REGISTRAR OF NEWSPAPERS OF INDIA
NO: DELENG / 2017 / 70663
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Former DG Shipping (Dr) Malini V Shankar: Andy and Nico
By Sea and Coast | 29/06/2019

I have visited the Andaman & Nicobar Islands several times, on work and vacation. Each visit added to my insights and perspectives. Over a period of time from 1986 to 2018, I savoured the treasures of this distant land - the intriguing mud volcano, the eruption of the Barren Island volcano, the oldest sawmill at Chatham, the timber museum, and of course the Cellular Jail and Ross and Havelock Islands.

The first time I set foot in Port Blair was in the winter of 1986. We decided on Andamans since I had friends who were there on a “hardship posting”. Back then, the land and the waters of the islands were absolutely pristine. There were jungles echoing with eerie, deafening sounds of insects and unknown animals, the trunks of the trees on land spanned more than 30 feet in diameter! The vehicles were few (and almost all belonged to the government), entertainment almost nil, and food was cooked on coal sigdis. Food grains and cereals, and most vegetables and fruits were shipped from Chennai or Vishakapatnam!  

Our holiday coincided with the visit of the then Prime Minister, which meant that the sole glass bottomed boat and all vehicles were placed at the disposal of the VVIP. We accessed the only vehicle available - a 4- wheel drive jeep, and no drivers. My friend who decided to ferry us around almost lost control and the vehicle sped downhill, to be miraculously stopped by a strong tree trunk.  

We had booked slots for snorkelling at Jolly Boy Islands. But on the appointed time and place, nothing showed up – no boat, no equipment, no information, and no one to contact! We chatted up another visitor, who happened to be an officer who had come to the islands to negotiate purchase of Andaman timber. By late afternoon, he was resourceful enough to find a boat that would take us for an hour’s ride into the waters. The boat sputtered to a start and off we were into the Andaman Sea. Lo and behold, within 20 minutes, the boat came to a halt; the boatman declared that she had scraped her bottom on some rocks or corals. It was 4 pm, and the December skies were getting dark. We imagined the worst, we had no communication or rescue facility. We thought that with some luck we would spend the night gazing at the stars, hoping that someone would find us by morning.

But nothing prepared us for the next sight – the boatman simply got off the vessel, seemed to walk on waters (is this how Jesus did it??) and gently pushed the boat ahead, started the motor, and got the boat going. He knew the sea bed like the back of his hand, and he told us he was standing on rocks and getting the boat out!

Indian Airlines had two flights a week; we missed one flight and had 3 extra days on the islands! We pretty much did nothing except eat, take jeep rides and sleep. And of course, go to the beach and watch the crystalline spume of the waves.

The subsequent visits were devoid of any such adventure. The next two trips to Andamans were for professional reasons, for meetings with entrepreneurs – who were mainly exporting Grouper fish to Thailand. I remember another unique enterprise – a Frenchman helping the islands earn foreign exchange from recreation fishing. Truly ahead of its times.

Even on official tours, I was often not able to find a good guest house. Once I was told that a high- level official delegation was in Port Blair, and the rest houses and boats had been requisitioned for his visit. On enquiring, I was told that this VVIP was none other than the DG Shipping!

The early 2000s saw intense development in the islands, to the detriment of the environment. I was aghast to see that the hill tops had been flattened and hideous multi-storey buildings were being constructed, the tree cover had reduced, and aquaculture units were spewing suspected harmful waste. Fortunately, the efforts of courts and environmentalists bore fruit and I was delighted to observe the improvements during my visit in 2013 to Port Blair. The quay was organized, aquaculture regulated, tree cover increased, and development activities respected the need to preserve the ecosystem.

It was on this trip that I finally debuted in snorkelling off the Wandoor beach. The rich marine life with its myriad colours was a sheer delight – and just the ecstatic feeling of being able to float in the middle of the ocean! This time I was staying with a friend. She had adopted two charming pups, and was looking for apt names for them. I was delighted to christen them, what else, Andy & Nico - after Andamans and Nicobar.

My more recent visit to Andamans was in my capacity as DG Shipping, and that included taking the ship to the extremely picturesque Nicobar Islands. Alas, while ships were still the mainstay of the economy, the DG Shipping ceased to be Master of all that he or she surveyed. There were now 21 flights a day (and growing) between the mainland and the Port Blair, thousands of tourists who headed for the jetty straight from the airport, resorts catered to a wide spectrum of tourists. As the government expands its plan to open up the islands for tourism and development, it is my fervent prayer that the landscape and seascape continues to retain its beauty and charm.




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