Monday, December 14, 2009



Tragedy of the Shompen

The Shompen are as precariously poised on the brink of extinction as the four other hunter-gatherer tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are the home to four Negrito and two Indo-Mongoloid tribes. Those belonging to the Negrito racial reserve – the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawas and the Sentinelese - are still at hunting-gathering stage of economy. Small in number, sensitive and isolated, they have been under severe stress. The Indo-Mongoloid clan of the Nicobarese, relatively sturdy and resilient, has accepted the challenge of change and have prospered and multiplied. The members of the other Mongoloid community, the Shompen, semi nomadic and living in small, scattered settlements, still shy away from outsiders. They are somewhat better off than the Great Andamanese and the Onge, whose numbers have sharply dwindled. However they are not as isolated as the Sentinelese and the Jarawas.

Ancient tribe, The Shompen: Their self-sufficiency is slowly being undermined.

It is India’s last island and its largest. Beyond it stretches the mighty Indian Ocean. One of the historic archipelago of over 572 islands & islets in the Bay of Bengal, known as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Great Nicobar first entered the wider public consciousness in December, 2004, when the catastrophic Tsunami wreaked havoc on the island. Great Nicobar, with its rather large habitation, of settlers from the mainland India at Campbell Bay suffered colossal damage, both in terms of human lives and in terms of property and infrastructure. The scars are still hauntingly vivid, about five years later.

The lighthouse at Indira Point, Campbell Bay, left submerged by Tsunami

Its Tsunami connection apart, Great Nicobar is also known as the land of the Shompen, one of the last surviving stone-age tribes in the world. Not as well known as the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands, the Shompen are as precariously poised on the brink of extinction as the four other hunter-gatherer tribes (the Jarawa, the Andamanese, the Onge and the Sentinelese),” wrote an astounded Meena Gupta in The Hindu about three years ago, which stimulated me to write this post, today.

Classified as a Primitive Tribal Group (PTG), the Shompen have light yellow-brown skins, straight hair, narrow eyes and stocky build, giving them a strong resemblance to the people of Myanmar (the erstwhile Burma) and Indonesia.

Like the Jarawas, they are skilled hunter-gatherers but, unlike them, also raise plantations of various crops such as pandanus and lemon and colocasia. They subsist primarily on these plants, wild boar, wild fruits, honey and fish. And like the Jarawas, they are, by and large, disease-free.”

The tragedy of the Shompen — indeed, of all the primitive tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — is that until a few decades ago, they were monarchs of all they surveyed. Only 50 years down the line, their lands have been occupied, their forests chopped down, their animals hunted and they themselves outnumbered by people from an alien culture.

History has it that unlike the major islands of the Andamans and some Nicobar Islands, Great Nicobar was, by and large, undisturbed by incursions of outsiders until the late 1960s. The Shompen lived in the interior of the island, inside the forest and along the rivers; the Nicobarese lived along the coast, to the north of the island. The two tribes lived in a kind of armed truce after intermittent skirmishes.

A major influx of population started in 1969 with the settlement of several hundred ex-servicemen from the mainland India on the south-eastern coast of Great Nicobar, and a proposal to settle several hundred more on the western coast. Even more damaging, the East-West road (measuring 43 km in length) was constructed through the pristine Shompen territory. Thus, a tribal reserve area under the Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956, was opened to outsiders.

The area of the reserve has also shrunk over the years. The ‘reserved area’ in Great Nicobar, which initially covered the whole island (1044.54 sq km as per the notification dated 2 April, 1957, issued by the Chief Commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar islands), has been reduced to 853.19 sq km. The population of outsiders has been growing steadily since 1969, while the number of the Shompen, which is alarmingly low, has remained stagnant or is shrinking.

According to the Census, the population of the Shompen was 212 in 1971, 223 in 1981, 131 in1991, and 398 in 2001. These figures are, of course, estimations and the discrepancies, particularly in the last figure, are quite obvious, as the Shompen, being forest-dwelling, nomadic hunter-gatherers and averse to the entry of others into their settlements, do not lend themselves to easy or accurate counting.

Several development activities are currently being carried on in Great Nicobar, all with an inevitable deleterious impact on the Shompen. Some are security-related given the strategic location of Great Nicobar almost at the southern end of India and its proximity to many international shipping routes. Such activities cannot, perhaps, be avoided.

