Why the Andaman Islands Are Headed for Disaster

Madhusree Mukerjee
Grist Media

When Denis Giles, editor of the newspaper Andaman Chronicle, publicized a shocking complaint by a man from the Jarawa tribe on February 1, he expected to get a great many people into trouble. In the audio clip, the Jarawa man named 18 settlers who habitually visit the Jarawa Reserve to poach animals and have sex with indigenous women, offering in return alcohol, marijuana and other enticements. Such interactions are illegal on multiple counts because the Jarawa are one of the most vulnerable tribes in the world – they number about 420 and a single virus, such as HIV, could wipe them out. What Giles did not expect was that he himself would become a person of interest to the police. (Full disclosure: Giles and I are friends and have co-authored an academic paper on the Jarawa, more on which later.)

 

Within three days, on February 4th, he received a notice demanding to know who had recorded the clip and undergone a police interrogation. "We made it very clear that we are willing to cooperate," says Giles. "The media has its own sources and we can find out who the poachers are. But why should I reveal my sources? If I do, the authorities will silence them. When they are capable of attacking journalists, a common man is nothing." Three more notices have followed in short order, and he says his phones show signs of being tapped. Giles suspects that when he refuses to provide the recording, as the police are now demanding, the authorities will declare it to be unverifiable and the matter closed. As the most outspoken journalist on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, doggedly reporting on corruption and ineptitude as well as on the plight of the Jarawa, Giles has become an irritant to an administration that evidently finds it easier to tear up the message than to wrestle with the serious issues at hand.

 

“I have directed for a detailed inquiry into the incident after obtaining the recording, which a local media seems to be having," the islands’ Lieutenant Governor Ajay Kumar Singh told journalists about a week ago, adding that he had ordered strict controls on convoys along the Andaman Trunk Road that passes through the Jarawa Reserve. But the audio clip is not necessary for identifying the poachers, many of whom have long been known to the tribal welfare department, and at least one of whom, Sujoy Mondal, is already under arrest for having allegedly abducted Jarawa girls for sex. Moreover, vehicular traffic has little to do with poachers, who live in villages surrounding the reserve and enter it on foot or by dinghy.

 

Every time the tribe is in the news – as when two years ago the British newspaper The Guardian published video clips that were circulating on Port Blair's mobile phones of virtually naked Jarawa women dancing for food – the administration tightens the convoy system. But one of those videos was apparently shot by an army man whom the civilian authorities made no evident effort to pursue; whereas another was taken by two policemen who were initially suspended, but, as Giles says, "returned to service after the heat subsided."

"We go round and round in circles," sighs a former administrator on the islands. To be sure, policing the entire extent of the Jarawa Reserve, which lies along the western coast of South and Middle Andaman, is a challenging task. The coastline is deeply indented with islands and inlets where dinghies can easily hide, and the reserve also has a long land border adjoining settler villages. "People can get in and out whenever they want to," says another longtime observer. "It is only upon information from a Jarawa that it gets to be known when people have gone in. Or when patrolling the area from time to time."

 

Even if caught red-handed, however, poachers invariably get out on bail. Nitai Mondal, for instance, was arrested last November for having spent five nights in the reserve. Although charged with offences under the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act (1956) that would normally preclude bail, he was free within days to resume poaching. In another interview published by the Andaman Chronicle this month, a village pradhan named one Rakesh Saha as the head of a poaching ring based in villages adjoining the Jarawa reserve.The police do not appear to be investigating Saha, however; on the contrary, they informed Giles that Saha has filed a libel case against the journalist. Giles believes that the administration instigated him to file the suit as part of its campaign of harassment. 

 

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In addition to official ineptitude, the immense value of the Jarawa reserve's resources works against any lasting solution for the poaching problem. Timber felling appears to have stopped since a 2002 Supreme Court order but poachers routinely procure wild boar, deer, fish and honey for the domestic market and the highly lucrative mangrove green crab for the export market. Politicians from the island, such as current Member of Parliament (MP) Bishnu Pada Ray of the BJP and former MP Manoranjan Bhakta of the Congress, have long demanded that the tribe be evicted from the forest, evidently so that voters can instead enjoy its bounty. "The Congress and BJP are both saying: there are lots of difficulty with the Jarawa, put them in the mainstream," observes Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology. "Let [the Jarawa] have a ‘good life’."

