total) humbly plod along, pocketing an allowance from big brother in Delhi.

Despite bold announcements and lofty ambitions such as Look East under P. V. Narasimha Rao and Act East under Narendra Modi, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have remained somewhat peripheral to an inward-looking polity.

But these islands ought to have been springboards to the East: the islands share maritime borders with Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. (Their distance from the mainland—1,255 kilometres from Kolkata and 1,190 kilometres from Chennai—is far greater than their distance from the nations in southeast Asia: 190 kilometres from Myanmar and 150 from Indonesia).

Maybe they should have put a sign up at the fishermen’s jetty on Havelock Island: “Twenty Burmese at large. Waters unsafe. Do not venture out.” They didn’t; such a sign would alarm the tourists during peak tourist season.

So when the news of the brutal assault on three fishermen—Basudev Mondal, Lakhan Sarkar, and Shubash Roy—by poachers reached the marine police, coast guard, and fisheries department, it sent shivers down their spines. Not only did they know of their existence, but they had attempted to collar them that November in 2013.
They knew the poachers were out there.

Two weeks prior to the assault, Bidan Sikder, a fisherman from Havelock Island, sighted fishing boats around Outram Island with over 20 Myanmarese. He rushed to inform the police. After a day-long search, the authorities managed to nab one poacher and two fishing boats. There were at least 19 others out there.

What the authorities did next is like a bad joke: coast guard and fisheries department held an “awareness programme” at the community hall in Havelock Island and notified fishermen that “angry” poachers from Myanmar were at large. No mandatory attendance of fishermen was requested.

They knew that the men had no way of getting back to Myanmar.

So when the weather turned against Mondal, Lakhan and Roy, on the third and final day of their fishing trip, forcing them to anchor in the shallow waters near Inglis Island, there was a possibility that something could go wrong.

“Let this be a lesson to the fishermen and the police: don’t snitch on our men and don’t touch our boats,” they were told by a Myanmarese in fluent Hindi. Then he punched Mondal and Sarkar in the face.

When they fell down, he kicked them in the stomach. Moments later, another joined in and broke Mondal’s leg. The poachers tied their hands and feet with fishing lines and fastened them to a tree. Finally they gagged the fishermen by shoving pieces of a torn lungi in their mouths.

At sunset, they proceeded to Mondal’s boat, where Shubhash Roy had been waiting for several hours. “Come have dinner with us,” said the Hindi-speaking man from Myanmar. Sensing danger, Roy replied, “I’ve already eaten.”

Angered by his refusal, they lunged towards the boat, yanked him out, and repeatedly submerged his face in water. “It was like drowning,” Roy says.

Soon after, he lost consciousness and when he woke the next day in the shrubs, Mondal, Sarkar, the poachers and the boat were gone. Roy flagged a fishing boat and hurried to the police. After an intense overnight operation, Mondal and Sarkar were found in the jungle, mentally and physically wrecked. The poachers had absconded with the boat.

How does a poacher from Myanmar speak Hindi? How do they know where to hide? How did they survive in the jungles for a fortnight?

How does a poacher from Myanmar speak Hindi? How do they know where to hide? How did they survive in the jungles for a fortnight?

A 2011 report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests reads: “Historically, these species (sea cucumbers) had been exploited by people from neighbouring countries, mainly due to the low protective cover and low priority accorded to conservation of the marine biodiversity in general by the enforcement agencies of the country … Although, the enforcement agencies routinely apprehend several foreign poachers, it is believed that a large number of them get away undetected. Most of the poachers are habitual offenders and had been in Indian prison several times.”

The government knew.

The report adds, “It has been observed that although there was good population of sea cucumbers in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, there were contradicting reports of the status of the species as a whole in the country’s waters.”

Thus it was deemed prudent that a study be carried out by the Zoological Survey of India to quantify the population of sea cucumbers and if they were plentiful, the species ought to be delisted from the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972.

Painting the Andaman Islands with the same brush as that of the mainland is riddled with failure—both terrestrial and marine. For instance, the spotted deer are numbered on the mainland but are abundant on the islands. They were brought by the British for hunting, and their skyrocketing population is a nuisance.

