Print edition : July 04, 1998

Members of the dwindling Jarawa tribal community in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are stepping out of their forest habitats for the first time. What is in store for them?

IN October 1997, settlers in the Middle Andaman island, one of many that make up the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal, were witnesses to an unfamiliar sight: a group of Jarawas, one of six aboriginal tribal communities that have lived on the archipelago for centuries, had ventured out of the forest and into modern settlements. This was the first recorded instance of Jarawas voluntarily seeking to establish contact with the settlers from mainland India. It was particularly puzzling given the fact that Jarawas have for long been hostile towards the settlers, to whom they have lost large swathes of their forests, and the tribal people have fiercely defended what is left of their traditional lands.

Over the next few months, there were several more reports of Jarawas coming out of their forests. Some of them, it was reported, were seen to point to their bellies: these were interpreted as expressions of hunger. In the belief that they had run out of their traditional food resources in the forests and were facing starvation, the local administration, led by Lieutenant-Governor I.P. Gupta, arranged for food relief. Packets containing dry fish, puffed rice and bananas were air-dropped from helicopters into Jarawa territory.

The natural resources that Jarawas have had access to have vastly diminished over time for a number of reasons, including widespread deforestation to accommodate settlers and to feed the flourishing timber industry. Even so, the theory that starvation is driving Jarawas out of the forests appears to be flawed. Jarawas have sustained themselves on forest produce for centuries, and there is no reason to believe that they have suddenly been pushed into starvation. In any case, eyewitnesses say that the Jarawas who were sighted recently appear to be healthy, robust and agile.

Looking towards Port Blair. Large swathes of forest in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been cleared over a period to house settlers from the mainland and to feed the timber industry.-N. SRINIVASAN

Moreover, in February and March, no person from the tribal community approached the settlements for extended periods, that is, for more than two weeks. And when they did show up, it was often in small groups of five to 10 persons.

Anthropologists, however, have another explanation for the Jarawas' curious "coming out". It relates to the experience of Enmey, a teenaged Jarawa boy, who was found with a fractured foot near Kadamtala town in Middle Andaman last year. The local residents, most of them settlers, arranged for his treatment at the G.B. Pant Hospital in Port Blair, where he was looked after well. When Enmey recovered, he was sent back to Middle Andaman, where he promptly disappeared into his forest home. Since October, it is Enmey who has largely been responsible for bringing his people out.

Some members of the Jarawa community who arrived by boat at the Uttara jetty near Kadamtala in Middle Andaman on April 9.-PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

Anthropologists explain that Enmey developed a cultural affinity to the outside world: in their view, Enmey perhaps wanted others in his community to experience the settlers' hospitality that he had had a taste of. It is this, and not starvation, that had drawn the Jarawas out of the forests, they reason.

THE forests of the picturesque Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to six tribal communities. The Andaman group of islands are inhabited by four tribes of Negrito origin: the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawas and the Sentinelese. The Nicobar group is home to two tribes of Mongoloid origin: the Nicobarese and the Shompens. Precisely when and how members of these tribes came to inhabit the islands is not known.

What is known about them is that their limited contacts with other peoples have rendered them aggressive and hostile towards outsiders: they fiercely defend themselves and their space. Many members of the tribes were forcibly taken as slaves by Arab seafarers who traded along these routes.

Watched by curious settlers, the Jarawas wait at the jetty.-PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

The establishment of penal settlements - the infamous Cellular Jail - in the islands by the British in 1858, Japanese occupation during the Second World War and independent India's colonisation and resettlement plan for the islands had the effect of further isolating the tribal communities.

The population of the islands, which was about 24,500 in 1901, is nearly four lakh today; however, the populations of the tribal communities (except the Nicobarese) have dwindled. Only the Sentinelese and the Jarawas have been able to retain a semblance of their identity. The Jarawas, however, are under severe pressure. Today there are only 250 of them and vast expanses of their rain-forest homelands have been cleared to accommodate settlers and to feed the huge timber industry, on which the economic foundation of the Andamans is laid.

After receiving a gift of coconuts and bananas, the Jarawas head back home.-PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

In order to protect the Jarawa way of life, a Jarawa tribal reserve was established over a 700-sq-km area: the objective was as much to keep the tribal population confined to the reserve as to prevent settlers from encroaching into it. Along the periphery of the reserve, 44 bush police camps with about 400 policemen were established. Over time, however, several encroachments were made and the function of the police force has been reduced to confining the Jarawas, who once roamed the length and breadth of the island unhindered, to the reserve area.

The 340-km-long Andaman Trunk Road, which slices through the heart of the Jarawa reserve, has opened up more areas for settlement. Right from the begining, the Jarawas had protested against the construction of the road on the ground that it would endanger their way of life. They set up road blocks, demolished bridges and even attacked - and occasionally killed - the workers. Work came to a halt in 1976, but was resumed soon. Traffic on the road, which was completed recently, has grown enormously.

