Andaman ‘human safaris’ shame Delhi
By Sudha Ramachandran
Jan 25, 2012
BANGALORE – Video footage of semi-naked Jarawa women being made to dance before tourists in return for food and money has evoked global outrage, forcing the Indian government to crack down on tour operators conducting “human safaris” in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The footage, which was made public by British journalist Gethin Chamberlain of The Observer, has revived an old debate over whether tribal communities, especially those like the Jarawa that have for long resisted contact with the outside world, should be brought into the mainstream and exposed to so-called “development”.
The forests of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are home to six tribal communities; four of these – the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawas and the Sentinelese – are of Negrito origin and live in the Andaman Islands, while the other two – the Nicobarese and the Shompens – are of Mongoloid origin and live in the Nicobar Islands.
The Jarawa are believed to have lived in the Andamans for around 50,000 years. Just around 300-400 of them remain today; their extinction is around the corner. They are now confined to a “Jarawa reserve” in the Andamans
A hunter-gatherer community, the Jarawa have been hostile to outsiders for centuries, fiercely resisting settlers encroaching on their land. But British colonial settlement followed by immigration of mainland Indians and others, as well as a tidal wave of tourist inflow to this picturesque island chain have forced them to interact with outsiders.
This interaction has been a bane to the Jarawa. It has made them vulnerable to diseases like measles for which they have no immunity and to exploitation by wily traders. The video footage lays bare some of that abuse.
For several years now, activists have been drawing attention to how tour operators take busloads of tourists on human safaris to see the Jarawa, although government rules explicitly forbid any interaction with the Jarawa, including feeding or photographing them.
Police who are posted in these areas to protect the Jarawa supply the tour operators with women to dance for the tourists. Sexual exploitation by local police and officials as well as the settler population has been documented.
Experts are blaming the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), a 330-kilometer road that links the capital Port Blair with Diglipur and cuts through thick forests that have traditionally been home to the Jarawa, for the exploitation.
The ATR’s construction was aimed at facilitating timber extraction from the forests where the Jarawa live. Over time, the road brought in hordes of tourists to “see” the Jarawa, even leer at their naked bodies.
If the ATR was not constructed, access to the Jarawa would have been limited. They could have lived their lives without outside interference and preserved their identity.
“If the road was not there, there would be no traffic and tourists and no opportunity for Jarawa tourism or the making of these videos,” Pankaj Sekhsaria, who is associated with Kalpvriksh, a non-governmental organization working to prevent intervention in Jarawa community life, told Asia Times Online.
Recognizing the negative impact of the ATR on the Jarawa, India’s Supreme Court in 2002 ordered the closing down of the ATR in precisely those parts where the video was made, in the interests of protecting the Jarawa.
However, the court order was not implemented. Andaman administration did nothing to shut down the road. “Ten years of contempt of court has followed and traffic continues on this road – that is at the root of the present controversy as well,” Sekhsaria pointed out.
A Jarawa policy formulated in 2004 sought to protect them from “harmful effects of exposure and contact with the outside world” and preserve their “social organization, mode of subsistence and cultural identity”. It was a “progressive” policy, observes Sekhsaria. But this too was not implemented.
The priority assigned to relief and reconstruction following the 2004 tsunami was blamed for the government’s failure to implement the policy, an environment activist based in Port Blair recalled. However, it was powerful vested interests that require the ATR for their operations – the sand mining lobby, the timber merchants and the tour operators – that have pressured the local administration to keep the road open to date, he said. Their plunder depends on the road.
Those who want the ATR open insist that the Jarawa are not adversely affected by the road. They point out that the Jarawa have been reaching out to outsiders since the late 1990s, providing them with deer meat, honey etc in exchange for liquor, cigarettes and even junk food. They have also been seen accessing government health care facilities.
Indeed, in 1998 a group of Jarawa were seen outside their forests without their bows and arrows for the first time ever. They have been less hostile to outsiders in recent years.
However, not everyone is convinced that this should be interpreted as a Jarawa nod for interaction with outsiders. “We know little about how they live and what their world view is,” points out Sekhsaria. The question is what do the Jarawa want?
Some have argued in favor of bringing the Jarawa into the mainstream, ensuring them access to modern ways of living. Why should they be denied the fruits of modernity, they ask. In the words of Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo, “it would be totally unfair to leave them [Jarawas] in a beastly condition forever”.
The experiences of the islands’ tribal communities provide useful pointers to what is good for them. The Great Andamanese, who numbered over 3,000 when the timber extraction operations began, have been “virtually wiped out”, Sekhsaria pointed out in a 2002 article in Frontline magazine. Just around 30 of them survive today on Strait island. The Onge of Little Andaman suffered a fate that is “marginally better”. Although their numbers have remained steady, their society has been torn asunder.
In contrast those who fiercely defended their isolation seem to have done better. The Jarawa of South and Middle Andaman were “better off” because until recently they were “extremely hostile to the outside world and defended their forests and way of life aggressively”.
But with their forests being plundered and in the wake of increased interaction with outsiders, “It is feared that they too will go the way of the Great Andamanese and the Onge,” Sekhsaria observed. The Sentinelese who live in the North Sentinel island, he points out, “remain violently hostile and therefore stand the best chance of surviving as an independent human community for some more time.”
Over 7,000 people were killed in December 2004 when giant tsunami waves swept into the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Not a single Jarawa figured among the casualties. Using tribal traditional knowledge, they read nature’s warning signs and quickly made their way to higher ground and survived the killer waves.
Ancient wisdom helped them survive the tsunami. They will need to summon some canniness to survive exploitation and assimilation by outsiders.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached at email@example.com