Similarly, the abundant population of sea cucumbers could serve as a huge boost to the nascent fisheries industries, yielding the sort of revenue needed for the islanders to reduce their dependence on the government as the primary provider.

The possibility that someday nature could swallow whole something so colossal as a city doesn’t easily slide into our imaginations. But the 2004 tsunami rendered parts of these islands obsolete, creating new water bodies over rice fields.

An office with a view, that’s what Lieutenant Governor A. K. Singh wanted. Within days of occupying the post, as he put his affairs in order, signing this, inaugurating the other, he authorised the demolition of a wall of the British colonial mansion at Raj Niwas. This wasn’t a cosmetic gesture, it was symbolic. “It signals I am looking forward,” he says as we gaze at the psychedelic variations of blue in the Andaman sea.

From this perch, tiny Ross Island—from where the British once ruled and the Japanese once tortured—is visible and on hazeless days, the Lt Governor can make out the outline of Havelock Island.

“This Lt Governor is different, he isn’t just on holiday,” says an old woman waiting for audience at a public meeting in the grounds of Raj Niwas. During Singhs year-and-a-half tenure, the incidence of poaching shrank as the three-tier security set-up—marine police, coast guard and navy—was more vigilant than ever before.

Despite the best efforts of Survival International and other NGOs, a boat full of coconuts had been pushed out towards the North Sentinelese in an attempt to tame the last remaining tribe that points arrows at the colonisers, at us.

“Hands off, eyes on,” Singh says.


The forest in the Andaman Islands, unlike most forests worldwide, is increasing in territory. New laws mean more territory is under the protective cover of the Department of Environment and Forests, headquartered somewhat ironically at the oldest saw mill in Asia.

Chatham Saw Mill, situated on a small island neighbouring Port Blair at Chatham Island, is a British construction that once met local requirements for the settlement that Archibald Blair was putting together in 1883. It was a storied saw mill until the Second World War.

The war was a curse for the British Empire but a blessing for nature. The mill at Chatham was destroyed as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands became a theatre of war. It was only in the mid 1940s and 1950s that it was revived with new demand for timber as settlers from East Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar transformed the islands.

The Chief Conservator of Forests, G. N. Sinha, occupies the elegant front office of a 100-year-old bungalow behind the mill. It’s a grand structure made of Andaman padauk its ceilings high and beams exposed. Andaman and Nicobar are over 80 per cent forest but if it were up to Sinha, it would be 100 per cent forest. But this is an implausible idea given the importance of the Indian Ocean region.

“Competition between India and China, caused by their spreading and overlapping layers of commercial and political influence, will play out less on land than in the naval realm. Zhao Nanqi, when he was director of the general staff logistics department in the Chinese navy, proclaimed: ‘We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as an ocean only for Indians’,” writes Robert Kaplan in Monsoon.

This strategic outlook applied especially to the Bay of Bengal, where both China and India have considerable maritime presence.

Kaplan writes, “The Indian Ocean is where the rivalry between the United States and China in the Pacific interlocks with the regional rivalry between China and India, and also with America’s fight against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, which includes American’s attempts to contain Iran.”

The US Marine Corps’ “Vision and Strategy” statement concludes: “The Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters will be a central theatre of conflict and competition in the coming years. About a million ships pass various Indian Ocean straits each year and this number will keep rising.”

It is to tap this potential that Modi and Obama released an exciting policy document in New Delhi earlier this year. Known as the India-US “Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region”, it aims to waken India to her maritime potential and responsibility. But the numbers look depressing: Over 90 per cent of India’s international trade is dependent on sea but the 1,100 merchant ships that bear the Indian flag only make up two per cent of global capacity and carry a mere 10 per cent of India’s global trade.

But the main reason for the excitement is the Malacca Strait, which sees maritime traffic supply China, Japan and South Korea with Gulf oil. The Nicobar Islands sit at the western entrance of the Malacca Straits, which carries half of the world’s oil flow and is the preferred route for close to a quarter of global trade.

