Jarawas at a crossroads

Print edition : December 05, 2003

A stretch of the Andaman Trunk Road, cutting through the Jarawa tribal reserve. Heavy traffic is a perennial feature of the road. - PICTURES: PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

The Andaman Trunk Road, which threatens the physical and cultural survival of the island's Jarawa community, remains fully operational despite a Supreme Court order that it be closed down.

DO roads bring anything other than prosperity, development and the well-being of all? If the Jarawas of the Andaman islands were to answer, it would be a surprising yes. For the 250-odd-member Negrito community that has lived in the Andaman forests for thousands of years, the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) has been the `kiss of death'. Starting in Port Blair in South Andaman, the ATR cuts through some of the finest tropical rainforests in the world as it journeys to Diglipur, 340 km in the north. In the process it rips through the traditional lands of the Jarawas.

The road has been recognised as one of the main vectors that have brought in the most undesirable of influences to the Jarawa community, threatening their physical and cultural survival. More than a year ago, this was a prominent consideration when the Supreme Court ordered that parts of the ATR running along or through the forests of the Jarawa reserve, the home of the community (`To save an archipelago', Frontline, June 21, 2002), be shut down. The road should have been closed in August 2002, but it remains open and heavy traffic continues to ply on it. The local administration simply refuses to implement the orders of the highest court of the land.

In March, six months after the deadline set by the Supreme Court for the closure of the road had passed, the Andaman and Nicobar administration filed an affidavit before the court stating that the matter was being looked into by an expert committee appointed by the Port Blair Circuit Bench of the Kolkata High Court. It requested the Supreme Court to permit traffic on the ATR, "subject to various safeguards... as based on the final decision of the Kolkata High Court and the final recommendation of the Government of India".

An expert committee with a rather large and general mandate had been appointed by the High Court in July 2001. This was done in response to a petition regarding the future of the Jarawa community filed earlier by a Port Blair-based, lawyer (`Delivering the Jarawas', Frontline, August 31, 2001). While the issue of the ATR would certainly come under the purview of the case, there was no justification to say that an order issued by the apex court should wait for implementation until an expert committee submitted its report.

A Jarawa woman accepts eatables from the driver of a bus plying on the ATR.-

It was evident from the beginning that the administration led by the Lt. Governor was not inclined to implement the orders of the Supreme Court. The Governor was quoted in the January 12, 2003 issue of The Week magazine as saying that the administration would consider closing the road after the expert committee submitted its report. Questions are being raised in various quarters about the wisdom of waiting for the report of an expert committee when the Supreme Court has passed its order on the matter.

An exhaustive 446-page final report of the expert committee was submitted in July. Its most important section has turned out to be the 100-odd-page independent note by K.B. Saxena, former Secretary, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, in the Government of India. He states early on in his note that the "composition of the committee itself was flawed as the majority of the committee (four out of seven) were from the Andaman and Nicobar administration, that three of them were subordinates to the fourth member and that this precluded the possibility of meaningful discussion... "

In the specific matter of the ATR itself, he pointed out that the Supreme Court had already accepted the recommendation of the Shekhar Singh Commission for the closure of parts of the ATR. "There is, therefore," he notes, "already a decision of the apex court on the subject... This should simply be followed."

Significantly, the main body of this report clearly admits that the ATR has been extremely detrimental to the Jarawas and the history of its construction is about the continued violation of their rights. On page 8, the report says, "Other than settling immigrant populations, forestry operations were no less disturbing for the Jarawas... To top it all, in the early 70s the authorities started laying a road through the area declared as `(Jarawa) Reserve'... The building activities faced stiff resistance from the Jarawas... The seriousness (of the authorities) in this matter was amply demonstrated, when in 1979 they redefined the `reserved area' and in the process took the forest lying east of the road in South Andaman Island out of the reserve. This immediately served one purpose. Officially, the road was not going through the Jarawa reserve any more, now it was lying on the edge of it."

The statements of Ujwal Mishra, former Superintendent of Police, Andaman district, who traced the manner in which the construction of the ATR has acted as a huge provocation to the Jarawas, constitute another clear indictment. "The 70s," he is quoted in the report, "saw a spurt in killings (by the Jarawas) and for the first time we have cases where a number of Public Works Department workers and their trucks were being targeted. This coincides with the beginning of the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road... encroachments and poaching clearly gave cause for the increase of violence on the part of the Jarawas."

The Jarawas continue to suffer from the ATR. The new situation arose when an epidemic of measles hit them in 1999 (`Jarawa excursions', Frontline, July 17, 1998 and `Delivering the Jarawas', Frontline, August 21, 2001). There has also been the rise of what is popularly called `Jarawa tourism' - tourists visiting the islands hire private vehicles and drive down the ATR to look at the Jarawas, as if they are items of display. It is the road that facilitates this extremely despicable form of tourism, just as it facilitates the influx of a number of food items such as biscuits, rice, bread and tea, which are unsuited to the Jarawas, and a growing number of intoxicants such as alcohol, gutka and tobacco. Now, reportedly, even sexual exploitation is happening.

Two other members, subordinates of the Governor admit in their independent notes attached with the report that the ATR was a mistake and that it has been detrimental to the interests of the Jarawas. However, they are not willing to close the road. They believe that it is unlikely that the step will benefit the Jarawas and, importantly, that it will inconvenience the settler populations who now use the road.

The note submitted by R.K. Bhattacharya, Director of the Anthropological Survey of India, at the time the committee was constituted, makes a point that is direct and extremely powerful in its simplicity. He was the lone anthropologist on the committee and had retired from service by the time the report was finalised. "The ATR," the note begins, "passes through an area that contains an important aspect of cultural heritage of mankind and this highway disturbs this heritage in probably irreversible ways... The ATR is like a public thoroughfare through one's private courtyard." In short, succinct sentences, he points out how the ATR has impacted adversely the Jarawas and emphasises the fact that the community had opposed its construction. Further, the note states that the road has truncated their area and habitat, caused the non-availability of animals and other resources and introduced unhealthy habits such as the use of tobacco. The maintenance of the road, the note says, depletes the natural resources of the area, and tourism had brought is nothing but indiscriminate voyeurism.

"In the whole of human history," he says, "we find that the dominant group for their own advantage has always won over the minorities, not always paying attention to the issue of ethics. Closure of the ATR would perhaps be the first gesture of goodwill on the part of the dominant towards an acutely marginalised group, which is almost on the verge of extinction".

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