The setting red sun of dark water

Joyanta Chakraborty, IMS Unison University

Editor’s note: The islands of Andaman and Nicobar famously contain not only the Kaala Paani jail but also several groups of indigenous people aloof from mainstream society. This paper talks about one of 4 major groups (among the Great Andamanese, The Onge, The Sentilenese), the Jarawas. It highlights their exploitation, the lack of administrative action and how tourists contribute to the problem.

Introduction

To understand the concept of red sun and dark water one needs to leave this mainland of India and travel across the Bay of Bengal and move towards the south-eastern water limits of India and reach the Union Territory of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Most of us are aware of the fact that it is here in the infamous Cellular Jail of Port Blair where all the convicts who were sentenced to transportation for life were kept during the British Rule. Most of these convicts quite naturally included the revolutionaries and freedom fighters. All these prisoners used to call these islands as “Kaala Paani” which means “Dark Water”. Besides the natural beauty and cruel colonial history of these islands, another factor that has made Andaman famous in the world is its indigenous people or the tribal people who are majorly aloof from the mainstream society and away from this civilized world. 4 major groups of tribal people are found over here i.e. the Great Andamanese, The Onge, The Sentilenese & the Jarawas. Of these the Great Anadamanese are almost extinct and majority of them have mixed with the mainstream people. The Nicobarese are present south of the island chain and have started interacting with modern world. The Sentilenese remain confined to their own island with almost no contact with the modern world. But the Jarawas who reside in the southern to central part of these islands are facing the biggest threat of extinction from mankind. The Jarawas are uniquely identified by their red clothes and hence the title of the essay. A  recent visit to this island that has prompted me to take up this issue of how they are exploited and the sorry state of the administration which seems least interested in protecting them. The tribal rights are being hampered big time in the islands. Tourist activities have been the major reason of such exploitation. The Jarawas have been used as an amusement product to attract tourists from all round the globe and somewhere in between all these the Jarawas are facing an existential crisis which is deepening each passing day. It is high time for the administration to act or else  a fate similar to the Dodo birds are awaiting for the Jarawas.

The Jarawas

The tribes of the Andaman Islands – the Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Onge and Sentinelese – are believed to have lived in their Indian Ocean home for up to 55,000 years. They are now vastly outnumbered by several hundred thousand Indians, who have settled on the islands in recent times.[i] Today, approximately 400 members of the nomadic Jarawa tribe live in groups of 40-50 people in chaddhas – as they call their homes. Like most tribal peoples who live self sufficiently on their ancestral lands, the Jarawa continue to thrive, and their numbers are steadily growing. They hunt pig and turtle and fish with bows and arrows in the coral-fringed reefs for crabs and fish, including striped catfish-eel and the toothed pony fish. They also gather fruits, wild roots, tubers and honey. The bows are made from the chooi wood, which does not grow throughout the Jarawa territory. The Jarawa often have to travel long distances to Baratang Island to collect it. Both Jarawa men and women collect wild honey from lofty trees. During the honey collection the members of the group will sing songs to express their delight. The honey-collector will chew the sap of leaves of a bee-repellant plant, such as Ooyekwalin, which they will then spray with their mouths at the bees to keep them away. Once the bees have gone the Jarawa can cut the bee’s nest, which they put in a wooden bucket on their back. The Jarawa always bathe after consuming honey. A study of their nutrition and health found their ‘nutritional status’ was ‘optimal’. They have detailed knowledge of more than 150 plant and 350 animal species.

