Contact with the outside world has exposed the Jarawas to various dangers. Is isolation the best way to conserve? A debate
Numbering around 400, people of the Jarawa tribe occupy the lion’s share of land in South and Middle Andaman Islands, earmarked as Jarawa Tribal Reserve (JTR). This irks leaders of political parties and businesspeople, who often question the need for such a huge stretch of land for a handful of Jarawas. They also suggest and offer welfare measures for the Jarawas, not willing to realise the consequences these may have on the tribe. The Andaman Chamber of Commerce has offered to construct houses for the tribe. Political leaders such as Bishnu Pada Ray, lone member of Parliament from the Andaman and Nicobar parliamentary constituency, have even argued that “given a chance the Jarawa can scale political heights like Barrack Obama, who belongs to a tribal community”.
Suggestions and arguments will be offered ad infinitum but it is clear that the outside world is more focused on the land occupied by the tribe than on welfare of the 400-odd Jarawas. As settlers in an alien land, we have already destroyed what we had snatched from the aborigines in the name of development. As a result we deal with scarcity every day. Today if there is land to accommodate the exploding population of settlers and water to quench the thirst of 200,000 settlers in South Andaman, it remains inside the Jarawa home.
The Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), an NGO run by the Andaman Adminis-tration, has been given the responsibility to look after the welfare of aborigines in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Jarawa Protection Police has been posted around the reserve to check poaching and other illegal activities inside the JTR. Reports now indicate that the exploitation of the Jarawas is not confined to poaching, but people of the tribe are being sexually exploited and introduced to drugs.
The world’s attention has rightly been drawn to the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) that divides the Jarawa home into two halves. But we had not realised that exploitation is in full swing at the fringes of the JTR. It needed the media to expose the bitter truth, the consequence of which was the administration chasing the messengers instead of following the message. Was the Andaman administration really unaware of the exploitation?
When the process to accommodate refugees from the erstwhile East Pakistan began, the Jarawas reacted with hostility. Perhaps justifiably, for we were snatching away their land and resources. But now when the Jarawas are no longer hostile, the settlers have become aggressive. It all started in 2007 when the then Administrator of Andaman and Nicobar Islands demarcated a buffer zone that extended deep inside the settlement villages in the name of protecting the Jarawa tribe. The concept of a buffer zone was proposed in a master plan prepared in the late 1990s. But it suggested a 500 m buffer zone. The buffer zone created in 2007 stretched to 5 km on land and 10 km in the sea from the high tide level. This led to closure of many resorts and the value of land in the settlement areas dropped steadily. To add to the commotion, political leaders advocated that the settlers be removed from their land to protect the Jarawa tribe. Was there a need to create a 5 km buffer zone? Why did the Administration never make serious attempts to sensitise settlers on the need to protect the vulnerable tribe? Why were there no attempts to fix loopholes in the law that let poachers and exploiters go scot free in spite of being held for the crimes?
If we wish to empower the Jarawas by educating them about the outside world, it should be done in their own language and in their own way. No one can stop the development process. The Jarawas have learnt Hindi and other Indian languages. The welfare staff have learnt the Jarawa language too. It is time we thought of some serious study on the Jarawas, learning and recording of their language, culture and medicinal practices.
Our forefathers, Bengali refugees of Partition, were settled in Andaman islands in 1949. There were deep forests. We were asked to clear them and make the land cultivable. The reclaimed land was allotted to us. We began with fruit, vegetable and foodgrain production. Later, betel nut and coconut production went up in a major way.
After the buffer zone was notified, all commercial activities stopped and banks stopped financial assistance. In Colinpur village, a resort named Barefoot was closed. Several of our village youths had found work there.
The land value has decreased by a third after the notification. Small shops are running as usual inside the buffer zone, but big businesses with turnover running into crores of rupees and employing more than 20 people are not allowed. We have lost the opportunity that tourism could have provided us.
My grandparents told me that initially, Jarawas used to run away on seeing the settlers. Later, they started attacking us with arrows. Then the administration tried to befriend the Jarawas: they were offered bananas, some were given treatment for injuries. They stopped being hostile. Now the Jarawas are no longer confined to the jungles and depend on settlers for food. They visit settler villages regularly and accept fruit. Perhaps they are not getting adequate food in the jungle.
Our demand is that the Jarawas be brought into the mainstream as they themselves want to. For instance, in Tirur, a village under my panchayat, a Jarawa came to get his children admitted to school. The Jarawas can speak Bengali and Hindi. They ask us for cooked food. The food habits of the Jarawas have undergone a change. When a Jarawa is admitted to a hospital, seven-eight others come along as attendants because they like the hospital food.
Jarawa numbers have gone up and their child death rates have gone down. I believe, if the Jarawas are brought into the mainstream they will not die out as is portrayed internationally. Thirty per cent of the population of the Nicobarese tribe is now settled in Port Blair. They have jobs, they have bought cars, they have become doctors. A Nicobarese girl has won a prize in cycling in the Asia cup. The Jarawas are excellent archers and can win us a gold medal in international competitions.
I cannot discount reports of poaching or sexual abuse in the Jarawa territory. The administration and the law of the land are meant to take care of that.
I am not suggesting that Jarawas be brought into the mainstream all of a sudden. It is a gradual process. For example, the administration can start banana plantations close to the Jarawa territory. The settlers can get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. They will also slowly learn to protect the plantations. Conflict with settlers will come down.
