Thursday, April 21, 2011



Mother Nature Beckons – Save the Jarawa

The Jarawas on an elegant fishing spree

One year after the death of the last member of the Bo tribe of the Andaman Islands (January 26), the UK based International NGO Survival International, working for tribal peoples’ rights worldwide, has warned yet again that the neighbouring Jarawa tribe is also in alarming danger.

Boa Sr, the last member of a unique aboriginal tribe - Bo, died last January, aged around 85, and with her death a unique part of human civilization, culture, society and value systems, is now just a memory.

Late Boa Sr

The Jarawa tribe number about 365 people, and fiercely resisted contact with outsiders until 1998. These largely un-contacted people, who inhabit these pristine Andaman Islands and have voluntarily chosen to continue almost completely isolated, have been harassed by encroachment on their lands by the British and post-independence settlers, in the last 150 years.

Jarawa girls making flower necklaces on the ATR

Perennial pressure from poachers from the neighbouring countries like Myanmar & Thailand on the coast has driven them inland, and their nomadic and hunter-gatherer way of living has thus been increasingly threatened. Although a few Jarawas, particularly women and children, still come out onto the road or into the nearby settlements, they continue to live an admirably self-sufficient life in their forest.

They live in groups of 40-50 people, hunting pig and monitor lizard, fishing with bows and arrows, and gathering seeds, berries and honey.

Their survival became more jeopardized in 1970, with the building of a road through their forest, which brought more settlers, poachers and loggers into their land. Survival International has been calling for years the closure of that Andaman Trunk Road and removal of settlers from the tribal reserves. They have been campaigning to have the Jarawas’ rights to their land and to self-determination respected.

In 2002, the Govt. of India accepted to abandon resettlement plans for the Jarawa. And finally, in the face of strong political opposition, the Supreme Court of India accepted the recommendations of Commissioner Shekhar Singh, and issued the order to close the road, withdraw encroachers from the tribes' land, and end logging of their forests.

The order was issued in a petition about logging on tribal lands filed by the Society for Andaman and Nicabar Ecology (SANE), Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and Kalpavriksh, a Pune based non profit organization working on environmental and social issues.

According to Survival’s director Stephen Corry, ‘As more and more people travel through the heart of the Jarawa’s land, the threat to their survival becomes ever more severe. If the Indian government is serious about preventing the extinction of yet another tribe, it must close the road.’

Statutory display of rules on the ATR

The government, meanwhile, has cleared the decks for creating a Buffer Zone around the Jarawa reserve in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. An amendment to the Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribals) Regulation Act of 1956, promulgated by President Pratibha Patil on July 22, 2010 allows the island authorities to ban private tourism within the buffer zone. The proposal for a 5km-buffer zone has been sent to the Ministry of Home Affairs. It’s being heard that if cleared, the Lieutenant Governor would be able to curb commerce in the 5Km Buffer Zone.

But the islands’ Tribal Welfare department is understood to have appealed against the apex court’s order. The ATR road is a lifeline that links the South Andaman with the Middle and North. If closed, the sizable number of settlers in those areas is going to have a tough time in the absence of a suitable alternative arrangement for their essential connectivity with the capital.

Present-day Diglipur (N/Andaman)

Meanwhile, Bishnu Pada Ray, the MP for the Andaman Islands, who wants to keep the road open, called a couple of months ago for the government to ‘civilize’ the Jarawa. He has demanded, “Quick and drastic steps be taken to bring the Jarawa up to the basic mainstream characteristics and the restrictions imposed on development activities for national highway level maintenance of Andaman Trunk Road be lifted immediately. The restrictions posing to be an impediment to the laying of railways linking Port Blair with Diglipur are lifted immediately to facilitate initiation of the project. This would require going hand in hand with the lightening mainstreaming of the Jarawas, which will also ensure survival of the Tribe as an entity blatantly threatened in the present context.”

The Bo, the Jarawa and other aboriginal tribes are known to have lived on the Andaman Islands for about 55,000 years, making them the descendants of some of the oldest human cultures on Earth.

The Bo were one of ten tribes now collectively known as the Great Andamanese. Most of the Great Andamanese were killed or died of diseases brought by the British, who colonized the islands in 1858. The British tried to ‘civilize’ them by capturing them and keeping them in an ‘Andaman Home’, where many died.

A rare picture of the Great Andamanese of the yesteryears

Survival’s Sophie Grig said, ‘The Jarawa are perfectly capable of deciding their own future, as long as the forest they rely on is protected and they are not forced to live in the way someone else t hinks best. History has shown that attempts to impose development on tribal people and remove them from their land are disastrous.’

I vehemently feel that it’s indeed an agonizing irony that these tribes, the only people who are enlightened and erudite enough to be able to offer the so-called civilized world some of the rarest techniques of survival in this era of frequent disasters of mammoth degrees, are being mercilessly led to the most hapless extinction, much, in fact, to the peril of their civilized counterparts.

The grand ancient knowledge of the movement of wind, sea, underground vibrations and birds that was prudently passed on from one generation to another had superbly saved the five indigenous tribes on the archipelago from the gargantuan Tsunami that had hit the Asian coastline on Dec. 26, 2004, in stark contrast to the Nicobarese tribe that are now completely civilized, who suffered the maximum loss of life and property.

The author donating Rescue Kits to the Tribal Captain of a Nicobarese village after the 2004 Tsunami

What good did the civilized world do for the welfare of the hapless Nicobarese tribe by civilizing them, thereby forcing them away from their lifestyle in the lap of Mother Nature, and what good would they do again by meting the same treatment out to the other primitive tribes of the land?

An insightful, prudent and truly humane deliberation is indispensable before venturing to meddle with the future of these precious jewels of the human race. We have just watched the horrendous fate of Japan…

Wake up! If not for them, dread digging your own graves, at least…!!!