A Jarawa woman and her child have a brush with authority.-PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

Today, many more settlers live in the areas bordering the reserve, thereby increasing manifold the possibility of interaction - and conflict - between them and the Jarawas. Instances of people trespassing into the reserve to hunt wild boar and deer, and to poach forest produce such as honey and timber, are common. At times, the trespassers destroy the rudimentary settlements of the Jarawas. In addition, many illegal encroachments have come up in the reserve area with political patronage.

OVER the years, the island administration has tried to establish friendly contact with the tribal communities (Frontline, August 17-30, 1991), including the Jarawas. In 1974, a contact party comprising administration officials, members of the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), anthropologists and police officials, established friendly contact with some members of the Jarawa community along the western coast of Middle Andaman. The party approached the Jarawa territory by sea and left behind gifts - bananas and coconuts - hoping to win the confidence of the tribal people.

Critics, however, liken this to the practice of scattering rice to ensnare birds. They argue that the official policy vis-a-vis the tribal people is aimed at making them dependent on the administration. The pattern of the Jarawas' recent behaviour appear to bear this out: increasingly, the Jarawas who emerge from their jungles do not leave unless they are gifted bananas and coconuts.

Enmey (standing), the Jarawa teenager who is believed to have played a major role in bringing people of his community out of the forest to meet the settlers.-PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

The Jarawas have never allowed anyone access to their territory by the land route; nor, until October 1997, had they ever emerged voluntarily and unarmed from their forest homes or initiated any interaction with the outside world. Last year's development is therefore very significant, but the administration has not always responded with sensitivity to the Jarawas' needs. An incident which this writer witnessed on April 9 illustrates this point.

At 8 a.m. that day, 63 Jarawas, the largest group yet to emerge from the jungle, arrived at the Uttara jetty near Kadamtala. Among them were several children and women with babies. It is, of course, true that the administration has no way of knowing where and when the next group of Jarawas will turn up or just how many of them will be there; but even so, there appeared to be little evidence of planning for such contingencies.

Until such time as coconuts and bananas could be arranged for the Jarawas, they were herded into a small waiting hall at the jetty and made to wait on that hot, sweltering day without food or water. The only people at the jetty who seemed equipped to handle the situation were a policemen and three boatmen who knew some of the Jarawa people. But after a while, when the Jarawas grew restive, even the boatmen ran out of ideas. Things got a bit rough, and there was a fair bit of shoving and pushing around, which the fiercely independent Jarawas resented.

At Jirkatang, the entry point to the Jarawa tribal reserve. All vehicles that enter the reserve are provided with armed guards from this point onwards.-PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

The consignment of coconuts and bananas that the local police had organised arrived around 2 p.m. Each person in the Jarawa group was given two coconuts and a bunch of bananas; the entire group was then put on boats and, escorted by armed policemen, taken back into Jarawa territory.

At the other end, however, more trouble was in store. Just as one of the boatmen was about to return, some of the Jarawa youth, who were evidently incensed by the way they had been treated that afternoon, seized the boatman's bamboo pole as he was pushing his boat into the river and tried to haul him ashore. The shaken boatman said later that evening: "I have interacted with the Jarawa people for 12 years, but for the first time in my life I was afraid. I did not know what they would do to me."

However, some of the older women of the tribe, who had known the boatman for long, admonished the youth and forced them to let him go.

Modern settlements on the edge of the Jarawa reserve. The Andaman Trunk Road, which cuts through the reserve, has opened up more areas for settlement.-PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

Had any bodily harm been done to the boatman, the consequences would have been unpredictable: the settlers, already restive over the constant "intrusion" by Jarawas, might well have retaliated violently.

Administration officials admit in private that they are unable to do anything to ease the tension between the tribal communities and the settlers. The two groups are locked in a tussle over land rights, and the atmosphere has been vitiated by some administrative policies of the past. The Jarawas, as the original inhabitants, have the first right over this land, but not many people are willing to concede this. The tension can be eased if the settlements of the outsiders are removed from in and around the Jarawa territory. But this requires tremendous political will and understanding, which is absent.

If anything, the weight of political support is on the side of the settlers, as is evident from a statement made in the Lok Sabha in 1990 by the Congress(I) member of Parliament from the islands, Manoranjan Bhakta. He said: "... Job- seekers (settlers) who have come (to) the island are now serious contenders for allotment of house sites and agricultural land. Since the political system goes with the number, no political party is in a position to contradict their demands."

The numbers, clearly, are working against the Jarawas. After all, 250 individuals do not count for much in the political system. For the Jarawas, however, this battle is not about political power; for them it is literally a struggle for survival and against extinction. And if their land rights and other needs are not respected, they might very soon go down as another of the lost races of humankind.

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