In 1998 when the Jarawas became friendly with the outside world their population was 235. At present, they number over 400. The Jarawas have a unique lifestyle and live in harmony with nature. In the Jarawa Tribal Reserve area, entry of unauthorised persons is banned.
In 2004, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, framed a policy for the Jarawas. The policy is the bedrock of various measures undertaken by the administration of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These include protecting the natural habitat and cultural identity of the Jarawas, monitoring their health and regulating traffic on the Andaman Trunk Road.
It is true that the Jarawas have developed barter relationship with the exploitative elements living outside the tribal reserve. The Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) is sensitising the tribe on the issue. The administration is also taking penal action against the poachers.
But what is happening inside the Jarawa reserve is nothing unusual. There is no real increase in conflict. In fact, the administration has roped in the Jarawas in identifying encroachers and poachers. Since then, there has been a significant change in the Jarawas’ self-perception and awareness. This drive is part of the administration’s new policy built on research and community involvement. But all this has been underplayed.
During the recent elections, candidates did campaign for a liberal tourism policy, relaxing buffer zones, expanding the Andaman Trunk Road and bringing the Jarawas into the “mainstream”. But we have no plans of pushing the Jarawas into a preconceived idea of “mainstream”. Jarawas are allowed to take decisions when negotiating with the outside world. The administration has adopted the policy of “listen and provide”.
Efforts are being made to compile and understand what the communities in different stages of acculturation would like and why, before we just protect and provide. The concern is to keep their culture and identity alive and vibrant.
The Andaman and Nicobar Island Administration has set up A&N Tribal Research & Training Institute. The institute aims at directing research towards welfare policy, acting as a clearing house for research proposals, setting up a tribal museum and providing training.
The history of relations of Andaman islanders with non-islanders shows consistent interpretation, re-interpretation and misinterpretation of the notion of welfare of the indigenous communities of the islands. This perception, for some, is coated with the notion of primitiveness and of a need to assist and aid, which is largely driven by non-Jarawa yardsticks of well-being. In contrast is the perceived need to not interfere in their affairs that is more preservationist in outlook.
There is the issue of anthropologists, researchers or individuals being given access to engage with the Jarawas to understand their “well-being”. This is an ongoing process and is being undertaken in a slow and nuanced manner by the well-informed field staff of the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti, with a clear picture of contexts, conditions and influences—rather than by opening up the field to various or multiple interpretations.
Understanding the notion of well-being and the complexities involved in the customary livelihood of Jarawas is much more complex than what is allowed by regarding them as a primitive tribe. What is also now slowly being included within that notion of “customary” is their own choices of interaction with the world beyond their forests, which they are entitled to as free citizens.
There is also a history to how the State has dealt with such subjects when it has deployed the notion of “primitiveness” and of welfare through induction into the “mainstream”.That process has had no positive effect so far, at least in the Andaman islands. There is a need to reconfigure the notion of welfare to very clearly include the possibility for a community to continue being itself but also, and still part of, the whole-this will not happen overnight, and it has to eventually come from the perspective of those who are seen as beyond or outside the mainstream, as well as from those in it.
It should be understood that to decide notions of well-being for someone else is imperialistic and unfair. This has happened to so many tribal and indigenous communities across the world.
Learning from this history, a strategy to increase participation of the Jarawas in expressing themselves, at their own pace and with a sense of community, is being put in place. This also means that the field staff and others who interact will need to learn and listen, rather than command. This comes with its own shortcomings (and benefits) because of various field conditions and human resource issues, though consistency and sincerity are ingredients that will ensure that the process is inclusive, facilitative and participatory. It is not a simple or easy process because what a Jarawa or anybody else wants is prone to misinterpretation. The field is not closed to independent enquiry or research, though good quality proposals and relevant research are often hard to come by. There have been various proposals to research, document and interact with the Jarawas, but most of these lean towards being extractive in nature and have little relevance to addressing Jarawa concerns. There have been some positive proposals as well. There are important ethical issues with regard to extractive social, biological or ecological research, especially with a vulnerable community such as the Jarawa.
The issue of the dichotomies between the interest of the Jarawas and the settlers is also there. But there is a set of settlers who are more in tune with the conservation of the Jarawas. This should not be discounted. The tense relationship, in my opinion, is there not just due to a lack of understanding, but also because settlers have been misled for long, though some do have ambitions of encroaching the Jarawa Reserve.
Election manifestos will proclaim what a political aspirant would like to claim, but in my opinion, there is a due process to change. The dangerous issue is of interpreting what a community wants, just because one sees the need to re-interpret that information impetuously for an election, or other purpose. It is not uncommon to hear that since some Jarawas know Hindi, or how to cook dal and rice, the time has come to integrate them into the mainstream.
Another reason, often unsaid, is of difference, of the Jarawas being seen culturally very different from what is seen as a norm from the present majority and, therefore, the argument to integrate into the whole. Unfortunately, diversity is often seen as a problem rather than as an asset.
We have enough experiences of the outcomes of such actions in the past with the Onge and the Great Andamanese tribal communities. Their present predicament owes a lot to such actions. So, even with these communities there should be a policy of re-learning and re-invigoration, and strengthening their sense of community. With the Sentinelese, there is no policy yet to elicit information about them. The policy focuses only on ensuring well-being by eliminating, to the maximum possible extent,external threats and influences that have made inroads into communities such as the Jarawas.