Problem

The problem with the Jarawas started mainly after the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road in the 1970s. This road is a national highway which connects the southern part of the island i.e Port Blair to the central and northern part of the Island. This highway cuts through the heart of Jarawa homeland which is approximately 50 kms away from Port Blair. After vehicles started operating on this road, the Jarawas who were isolated from the mainstream society were forced to interact with the civilized society. It must be mentioned here that even the Britishers had respect for these people and hence never interfered in their affairs and therefore they could continue their unique lifestyle without being aware of the political developments of the nation. But by the decade of the 90’s the Jarawas started to show up at the national highway and became a centre of amusement for the travelers. And very soon it became a tourist hub as the tourists who visit the limestone cave at Baratang have to pass through this road. This interaction hit the Jarawa community very hard. Tourists would regularly stop their car and offer them food and make them dance in return. One such incident was reported where a policeman made two naked Jarawa women dance for food. Infact some incidents were reported where a group of male visitors abducted a female Jarawa and sexually harassed her. Incidents of kidnapping also came to limelight. But the administration tried to cover up majority of these events as they did not want to hurt the tourism which generates a lot of revenue.[ii] In 2007 the administration seemed to wake up from its slumber when it issued a notification stating that all kind of tourism and trade activities would be banned within 5 Km radius of the Jarawa Area. A tourist resort moved to Calcutta High Court which has jurisdiction over the islands. The high court in 2009 quashed this notification and held it to be invalid. Meanwhile many NGOs and environmental associations joined this protest and appealed to the Supreme Court against the decision of the Calcutta High Court. The apex court held the notification to be valid[iii] and asked the Andaman administration to implement it. But the administration failed to implement it due to widespread protests by the local people who were largely dependent on tourism. Finally in January 2013 the Supreme Court put “interim ban” on the movement of tourist but allowed only high officials to use the road and vehicles which carry essential commodities for the Jarawa. But this ban was soon lifted after few months and again tourist activities began which is continuing even till date. According to the practice, the gates of the part of the highway which passes through the Jarawa buffer zone open at 6.00 a.m., 9.00 a.m., 12.00 p.m. and 2.30 p.m. and similarly the gates from the other side i.e. the Baratang side open at 6.30 am, 9.30 a.m., 12.30 p.m. and 3.00 p.m. The vehicles go in a convoy which is led by a police escort vehicle and is also followed by one. This according to me is more harmful to the Jarawa cause because a fleet of 70 to 80 vehicles is not only endangering their survival but at the same time is also causing rampant pollution. The Jarawas earlier never had to face the consequences of pollution, but now due to this crazy “human safari”, the Jarawas are feeling the heat of civilization. Although the administration has put some restrictions on photography and videography of the Jarawa people but that is hardly obeyed. What was really disheartening to see was the fact that one of the Jarawa male was actually begging for food from the passing vehicles and this just goes on to prove that they are indeed offered food by the tourists even today which is a matter of shame.  The point that I would again like to emphasis is that all these tourist activities has led to a situation where the very existence of this tribe is under question. It is to be remembered that hardly 400 Jarawa are left today and if this situation persists then Jarawas would only be a topic of social history very soon. I consider myself lucky to have seen 2 Jarawa people but would have certainly considered myself luckier had I not seen them and passed through that road. The tourist activities have changed the traditional lifestyle of the Jarawas which was of hunting and gathering and now they are more dependent on begging and this has caused some serious health problems to them. In 2006 an epidemic broke out among them which caused death of many Jarawas. We have heard about Animal Safaris but in these areas the tradition of “Human Safari” is going on where tourists pay to watch the Jarawas and offer them food like we treat animals at the zoo. The Jarawas being oblivious to this fact have no other option but to dance to this cacophonic tune of commercial world.

