Listen to the Jarawa

It should be their choice: to remain the way they are or not

Written by Suresh Babu | Published: January 16, 2012 3:02 am

If the furore over a video showing Jarawa women in the Andaman dancing before tourists for food has done anything,it is that it has drawn attention to the larger,persistent issue regarding our relationship with the Jarawa.

Associated with this is the issue of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) that connects South Andaman to settlements of Baratang,Middle and North Andamans,and passes through the heartland of the Jarawa. It has received much attention in the past regarding its adverse impact on the Jarawa — in 2002,the Supreme Court had recommended its closure. The non-compliance of the order even after 10 years and the ambiguity on the trespassing of the Jarawa reserve are in the spotlight again.

Over the years,there has been a surge in ecotourism in the islands. Though tourism is promoted as significant economic activity bringing revenue to the islanders,there is a lack of clear policy regarding the Jarawa and similar tribes. What exacerbates the situation is that there are pockets in the Andamans where tourism has developed in close proximity to Jarawa lands.

The Jarawa Tribal Reserve has several settlements along the periphery,which are regularly visited by the Jarawa. It’s not as if the tribes are protected by walls and the ATR is the only means of contact. They can,and do,come out to settlements and people do illegally access the reserve area through the sea. The odd tourist can also do the same by paying an additional buck to boatmen. The only thing that prevents tourists from venturing into Jarawa land is not the lack of a tour operator,or the diligence of the bush police,but the famed archery skills of the Jarawa.

Many Jarawas,particularly the youth,are familiar with the ways of the outside world and it’s perhaps only a matter of time before some of them would take to formal education. Should they remain the way they are or not is a decision for them to take,not us. The fact that their worldview has already been affected by us is something that can’t be reversed but they should be allowed to choose the pace at which they do so.

The prime concern is that if the pace of this transition is hasty,they are likely to meet the same fate as that of the Great Andamanese. Free rations and doles are something that the state must avoid as these have always led to a loss of self-respect for those at the receiving end. They often take to alcohol and acquire a sense of irresponsibility. Look at what happened to tuhets following the distribution of tsunami relief in the Central Nicobars. The collapse of their social institutions become imminent in the face of less-thought-out interventions.

The real challenge is an appropriate and sensibly paced introduction to the way this world functions,and to endow them with the choice and adaptability. The challenges of this world may include things like working for wages or food if they can’t grow any,leading a settled life in pucca houses and picking up agriculture. They may choose not to take to this world,and that decision by all means must be left to them.

But we must ensure that the introduction to this world should not be by a con who says “dance”. On a different note,I’ve seen several such performances when VVIPs visit these parts. Well,of course,they are “officially deemed necessary”.

Tourists have a fanciful image of the great life of hunter-gatherers in these beautiful islands. For those who imagine that it must be great to be “truly one with nature”,as someone who has lived amidst these people for years,I can say “great” it may be,“fun” it’s not. The Jarawas sleep in roughly thatched camps in torrential rains,and brave the elements all their lives. They fall ill from malaria and other common ailments,although they are not yet exposed to the deadly germs we carry,and survive employing whatever traditional medicines they can conjure up.

Their net population increase over the century would be close to -35 per cent,which indicates that more people have perished than were born. It is fanciful to imagine a wonderful tribe nestled in nature,away from ills and vices. There may be such tribes and such landscapes,and the Jarawa might have been one of them,but not any more.

They have seen turbulence and change for at least 150 years. From the “punitive expeditions” by the British to “contact missions” post-Independence,to appropriate gestures of giving red cloth and bananas,they have seen it all. The contact missions didn’t achieve much,but in the last 15 years or so,the Jarawas appear to have mellowed down.

Is it because they have realised that we are not shooting at them any more or is it that the imminent has dawned upon them? Or is it that they are actually facing food shortage as hypothesised by some or are they gravitating towards settled lives and modern comforts?

Finally,it remains to be seen if we will do by our friendship what the punitive expeditions could not.

Mainlanders with their fear of the sea are a sharp contrast to islanders. Mainlanders understand land and want to live by it. The massive effort to re-build roads post the December 2004 tsunami,knowing well that this region lies in a massive subduction zone with frequent earthquakes,are a proof of this instinct to build roads.

Of course,the people in the Middle and North Andamans still need the ATR. For one,it’s faster; two,you are not exposed to the vagaries of weather and seafaring; and three,the lone parliamentary seat from the islands desperately needs the support of Bakutala,Rangat,Mayabandar and Diglipur. So,it’s unlikely that the ATR will be closed any time soon.

The video of the Jarawas dancing is probably not the only one — many others are clicked along this road. The Jarawas still come out on the road,get into buses,sing Bollywood songs and collect whatever they can from the passengers. So to deny such events is hardly a solution.

As for the video of naked Jarawa dancing for tourists,it highlights a crisis among us,a failure of our collective moral sentiment — one that failed to stop us from going to Jarawa areas,one that failed to stop us from making such videos,one that stopped us from reporting it to the police but made us report it to the media.

I hope the uproar over the video doesn’t undermine the need to work on a meaningful plan for conserving the Jarawa landscape.

The writer,an assistant professor at Ambedkar University,Delhi,has researched the ecology and people of Andaman and Nicobar
express@expressindia.com

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