“For millennia, the Malacca Strait has been one of the most important waterways to facilitate movement between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. The Greco-Roman Empires, the many kingdoms of India, and the Arab traders all used the waterway to trade with southeast Asia and the western Pacific littoral. For the empires and kingdoms based in China, Java, Sumatra and Malaya, the Malacca Strait was a valuable sea lane. Amid the decline of China, India and the Arab world and the rise of Europe, the strait fell into the hands of the Portuguese, and later the Dutch and the British. During the age of imperialism, the strait was further elevated as a critical link between Europe, Africa, the Indian Ocean littoral and the Asia Pacific. During the Cold War, it was seen as a critical choke point to prevent Russian ships and submarines from entering the Indian Ocean,” writes C. Raja Mohan in Samudra Manthan.

As competition between China and India grows parallel to mutual suspicion, the term “Malacca dilemma” has been introduced to strategic lingo: a Chinese phrase concerned with the challenges in supplying the nation’s growing energy imports. What if India blocks the route? What if the Indian Ocean remains out of Chinese control? What if it becomes a scene of volatility?

The threat perception conveyed by the Home Ministry to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in 2014 stated the following: “The U(nion) T(erritory) government is of the view that left-out LTTE cadre may look for safe havens in the near vicinity and may take advantage of our uninhabited islands for their temporary hideouts.”

This threat was compounded they said by the presence of settlers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Behind the wind, there is another sound.

“Can you hear that?” Ram Niwas mumbles to the other forest ranger as they patrol Jolly Buoy, a small uninhabited island. There was somebody else in these dark woods, of this he was certain.

“Which way, which way,” he asks himself and turns left on instinct. A breeze comes up through the trees, almost like a sigh; its weight makes the hair on his nape and crown prickle. The woods turn dark as the light is dramatically reduced by the thickness of the trees.

“What desperate transaction lay hidden here?” he wonders.

He tries to look for a road that once ran through here but has long since been abandoned. Most roads here have been gobbled by nature. All these years of being a forest ranger, and the woods still intimidate him.

They carry on until they’re forced to pause at an incredible sight. Hanging off the branches, like ties on hangers, is a trove of sea cucumbers in various sizes and colours. Ram Niwas has a few seconds to gawk before the sound of an engine cuts through the stillness.

The poachers are getting away. The two trail them for about an hour until the engine on the forest department’s boat defeats the poachers. Two Bangladeshis are dragged back to the scene of crime where they profess innocence in broken Hindi, an indicator that they aren’t islanders.

“Poultry feed, not for sale,” they keep muttering.

The poachers do know how to process the sea cucumbers: they had been boiled, salted and were in the final drying stage. A few pokes later, the Bangladeshis direct the rangers to their camping site: maps, rice, dal, salt and diesel were hidden in the canopy of a large tree.

Jolly Buoy is an example of the shaky agreement humans have struck with nature called a national park. Welcome to Mahatma Gandhi National Park, created on May 24, 1983, under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. If you’re lucky and in time for mating season the white sand of the beach will be dotted with sea turtles. If you’re unlucky, you will learn from rangers about the almost impossible challenge of adequately patrolling an area so vast.

If Delhi is the spine of India then the Andaman Islands is its toe. It is an integral part of the nation but a governance headache. There are some areas the Union Territory administration has no control over. Its terrain is rugged in the Andaman group since it’s deprived of big river systems; Nicobar however has five perennial rivers. Thus the people of the Andaman Islands frequently complain about lack of water.

The soil of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is deficient for farming. The main agricultural soil found in the valleys is limited in quantity while the soil in the coastal area is prone to tidal floods. Both are nutritionally poor so over 90 per cent of the vegetables consumed in Port Blair are brought by cargo, as are most of the supplies that the islanders need, from salt to medicines to Mortein mosquito spray.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are almost entirely dependent on the mainland. Without it, the economy would collapse.

Opportunities are scant. “The fish in Andaman die of old age,” goes a saying. I’ve heard it in the offices of the fisheries secretary, the chief secretary and the Lt Governor. It’s an old saying, a crude indicator of how a place so abundant, so full of resource, could be so incompetent at using its resources.

