With the reclusive tribals of Andaman & Nicobar Islands in the spotlight after the death of an American tourist, THE SUNDAY EXPRESS travels down the 333-km Andaman Trunk Road, which cuts through the home of the Jarawa tribals, and finds a new thrust on development, along with the changes it has wrought on an already vulnerable group.
Around 3.20 pm, a convoy of cars, government buses and trucks slows down at a Bailey bridge inside the Jarawa forest reserve. A youth, in a white shirt and a pair of shorts, stands at the edge of the bridge. His face decorated with a pack of white mud and wearing a yellow headband, he waves at the cars, tries to peer through the glasses and knocks on some of them. A few feet away, standing under a tree, two boys in vests and shorts look on.
“Sir, glass mat niche karna. In logon ko zarda chahiye, khana mangte hain aur kabhi paisa mangte hain (Do not roll your windows down. They ask for tobacco, food and sometimes, money),” advises Pradeep Biswas, who has been driving tourists up and down the road for the past 10 years.
The Andaman Trunk Road or National Highway 4 is little more than a winding forest route, but when it came up in the 1970s, it cleaved through the jungle, bringing the outside world streaming right into the home of the Jarawas, an indigenous Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) that now numbers around 500. With the road came settlers and gawking tourists, and government intervention in the name of ‘mainstreaming’ and ‘development’, followed by exploitation and conflict.
Until the late 1990s, Jarawas resisted any outsiders, holding out against incursions and invasions since the late 18th century. Locals talk of how, when the road was being built in the 1970s, Jarawa tribesmen reacted violently, leading to the death of several workers. But over the years, the resistance weakened as waves of settlers — Tamils who came as indentured labourers with the British colonisers, Bengalis from Bengal and East Pakistan — made the islands their home and the government initiated ‘contact missions’ to ‘reach out’ to them.
As the recent killing of an American tourist, allegedly at the hands of tribals in the North Sentinel Island, has shown, assimilation or forced integration has been a tricky process, with successive governments struggling to arrive at a coherent policy that balances development, tribal identity.
With the government now setting aside Rs 2,500 crore to upgrade the 333-km highway to a double-lane one and to build two “mega bridges” to connect South, Middle and North Andaman islands, besides other infrastructure projects, many fear this could irretrievably mar the Jarawa way of life.
“Our elders say that until over a decade ago, this was a dangerous stretch. Jarawa arrows would kill passengers and labourers. But the Jarawas are no longer ferocious; now they are like beggars,” says Biswas, the driver whose family came as refugees from East Pakistan in the 1960s and settled on Havelock Island.
It’s 4 am and bulldozers and land movers lumber along in the twilight on the stretch of the highway between Port Blair and Jirkatang, 45 km away. Jirkatang is the last post before the Andaman Trunk Road runs into the heart of the Jarawa Forest Reserve. Since the reserve area is restricted territory, the only way to travel for those crossing over from South Andaman to North Andaman — tourists, government-run buses for locals, trucks carrying food and fuel — is to register with convoys that set off from Jirkatang four times every day, at 6 and 9 am, and noon and 2.30 pm.
On a Wednesday morning, a long queue of private cars, trucks and buses line up on one side of the road at Jirkatang. Mostly tourists headed to the Baratang limestone caves and mud volcano beyond the Jarawa reserve area, they jostle near the two dozen shops for tea and snacks. Drivers of the vehicles crowd around a small police picket, to fill up identity forms, also of passengers.
Signboards in the area mention the do’s and don’ts — no crossing the speed limit of 40 km per hour, no overtaking, no photography and videography, no handing over food or any other items to the Jarawas, no stopping your car, no giving a lift to a Jarawa. Yet, conversations among the tourists are almost all about “spotting the Jarawa”.
Government buses — with armed policemen beside the driver’s seat — lead the convoy as it slowly snakes through the Jarawa forests. Drivers and passengers complain all along the bumpy, potholed ride. In at least three spots in the reserve area, mud slides have claimed portions of the road. The road has only seen periodic patch work since it was laid in the 1970s.
Connecting Chidiya Tapu near Port Blair in South Andaman to Diglipur in North Andaman, the Andaman Trunk Road crisscrosses the Middle Andaman, with breaks at Middle Strait Jetty and Gandhi Ghat Jetty, where people cross over in ferries and bigger vessels, before taking the road again.