Solution

The most important question as of now is what can possibly be done in order to prevent the exploitation of the tribe. Very recently The Union Shipping Ministry has reportedly given permission for a parallel sea route from Port Blair to Baratang that serves as the entry point to the northern islands. The new sea route has reportedly been announced to prevent tourists from travelling through a reserve forest area where the protected Jarawa Tribals live. It is expected that the parallel sea route will give a fillip to tourism in the northern Islands. Presently, tourists and residents pass through the Andaman Trunk Road that passes through a reserve forest. The Supreme Court had in a ruling earlier asked the Andaman and Nicobar administration to close the road and go for a sea route parallel to it, but relaxed its order later to say that road can continue to exist along with a parallel sea route. The shipping ministry has reportedly given permission to the Andaman Lakshadweep Harbour Works Department for the project. Clearance from the union environment ministry is now required to pave the way for non-controversial tourism activity in the northern islands.[iv] This route would be very much in the interest of the Jarawas but again the big question that always remains is whether the Government would go on with this project and whether the administration would opt for this alternative route, for it would mean a loss in tourism economy as anyways the road is a faster means to travel through the island when compared with the waterway. But it is worth to be mentioned here that the road is indeed necessary for serious medical reasons as the best medical facility of the island is located in Port Blair and hence people from northern part of the Island chain have to use this road to reach quickly because in those circumstances the waterway would take a long time. So what is best at this moment is to stick to the judgment of the Supreme Court and keep the road open only for exceptional cases and totally close it for tourism. Infact recently FIR was registered  against a French filmamaker and three locals member of the Karen community for helping the filmmaker for trespassing the Jarawa areas and making a documentary on them which is against the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act as amended in 2012.[v] Also it is further alleged that the 3 Karen people were brutally assaulted by the police to make them confess their crime and for which they even had to be hospitalized which has been heavily criticized and rightly so because these Karen people are just poor and innocent fellows who are oblivious of the law and punishing them would yield no result.[vi] It is the big fishes which need to be caught while they are protecting themselves in the umbrella of administration itself because without the knowledge of the administration or involvement of some officials it is impossible for a foreigner to enter such area and shoot a documentary. So it is absolutely imperative at this point of time to shut down all tourism activities in the region to protect the remaining 400 Jarawas because time is running out very fast for them.

It is high time that a new right should be evolved from the Article 21 of the constitution i.e. the “right to isolation”.  Article 21 and its dimension has travelled a long way since 1950 starting from the A.K.Gopalan case[vii]. While earlier it was regarded that right to live only included the right to be alive or more precisely the right to breathe only and nothing more than that, but since the Maneka Gandhi case[viii] and the E.C.Royappa case[ix], this has concept of right to life has assumed a bigger role to play in strengthening the roots of democracy in India. The court now regards that right to live means to live a life with dignity[x]. In Maneka Gandhi case it was held that right to life includes the right to move freely and to  go abroad. In subsequent years the various decisions of the court has kept increasing the dimension of art  21 by leaps and bounds and it is  no secret that this article is the womb of all the major rights that we are having today. The right to education[xi], right to shelter[xii], right to clean environment[xiii], right to get a smoking free environment[xiv] etc have all originated from the interpretation of this very article. And now it is the need of the hour especially keeping the interests of the Jarawa tribe in mind, to evolve the “right to isolation”. This isolation in its literal sense should mean absolute isolation from the outside world and let the tribe survive on its own. The tribe has survived on its own for thousands of years and hence it would be meaningless to consider at this point of time to that this tribe requires help from the mainstream society for their survival. This “right to isolation” is very well within the ambit of article 21 as for some people the only way to survive is to be isolated especially from the clutches of civilization as is in this case.  The concept of isolation is a part and parcel of right to life as the entire survival of the Jarawa tribe for centuries has been in isolation from the civilized world so therefore it can easily be regarded as their inherent fundamental right which is the least that the government can do at this moment.

These Jarawa people have not asked for any reservation from the government, neither they have asked for any special packages or monetary favours. The only thing that there situation and circumstance demands is to be left alone without any disturbance from the modern world. Few years back we all have seen that a campaign was being run to save the tigers and advertisements were it shown that only 1411 tigers left in India, a similar campaign needs to be run here because only around 500 Jarawas are left and these are as important and precious to as the tigers are. Therefore the government should pass some special bill to make it a heinous crime even to enter the Jarawa buffer zone. Another thing which may be fruitful for the tribal interest is to make Andaman a full fledged state and let it have its own legislature because being controlled form New Delhi, its interests are being hit hard. The lieutenant governor of the Island is always sent from Delhi and he is not much aware of the local conditions and therefore it would be better if a local person or a local government takes charge of the administration. A similar policy like Delhi can also be followed and make Andaman a semi-state and at least letting the state legislature to control the local issues like the tribal and tourism affairs while the security and taxation can be controlled as usual by the centre.