 

Last October 10 Jarawa men made local headlines by visiting Kadamtala, a Bengali village bordering the reserve, to express a demand for food – and more. "We want our children to study in school, like children of [the] Onge. We also want to become rich,” the newspaper Andaman Sheekha reported them saying. (The Onge tribe on Little Andaman Island to the south are largely confined to a settlement and, at least on paper, are provided with schooling.) Thanks to investigations by workers with the tribal welfare department, it transpired that poachers, along with a village pradhan, had coached and bribed the Jarawa youths to make the demand. Six were arrested, but unsurprisingly all were let out on bail. The poachers are aware that should the Jarawa become ‘civilized’ – in other words, so dependent on the outside world that they can no longer survive as nomads in the forest – they will be moved into settlements and the reserve will become easier to access. 

A core problem is knee-jerk racism that assumes the Jarawa to be dispensable. Relates Acharya: "The other day, a DSP came to me and said, 'How would it be if all the Jarawa were put on another island?'" That such a course of action is conceivable despite years of effort by anthropologists and others to explain the pitfalls, and the existence of a court-ordered government policy on the Jarawa that is to the contrary, shows that the tribe's problems can only intensify. "Why is the administration not learning from the failures of the Onge and the Great Andamanese?" asks the former administrator. "We can't repeat the same mistakes again."

 

The lesson from history is stark: assimilation is ethnocide. The Great Andamanese, shorthand for 10 tribes that originally inhabited North, South, and Little Andaman, numbered about 8,000 when the British established the settlement of Port Blair in 1858. Having been isolated for tens of thousands of years, the hunter-gatherers had no immunity to the killer diseases that thrive in densely populated agricultural societies such as ours. By the end of the 19th century syphilis and other introduced germs had reduced their numbers to 600. Now, about 60 of the Great Andamanese survive, so admixed with the invading mainstream population that some may not have any indigenous ancestry at all.

 

The Onge were herded into encampments in the 1950s – their forests giving way to settlers' fields – and similarly succumbed to disease, until currently about 110 are alive. Two Onge youths died in 1999 in circumstances that suggest murder: one of them had complained to visiting dignitaries about poachers. Depression and alcoholism also abound. In 2008, Onge men and boys found a jerry can washed up on a beach that contained what they believed to be alcohol. Eight of them died. Great Andamanese and Onge adolescents alike are also subject to sexual abuse, sometimes by the welfare or medical staff itself.  

 

The Jarawa were initially protected from the slew of germs by their hostility to the Great Andamanese, which precluded intimate contact. When in the late 19th century they started to attack Indian laborers whom the British were using for logging, however, they became a target of official hunting expeditions. "Like the Bushman of South Africa, the Jarawa is implacable and will continue to fight till extermination," predicted the census of 1931. Despite the danger, both to the Jarawa and to the newcomers, in the 1950s refugees from the partition of Bengal were settled deep in their territory in crude clearings that have since become villages. Decades later, the administration constructed the Andaman Trunk Road through what had been designated in 1956 as the Jarawa Reserve – using armed police to overcome the tribe's vehement opposition. The contested road was opened in 1989; although in 2002 the Supreme Court ordered this road closed to protect the Jarawa, it remains open today because of political pressure.

 

Also in the 1970s, however, the authorities began a program of leaving gifts on Jarawa beaches in order to pacify the tribe, who were killing intruders and being killed by them in turn. The effort succeeded in 1998, when the Jarawa stopped killing intruders. Predictably, as the tribesmen and women began to interact peaceably with outsiders they started falling prey to diseases such as pneumonia, measles, mumps and malaria. A dedicated doctor, Ratan Chandra Kar, who happened to be posted in Kadamtala at the time, as well as a concerted effort by the islands' government medical department, held down the casualties. No one knows, however, how many Jarawa died in the forest during the initial onslaught.

Also in 1998, a lawyer based in Port Blair, being distressed by the nudity of the Jarawa, filed a public interest litigation in the Calcutta High Court (which has jurisdiction over the Andamans) demanding that the aboriginals be given clothes and other "amenities of modern civilization". In a legal intervention, Acharya pointed out that forcing the Onge to become similarly settled had led to serious physical and emotional decline. Thanks to the thoughtful opinion by a court-appointed expert, former Chief Secretary of India Kanwar B. Saxena, the court ruled that the ecology of the Jarawa Reserve should be conserved and the tribe protected from harmful exposure to the outside world, villagers in surrounding communities should be sensitized about the plight and rights of the Jarawa, and independent experts should be consulted to formulate a long-term policy. In 2004, the central government published a formal policy on the Jarawa, including a pledge to not "bring them to the mainstream society against their conscious will" or to relocate them in any way.