The two industries that can really thrive are tourism and fisheries, yet both struggle. Fisheries suffer from infrastructure inadequacies. There are no freezing or canning plants. There is only one functioning jetty for the fishermen at Port Blair. Auctions for fish are held in a dilapidated warehouse. Fish landings are just emerging, like the one at Guptapada. Once there was even a shortage of ice when the government ice plant shut due to a tussle between the departments of fisheries and tourism.

All these factors create poor industry but a thriving marine ecology (though nobody can actually count the number of fish in the sea). According to the numbers presented to me by the fisheries secretary, a jovial man with a dislike for fish, the aquatic life is flourishing.

“The fish are plentiful,” he says. Take for example the highly lucrative tuna industry that brings in big money internationally but never brought that sort of revenue to the islanders: the potential for coastal tuna fishing is placed at one lakh tonnes and the present exploitation is 813 tonnes. While southeast Asian countries were busy clearing the seas, overfishing their territorial waters and earning small fortunes, the fishermen at Jungli Ghat were sharing catch with their neighbours, selling about a kilogram for one anna.

“Don’t they have drugs in the Bombay? This is the drug over here,” says Atul Thakur, the superintendent (SP), CID and immigration.

Though the number of foreign poachers has declined, a link has emerged between local poachers, smugglers and foreigners. This issue is aggravated by the arrival of outsiders as the population in and around Port Blair has leaped.

Sub-inspector S. S. Rathore, who has been on the force for 35 years, says the Andaman and Nicobar Islands used to be a relatively crime-free society. But the nature of crime has changed, and the incidence has risen in Port Blair. Forest officials and police routinely chase poachers out of Port Blair and its environs.

For some time now, there’s been talk of transforming Port Blair into a hub like Singapore. But that hasn’t materialised. Instead it has morphed into a base with naval air stations dotted across the cluster of islands. There are bases in Port Blair, Diglipur in the north, and Carnic in Nicobar. More recently, the base in Baaz on the southeastern fringe will boost India’s strategic reach.

India’s only tri-command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), ensures that the Straits of Malacca—one of the most crucial shipping lanes of the world—operates undisturbed. Indeed, they are efficient: India’s response during the 2004 tsunami in providing relief aid to the southeast Asian region was lauded. Closer ties are being forged with the navies of neighbours as the union territory hosts the “Milan” naval exercises.

The primary employer in Port Blair is the government. Down the road from Circuit House is a school. Every youngster I spoke to had the “dream” of landing a job in the government. It seems as though every fifth building services a branch of the administration.

Raj Niwas, the seat of the Lt Governor, is a stone’s throw from Netaji Stadium, from where an uphill path takes you to the secretariat that abuts the court. Adding to the concentrated government presence are villas of the SP and DGP hidden behind high walls by a green veil of tall trees. The promenades and road signs all make Port Blair look like a mini-Lutyens’ Delhi by the seaside.

Yet the heart of Port Blair, Aberdeen Bazaar—named after the battle of Aberdeen where the British killed a large number of tribals—is like a Tier 2 town. Businessmen from Chennai and Kolkata sell gold watches and toys, traders from Visakhapatnam desperately seek the best value for dollar fish, and scavengers from Haryana clean the streets. In this mishmash, stoned foreign hippies play carom on the rooftop of Hotel Balaji while the azaan summons in backdrop.

Downhill, newlywed women with red bangles clutch their husbands’ hands while frowning at the horrid history of the Cellular Jail.

Largely devoid of industry or jobs in the service sector, Port Blair has become the sort of place where sea cucumber is front-page news.

Largely devoid of industry or jobs in the service sector, Port Blair has become the sort of place where sea cucumber is front-page news. “76 kg of sea cucumber seized; consignee flees,” reads the front-page headline of the Daily Telegram. The assistant fisheries guard at the airport cargo office was taken aback; in all his time he had never seen such a desperately bold gesture.

The Bengali man with nine packages seemed shifty to begin with. He kept changing his story; first the contents of the boxes which had no name or address were spare parts, then furniture, and finally presents for the in-laws.“I have to pay my auto,” he said and fled just as the box had been opened.

There are no CCTV cameras at the cargo area of Port Blair International Airport. The man behind the parcels will remain a mystery.

