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Stumps of trees remain on what used to be cultivable land in Great Nicobar. Photographs by Shamik Bag
Stumps of trees remain on what used to be cultivable land in Great Nicobar. Photographs by Shamik Bag

Fear and survival in Great Nicobar

What's life like on a ticking seismic clock? We visited residents of India's southernmost frontierstill recovering from the tremors of 2004, they've lived through 272 tremors in just the past 48 months

It was around 2pm on 11 April 2012, a muggy summer afternoon when the only road cutting through Campbell Bay was characteristically empty. Babita Devi was helping her husband at their fair-price shop near the jetty. Suddenly, she felt a familiar tremble under her feet: The earth was shaking again.

Babita Devi is quite used to temblors. At the time, she had been married to Rajan Singh, former army man from Haryana who has settled down to an islander’s life in Campbell Bay, for 25 years. The temblors are weekly visitors, she laughs. But the one rocking the island that afternoon felt different; it felt too close to ignore. She hurried outside. A building nearby was shaking violently; tin sheds and roofs in the vicinity were making a fierce, rattling noise; the trees were swaying ominously. Her head reeled. The jolts lasted for well over 2 minutes.

Rajan Singh is among the 330-odd ex-servicemen whose families have settled on the island from 1969.
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Rajan Singh is among the 330-odd ex-servicemen whose families have settled on the island from 1969.
An aerial view of Campbell Bay
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An aerial view of Campbell Bay

The meeting was still on when the ground shook again.

As the shrill tsunami warning siren went off, memories of 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami came flooding back. It opened the floodgates of memory.

For the population of 330-odd ex-servicemen and their families who have settled on the Great Nicobar island as part of a Union government-sponsored rehabilitation scheme that began in 1969 and aims primarily to address a strategic concern to populate the southern frontier, it was the possibility of being unsettled again that was most unnerving. Coming from poor socio-economic backgrounds on the mainland, most of these families had come to the Great Nicobar island with nothing but a dream of a decent and peaceful life. The decades that followed were all about toiling on the land and taming the wilderness. The tsunami of 26 December 2004 changed all that. The waves were merciless, taking away lives and most of what they had struggled to build for over three decades—cultivable land, food security, roads, homes and memories.

After spending the next seven years in temporary tin shelters provided by the administration, and living on government doles, many of the settlers had just moved in to newly constructed permanent homes in 2012.

An image of the new settlements in Great Nicobar.
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An image of the new settlements in Great Nicobar.

This time, fortunately, there was no tsunami. The red alert was downgraded to orange. Life in Great Nicobar returned, seemingly, to a kind of normal. Yet the churn below the surface of this last island in the south continues unabated.

To get a measure of the turbulent seismic clock ticking beneath and around Great Nicobar, one needs to walk over to the office of the Andaman and Nicobar administration-run Emergency Operation Centre (EOR) in one corner of Campbell Bay. Established in 2012, its three hexagonal, single-storey buildings sit within a 1,000 sq. m campus. One of the buildings is meant for storage of emergency ration and material; another for the staff to rest between disaster duties.

The third building is the daily action area. Within is a mass of hotlines, landlines, mobile phones, television screens, satellite phones, VHF sets, batteries and power backups. A giant screen meant to provide earthquake and tsunami updates from the Hyderabad-based Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (Incois)—an autonomous body under the Union ministry of earth sciences—has been inoperative for many months now; Incois personnel relay alerts and information by telephone.

The EOR is manned by an 11-member team working in shifts 24 hours a day, round the year. Great Nicobar comes under the high-risk seismic zone 5 category, the severest of them all. One action drilled into the staff is to “run as fast as possible with the satellite phone when the water is rushing in; a satellite phone eventually will be the island’s only means to communicate with the world," says Prem Kumar, a “daily rented" employee who was manning the centre the night I visited, last month. “It’ll also save our lives," he adds, a grin playing on his face.

Prem pulls out a logbook. The idea of one was triggered by the 8.6 magnitude jolt of 11 April 2012. To put it in perspective, the April shocker was a shade below the earthquake of 26 December 2004—with a magnitude of 9.1-9.3, it triggered a gigantic tsunami and killed an estimated 230,000 across the world, including over 12,000 in India, and caused deaths in countries as distant as Somalia, South Africa and Kenya. Its epicentre was off Aceh in northern Sumatra. Great Nicobar was the first Indian outpost to bear the brunt of the killer waves.