Conclusion

Our country has been independent for 67 years and we take pride on being Indian. The Jarawas are also Indian but are they? The Jarawas do not know what India is or what their rights are. They have no idea about democracy or the constitution.  What is the most saddening aspect of the entire episode is the fact that in a place where the British carried out the most cruel tortures on Indians, after 67 years of independence we are doing the same thing on a tribe which is helpless infront of us. Some people argue on the point that the Andaman trunk road is essential because it is the only link of the island but then research has proved that travel through waterway is also possible and hence this argument doesn’t hold much ground. We boast of our civilized world and civilization but what kind of civilization do we have? A world where we murder each other, a world where we fight on the name of religion, a world where we hate people because of their skin colour , a world where democracy is a license to kill each other etc. The Jarawas do not fight among themselves, they do not steal, they do not know what secularism and communalism mean, they don’t die for money, they do not kill their female child or burn their daughter in laws for dowry. So doesn’t that make them more civilized than we are? It is absolutely imperative at this moment to shut down the road and leave the Jarawas to their destiny and let them survive like they have done in the past thousands of years. The true essence of democracy can only be realized if the poorest and most backward section of the society is able to feel it. Had the Jarawas been a sizeable votebank then it can be safely assumed that our political class would have certainly done everything to protect them but sadly it isn’t so. Those people are not even aware of the fact that they live in an independent democratic country called “India” so voting and other rights are something which are meaningless to them. These people require absence not our help to survive and if we could just step aside and trust in nature then life will certainly find a way to continue. [xv]

Edited by Neerja Gurnani

[i] The Jarawas, http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/jarawa (last updated on 12-11-2014)

[ii] ARI Deborshi Chaki, Time ticking for India’s Jarawa tribe, AL Jazeera, June 4, 2014

[iii] LG, Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Ors. v. M/s. Bare Foot Inns & Leisure Pvt. Ltd, SPECIAL LEAVE PETITION (CIVIL) No. 12125 of 2010

[iv] ARI ANI, To give tourism a boost, shipping ministry permits parallel sea route from Port Blair to Baratang, Big News Network.Com, October 23, 2014

[v] ARI PTI, FIR against French filmmakers for trespassing into Jarawa reserve, The Hindu, October 24, 2014

[vi] ARI, Outrage over attack on Karen on Andaman Islands over tribal film, Mizzima, November 5, 2014

[vii] A.K.Gopalan v. State of Madaras, 1950 AIR 27, 1950 SCR 88

[viii] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, 1978 AIR 597, 1978 SCR (2) 621

[ix] E.C. Royappa v. Union of India, 1974 AIR 555, 1974 SCR (2) 348

[x] Gyan Kaur  v. State of Punjab, 1996 AIR 946, 1996 SCC (2) 648

[xi] Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka, 1992 AIR 1858, 1992 SCR (3) 658

[xii] Chameli Singh v. State of U.P., (1996) 2 SCC 549

[xiii] M.C.Mehta v. Union of India, 1988 AIR 1115, 1988 SCR (2) 530

[xiv] Murli Deora v. Union of India, Writ Petition (civil)  316 of 1999

[xv] Micheal Crichton, “The Jurassic Park”; New Edition, 2010 June

Comments

  1. Adv. Rupesh bhalshankar says

    Hi,
    Read your article. I appreciate your concern . But I have other side. Why to keep them separate? It is against the principal of survival of the fittest. There are many tribes, communities which estimated or merged in each other.
    The worse condition of this country is there is no pressure of public on govt. To do certain things. To save this community isolation is not solution . You have to try to develop them as early as possible so they can stand on their own foot to save their tribe. And kindly do not see at supreme court. Do not even consider to blink at them .
    As only officers n politicians cone from public, if public is well determined and informed n willing to do something for them, then only change will happen. Otherwise it will remain intellectual talk[ in present case project].

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