The number of outsiders has steadily increased in Port Blair, mainly from 24 Parganas in West Bengal. Shilbesh Singh, the district superintendent of police, south Andaman, tells me the migrants from Bangladesh are the real challenge. “Illegal immigrants with legal papers,” he calls them.

Illegal immigrants with legal papers.

They are the sort of people who would do anything for money. It doesn’t stop at killing crocodiles or looting sea cucumbers. “Gun-running, human-trafficking, all this is a possibility and at times a reality,” says another high-ranking official from the coast guard.

The numbers of the last census show a steady and expected increase. At the customs office, officials tell me that the coming census will be different. After the tsunami ravaged parts of the islands, much-needed labour was brought from West Bengal by private contractors. Though 80 per cent go back, 20 per cent remain, says a senior source in the police.

Most of the new settlers are spread over Havelock, Neill Island, and Hut Bay, scenes of maximum poaching. I visited the transit camp in Brookshabad where prisoners who had served their time waited for repatriation papers. I expected to find Myanmarese but about 170 of them had been flown out a week prior to my arrival. Instead, I found four Bangladesh nationals, arrested for living illegally.

A man stood at the fence. He seemed nonchalant. He played cricket with the guards and was given good food. It was like a small holiday and he would be back. “There is money to be made here. I don’t mind becoming an Indian for that.” He’d be back with real papers from 24 Parganas.

The notion of Indianness, of belonging, permeates all forms of conversation and life. There are symbols espousing nationalism, such as the giant map of India opposite the sea promenade, with the words emblazoned “I LOVE INDIA” above. There is the glittering light show at Cellular Jail which can be seen all over town. The more overt indicators—the bust of Subhas Chandra Bose, the golden statue of Mahatma Gandhi, and the statue of Rajiv Gandhi that looks out to sea—ensure that nobody doubts their origin.

The drama of belonging is elaborate here but the struggles are aplenty. Even the British struggled here. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands attained relevance not because of the rebels of British India but because of the East India Company. John Company plied these sea lanes for trade and sought a refuelling centre and shelter. The islands were ideal in theory.

In 1789 Archibald Blair arrived with about 500 convicts and attempted to create a settlement at Chatham Island, but it was abandoned for various reasons and they moved to Diglipur in 1793. There the lushness of the forest meant tropical diseases. Many contracted diseases, others died and in 1796, the settlement was abandoned. Andaman and Nicobar almost didn’t happen.

Then came the first war of Independence in 1857 and mutineers crowded jails in India. That’s when the islands came back into the picture. On March 10, 1858, the first batch of prisoners arrived at Chatham Island and were moved to Ross Island. There were about 3,000 Indians and Andaman was an open jail.

“Where would the people run? If you survived the water, the aborigines would kill you,” says Rashida Iqbal, curator of the Cellular Jail.

But 300 prisoners did try to escape and that’s when work on the Cellular Jail began in earnest. James Patterson Walkin was the first superintendent and he used brute force to tame the rebels. It is said that he hanged 86 people in one day at Viper Island.

In 1860, because of further attempts at escape, female convicts were brought in. That’s when the modern history of copulation on these islands began.

Arif Mustafa, assistant director of fisheries, is from that storied history. He traces his lineage to an event involving his grandfather Pandit Ayudhya Rai Sharma and a British revenue officer on a horse in Zila Kothan in Shahjahanpur near Lucknow.

British revenue officers had come to survey the land where Mustafa’s family were landlords. When Ayudhya Rai’s father enquired after their intentions, he was kicked in the chest. This angered the 12-year-old Ayudhya Rai, who marched to the room where the revolver was kept, loaded it, and fired it at the British officer on his horse. The officer died and Ayudhya Rai Sharma was declared a rebel against the British Empire.
He toured the jails of British India, from Multan to Alipur, and was finally sent to Kala Pani, the Cellular Jail. He arrived at Ross Island on January 3, 1871.

Arif Mustafa’s grandmother is descended from a woman convict linked to the Moplah Rebellion. Later when the Japanese occupied the islands, they tortured the intelligentsia, of which Mustafa’s family were a part, on charges that it was the educated who were giving the British information. Mustafa’s uncle had to dig the grave in which he was buried. On the day Subhas Chandra Bose flew India’s tricolour in the islands, Mustafa’s father was in the crowd, cheering with the nationalists.