“When I joined in 2015, we would make many trips and ferry around 200 to 300 people every day from Middle Straits to Baratang. Now the number has gone up to 3,000-4,000 a day. After the road becomes two-lane, the figure may double,” says Bose Rao, the ticket collector on board M V Muse, one of the two vessels connecting the South Andaman island to Middle Andaman.
From Baratang to the Gandhi Ghat jetty, on the edge of the Middle Andaman island where the road again stops at the sea, it’s another bumpy journey. About 200 metres before the jetty, pillars pierce through the forest canopy, the first sign of the bridge being built to link Gandhi Ghat to Kadamtala, another Jarawa reserve forest, about 5 km inside the North Andaman Island.
In 1997, a few Jarawas had visited the Gandhi Ghat jetty in what was the first sign of the tribe willing to end hostilities and make contact with the outside world.
Talking of how the Jarawas began opening up, Anup Mondol, tribal welfare officer in Kadamtala, says, “In those days, Jarawas used to visit homes of settlers to steal bananas and iron. Once, in 1997, during a full moon night, one of the Jarawa boys tripped on a tree root and injured himself. In the morning, locals found him and took him to G B Pant hospital in Port Blair, where he was kept in an isolation ward for a few months. His name was Enmei. A few days later, Enmei led some Jarawa youths to Gandhi Ghat. The administration gave them bananas and coconuts. That was the first contact with Jarawas.”
Two years later, the tribe was hit by measles, followed by malaria, which experts attributed to this contact.
As an officer with the Press Information Bureau, Omkar Nath Jaiswal, 69, made at least two media visits to a Jarawa village in Tirur, South Andaman. “The first time, in 2001, I went with the permission of the then Lieutenant Governor. The Jarawas were people of low height and had shining dark skin. Most of them were semi-clad. We visited their huts and the air was thick with the smell of a wild boar being cooked. Heads of wild boars were up on the walls. I tried to avoid touching them, fearing they may contract diseases. But they hugged me, touched my hair. In 2003, I went to the same village with another press time. This time, they were wearing clothes, had skin diseases and blood was oozing all over,” says Jaiswal, now the editor of Port Blair-based newspaper The Phoenix Post.
The primary health centre at Kadamtala has a separate four-bed ward for the Jarawas. An adjacent ‘Jarawa hut’ is meant for Jarawas accompanying the patient to stay “in their own environment”.
“We get around 15 patients a month. Throughout the year, they come with skin diseases from the used clothes that locals give them. They have learnt to wear these clothes but no one told them these have to be washed regularly. In winter months, they have respiratory ailments. We had only one institutional delivery last year. Since they don’t want to come here, we send midwives to their villages,” says a doctor at the health centre who does not wish to be named.
There have been instances of sexual exploitation, with at least two cases being reported, in 2003 and 2014, of Jarawa women giving birth to ‘fair-skinned babies’ (the assumption being the fathers were outsiders).
In 2012, videos circulated of tribesmen being forced to dance for tourists in exchange for alcohol, tobacco and food, prompting accusations that the government was promoting “human safari” by throwing the Jarawa reserve open to tourists.
Denis Giles, editor of Andaman Chronicle in Port Blair and an activist, says he is among those campaigning to stop tourist vehicles along this route. “A sea route exists from Port Blair to Middle and North Andaman. There are two ships, one inducted last year, but the government does not highlight this route,” he says.
At Kadamtala, locals admit to an illegal barter trade with the Jarawas. “Do you want venison or tortoise meat? Jumbo crabs? We even have wild boar meat,” says Sujan Biswas, an auto driver who has parked his vehicle opposite the panchayat bhawan in Kadamtala, hawking “Jarawa food”.
“Let me know a day in advance and we can get the Jarawas to bring it. They only need a country liquor bottle or some rice or some chewing tobacco in exchange. But make sure you bring some alcohol for me. In our area, English maal (Foreign Liquor Manufactured in India) costs double than in Port Blair,” he adds.
The Kadamtala settlement is located at the edge of the Jarawa reserve, with some people even setting up concrete homes within the 5-km buffer zone where non-Jarawas are prohibited. The 200-odd Jarawas here often cross paths with the ‘settlers’, who number 3,000-odd in Kadamtala, with the power dynamics almost always favouring the latter. Villagers talk of how, on full moon nights, tribals often come out of the forests to steal fruits, bananas and iron.
“Once I chased them out. They are simple people but adamant,” says Bakul Biswas.
