The strategic and commercial importance of the Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) Islands has been widely debated in the Indian political scenario. Of the 575 islands, only 38 are permanently inhabited. While the commercial and strategic issues have enjoyed a relatively higher media attention, some aspects continue to remain out of focus. One of the most idiosyncratic, but surprisingly recondite facets of the islands is the Jarawa Reserve, home of the Jarawa tribe. The tribe is threatened by extinction and a merely 273 members are alive today. The concern of extinction is further exacerbated due to the extinction of the Bo tribe of the Andaman Island, a tribe that had lived on the Island for almost 65,000 years. In January this year, the last Bo speaking tribal died marking the extinction of the Bo tribe and their language.
The presence of the Jarawa tribal group was officially recorded in 1857 and they have been known to practice hostility towards both other tribal communities like the Great Andamanese and British colonisers. Throughout recorded history, Jarawas have remained insulated in their habitat but commercialisation and increased migration in the Island is threatening their survival.
In the 1970s, the government authorised construction of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR- NH 223), a 343 km long road that connects South Andaman, Baratang, Middle Andaman and North Andaman, from Chiriyatapu in South Andaman to Diglipur in the North. The construction commenced in 1973 and resulted in an array of problems for the Jarawa tribe. The deforestation led to loss of Jarawas natural habitat and employment of machinery for construction traumatised their population. The Jarawas resisted the construction by attacking the workers, and were supported by the scientists of the Anthropological Survey of India and some international NGOs. Unfortunately, the disagreements were brushed aside by the authorities. It is important to note that the road cut off Jarawas access to the East Coast further affecting their habitat and survival.
Commercial activities and increased usage of the road facilitated the arrival of poachers, loggers and human safaris to the vicinity of the tribal reserve. The Jarawas resisted contact with the outside world till 1998, when they initiated contact with the non-indigenous population in the Andaman. Due to the low immunity towards common ailments present in the modern world, their contact with the outsiders has led to epidemics resulting in reduction of their population. Furthermore, there have been reports about sexual exploitation of the Jarawa women by poachers and tour operators. Owing to immense pressure from national and international NGOs, the government sought to review the situation.
In May 2002, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of the ATR, logging activities and the resettlement of the non-indigenous population to areas outside the Jarawa vicinity. Another seemingly landmark decision that proved nugatory was a new policy in 2004 averring that the Jarawas had the right to self-determination and no intervention would take place in respect to their habitat and domain. The reality on ground though is starkly different. Rampant logging and poaching continues to plague the Jarawa Reserve and threaten the tribal community. Despite periodic public warnings issued by government, tour operators continue to promote tours in the reserve, highlighting the Jarawa tribe as the main attraction.
The hypocritical attitude of the authorities further complicates the issue. In October 2007, the Andaman & Nicobar administration notified that a buffer zone of 5-kilometre radius of reserve would be created as a No-Go zone in order to protect the tribe from any external intervention. However, a resort stood within the 5-km radius and a legal case was registered in the Calcutta High Court. To the consternation of many, the final verdict was in favour of the reserve. Moreover, the execution of the buffer-zone notification was not seen anywhere except on the government papers.
In March 2010, the Union Cabinet declared the Andaman & Nicobar Islands as a major port with Port Blair as the headquarters. The issues of the island’s strategic location and the need to boost tourism were highlighted along with the need to construct maritime infrastructural projects. The July 2010 amendment to the Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribals) Regulation Act of 1956 permits the islands’ administration to ban private tourism within the buffer zone.
While this move seems to be quite comforting, the decision to declare the islands as a major port undermines the effects of the Act and aggravate the situation of the Jarawas. This should be seen in light of the fact that the decision to make the 5-km buffer zone was taken in 2007 but was never implemented. The seriousness of implementing it now is doubtful considering the degree of commercialisation that will ensue. The timing of revisiting the buffer zone seems to have been arrived at to pacify the concern of the NGOs that stand for the cause. Most laws pertaining to the tribals are ignored by the local administration which continues to manipulate them to suit its vested interests.
Analysts have disparate views with regard to the Jarawa’s assimilation with the outside world. While many consider the idea of insulating them in their domain, others propagate the possibility of slowly including them in the mainstream and gifting them with the benefits of a modern lifestyle. As noted by the late Govinda Raju, editor of The Light of Andamans,
“The people who know the ground realities are not incorporated in the decision making while others work for commercial benefits or are migrants and remain in [sic] the island for short period and therefore lack the much needed seriousness to tackle the problem. Sadly, it is the Jarawas who suffer while the authorities ignore the idea of approaching them and comprehending their concerns and desires before formulating policies. The absence of a credible plan of action or objective assessment of the needs of the Jarawas makes the case more complicated and they are left at the mercy of time and a nonchalant administration.”
Keeping in view the ecologically vulnerable location of the Andaman group of islands, the preservation of the Jarawa tribe would help in preventing natural disasters. The government can enforce this by deploying an ecological Territorial Army (TA) battalion on the periphery of the 5-km buffer zone to effectively enforce the Supreme Court ruling and preserve the flora and fauna of the region.
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