Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rainfall, Active Volcano, Tours & Flights in Andaman


Dear friends! Here’s wishing you all a very “HAPPY DIWALI”, the annual Hindu festival of lights celebrated throughout India with peerless religious fervor by the followers of all religions, alike, making a strong statement of matchless communal harmony & integration throughout the globe.

I’m back to Port Blair from Car Nicobar where I’m currently Coordinating the implementation of Child Led Disaster Risk Reduction (CLDRR) Project under the aegis of the NGO - West Bengal Voluntary Health Association (WBVHA). The project is supported by the world renowned NGO – Save the Children – BRB for the community of Car Nicobar that was the worst affected by the tsunami of 26th December, 2004. I’d elaborate on the project later.

As of now, since it’s raining cats and dogs in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and a low pressure area has been created in the Bay of Bengal, here, let me present to you an interesting account on rains in these Islands.

Rain as companion

As detailed in my earlier posts, these Islands receive an inordinate amount of rainfall thanks to the “very green, thick, majestic, humid, dark, warm and wet” Tropical Rain Forests. Sometimes during the incessant torrential rainfall, the runway at the Veer Savarkar airport in Port Blair goes under water and the flights are turned back.

A couple of months ago, when the hurricane Nargis had stormed through the Islands across to Myanmar, the waters came into the terminal building, and stayed like an uninvited guest long enough to destroy most equipment like baggage scanners. Maybe it is an illusion but as you get off the plane and look at the runway it almost appears like a boomerang, with both ends raised.

Water logging due to Hurricane Nargis at Humphreygunj, South Andaman

Back in the Seventies, flights coming in from Calcutta used to stop over at Rangoon (Myanmar), as those days only small planes like Dakota, Viscount etc. with a seating capacity of 10–16 passengers only used to operate between the Islands and the mainland India.

More recently, till 2004, there were only four flights a day. That was before the Tsunami. Under its weight, the local economy lay crushed. To revive it, public sector workers were encouraged to visit Port Blair on LTC (Leave Travel Concession). From two lakh tourists they burgeoned to seven lakh in 2006. Never had the locals seen so many tourists visiting the islands.

The airport began to receive 13 flights a day.

Home boarding began at Rupees 1,000 a day; hotels added rooms; people took loans to buy Maruti Omnis to run as taxis. The one small dam, the Dhanikhari, could not supply so much water. Vegetables began to cost more: Rupees 80 a kilo for cabbage, beans, beetroot, all of which came from Chennai and Kolkata. From a holiday paradise it became a nightmare.

The LTC holiday-makers came with their entire families and often with no more than Rs 1,000 in their wallets. If the weather turned & their flights got cancelled they were done for. When they had nowhere to go and no flights that day to take them home, they sometimes found shelter in the airport. The Tour operators tried to make hay while the sun shone, buying tickets in bulk at cut rates, which were charged to the companies at full cost. “But everybody was happy - the tour operator, the LTC traveler, and the hotelier… Last year apparently, the government scrapped the LTC to Port Blair. The Paradise regained.”

A spectacular sea beach at Neil Island

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands take up about a fourth of India’s 6,500 km coastline and 30 per cent of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone falls in these waters. Yet, only 32 out of the 572 islands are inhabited, since habitability depends upon availability of potable water. “Which is again odd, considering that it rains out here about nine months of the year, sometimes incessantly for days at a stretch. You wake to the sound of rain falling, go about your business with the rain falling and when you sleep the last sound you hear is the rain falling. It becomes a constant companion, almost like tinnitus. You get used to it.”

Since these Islands bear the full brunt of both the North East and South West monsoon, only October, November, February and March are relatively rain-free. And although this region is far removed from the consciousness of the mainlanders, just south of Nicobar lies the Six Degree Channel, connecting to the Malacca Straits where piracy abounds. It is through here that the heavy traffic passes, about a 100 ships a day, oil tankers, cargo vessels, pleasure boats and the like connecting the East to the West. Our Coast Guard people here are thus reasonably busy. Every other day there is a distress call: man overboard, engine failure, leakage, and ship adrift …


The volcano in Barren Island was showing signs of restiveness a couple of years ago. It is India’s only active volcano, erupting fitfully. During times like this, a boat does a night cruise around Barren Island and anchors off it so you get to see the fireworks.

The local Coast Guard chief hopped on to a Dornier aircraft in the night and took some pictures of the glowing mouth. He showed me those pictures and I saw them with a sense of wonder. That was the closest I have ever got to a spouting volcano. Some 135 km away,” said a beaming V. Sudershan, who was on a tour here.

The Barren Island Volcano in a dormant stage

But Barren Island, max three kilometers at its widest, is not entirely barren. There are bats and birds and crabs. But its most interesting denizen is the feral goat. Nobody knows how it got there but local lore has it that the goat was dropped off by a ship in the eighteenth century. Many stories of evolution surround these goats. One version says their necks are longer than those of normal goats for over the years they have sought sustenance from branches of a few trees, which persist on the island despite all that lava and ash. “All that stretching had a Lamarckian effect on their necks. But the bigger mystery was - how did they survive without any known fresh water source? It was speculated that they drank sea water, a feat unparalleled in the goat world. At last, sometime ago a scientific expedition discovered a couple of cold streams on Barren island.”

Sea cucumbers’ lure

With so many uninhabited islands covered thickly with trees, it is a temptation to timber poachers and divers looking for a bit of the coral reefs. Some look for sea cucumbers, a slug like creature that lives on the sea bottom and among corals in the shallow waters. It is considered a delicacy in East Asian markets and fetches high prices in restaurants. The Chinese cherish them for medicinal value. Like tiger penis, sea cucumbers are thought to be very aphrodisiacal.

So they are consumed in great quantities in many forms, from soups to powders.

But local authorities say that the malarial forests and prevalence of brain fever deters sea poachers or sea pirates from setting up base in one or the other of the innumerable uninhabited islands.”

Courtesy: V Sudershan; Express

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