Outsiders in their own forests

Print edition : September 09, 2005

The process of the marginalisation of the indigenous Jarawa community continues unabated in the Andaman islands.

At the Jirkatang checkpost on the Andaman Trunk Road. This is the point from where traffic on the road should have been stopped as per the May 2002 orders of the Supreme Court.-

WHAT does the future hold for the indigenous Jarawa community of the Andaman islands?

This is the question that bothers people involved in preserving the identity of the Jarawas. More so after an incident that occurred at Bournaballey, a village in the Middle Andaman Island in April. People from the village wrote to Lt. Governor Ram Kapse that on April 16 a group of Jarawas forced their way into the village and took away goods worth Rs.2 lakhs, including rice, sugar, milk, clothes and utensils. What they failed to mention was that a day earlier they had entered the Jarawa Reserve and carried away significant quantities of honey that the Jarawas had harvested. The fact that the Jarawa raid was in retaliation for this was known to the authorities, including the police and the Andaman Adim Jan Jati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), the tribal welfare body of the administration, but neither chose to take corrective measures.

On April 17 police and staff of the AAJVS visited the Jarawa settlement and asked for the stolen goods to be returned. Some of the goods were recovered. The following day a group of 65 Jarawas was relocated to Lakra Lungta deep inside the Jarawa Reserve, on the western coast of the island.

A Jarawa youth at Adajig on Baratang Island. Lifestyles and food habits of the Jarawas have been changing rapidly owing to outside influence, particularly since 1998 when the community broke its self-enforced isolation from the settler communities living on the fringes of their forest home.-

In his letter to the Executive Secretary of the AAJVS dated April 26, Anup Mondal, the Kadamtala-based Tribal Welfare officer, stated that the Jarawas raided the village because the `non-Jarawas' had destroyed their honey, which they had stored after three to four months of hard work. "It is usual," he said in the letter, "that poachers enter into Jarawa reserve areas to hunt wild animals. Some of them had certainly destroyed the honey containers. In response to this incident, they (the Jarawas) raided the area." Anup Mondal's letter was not only an acknowledgement that the Jarawas had been wronged but also a tacit acceptance of the fact that there was continued and large-scale violation of the rights of the Jarawas and of their home in the Tribal Reserve.

The matter was brought to the notice of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes by Samir Acharya of the Port Blair-based Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE). Acharya, in a letter dated May 19 to the Commission, pointed out that the methods employed by the local administration against the Jarawas were unfair and unfortunate. "The Jarawa," he said, "now have effectively lost their right to live in their own legal reserve to a bunch of law-breakers. It is indeed sad that the state machinery considered itself to be impotent and unable to protect the Jarawa in their legally protected reserve."

This incident is only the latest in a line of developments in recent years, which have continued to marginalise further the extremely vulnerable Jarawa community, pushing them to the brink of extinction. The unique situation of these indigenous people demands that the administration and the state machinery show extra sensitivity and understanding of their needs. Particularly so, because they are not in a position to demand in conventional methods what is rightfully theirs. Unfortunately, going by the developments in the islands it appears that the administration is actively aiding the process of the violation of this endangered community.

The most blatant of these is the continued contempt shown by the administration to the Supreme Court's orders of May 2002 as part of the T.N. Godavarman Thirumulpad vs The Union of India and Ors (Frontline, June 21, 2002). Critical aspects of the orders remain unimplemented, including those that would go a long way in respecting the Jarawas' rights and ensuring their long-term survival. The most important of these was the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road in those parts where it runs along or through the forests of the Jarawa Reserve. There is now conclusive evidence that the continued operation of the Andaman Trunk Road is seen as one of the biggest threats to the Jarawas, a community of about 260 members. It is one of the most crucial vectors bringing in a whole range of undesirable influences, including alien foods, diseases and sexual exploitation. Senior members (Dr. R.K. Bhattacharya, former Director, Anthropological Survey of India, and Dr. K.B. Saxena, former Secretary, Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Government of India) of a committee appointed by the Calcutta High Court to draft a policy on the Jarawa tribe argued in their report that the closure of the ATR was essential for the future of the Jarawas (Frontline, December 5, 2003). "Closure of the ATR [Andaman Trunk Road]," Dr. Bhattacharya said in his report, "would perhaps be the first gesture of goodwill on the part of the dominant towards an acutely marginalised group, which is almost of the verge on extinction."

Expert opinion and Supreme Court orders notwithstanding, traffic continues to ply on the Andaman Trunk Road. In December 2004 the administration finalised and notified a `Policy on Jarawa Tribe of Andaman Islands', one that ignored the Supreme Court orders and spoke merely of `Regulation of traffic on Andaman Trunk Road'. The finalisation of this policy, comes as the culmination of a parallel legal process initiated in 1999 before the Port Blair bench of the Calcutta High Court. (Frontline, August 31, 2001). How the Calcutta High Court can give its approval to a policy that is violative of Supreme Court orders is not clear.

The Jarawa Tribal Reserve. The finest and most pristine forests are today found only in this reserve. The rainforests and the survival of the Jarawas are linked inseparably.-

Unexpected support for the administration has recently come from Manoranjan Bhakta, the Congress Member of Parliament from the islands. In a letter to the Lt. Governor on June 19 Bhakta put forward a whole list of demands and threatened to go on a hunger strike if these were not met. These included a demand that the Andaman Trunk Road remain open and the setting up of a special commission to re-examine the Shekhar Singh Commission report, which was the basis for the 2002 orders of the Supreme Court. The administration quickly expressed its support. "The administration," a July 6 press release said, "has decided to support the request of the Hon'ble Member of Parliament for constitution of a Commission to examine the report of Prof. Shekhar Singh Commission."

There are also reports from reliable sources that poachers regularly enter the Jarawa Reserve and offer them rice and bananas in return for permissions to stay and hunt game such as wild pig. This happens along the entire length of the reserve from Tirur and Wandoor along the southern-most tip to Mayabundar along the reserve's northern boundary. Bamboo and other forest resources also continue to be extracted illegally, as was indicated in a Reuters report of June 22 published from the islands.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami of December 26, 2004, there was great interest and widespread relief that the indigenous communities of the islands, such as the Jarawas, had escaped unscathed. The situation on the ground, however, seems to indicate that things are only getting worse for them. Clearly, the multi-pronged marginalisation of the Jarawas continues unabated, and it may only be a matter of time before they are pushed over the brink.

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