Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

The Onge tribal community of Little Andaman, which is on the verge of extinction, faces a serious threat from ill-conceived development plans and their attendant maladies.

ON February 26, 1999, Andaman Herald, a Port Blair newspaper, reported that the bodies of two young members of the Onge tribal community were found floating in a creek near their Dugong Creek settlement on the Little Andaman island. The young men had been missing for a few days apparently after having gone turtle-hunting. The cause of the deaths was not known, but drowning was ruled out. The Onge people are excellent swimmers and sailors and there is no record of an Onge drowning in a creek. The newspaper said that foul play was suspected as the post-mortem and the cremation were done with undue haste. One of the dead men was a constable with the Andaman and Nicobar Police, according to the newspaper report.

This piece of news was inconsequential except to a few concerned people. This incident, however, assumes extraordinary importance in the light of the fact that the Onge issue has a complex background and history.

THE Onge community is one of the four Negrito tribal communities that still survive in the Andaman islands. Its population today is around a hundred individuals; the 732 sq km of the thickly forested island of Little Andaman is the only area they inhabit. The community is on the brink of extinction. Additionally, one of the dead youths had reportedly complained to an adviser to the Planning Commission, who visited the island in the recent past, about the resource depletion that the community faced owing to illegal timber logging and poaching in the forests.

The Onge community had flourished in the Andaman islands for centuries. Not much is known about the community, but whatever is known is proof enough of the astonishing depth and diversity of its knowledge.

A powerful two-pronged attack - on the natural resource base that sustains the community and on the culture of the community - has over the past three decades slowly but surely pushed Onges to a point of no return. Recent investigations in Little Andaman have brought to light some glaring irregularities, and the two reported deaths are believed to be the latest and the most obvious consequence of the process.

The story of the Onge people's alienation begins in the late 1960s, when the Government of India planned a massive development and colonisation programme for the union territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in complete disregard of the fragile environment of the islands and the rights of the tribal communities. A 1965 plan, prepared specifically for Little Andaman, proposed the clear-felling of nearly 40 per cent of the island's forests, the bringing in of 12,000 settler families to the area and the promotion of commercial plantations, such as those of red oil palm, and timber-based industries in order to support the settler population.

Had the plan been implemented fully, it would have destroyed Little Andaman and caused the extinction of the Onge tribe. Logistical problems, lack of infrastructure and a revision of policies over time ensured that the destruction was not complete. However, in the conception and planning of the development programme, the Onges were sidelined and the violations started.

The government team that suggested the development programme ignored the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR), which had in 1957 accorded the status of a tribal reserve to the entire island of Little Andaman. Further, about 20,000 hectares (roughly 30 per cent) of the island was denotified from its tribal reserve status in two stages, in 1972 and 1977, still leaving 52,000 ha as an inviolable tribal reserve. Many of the proposed projects were also taken up for implementation. These included a 1,600-ha red oil palm plantation and a major timber extraction operation that continues even today.

The Forest Department leased out 19,600 ha from the denotified area to the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Plantation and Development Corporation (ANFPDC), which is the sole agency responsible for timber extraction here. In 1976, the ANFPDC presented its Project Report for Logging and Marketing of timber from the forests of Little Andaman. It was estimated that a total of 60,000 ha of the island was available for logging and that 60,000 cubic metres of timber could be extracted annually from 800 ha.

Here again was another clear violation of the Onge tribal reserve. When 52,000 ha of the island's total area of 73,000 ha was already a tribal reserve, how could 60,000 ha be made available for logging? The Corporation should have limited its operations to the 19,600 ha that had been leased out to it. With 1,600 ha being under red oil palm plantation, the actual area for logging was even less, at 18,000 ha. This meant that the Corporation should have logged only 18,000 cu m of timber from an area of 240 ha annually. The average for the actual logging over the last two decades, however, is much higher, at 25,000 cu m of timber from an area of 400 ha annually.

