Calling attention

Published : Jul 02, 2010 00:00 IST

SINCE the 1780s, a variety of players have vied for space in the Andaman archipelago. Today, apart from the three wings of the country's armed forces, others including rice farmers, timber merchants and academics are trying to push out its original inhabitants from their traditional habitats.

For the first time in the past 150 years, a comprehensive dossier on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands' history and geography, complete with maps and bibliography, has come out. The 212-page document, released in the World Biodiversity Year by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), gives a detailed report on the archipelago's original inhabitants such as the Jarawas, the Onges, and the Sentinelese; their resource bases; the tribes' strengths and weaknesses; the conflicts from 1885 onwards; the impact of economic activity; and the State's developmental agendas.

The Jarawa Tribal Reserve (JTR) and the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) form the crux of the dossier. It also mentions an expert panel recommendation to ensure self-determination by the Jarawas. The rationale for it is: This has to be the ultimate aim of any process that will involve the Jarawas to help them negotiate with a rapidly changing, predatory world that exists around them. Unless this is done, the future can only be considered grim. A recommendation whose implementation no interested party on the islands is likely to facilitate.

The editors of the document, Pankaj Sekhsaria and Vishvajit Pandya, do not claim that their compilation provides complete information on the unique ecosystem of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This long-due assessment of all the forces at work in the Andamans, however, makes a valiant attempt to crystallise one question: What is it that needs to be done in the Andamans?

The answer/s, of course, are neither evident nor simple, if they exist at all. People dealing with the situation, the administrators, the researchers and the activists, are all grappling with a situation that is highly complex. The emphasis is on grappling there is no conclusive decision yet on a consensus policy framework on how best to save the fragile environment.

The dossier was prepared under the aegis of the UNESCO Action on Cultural and Biological Diversity and its Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) Programme. In his foreword, Walter Erdelen, Assistant Director-General of UNESCO's Natural Sciences sector, points out that the LINKS Programme contributes to a growing field of research and action on interlinkages between biological and cultural diversities. Perhaps nowhere are these connections better highlighted than in the Jarawa Tribal Reserve in the Andaman islands of India, he notes.

The Jarawa Reserve is an area of exceptional biodiversity, boasting a wealth of flora and fauna. This has been maintained largely due to the presence of the Jarawa, the indigenous inhabitants of this tract of land. The Jarawa have decided to end their voluntary isolation and to mix more freely with outsiders. The previously hostile borders of the Jarawa Reserve have become open to intrusion. This has enormous implications for both the biodiversity of the reserve and the Jarawa themselves, he warns.

It thus becomes crucially important to understand the complex interactions between the Jarawa, their environment, and the increasingly intrusive cultures surrounding the reserve. Only through an interdisciplinary approach can such linkages be understood, and perhaps to some extent managed, Erdelen concludes.

In her foreword, Kapila Vatsyayan, Chairperson, India International Centre-Asia Project, points out that the territory identifed by outsiders as the Jarawa Reserve may actually be an entity not necessarily recognised by the Jarawa themselves.

She adds: The threat to indigenous peoples and their cultures is also a threat of extinction of the priceless resource of the diversity of oral languages. It remains to be seen whether the voice of communities like the Jarawa can be heard at international fora, or indeed national fora.

Four aspects

The information in the dossier is grouped into four. The first defines within an anthropo-social structure who the Jarawas are.

The second is a peek into a varied set of notifications, including one which levies just a one-rupee fee for a pass for a settler selected for settlement in A & N under the Accelerated Development Programme of the Ministry of Labour & Rehabilitation. The document helps the reader formulate a perspective, howsoever fragile, that the web woven in the name of protecting the tribes of the Andamans is as wrongly attributed as the phrase, and as deceitful.

One petition in the Calcutta High Court, filed in 1999 by Port Blair lawyer Shyamali Ganguli, said that the Jarawas were subject to gross negligence by the Andaman administration, the Department of Tribal Welfare and the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), a quasi-governmental organisation whose composition is non-tribal, political and bureaucratic.

The High Court guidelines said in 2004 that the AAJVS was the primary agency responsible in matters related to communities like the Jarawa and that this welfare agency had to bear direct responsibility for the deteriorating situation of these communities today, and a radical overhaul is therefore needed.

The court also said: The working of the body [AAJVS] should be governed by principles of accountability and transparency. New ideas and national and international expertise should be accessed for [the] making of policy decisions and their implementation.

The medical services for the tribes are woefully inadequate they do not include treatment for hepatitis infections or facilities for institutional births. [One report, not contained in this dossier, talks of how out of 150 Bo tribe children born at home, not one lived beyond the age of two. Now the tribe is extinct.] There are no papers on current national programmes such as the National Rural Health Mission, or on right to information (RTI) disclosures by the AAJVS or the forest department, or on measures relating to participatory governance. Another minus for the dossier is that its data are somewhat dated.

In the third section, on recommendations, a noteworthy inclusion is the one by the former Director of the Anthropological Survey of India R.K. Bhattacharya to close the Andaman Trunk Road, made in the Report of the Expert Committee on the Jarawas of Andaman Islands submitted to the Calcutta High Court in 2003.

The fourth section is a set of maps and detailed information on the archipelago's forests, butterflies and traffic. Manish Chandi of the Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team (ANET) and Harry Andrews, former director of the Madras Crocodile Bank, point out in a joint paper: Protected areas such as sanctuaries, national parks or tribal reserves are the only remaining examples of what was once found (of fauna and flora) in these islands in the past. Six of the 19 Important Bird Areas are in the reserves.

The Sentinelese and Jarawas are the only communities who continue to use their knowledge networks for livelihood security in the modern context. It is assumed that this knowledge is the basis for nature conservation in the Jarawa Reserve. This may not necessarily fall in line with our nascent and structured views of why they conserve natural resources, if indeed, they do at all, the two conservationists say.

Vishvajit Pandya's culture study says:

It is (the) concept of placeless place' with which I am concerned. Reading early accounts and listening to people involved in both friendly and hostile contacts is akin to sitting in a barber's chair.

The administration wants to impose notions of exclusion on a people who have a tendency to be inclusive.

The dossier recommends the creation of an independent body charged with the responsibility of research, documentation, reporting, policy formulation and implementation on all matters relating to the indigenous peoples and the tribal reserves on the Andaman islands. It also advocates sensitising settler communities living in the vicinity of the JTR. Whether the expert opinions, most of them results of substantial research, will lead to an enlightened 21st century policy for governing the Andamans is yet to be seen.

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