Burdened by history and aware that Andaman is the only home he has, Arif Mustafa works late. His old, beat-up blue scooter is often parked outside the unglamorous office of the assistant director of fisheries. The door to his room, visible from the unpaved road outside, is never closed, and his slight frame, stooped over piles of files, is visible from the front door.

A quote by George Bernard Shaw hangs above Mustafa’s head: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him … The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself … All progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

A map of the islands sits next to his table within easy reach, a map that isn’t seen too often. The borders of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are different from what is seen in school textbooks or government maps.

In the far right corner of his room in a steel cupboard is a copy of the United Nationals Convention on the Laws of the Sea that Mustafa has been carrying around the halls of power for the past 25 years, to make one point: “We have wrongly defined our territory,” he says.

Among the many laws that govern the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the United Nations Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), to which is India is a signatory, is one. UNCLOS, put into practice in the 1980s, assumes the territorial waters of a country to extend to 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometres) from the baseline. So from Mumbai or Porbandar or Chennai, the matter is simple: draw a straight line to the appropriate baseline. If you travel along this route, it will take you about one day to reach the deep sea.

But the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are different.

Article 45 of UNCLOS defines an “archipelago” as the following: “‘Archipelago’ means a group of islands, including parts of islands, interconnecting waters and other natural features which are so closely interrelated that such islands, waters and other natural features form an intrinsic geographical, economic and political entity, or which historically have been regarded as such.”

Article 47, adds: “An archipelagic State may draw straight archipelagic baselines joining the outermost points of the outermost islands and drying reefs of the archipelago provided that within such baselines are included the main islands and an area in which the ratio of the area of the water to the area of the land, including atolls, is between 1 to 1 and 9 to 1.”

The rationale behind the difference in measuring is this: the deep sea in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands—and in fact in most archipelagos—is only a few metres away. So unlike the continental shelf around the mainland, the shelf around islands are pseudo shelves: they are tiny and the deep sea is near.

Life can’t sustain itself in the deep blue sea, it’s an abyss and vegetation only occurs in the phortic zone where all seven layers of sunlight penetrate. This is why fish live near the shelf hiding behind reefs because they can’t withstand the depths of the open sea.

“We have a right to define our territory to the right limits. It will change the whole argument of what constitutes territorial waters,” Mustafa says.

How would this impact the poaching issue?

“So many poachers are let out because of this issue of definition,” he says. “In the court of law, the old map is produced and according to that, they are not in our territory.”

Five decades of fishing in the Andaman Islands has left deep scars. Five deep lines run across his forehead.

When B. Paul Ayer got off the boat at Port Blair from Andhra Pradesh, there were hardly any fishermen in Andaman. The few that had arrived from afar gathered in small clusters, the most prominent of which was Jungli Ghat. It is on that ghat that Ayer put up his house.

In those simpler days, Ayer would row his boat scarcely an hour out to sea and return with plenty of fish. Often the catch would be so big, the customers so few that he’d share it with his neighbours. Years later, after he procured a motorised dinghy and more fishermen arrived, he would have to travel for over five hours to catch fish.

Then the Dollar Fish Rush started—a grouper that has high international value in the southeast Asian markets. The price of the dollar fish kept climbing and fishermen congested Jungli Ghat. The current rate is Rs.1,200 and business is booming.

Life is good despite the outsiders that venture into Indian territory: first came the Myanmarese in their dhows who threaten to take lives and now it’s the Thai trawlers that threaten their livelihood by dynamiting the sea, killing the fish in an instant. Meanwhile the dollar fish has gotten wiser. It’s hiding.

“Make in India but the Modi tsunami is clearing out the sea,” says Ayer. Most fishermen at Jungli Ghat blame the Make in India policy that has seen a record number of foreign trawlers appear in Indian waters since Modi took office.

The Regulation of Fishing by Foreign Vessels Act, 1981, prohibits foreign vessels from fishing in territorial waters as well as carrying explosives. By definition, territorial waters stretch up to 12 nautical miles. Beyond that, up until 200 kilometres from shore is the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of a country and further the sea is free for all.

