Failing the Jarawas

Print edition : December 05, 2003

The ATR cuts through some of the finest tropical rainforests, the main source of subsistence for the Jarawas. -

IN the overall analysis, the expert committee set up to look into the situation of the Jarawas, the indigenous community of Negrito origin that lives in the forests of South and Middle Andaman islands, has failed to deliver what was expected of it. In July 2001, the Port Blair Circuit Bench of the Kolkata High Court had ordered the setting up of the expert committee in the wake of a writ petition filed by a local lawyer in response to an extraordinary situation arising in the islands (`Delivering the Jarawas', Frontline, August 31, 2001).

The Jarawa community, which had remained isolated in its forest abode in the islands for centuries, brokeits circle of isolation and came out for friendly interaction with the outside world - people from mainland India, settled in and around the forests of the Jarawas (`Jarawa excursions', Frontline, July 17, 1998). A flurry of activity followed, and the issue of the present and the future of the Jarawas continue to be an extremely contentious issue.

Perhaps the most comprehensive development in this context was the detailed 60-page order of the Kolkata High Court, dated April 4, 2001, asking the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to constitute a committee of experts that would: a) spell out the reasons that have caused the sudden change in the behaviour of Jarawas and b) suggest remedial measures to enable the government to formulate programmes to save the Jarawas from extinction or the loss of their identity and culture by a merger with the vast humanity of the so-called civilised society.

In response, the MHA, reportedly after consultations with the Andaman and Nicobar administration, appointed a seven-member committee with the Chief Administrator of the islands, Lt. Governor N.N. Jha, as convener. Three of the other six members were from the local administration: Dr. Namita Ali, Director of Health Services; S.A. Awaradi, Director, Tribal Welfare; and Som Naidu, Assistant Commissioner, Mayabunder. The other three members were K.B. Saxena, former Secretary, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India; Indira Chakrabarty, Dean and Director of the Kolkata-based All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health; and R.K. Bhattacharya, Director of the Anthropological Survey of India (he had retired from service by the time the committee finalised and submitted the report to court).

Obviously, the members of the `'expert' committee were all government officials, either from the local administration or from the Central government. At the time of constituting the committee, the only person who could actually be considered to be outside the government framework was K.B. Saxena, although he too was a retired government employee. In this context, scepticism that there was little space for independent opinion and that the committee would not deliver much was certainly well placed.

Constituted in July 2001 with a wide-ranging mandate, the committee decided to study and survey the Jarawas and their forests through multi-disciplinary teams which involved a cross-section of disciplines and organisations, including the Anthropological Survey of India, the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health, the Andaman & Nicobar Forest Department and the Directorate of Health Services of the local administration. As expected, they went into a range of issues relating to the Jarawas, including their health, the status of their forest habitat, the availability of resources, their knowledge of the resources and the impact of the outside world. There was a steady traffic of experts and committees to the Jarawa territory for more than a year.

Finally, in July 2003, two years after the committee was constituted, a 446-page report was submitted to the High Court. It contained interesting and crucially new information about the Jarawas and understandably so, because it was for the first time in the history of the Jarawa community and the Andaman and Nicobar administration that such a detailed study was carried out. For instance, the report has some fascinating information about the Jarawas' knowledge of their forests and the plants and animals found therein. It documents, for the first time, the Jarawa community's exhaustive understanding and use of their natural resources: they have knowledge of at least 150 plant and over 350 animal species, many of which are consumed as food, medicine or put to use for decorative purposes. The report gives an idea of the way the Jarawas use the 700-odd sq km of forests that constitute the Jarawa Reserve; how the community is divided into three main groups that are independent, but not isolated from each other; where their main camps are located in the forests; what the resource availability with the changing seasons is; how the lives of the Jarawas themselves change with the changing seasons; and how the equations between the Jarawas and the settlers who surround their forests have been changing.

While the report does a good job here, the section that was supposed to contain the recommendations to formulate an action plan for the future of the Jarawas, deliver virtually nothing. The main chapter in the formal report, titled `'Summary and recommendations', has little that is of worth. What is clear from it is that there was no consensus in the committee on critical matters. Four members of the committee - S.A. Awaradi, Som Naidu, K.B. Saxena and R.K. Bhattacharya - have in fact submitted their independent notes, which are now part of the report before the court. Two of these, the notes by Bhattacharya and Saxena, constitute the most interesting and forceful parts of the report. Bhattacharya's two-page note deals exclusively with the contentious issue of the Andaman Trunk Road. It says in no uncertain terms that the road should be shut down and that it would be a very important first gesture of goodwill to the extremely marginalised and vulnerable community.

The 100-odd page note by Saxena is scathing in its analysis of the Andaman and Nicobar administration's response to the situation and the problems of the Jarawa community. According to him, the fundamental problem was the committee itself. "The composition of the committee," he explains in his note, "was flawed and precluded the possibility of meaningful discussion to attempt such an exercise. A majority of the members of the committee (four out of seven) were from the Andaman and Nicobar administration and had obvious limitations in expressing their views freely and frankly. Three of them were subordinates to the fourth member. They hardly participated except when asked to respond to a situation/query by their head of organisation. Their reactions were naturally tailored to safeguard their position".

The Jarawas stand at a crossroads and any hope that the committee will signal to the administration the best course of action has been dashed. The court had also directed that within six months of the submission of the report, the Andaman and Nicobar administration should formulate a policy and a plan to deal with the situation of the Jarawa community. Policy formulation would have to be based on a series of seminars and open discussions that are to be organised by the government on the basis of the report.

The administration also had the mandate to issue public notifications in major newspapers and send invitation letters to anthropologists, sociologists, representatives of non-governmental organisations and any individual who has knowledge and experience in the matter concerned. They would then be at liberty to submit their own opinion and views, which have to be supported by cogent reasons and material, which will then have to be considered by the Central government while formulating the plan.

It is nearly two months since the report was submitted to the High Court. However, none of the steps outlined by the court has been initiated. In fact, it was almost a month after the report was submitted to court that it was made available to the public via the website of the Andaman and Nicobar administration. The administration needs to do much more to ensure that it meets its responsibility to the High Court and the Jarawa community.

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