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.
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.