In 2002, the central government initiated a letter of permit (LoP) scheme by the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. The LoP enables Indian fishing firms to obtain vessels from foreign companies and operate them in the EEZ.

Under the terms of the LoP, the Indian company must pay 10 per cent of the ship’s value upfront and the rest in instalments. Further, the LoP requires all vessels to have 25 per cent Indians on board and requires the catch to be reported to authorities within the Indian EEZ. The LoP divides India into zones: the east coast and west coast.

Andaman is not a separate zone but its ecology is hugely disparate. The EEZ around Chennai, Mumbai and Porbandar is brimming with fish; however the EEZ in the islands is just deep blue sea. Except for the surface fish, migratory by nature, nothing of value survives there.

Over the past few years, trawlers from southeast Asia, mainly Thailand, have started entering the waters around Andaman with a LoP. This year they were made to register with the Department of Fisheries though in the past they were allowed to fish without any declaration or port call.

These trawlers are largely within territorial waters, an illegal act. Furthermore there is no declaration of catch, which leads to depletion of stock. The University of British Columbia published a study in 2010 that estimates India loses about $150-$220 million per year due to illegal and unreported fishing.

“LoPs, it’s an eyewash,” says Mohamed Jadwet. He’s sitting on the first floor of an Indian Oil petrol pump which he owns. Further down the road is the swanky new Jadwet Hotel. He owns that too.

Jadwet is from an old school trading family who arrived with the British Re-occupation Force from Myanmar once the Japanese had been ousted. He’s seen the LoP procedure from up close as a member of the Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Any businessman with sway in New Delhi and links with Thai fishing companies can apply for an LoP that will be registered in the Indian Fisheries Act.

The idea behind the LoP was that Indian companies and personnel would be trained in the nascent deep sea fishing industry. It would also allow local infrastructure to grow, spurring industry and generating employment. Maldives did it.

But on the ground it is different: the main staff, master, deck hands, deck engineer, to actual fishermen, are Thai. There is a 25 per cent requirement for Indians but they tend to be cleaners. Thai fishermen work on a commission structure, and get extra based on their catch.

Almost all expenses are covered by the Thais, and the Indian businessman gets $5,000 for “doing nothing”. Two years later the vessel goes back to Thailand and that’s the end of that.

But here is the question: “How much is the government’s revenue in all this?” In Jadwet’s estimation, about 90 per cent of the revenue goes to foreigners. “Are we just losing our resources?”

The real thorn here is that the LoP allows for mid-sea transfers. No one knows the scale of that.

Life is difficult for outsiders, especially if you’re a Taiwanese in Andaman.

It’s been a long year in a hotel room and it feels like a prison, he says. When his wife calls or when he hears his children’s voice, he breaks down. Once he sobbed outside the court. Another time, he cried on the street outside his hotel. He broke down at the fisheries director’s office. His tears even brought the Taiwanese ambassador to Port Blair.

“Let him return home for just a week,” he pleaded but the facts remain the same: the activities of vessel Long Wang Hsin late in the night of January 3, 2014, had the tri-command, the ANC, spooked.

Everything seemed dodgy. To begin with, Long Wang Hsin had the automatic tracking system (AIS) of an Indian ship called Sai Sreekar I. The AIS is used on ships and by vessels traffic systems for identifying and locating vessels. The life rafts onboard the ship belonged to Sai Sreekar I too.

However Sai Sreekar I had been deregistered. The boat doesn’t exist on official records anymore. Yet it was popping up on the radars of a coast guard ship, naval ship, MV Sentinel, and the port management board’s port control.

“It was popping up all over the place, something wasn’t right,” says a source who was involved in the operation.

Late at night, the coastguard ship Varad apprehended the Taiwanese vessel for unauthorised operation in the Indian EEZ under the Maritime Zone of India Act, 1981. Long Wang Hsin claimed be a carrier but was engaged in transhipment of fish catch—or mid-sea transfers—from a vessel belonging to Balaji, a big name in the fishing industry based in Visakhapatnam. Balaji has been given a LoP for deep sea fishing.

