Delivering the Jarawas

Print edition : August 18, 2001

For the Jarawa tribal population of the Andaman islands, a court order brings hope of protection from the "civilised" world.

COURT cases involve complex processes, which sometimes take trajectories of their own and reach destinations not quite intended at the time of their initiation. In one such instance, an order that the Port Blair Circuit Bench of the Calcutta High Court issued recently has turned out to be to the benefit of the indigenous Jarawa community of the Andaman islands.

A Jarawa tribal person and others on the Andaman Trunk Road in the Middle Andamans.-PICTURES: PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

The case had its origins in an intriguing development that was noticed in October 1997 - a drastic change in the lifestyle and attitudes of the forest-dwelling Jarawas who were previously extremely hostile to outsiders. For reasons that are not yet clear, the Jarawas voluntarily broke their circle of isolation and hostility and came out from their forest home to have peaceful interactions with the settler communities that live on the forest's edge (Frontline, July 17, 1998).

Almost overnight, the until then feared and mysterious Jarawa became a subject of intense curiosity. People travelled to the margins of the forest to catch a glimpse of the Jarawa, and a small industry was created out of this. The impression gained ground that there was not enough food in the forests to support the community. Consignments of bananas, coconuts and papayas were sent in regularly and even air-dropped into the forests.

The end of the hostility of the Jarawa also saw the increased exploitation of resources from the Jarawa forest reserve. Sand mining from the beaches on the western coast of the islands and poaching and removal of non timber forest produce (NTFP) from the forest habitats increased drastically.

All this while a few anthropologists, tribal rights activists and environmentalists kept arguing that outsiders had to be stopped from contacting the Jarawas, that providing them food was not the solution and that the violation and exploitation of their forest habitats had to be stopped.

It was in this context that Shyamali Ganguly, a local lawyer, filed a writ petition before the Circuit Bench in May 1999. The petition, a classic example of a move undertaken with the right intentions but seeking the wrong solutions, asked for the administration's help to bring the Jarawas into the mainstream and improve their lives. The examples of the Great Andamanese and the Onge (two other Andamanese tribal communities) were held out to explain how this could be done. But surprisingly, the petitioner failed to notice that both these communities are on the verge of being wiped out, primarily because of attempts to 'civilise' and take them into the mainstream, made first by the British and then by the governments of independent India. The petition also asked that the Jarawas be relocated in another area, which would then be all theirs.

At this juncture the Port Blair-based Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE) intervened. A vocal advocate of environmental protection in the islands, SANE has played a crucial role in fighting for tribal rights. "What was asked for in the petition would have meant certain death for the Jarawas," says Samir Acharya of SANE. SANE largely disagreed with the views of the petitioner, particularly in the matter of relocating the Jarawas, which it felt would be disastrous for the tribal community. Most important, it requested the court to order the removal of all encroachments, camps and outposts from the Jarawa reserve and an inquiry into whether the Andaman Trunk Road (see box) ought to be closed to traffic and alternative transport routes explored.

On the Andaman Trunk Road, at the entry point to the Jarawa Reserve in South Andaman island.-

Help also came from Survival International, the London-based tribal rights organisation, which contacted eight of the world's leading anthropologists. Their signed testimonies, which were placed before the court, unanimously said that the Jarawas should be allowed to maintain their traditional lifestyles in the forests and that any attempts to resettle or rehabilitate them would lead to disaster.

"Historic precedents involving the relocation and sedentarisation of tribal peoples (particularly in island cultures) have often led to their complete destruction ...," explained Dr. Mark Levene of the Department of History, University of Warwick, United Kingdom. Levene, a research scholar working in the area of genocide in the modern world, cited examples of such genocide in different parts of the world - of Tasmanians by the British settlers in the 19th century, of Chakmas from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in South Asia, and of Amazonian tribes in Latin America.

Dr. Marcus Colchester of the Oxford-based Forest People's Programme argued that the relocation of the Jarawas could even be termed illegal under the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention 107 and Articles 7 and 10 of the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which prohibit "the forcible removal of indigenous people from their lands..." and "any form of population transfer which may violate or undermine their rights..."