Today, it’s better known as the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, but seismologists and scientists often refer to it by its two nearest places of origin: the Great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake. Considering that the epicentre of the April 2012 quake, as the logbook notes, was off the same west coast area of northern Sumatra, the urgency to record it is understandable.

Based on information provided by Incois, the India Meteorological Department, the US Geological Survey and other sources, the logbook records earthquakes in the Andaman and Nicobar region and its vicinity. In the case of Great Nicobar, vicinity would include the seismically explosive western coast of northern Sumatra in Indonesia, a mere 140km from the southernmost tip of India, the now inundated and still inaccessible-by-road Indira Point on Great Nicobar island.

Carefully detailed under subheads such as “date", “time", “latitude", “longitude" , “magnitude", “source of information", “land/ocean", “region", “local depth" and “remarks", the first logbook entry is of the 8.6 magnitude pounding that the island faced that day in 2012. It doesn’t really get any better.

With 16 double-spread pages, updated till 5 March 2016, when a 5.1 magnitude quake hit Sumatra, the handwritten logbook is a dark and premonitory register of the tectonic hazards facing Great Nicobar.

For being at Great Nicobar also means that one is pretty much in the range of fire of the world’s two most explosive earthquake zones. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands fall in the Alpide belt, statistically proven to be the world’s second most seismically active zone, accounting for 17% of the largest quakes.

An even bigger worry is the Ring of Fire.

A map showing the spread of the Ring of Fire, the world’s most seismically active region, which accounts for 90% of the world’s earthquakes.
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A map showing the spread of the Ring of Fire, the world’s most seismically active region, which accounts for 90% of the world’s earthquakes.

“There is absolutely no doubt that Great Nicobar sits right on top of a subduction zone and is within the most seismically active regions of the world," says Supriyo Mitra, who completed his PhD in geophysics from the University of Cambridge in the UK, with seismology and continental tectonics as his areas of interest. Having been an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Mitra is currently an associate professor with the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata.

He makes a distinction between risk and hazard. The risk of a place facing an earthquake depends on the construction activity and population density. Great Nicobar, he reckons, definitely falls within a “very, very hazardous" zone. Mitra explains: “The Indian plate is subducting under the Sunda plate. These processes happen over thousands of years, but the subducting plate does not always simply go below the other plate; they get frictionally locked along the boundary and are motionless. Since the Indian plate is pushing against the other, there will be huge amounts of energy stored at the frictionally locked boundary. Once that stored energy exceeds its limit, the boundary moves and releases tremendous amounts of energy, which causes the ground to move. That is what we feel as an earthquake."

Mitra says Great Nicobar, along with Sumatra and other regions, sits atop this frictionally locked boundary. “The chances of a tsunami are higher in places at the boundary," he adds. So it all comes down to that one question that seismologists and scientists, pitted against geological time, find no easy, definitive answer to: When?

At the EOR, Prem, the attendant, quickly takes me through the logbook entries of earthquakes in the Great Nicobar region in the four years since April 2012. I take photographs of each double-spread sheet so that I can study them later. It is close to midnight. Before I leave, I note that of the 48 months recorded, only five months saw no earthquakes around Great Nicobar; 14 March 2014 saw 17 tremors, most of them originating around the island, hitting the place with one that was 5.5 in magnitude and emerged from a depth of a mere 2km; over two days in 2015, 8-9 November, the Richter scale registered 19 hits.

Later, adding up all the entries, one reaches a bone-chilling figure: 272 earthquakes and tremors have been recorded over 48 months—an average of 5.66 earthquakes a month.

THE PAST AND THE FUTURE

Step back a moment and try to recollect the day an earthquake struck Nepal—25 April 2015—and minor tremors and aftershocks were felt in Delhi and Kolkata. By that afternoon, social media was clogged with minutiae—photographs of employees being evacuated from office buildings; hairline cracks in walls; the downed shutters of the Delhi Metro; general excited gatherings of people—and spontaneous text updates—one of them saying: “I felt it guys. Did you feel it yet?" Even as news reports started emerging on the imminent big rumble yet to visit north India and the North-East, a region particularly prone to severe seismic activity, many were marking themselves “safe" from the Nepal earthquake on Facebook.