Upon inspection, the story got more complex. The last cargo clearance was issued from Phuket, from where the vessel departed on December 4, 2013. There were no expiry records or a track history on GPS, and the fish catch had been understated. The only documents onboard were registration papers from Taiwan and passports of the staff onboard.

The boat claimed to be a carrier vessel but actually had 10,000 kilograms of sardine and 900 kilograms of milk fish for bait. So in actuality it was a tuna long liner and had about 50 tonnes of tuna, swordfish and marlin. “This is theft,” says a source in the Department of Fisheries. It had all the latest technology: fish finder, radio markers, GPS Samsung SPR 1400, AIS, an iridium-based satcom system, auto pilot, and electronic plotter.

“NATIONAL SECURITY IMPLICATIONS,” reads a memo. “What else is going on in the sea?” asks a source in the coast guard.

“Malicious intent cannot be ruled out,” reads a memo circulated at the ANC.

After a night of interrogation, the master broke down and confessed: Long Wang Hsinwas engaged in active fishing in the Bay of Bengal and while returning had received mid-sea transfers from Balaji 4, 5, 6, 8 and Sai Sreekar 2, 3, 4 on January 1, 2014.

The charges against the master have kept him in the hotel rooms whose bill Balaji is footing. They include: fishing in Indian EEZ without valid permit, switching off the AIS, carrying an AIS that belongs to another vessel, noncompliance of LoP, and not registering as a carrier vessel with the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission yet undertaking transhipment.

“How many others are out there?” asks the source in the Coast Guard.

About a month ago, Meherzad Akhtarkhavari—a horticulturist by training but a fisherman because of the fish rush—went on board a Thai LoP vessel as a courtesy call. It was a beautiful wooden 80-footer with the latest equipment: satellite phones, winches, generators, traps for live fishing, and, most importantly, a fish finder.

About 10 p.m., serious trawling began. They were trawling the bottom of the sea with nets so big that two 80-foot boats would fit, all night. With no one watch, there was no need to declare what they caught. The fish would end up in Ranong, where Thai customs appraisers would put a value on it, and the Indian government would receive a royalty.

“This sort of behaviour will wipe out the local fishing community. You have finished off everything close to Port Blair already,” Meherzad says.

The master of the Thai vessel gave him the latitudes and longitudes of where they were fishing. This was in territorial waters, which is illegal. A week later, Meherzad sent out his boats to the same spot with the right equipment: fishfinder, GPS, echo-sounder and sonar. They came back with no fish.

“They took your clothes off and you don’t even know,” he says

There are currently an unknown number of boats working 24 hours a day. A way to monitor what happens in the sea is to use technology: a satellite communication device pings the boats’ location every hour to a satellite, which is then pinged to the office that sends the latitude and longitude of the boat as a text message to the port authorities. If foreign vessels are in territorial waters, LoPs ought to be cancelled.

Until 1994, the Cellular Jail was still an operational prison though some parts had been transformed into a museum to celebrate the history of India’s struggle for freedom. Block 1 however remained as the British had left it: cold, steely and isolated.

In the penultimate room on a long grey corridor, young Sheikh Mohammad, convicted of murder, decided to learn a foreign language. Back then, shorter sentences meant more poachers, and they came from across south and southeast Asia. Mohammad struck up a friendship with a Thai convict and mastered the language in his 16 years and seven days of captivity.

Towards the end of his sentence, as a convict-warden at Prothrapur Jail, he used to take the Thai and Myanmarese prisoners out to the work shed where he was privy to all sorts of conversations they had among themselves.
Where were you caught? Where are they watching? How many police in this spot?

Years later, Hanifa the jailer, encouraged the exchange of language. Bengalis learnt Burmese and passed on valuable information. It is no secret that the North Sentinelese tribe remain openly hostile towards us, nor is it a secret that we tend to let them keep to themselves in splendid isolation. There are only two sorties per month.

Of late, Myanmarese poachers have been caught around the North Sentinel Island and a source in the ANC says they have even used it as a base. “They don’t just know the name of the Lt Governor but the Chief Secretary as well. This is just like any other jail where new contacts are made. They know our weak points and they know our strengths. They know where we are present and where we are not,” says a senior jail official.

And we aren’t present in many, many places.