INDIA was colonised once, but the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were colonised twice and continue to be colonised even now. This is a rather bold statement to make, especially today, when the national government is concentrating political power into one mainstream narrative, where even the voices of State governments are given short shrift, leave alone peripheral island territories. But this is the subtext running through all the chapters of Pankaj Sekhsaria’s Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story . The book, which consolidates his experience as a researcher-journalist writing about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for more than two decades, is a compilation of 25 analytical features he has written since the 1990s in various publications, including Frontline , The Hindu , Economic & Political Weekly and Indian Birds .
The pieces in the compilation look at the unique setting of the archipelago, its environment, history and indigenous communities. Also included are the impacts of the tsunami of December 2004, which raised the edge of the some of the islands and submerged into the sea some others, and of the Supreme Court judgment in the Thirumulpad (forestry) case.The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are geographically closer to Myanmar and Thailand than to mainland India, are unique in their geography and history. This large archipelago system in the Bay of Bengal has 306 islands and 206 rocks and rocky outcrops, covering an area of 8,200 square kilometres. Of these, only 38 islands are inhabited. The islands are home to four indigenous tribal communities: the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese. The communities are believed to have lived on these islands for the past 40,000 years.
The point that Sekhsaria emphasises throughout the book is that while colonisation in mainland India ended when the British left in 1947, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands the recolonisation happened when the Indian government took charge of the country after Independence. “Independent India was only about a couple of decades old, a young thriving democracy as it would have been called then. But this vibrant democracy was already on course to becoming a coloniser itself. In the late 1960s, an official plan of the Government of India to ‘colonise’ the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was firmly in place.”
According to this plan, the forests were wastelands that needed to be tamed, settled and developed. Writes Sekhsaria: “It did not matter that these forests were the home of myriad plants and animals that had evolved over aeons. It did not matter that ancient tribal peoples were living here for centuries, neither that they were physically and spiritually sustained by these forests. The idea that forests could mean more than just the timber the trees provided had not even taken seed in the national consciousness.”
Actions and statements by successive national governments and island administrations proved that this faulty philosophy of recolonising the islands was never corrected. In fact, the situation only got worse. When President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam visited the islands in May 2005 (in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami), he announced his vision for recovery and development of the islands. He said that the islands should have the infrastructure for hosting one million tourists every year, a number far larger than the resident population of 400,000.
“There is a crisis here,” Sekhsaria said in his piece for Tehelka magazine (issue dated June 25, 2005). “The islands are presently dealing with basic issues like water, food, infrastructure and housing. Would it not be better (and more <FZ,1,0,14>ethical) to ensure that rehabilitation and reconstruction are done first in the best and fastest manner possible?”
The tsunami had a severe impact on the islands. In a piece published in Frontline in August 2006, Sekhsaria wrote about the damage that the earthquake and storm surge had caused. The tectonic activity that caused the tsunami changed the shape of some of the islands permanently. The northern parts of the Andaman group of islands experienced a permanent average uplift of 1.2 to 1.8 metres.
In contrast, parts of the Nicobar islands went into the sea. While the depth of submergence was 1.2 m in Car Nicobar, it was a deep 4.57 m at the southernmost tip, Indira Point on Great Nicobar Island. The pivot of swing for the islands was roughly south of Port Blair.
“Among the most significant but little studied or understood implications of this sudden, phenomenal change in the architecture of the islands is the impact on coastal and marine ecosystems such as mangroves, coastal forests and coral reefs. The extensive damage to these forests has also had catastrophic implications for a diverse range of rare and endemic flora and fauna that inhabited these systems,” the author says.
The tsunami even had military implications. The islands are of great strategic importance because of their location as a lookout post and launching pad. The tsunami had a twofold impact. It caused severe loss of life and property, especially at the Indian Air Force base in Car Nicobar. Secondly, the tilting of the land changed geographic boundaries.
Both these factors led to a re-emphasis on the islands’ strategic importance by the military. There have been efforts to strengthen military infrastructure and install and test weaponry. In March 2008, the Brahmos missile was test-fired on to one of the islands. “Is it likely that the devastation that was brought upon these islands in December 2004, particularly in the Nicobars, helped germinate the idea that the washed-out islands are now even more fertile territory for defence activity?” says Sekhsaria.
“A group of islands, which has always only existed on the margins of the consciousness of the nation, becomes even more legitimate territory in the strategic vision of the state. In any case, as we have seen already, many important echelons of power view these islands primarily as a security and economic adjunct to the nation state. Did the earthquake and tsunami further reify the fringeness of the fringe, allowing for experimentation, explosions and targeting in the interests of the Centre?”
An archipelago located near the equator, with an average annual rainfall between 3,000 mm and 3,500 mm and blessed with virgin volcanic soil, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have rich biological diversity in the form of plants, animals and underwater life. Is the environmental impact of the military activities in the islands being seriously assessed? Sekhsaria asks. Unsettling indigenous communities
He devotes considerable space to the indigenous communities. These communities have repeatedly and continuously borne the brunt of multiple pressures on their population. Between 1901 and 2011, the population of the Great Andamanese tribe reduced from 625 to 54, the Onge from 672 to 101, the Jarawa from 585 to 380, and the Sentinelese from 117 to 15. Thus, of the nearly 400,000 people living on the islands, the indigenous communities account for a minuscule 550. While the population of the others is on the rise, that of the tribes continues to decrease.
Logging and poaching are disturbing the habitat which has been the home of the Onges for thousands of years. Large tracts of rainforests that are home to the Jarawas have been cleared to accommodate settlers and the logging industry. To add to this, the 340-km Andaman Trunk Road, cutting through Jarawa territory, has opened up more areas to other communities. This has resulted in interaction and conflict between the Jarawas and other communities.
Since they have lived secluded lives for millennia, the indigenous people are unexposed to some of the diseases prevalent in mainstream society, diseases to which they have inadequate resistance. In August 1999, less than two years after their first contact with the public, 59 Jarawas contracted measles and bronchopneumonia infections and had to be treated at the G.B. Pant Hospital in Port Blair. Having reported about developments in the islands for more than two decades, Sekhsaria brings historical depth to his narrative and blends his understanding and insight as a scientist and as a writer.
The shortcoming of compiling his journalistic stories into a book is that the flow is broken. Some effort is needed to understand each piece within the larger narrative of his argument. Also, the reader has to constantly go back to the dateline of the published piece and recalibrate the historical context for every piece.
If the book succeeds in creating some understanding on the special treatment required for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, it will have achieved its purpose.
S. Gopikrishna Warrier is an environment journalist and blogger.