A Shompen family (1980s)
But the three major issues that pose the greatest danger to the Shompen are not defence or security-related: the burgeoning population of outsiders, the renovation and construction of the East-West road through the heart of the Shompen reserve, and the free food and other items being given to the Shompen by the government.

Despite the fact that Great Nicobar was severely affected by the 2004 Tsunami, it does not seem to have had any permanent impact on the number of people who wish to live there; the population today has grown considerably from that in 2001. Apart from the impact on the Shompen, the numbers need to be controlled and reduced from the point of view of the island’s carrying capacity.

The island’s ecology will indisputably be destroyed by such large numbers and so will the people who live in harmony with it. And this, my dear friends, is not an alarming issue that is confined to the Great Nicobar Island only, but is rather a very burning issue in the larger interest of the entire delicate coral islands of Andaman & Nicobar that have been rendered even more vulnerable after the massive earthquake & Tsunami of 26th December, 2004.

Permanent shelters constructed in Great Nicobar after Tsunami
The construction and repair of the East-West road is an even greater threat to the Shompen. This road, which had been constructed long ago and abandoned, fell into disrepair and was not used for several decades. Indeed, there was no real need to maintain it since the settlement on the western coast which the road was supposed to link, never came up. Since the Tsunami, however, repair work on a lot of structures was taken up, including on the East-West road.

Thus the Shompen are faced with the renewed danger of incursions into their territory. Moreover, the laborers from the mainland bring with them a totally different culture. Even more worrisome, they bring diseases to which the Shompen have little or no immunity. Such diseases can spread like an epidemic, as happened some years ago when diarrhoea killed a large number of the tribe.

But, by far, the most damaging activity is the administration’s new-found practice of doling out free rations. This has been in operation for some years, but increased after the tsunami, in the mistaken belief that the Shompen were being protected from hunger and starvation. The Shompen, who are a totally self-sufficient hunter-gatherer-grower people living on wild animals, fruit, tubers, fish and honey, are being given rice and biscuits and alien food products. They are also being given cloth, though the Shompen have an ancient tradition of making cloth out of tree bark, which they wear swathed around their waists.

Thus an insidious culture of dependency is being created, undermining the self-sufficiency of these people so closely attached to Mother Nature, precisely on the lines of what is being done with the originally self-reliant Nicobarese. And all this is irrefutably thanks to the worsening culture of vote-bank politics in India.

As a matter of fact, the issues of the aboriginal tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands are so different from that of the other tribes elsewhere in the world that it calls for an extremely sensitive, prudent and specialized administration. Unfortunately, most senior officials in the Andaman and Nicobar come to the islands from the mainland India, for a brief period and do not have a clue about the adept approach required for these rare heritage tribes. Such officials also end up resisting any kind of sensitization, invariably.

Unless the administration wakes up to the fact that they have a very uncommon and precious commodity in the form of these heritage primitive tribes, one that needs extremely delicate and sensitive handling, it is more than likely that these few hundred people will, in due course, disappear, leaving an indelible scar in history about the thoughtlessness of the so-called caretakers of humanity, something which would trigger a state of emergency vis-à-vis the very existence of our habitat, at large.

Excerpts courtesy: Meena Gupta, the Hindu; Stats: world's oldest tribes


  1. A very informative post...thank you for sharing such important news...much appreciated, friend!

    Have a great day:)


  2. Thanks, indeed, Cyrus, for your kind appreciation!

    Just as you so gracefully say at your blog -'Let compassion and love be your two companions, and I shall be the third,' you really, are the third, here, at this hungry post. ;))

    Cheers! :)

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  4. Fascinating! I read this whole post with rapt attention. I admire beyond words your concerns for these so-called primitive people and their beautiful humanity.

  5. @SzymonXY

    Thanks for your visit and the endearing comment, indeed, dear friend! I would surely visit your good site and get back to you. Cheers!

    @nothing profound

    Thanks a lot for your kind appreciation and attention. It would, really help our noble cause a great deal if you could spread the word about the 'pieces of life' about the vulnerable Islanders of this unique territory on the globe.

    Thanks again! See you back, here, soon... :))

  6. Hope these tribes are saved. We must have them live with their cultures preserved. We are proud and vain in thinking that we are 'modern and advanced' when in reality we have destroyed the earth. Now we are ourselves moving towards their methods of environment friendly living.

  7. It's marvellous post. I liked it.