On the island of Great Nicobar, a two-day ship journey from Port Blair, the place where the Andaman Sea blends into the Indian Ocean, correspondence or commiseration are both contained within Campbell Bay.

There are no colleges or vocational training institutes. There is no hospital, just basic health centres. There is a helipad but no airport. There isn’t a single private hotel, just a restaurant that might pass off as an eatery in most other places. No bar. No cinema hall. No newspaper reaches the island, and there isn’t a single local journalist to file ground reports from it.

Locked in by the beguilingly beautiful and colour-shifting transparent waters, the island only sees two ships plying the route from Port Blair and back, each arriving once a week. One takes around 29 hours, the other—an overheated tub notorious for its rat and cockroach infestation—takes four-five days to complete the same journey.

Delhi, around 2,900km from Great Nicobar, seems even farther away if you consider the psychological distance the ex-servicemen settlers have to travel.

It was 15 August 1977 when Ashok Singh, along with some other Punjabi ex-servicemen and their families, was brought on a ship to Campbell Bay. Ashok, a signalman who had spent 18 years in the army, remembers hoisting the Indian flag.

“There was little to eat and no milk available for infants. My wife was breastfeeding our child, but her breasts had dried up since she hadn’t eaten anything substantial for the past few days," recalls Singh. “But we knew that by shifting to Great Nicobar, we were doing something for the country, and the flag was hoisted with fanfare." In all, 330 such families were settled from 1969-80. While the 100 families from Punjab that made up the first batch, settled in 1969, got 14.5 acres of land each and incentives in cash and kind from the government, later settlers, from states such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Kerala, Haryana, Odisha and West Bengal, got 11 acres each. While this may have compensated for the remoteness for settlers, most of whom owned no land in their own states, the government stood to gain by “populating an island of immense strategic importance", Amit Kumar, then assistant commissioner of Great Nicobar, told me during a visit in 2006.

Back in the 1960s, this island had only a small aboriginal population, says Amit. The tribals, especially the Nicobarese, were known to be in contact with foreigners, who were fishing illegally and smuggling corals, sea shells and wood. Since Great Nicobar is closer to Indonesia and Myanmar than India, a need was felt to populate the island with patriotic Indians from the mainland.

“The ex-servicemen were settled in Great Nicobar by the Indian government primarily because their army training and service had already exposed them to the vagaries of war and hardship in the toughest parts of the country," Mohd Rehan Raza, the assistant commissioner of Campbell Bay, told me last month. “They are ready to adapt, and the spirit of sacrifice is high among them. That spirit was required."

“We weren’t economically well-off in the mainland. Settlement in Great Nicobar was thus mutually beneficial," says Captain V.R.N. Setty, who retired from the army in 1967 and settled down in Great Nicobar in 1979.

Captain V.R.N. Setty and his wife settled on the island in 1979.
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Captain V.R.N. Setty and his wife settled on the island in 1979.

In 2005, about 30-odd ex-servicemen families went on a relay hunger strike in Campbell Bay after the government turned down their proposal for monetary compensation and help to resettle in their home states. “The government said that since we were not forced to settle here and had come voluntarily, we could not ask for compensation to resettle back in the mainland. But with the land and incentives, they certainly did coerce us to come here," T.B. Yadav of the Ex-Servicemen Association at Campbell Bay had told me during a visit in 2006. The families filed a case at the Port Blair bench of the Calcutta high court in 2005; the government won it.

Some years ago, young residents marched in protest to demand a share in the national consciousness. Their gripe was that the national anthem, national weather reports, news reports, development policies and popular culture completely disregarded the presence of the island and its inhabitants.

The fear of isolation and loneliness is real, says Setty. “Most children of ex-servicemen have moved out. Some of the original settlers are dead too. The island offers vast open spaces but nowhere to go. The effect on some people has been psychological. I have personally seen a widowed lady getting mentally unbalanced," says Setty. “It is true that a time might come when Great Nicobar will have only these houses and few residents," he adds, sitting in his newly allotted house while nursing a beer.

Of the 100 Punjabi ex-servicemen families who first settled here in 1969, only about 25-odd families are still on the island, reckons the station house officer of the Campbell Bay police station, Girish Kumar. “Connectivity has become worse than earlier, and the island is very vulnerable to natural disasters like earthquakes. It doesn’t look like Campbell Bay will see any development in the next 10 years. While before the tsunami the population was around 10,000, now it must have come down to 7,000-8,000 people," says Girish.