Furthermore, a working plan has not been prepared for the logging operations on Little Andaman. Besides, the continued logging contravenes a Supreme Court order of 1996 stopping all logging in the absence of a working plan. The Forest Department has justified the logging on the basis of its 1976 project report. However, the legality and validity of this report are open to question.

Significantly, the Deputy Conservator of Forests - Working Plan (DCF-WP) of the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Department is now reportedly preparing a working plan for the forests of Little Andaman. This clearly contradicts the present stand of the Department, which claims that the equivalent of a working plan already exists.

As if this was not enough, the Corporation has gone a step further; it is logging within the tribal reserve, making a mockery of the law and also the rights of the Onges. Maps available with the ANFPDC and the Forest Department have logging coupes dated 1990 onwards marked clearly within the tribal reserve.

Even as these violations occurred, thousands of outsiders were settled in Little Andaman. The settler population grew rapidly; from a few hundreds in the 1960s to 7,000 in 1984 and over 12,000 in 1991, displacing Onges from some of their most preferred habitats. Hut Bay, the main town in the island, is an example.

The tribal community of Onges that had flourished in certain areas of the Andaman archipelago for centuries consists of only a hundred or so individuals today.-SAHGAL/SANCTUARY PHOTO LIBRARY

The Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), the official tribal welfare body of the administration, introduced welfare measures that were completely unsuitable for the Onges. Foodstuffs such as rice, dal, oil and biscuits were introduced to a community whose traditional food included the meat of the wild boar and turtle, fish, tubers and honey. The agency even offered each adult 250 gm of tobacco as a "welfare" measure. In a blatant attempt to move the forestry operations deeper into the forests of Little Andaman, authorities have sought to settle the nomadic Onges at Dugong Creek in the northeast of the island and at South Bay at the southern tip. Wooden houses on stilts and with asbestos roofing were constructed for them at these places. These structures were not suited for the hot and humid tropical environment of the islands and the Onge people preferred to live in their traditional huts in the forest nearby.

Simultaneously, attempts were made to introduce a cash economy in the community, which did not have even a barter system. Ill-conceived schemes, such as the raising of a coconut plantation (in which the Onge people were made workers), cattle-rearing (the community does not consume milk) and pig-breeding, were introduced. All of them failed. Environmentalist Bittu Sahgal noted that during one of his visits to the Onge settlement a few years ago, the Onge people were found being used to do menial chores, such as fetching water for welfare workers appointed by the administration.

A visit to the Onge settlement of Dugong Creek has become mandatory on many a VIP itinerary. Not only are the Onge people expected to perform for the pleasure and entertainment of the VIP, but they are put to work weeks in advance to tidy up the settlement.

The settler communities, which have been handed over the lands and resources of the Onge people, have not treated them any better. They exploit and look down upon the tribal people. Alcohol was introduced and many Onges have become addicts. This addiction is now exploited - the Onge people exchange with the settlers valuable resources such as honey, turtle eggs, wild boar meat and ambergris for liquor.

Logging operations have also helped open up the forests, encouraging further encroachments into the tribal reserve. Consequently, illegal activities such as poaching have become rampant - resulting in a drastic decline of rare creatures such as the monitor lizard, the dugong and the endemic Andaman wild pig. All these creatures are not only important sources of food and nutrition for the Onge people, but play an integral role in their culture and society. Their unavailability leaves gaps that cannot be filled.

It is clear now that the survival of the Onges can only be ensured if the present policies vis-a-vis development and the tribal people are reviewed with sensitivity. Serious attention must be paid to what the tribal people have to say and an honest attempt made to find out what they want. There are no signs however of that being done.

At a meeting of the District Planning Committee held in Port Blair in November 1998, the Onge representative, Tambolai, complained that settlers living in the areas near their settlement were troubling them. A major point he made was that finding wild pigs in the forests was becoming difficult and hence the timber extraction operations should be stopped.

If the responses of the authorities are anything to go by, Tambolai may well have been talking to the wind.

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