TODAY -

Chatham Saw Mill - Asia's oldest and largest

S Balakrishnan *



One of Asia's oldest and largest saw mills is situated in a tiny island called Chatham in Andaman & Nicobar Union Territory. The Chatham Saw Mill was established by the colonial British rulers 139 years ago in 1883 after the penal settlement started receiving the revolutionaries of 1857 war of Indian independence.

[I will not call the 1857 uprising as India's 1st war of independence because there have been other such uprisings like the Paika revolution in Orissa in 1817 and the still earlier Vellore sepoy uprising in 1806 in Tamil Nadu.]

Because of the penal settlement (Cellular Jail), the local demand for sawn timber for constructional works increased and the rulers took the decision to establish the saw mill. Initially, the machines installed were second-hand and they were operated by locally available unskilled hands. The Chatham Saw Mill is now under the control of the Union Territory Administration.

This is one of the two Government saw mills in the Union Territory. The other Government saw mill is in Betapur in Middle Andamatr, it was established in 1955-56. Presently there are about a thousand staff members in Chatham Saw Mill which is under the overall charge of a Dy. Conservator of Forest.

Though the annual log intake capacity of this mill is around 20,000 cum (cubic meter), it is presently consuming only around 13,000 cum annually due to various reasons/restric-tions. Hence the annual production of sawn timber of Chatham saw mill ranges between 5000 and 6000 cum; of this more than 90% is sold locally at the price fixed by the A&N Administration on year to year basis.

The present annual average turnover of the Chatham saw mill is around Rs. 6 crores. While majority of the timber from the forests of the Islands are consumed by the wood-based local indus-tries, the remaining logs that contain knots, shakes, splits, sponges, etc., are sent to the govt. saw mills for production of sawn timber.

It is to the credit of the Govt. saw mills that utmost possible extent of good quality sawn timber is sal-vaged from the second quality timber to meet the needs of govemment/local public as well as fumiture industry. The famed "Andaman Padauk" timber is handled by government saw mill only. Other than Padauk the other popular timer varieties of the A&N Islands are Gurjan, Marble, and Satin wood.

During II World War, the islands were captured by the Japanese from whom the British retrieved them at the end of the War. In the course of the War, the mill was damaged by bombardments paralysing its activity completely.

After the War, to meet the increased demand of sawn timber of the Islands as well as mainland India, the mill was restructured and strengthened. Chatham is the island where the earliest British settle-ment in the Andaman began. The tiny island is of 0.093 sq. km. only. It is connected to Port Blair town by a bridge of 100 m. long.

In 1990, a Forest Museum was set up in Chatham Island where the activities of the Forest Depart-ment are explained. Decorative pieces made of the special timbers of A&N Islands are also showcased here. As I write about Chatham Mill, I remember of a fire accident there. `Wimco' was running a factory on the Chatham Island to manufacture empty match sticks that were sent to match industry in mainland.

The fire was spotted at 5 pm on 2nd January 1980 and was controlled after 4 hours. The godown was damaged fully and the estimated loss was Rs 12 lakh. Luckily the factory was saved. Even as I went there the next evening, I could still see heavy smoke coming out of the charred logs. As I moved out of Port Blair to Cuttack in 1980 on transfer, I brought with me a specially made teapot made out of Andaman Padauk.

Tourists were not allowed inside the saw mill back then. I had the opportunity to visit the mill only in 2009 during a revisit after almost 30 years.


* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was webcasted on July 29 2022.



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