While waiting for the Pawan Hans helicopter to arrive—the daily service to Port Blair is used mostly by emergency patients and government officials; even though it’s heavily subsidized, the 4,650 islanders need to pay for a seat is felt to be prohibitively expensive—Girish was accosted by an islander who wanted him to carry a carton of milk for a relative in Port Blair. Girish refused. I ended up carrying two parcels—from strangers in Campbell Bay for strangers in Port Blair. The isolation of the place is often mitigated through such means.

John Robert Babu is one of the youngsters who left Great Nicobar for good. Son of an ex-serviceman settler from Andhra Pradesh, he felt trapped. “There is no Internet, not even proper mobile phone connectivity. The education standard is very poor, and most teachers somehow serve six-month stints as if on punishment duty. There is no job opportunity. There is nothing," he complains. “Yet, on television, we see the world making progress, moving on."

John Robert Babu of Tv24
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John Robert Babu of Tv24

Not everyone is able to get away—or wants to. At his home in Campbell Bay, retired army signalman Ashok Singh shows me the bullet injury he suffered while serving in Kashmir during the 1965 India-Pakistan war. His right leg has not recovered from the injuries he suffered while carrying his wife through the shoulder-high tsunami floodwaters. He is a grumpy man, complaining about the lack of monetary compensation from the government and the erratic flow of pension. “With no money in my pocket, I can’t think of going away anywhere. After serving the country for so many years, I can’t think of nationalism on a hungry stomach," says Ashok.

In contrast, 34-year-old Prahlad Singh, son of a Haryanvi army man, is optimistic. His business in civil construction flourished thanks to the post-tsunami rebuilding effort. On an island with only two road connections, Prahlad’s business has seen him buying two vehicles, a pick-up truck for his business and another for personal use. He speaks enthusiastically about starting an ecotourism venture in Great Nicobar, but knows he will be hamstrung by the lack of transport and Internet connectivity.

Prahlad Singh, the son of an ex-serviceman from Haryana, runs a civil construction business on the island.
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Prahlad Singh, the son of an ex-serviceman from Haryana, runs a civil construction business on the island.

Environmental and anthropological concerns have countered development agendas on the island. With the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve, which includes the two national parks and endemic plant and animal life, occupying over 80% of the island, Great Nicobar is seen as a treasure trove of tropical rainforest richness by environmentalists. The lifestyles of the two aboriginal tribes—the Nicobarese and the reticent and fewer-in-number Shompens—are said to have been influenced considerably by the ex-servicemen settlements. It is reported that the Union government pared the figure to 330 ex-servicemen families from the 2,000 originally planned after taking into account environmental and tribal concerns.

“Great Nicobar’s importance is more because of its immense strategic presence so close to the Strait of Malacca, which is one of the most important international shipping routes in the world," says Raza. Locals are familiar with the glowing lights of international ships and liners on the distant horizon.

Great Nicobar, it is said, could benefit from the tussle for maritime supremacy over the Indian Ocean, which has seen an assertive Chinese presence in recent years. “There will be major improvement in defence infrastructure in the coming days. It has been seen that civil infrastructure often follows the development of military infrastructure," says Raza.

However, disaster preparedness, says Mahendra Roy, the tehsildar of Great Nicobar, is the primary focus area for the administration. Disaster management teams have been set up at the panchayat and school levels. Twice a year, the entire population of the island assembles in an open area where mock earthquake and tsunami drills are performed and explained—running towards higher ground when the waves arrive, ducking under strong tables during earthquakes, escaping concrete homes, performing first-aid rituals, caring for the seriously injured and the elderly, survival techniques in the wild, and more.

Such efforts underline the fight for survival of one of India’s most vulnerable communities. Also, possibly, its least acknowledged.

On that evening of 11 April 2012, when an earthquake of 8.6 magnitude shook the island, followed by seven more tremors, Babita Devi stared out towards the ocean. Dusk had robbed it of its turquoise and azure colours. The familiar suddenly felt ridden with dark, life-threatening dangers. Standing there, Babita didn’t think of the struggle her ex-serviceman husband had gone through to settle down in Great Nicobar, 3,000-odd kilometres away from Haryana. She didn’t ponder over the role they were playing in the service of the nation. She says that her mind was focused on the well-being of her children—the future.

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