 

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The Andaman administration has neglected, however, to implement crucial items such as educating the settler population or, for that matter, itself. Astonishingly, most officials seem to be unaware that a Jarawa policy even exists. "We each come with our own views, and at the end of the day the opinion of the senior-most person gets turned into policy," says the former administrator. Many senior officials, on the other hand, simply take "the path of least resistance", which means satisfying the mainstream population at the expense of the Jarawa. "The panchayat people are very vocal," continues the ex-administrator. "So vocal it is difficult to control them." That, in turn, explains why intrusions into the reserve have never been seriously dealt with.

 

Consequently, poachers have been free to induce addictions to alcohol and tobacco among Jarawa youth, who now assist them in denuding the reserve of fish and game. In November last year, one Ashush Samaddar was arrested for having given Jarawa youth liquor in exchange for 20 kilograms of venison – only to be let out on bail. Just as worrisome, some outsiders routinely spend nights in the reserve, buying sex from Jarawa women and girls with alcohol.

 

Giles and I have co-authored an academic paper where he wrote that, in 2003, he visited an abandoned police outpost by the reserve where more than 10 Jarawa females of different ages were living apart from the rest of the tribe. The floor was littered with liquor bottles and cigarettes, indicating that it was routinely used by outsiders. One of the women was pregnant and later gave birth to a baby believed to have been fathered by a non-Jarawa. In 2011, the Andaman Sheekha reported that three Jarawa youth had angrily complained that a police constable had sexually assaulted several Jarawa girls; the police conducted an inquiry but did not make its results public. The newspaper Light of the Andamans went on to report that some settlers had "erected small sheds behind their houses where liquor is served and obscene films shown to Jarawas and lured to indulge in sex acts." The outrage stopped after the tribal welfare official posted in the area was changed – following which the "Jarawas who were addicted to alcohol are now desperate for their daily quota."

 

Across the world, alcoholism is a serious problem with indigenous groups who have been pacified. The Jarawa, who never have any alcohol of their own and seem unaware of such things as addiction, appear to be following that much-trodden path. Sex carries other dangers, of course, such as transmission of venereal diseases and HIV. Recall that syphilis played a major role in the decimation of the Great Andamanese.

 

Matters came to a head in January this year when a few Jarawa men approached the tribal welfare staff to inform them that poachers had taken away some women and girls, who remained missing several days later. When a search party finally located the seven culprits, the tribesmen had to be prevented from beating them up; these poachers are currently under arrest. This incident had already made national news, embarrassing the administration, when Giles published the audio clip in February. "The girls say the outsiders press them a lot," says the unidentified Jarawa man in the recording. "They press them using hands and nails when the girls get angry. They chase them under the influence of alcohol… They have sex with the girls." He goes on to name the poachers and continues, "They also sleep in the Jarawa's house. They chase the girls after smoking marijuana." As Giles' 2003 observation shows, these things have been going on for years now.

 

Despite the obvious anger of some of the Jarawa at such exploitation, others have become too dependent on goods that they get from the poachers to reject them. "The younger ones are infatuated with our way of life," says Acharya. "They wear T-shirts and sunglasses, drink alcohol, like to get rides on motorcycles, even watch Hindi movies. They want to be heroes like the movie stars." Watching these changes happen despite more than a decade of striving to prevent them has been depressing. "I have lost hope," he admits. Those Jarawa who are more than 30 years of age stay aloof, he says, but they may soon be outnumbered – making it easier for the administration to satisfy politicians' demands to herd the tribe into settlements. 

 

If that should happen, South and Middle Andaman could rapidly become unlivable. Satellite maps show that the only Great Evergreen Rainforest left on the Andamans are in the Jarawa Reserve – because for more than a century the tribesmen defended it with their lives. All other forests on the archipelago, however protected on paper, have been thinned out or decimated by loggers (who by all accounts are linked with local politicians). Crucially, all rivulets on these two islands flow from this remaining forest, whose dense undergrowth efficiently absorbs rain and allows it to soak into the soil. These streams nourish not only the Jarawa but also everyone else. The Andamans already suffer from severe water shortages every summer, when taps in the average Port Blair household run once in three days. If the tribe is removed from their forest, poachers and loggers will rapidly thin it out, the streams will dry into a trickle, and lakhs of people will have to be repatriated to mainland India. 

 

As this is published, Giles reports that he has received yet another order on February 16 to appear before the police. The Lieutenant Governor, who is relatively new to the islands, may soon discover that he has far greater headaches than a lone journalist, however annoying he might be. Not only the survival of the Jarawa but the very viability of the Andaman Islands as an extension of India now depends on concerted, thoughtful, and urgent action to protect the reserve and its inhabitants.

 

Madhusree Mukerjee is the author of The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders (Houghton Mifflin and Penguin India, 2003) and Churchill's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II (Basic Books and Tranquebar, 2010)