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Sunday, December 2, 2001
Travel

Of martyrs’ echo and marine ecosystem
P. P. S. Gill

IT is the splendid isolation and green gold cover that lend serenity and scenic beauty to Andaman and Nicobar— the archipelago of 572 emerald islands, islets and rocks in the blue waters of Bay of Bengal. This Union Territory is remembered as Kala Pani'—black water.

Approachable only by sea (700 nautical miles) and air (1,200 km) from the mainland, India, the Union Territory comprises islands that stretch nearly 700 km from North to South. Only 36 out of these islands are inhabited. ''Kala Pani'' remains as much a place of pilgrimage as a picturesque holiday spot.

The capital, Port Blair, had just woken up when our flight from Chennai touched down on a small naval air-strip around 8 am. Driving through the unkempt town and the undulating landscape, I traversed through the corridor of time to St Croix in the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean sea. There appeared to be a striking sameness between the two places so far, yet, so much similar in ways more than one.

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A visit to the Cellular Jail, a national memorial, brought home the stark reality of what actually '' freedom'' means. To be ''free'' in body and spirit today is one thing. But how the ''freedom'' that we enjoy today really came about is quite another. The Cellular Jail is a mute witness, to the ''freedom'' that we can now enjoy. Let's salute those martyrs who were incarcerated in the seven-pronged, puce-coloured building of which now only three remain.

The saga of that heroic freedom struggle was brought home more succinctly when I saw the moving light-and-sound show inside the jail in the evening. Two shows are held every day with the commentary in both English and Hindi. . It is a touching tribute to our martyrs. Research and basic script of the show is by Melville de Mellow. The main voices are of Manohar Singh, Om Puri, Naseerudin Shah, Jalal Agha, Deepak Mathan, Tom Alter, K.K. Raina and Vijay Kashyap. And the music is by Louis Banks.

There is more to the place than martyrs' echo that is heard even on other islands like Viper and Ross that too are a testimony to the British ways of dealing with those who sought azadi.

Marine life is unique and colourful in Andaman and Nicobar Islands
Marine life is unique and colourful in Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Beyond the walls of the jail and echo of the agonising wails of those patriots, is another world that looks normal and leads a normal life, as do people elsewhere. The Islands are a mini-India, a bouquet of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and pluralistic society where inter-region and inter-religion marriages are commonplace.

Beyond the usual humdrum and mundane life of Port Blair is the world of nature in whose bosom nestles a mysterious treasure-trove of wonders. It is fascinating to see the riot of colours and a vast repository of flora and fauna— be it on land, in water, the tribal reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and marine parks etc. The green cover that wraps the islands consists of luxuriant mangroves that occupy 11 per cent of the territory and protect over 110 species of wild orchids and 150 species of plants and animals endemic to the place.

It is also a bird-watcher's paradise. The idyllic landscape hides in its foliage, nearly 246 varieties of birds of which 39 are endemic. The notable among them include megapode, swiftlet, hornbill and Nicobar pigeon. The white sandy, quiet and clean beaches present quite a contrast against the green backdrop of the islands with blue-green sea waves kissing and caressing the rim.

The sea is equally rich in bio-diversity, harbouring in its depths a variety of species— 1,200 of fish, 350 of echinoderm, 1000 of mollusca and many more forms of life. ''It is a sea forest down below'', remarked the guide, who is with the ANET—Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environmental Team, clearing the glass bottom of the motor-boat to show the world of coral reefs at Redskin Islands, off Wandoor, 29 km from Port Blair.

Incidentally, the thick green plantations and ambience of the little hilly-terrain on either side of the ribbon-wide road to Wandoor Jetty makes one forget the discomfort of the journey. And fresh coconut milk further refreshes the body and the mind as one surveys the vast expanse of the sea dotted by islands. One good thing at Wandoor is that no plastic carry-bags, not even for food-packets or mineral water bottles, are allowed on the ferry that takes you to the Redskin Island, past the Grub Island.

The Park at Wandoor is made up of open sea, creeks and fifteen small and large islands, spread over 281.5 sq. km. A visit to Redskin Island's ''coral colonies'', viewed through the glass bottom motor-boat, opens a new vista to the underwater( world!). Nature's art, architecture, sculptures, craftsmanship, colour combinations of ornamental fish and other marine life leaves you speechless with wonder. This is just one of the places, other is Jolly Buoy, equally famous even for scuba-diving and snorkelling. A short video on marine-life at the Wandoor museum says it all. Corals, one learns, are tiny organisms. These animals are capable of secreting massive calcareous skeleton and collectively deposit calcium carbonate to build ornate and large colonies. Concentrated growth gives rise to coral reef, a complex system that consists of animals and plants. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the richest of the Indian region in coral diversity, with as many as 179 species.

For someone who is not familiar with sea-life, one is totally at sea while looking at the coral community, life, species, colours and diversity and species of fish, fish-turtle, angel fish, butterfly fish, star-fish and the like. The marine eco-system is unique in these islands. Coral reefs prevent coastal erosion and storm damage. These are important breeding and nursery ground for several commercially important fish and jelly- fish, besides providing shelter to juvenile fish and larvae of many organisms. Coral reefs give sustenance and employment to the people living around these places.

These have to be protected from natural and anthropogenic threats. For this, the department of environment and forests looks after the management. Collection and mining of corals is prohibited by law and so is causing any damage; it is an offence and punishable. No wonder, several of these have been declared national parks and wildlife sanctuaries for protection and effective management.

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