On the issue of health, Dr. James Woodburn of the Department of Anthropology in the London School of Economics and Political Science pointed out that "when a previously isolated community with low population density (like the Jarawas) comes into contact with one of high density (like the settlers), they are particularly vulnerable to diseases like measles against which they have not acquired any immunity in childhood." He also pointed out that this could be the main reason for the death of a large number of the Great Andamanese community in the 19th century and of the Onge afterwards.

It was almost as if Dr. Woodburn was looking into a crystal ball. A couple of months later, in September 1999, an epidemic of measles hit the Jarawa tribe. By the third week of October, 48 per cent of the estimated Jarawa population of 350 was suffering from disease and ill-health. The affected people were treated mainly at the primary health centre (PHC) in Kadamtala in the Middle Andamans and at the G.B. Pant Hospital in Port Blair. There were even reports that a couple of them had died in the forests. These reports could not be corroborated, but clearly the worst fears about their safety seemed to be coming true.

Fortunately, a team of doctors comprising Dr. Namita Ali, Director of Health Services, Dr. Elizabeth Mathews, Superintendent, G.B. Pant Hospital, and Dr. R.C. Kar, the medical officer in Kadamtala, did some commendable work, and not a single casualty was reported among those Jarawas who were admitted to the hospitals.

AS for the court case, a six-member expert committee established by the court in February 2000 submitted its report six months later, in August. The committee had the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Port Blair as its member-secretary. Other members included two anthropologists, Dr. R.K. Bhattacharya and Kanchan Mukhopadhyay from the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI), and three doctors, Namita Ali, R.C. Kar and Anima Burman from Port Blair.

The committee pointed out that a preliminary study by the ASI had indicated that the forest had enough food resources to provide for the Jarawas and that there was no food shortage; that they continue to be susceptible to many infectious diseases and that vigilance should not be slackened; that the maintenance of the Andaman Trunk Road and procurement of wood for the purpose regularly degraded the forests; and that illegal fishing, poaching and removal of NTFP from the Jarawa reserve were happening regularly. Many other conclusions of the committee were reflected in the order issued on April 9 in Port Blair by Justice Samaresh Banerjea and Justice Joytosh Banerjee. A detailed, 60-page written order in the matter came from Calcutta more than six weeks later, on May 28, 2001.

The court has directed the formation of an expert committee to look into the matter and given it six months from the date of its formation to come up with a plan to deal with issues related to the Jarawas. The order also made a special reference to "Master Plan 1991-2021 for the Welfare of the Tribes of the A&N" prepared by S.A. Awaradi, former Director, Tribal Welfare, in the Andaman and Nicobar administration. It indicated that the document should be taken into consideration while formulating the final policies. For the interim period, it has ordered a number of steps to be implemented on a war footing.

The court has directed the local administration to stop poaching and intrusion into Jarawa territory and to prevent its further destruction by encroachment and deforestation. It ordered issuance of an 'appropriate notification clearly demarcating the Jarawa territory'. This would greatly help law enforcement, particularly in the detection and removal of encroachments. The court also ordered that penal measures be taken against encroachers and poachers, and importantly, against those among the police and civil authorities who are negligent in this regard.

Accepting the recommendations of the expert committee, the court directed that medical aid be given to the Jarawas only when they came out of the forest and sought it and only to the extent necessary. It asked for periodic medical programmes for the Jarawas in their own territory and only to the extent necessary so that they need not come out from the forests for such aid. Significantly, the court directed that until a policy on dealing with Jarawas was finalised, no new construction or extension of existing construction should be undertaken in the Jarawa territory and no extension was to be made to the Andaman Trunk Road.

The order has been welcomed by environmental and tribal rights activists familiar with the situation in the archipelago. It is considered a very positive order, and one with great potential for safeguarding the future of the tribal people here. Ensuring its implementation is the next big challenge, and a lot will depend on how and with how much sincerity this is done.

In association with The Transforming Word Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environment action group, Kalpavriksh.

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