The Anthropological Survey of India opened its full-fledged centre at Port Blair in 1951. Officials have conducted detailed studies on the Jarawas since 1997, and say that since 2011, they have found the community, traditionally nomadic hunters and gatherers, gradually moving from self-sufficiency to dependency on outsiders.
“Each and every aspect of their life, culture, food habits etc, has been affected,” says Amit Kumar Ghosh, Superintending Anthropologist, Anthropological Survey of India. “We visited the Jarawas and neighbouring villages for a prolonged period of time… Earlier they used to make own torches from forest products like raisin, mud and palm leaf. Now we see battery-operated torches with them. They became dependent on supply of batteries from outsiders. Earlier, studies also indicate, more than 50 per cent of their diet was protein. They mostly ate the meat of wild pigs, monitor lizards, fish, as well as honey, fruits and tubers etc. Now they are more frequently consuming rice and other carbohydrates.”
Ghosh adds, “The intervention by welfare agencies includes health facilities,informal education and horticultural activities etc. There is a strong need also for periodic assessment of the impact of such intervention and interaction with local villagers. This should be done at least once a year by a reputed research organisation other than the implementing agencies.”
Environmentalists also accuse the administration of not working to a plan. “I am not in favour of the Andaman Trunk Road project. The road should be opened only for locals. I fear there will be a huge ecological impact on the forests and water courses along the route, besides a definite cultural impact on the lives of the Jarawas. Are we qualified to play with other people’s lives?” asks Manish Chandi, senior researcher and a member of the Research Advisory Board at the government-run Andaman Nicobar Tribal Research Institute.
Calling for a long-term plan, he says, “I remember once they gave bicycles and cows to the Onge tribals in the Andamans. They did not know what to do with the cows as cow milk was not part of their diet, and the cycles lay rusted and unused for a long time, till they were dismantled and the iron used to make arrow heads.”
The government, however, has stuck to its development plan, promising progress on the island and employment from the boost to the tourism industry.
Bishnu Pada Ray, BJP MP from Andaman, says, “We will bring Andaman & Nicobar Islands on a par with Indonesia. It’s for the first time in 70 years that such development is taking place here. The road is being widened and the bridges connecting Middle Strait to Baratang and Gandhi Ghat to Kadamtala will cost around Rs 270 crore each. We are building a terminal building at Port Blair airport and the runway will be extended. In North Andaman, the Diglipur runway is being extended from 1 to 3 km and a proper airport will come up there. We are planning another airport in Little Andaman. We already have four lakh tourists visiting Andamans and by the next year, we expect the figure to go up to six lakh.”
Asked about the impact of such rapid development on the Jarawas, Ray says, “We will abide by the law and protect them. They are our assets. But we need to usher in development and jobs in the Andamans. It is not only islanders; people from the mainland too come here in search of jobs.”
Politics in the islands has alternated between the BJP and the Congress. With the settlers making an influential votebank, employment, land for them and civic amenities top the poll agenda; issues of indigenous tribals rarely find a mention.
The Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industries, which has been aggressively pushing the government on infrastructure development and tourism, maintains that “all norms are being followed”.
“The infrastructure development on the islands is sustainable. On the Andaman Islands, 96 per cent of the land is reserve forest and 4 per cent is revenue land. Whatever is being done is on that revenue land. Islands such as Neil and Havelock, among others, are being developed to international standards. Other areas which are not so popular are being developed,” says Girish Arora, president of the Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“The road inside the forest reserve will remain single lane, you see. Only it will be made better,” adds Arora.
Mondal, the tribal welfare officer in Kadamtala, too says that the government has had its share of success with its mainstreaming efforts. Instances of Jarawas begging from tourists have gone down, he says, and their population has gone up over the years.
“In the 2001 Census, the Jarawa population was 240; now they have crossed 500. Also, their life expectancy has increased due to medical intervention,” says Mondol, adding that Jarawa children are being imparted informal education with a specially tailored curriculum that focuses on hunting, fishing and gathering honey.
“We are teaching them that forest is their home and it is their right to live there. We are asking them to track poachers and set up coconut plantations,” says Mondol.
Despite these measures, Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, a Port Blair-based NGO which led a sustained campaign in the 1990s against the road, fears the Jarawas will go the way of the Great Andamanese. “The road project is a death knell for the Jarawas who were once proud people but are now completely at the mercy of others… The Great Andamanese were a tribe with 8,000 people during the British rule, reduced to around 50 now, with their lives and culture lost,” he says. Acharya’s NGO, together with Bombay Natural History Society and Pune based NGO Kalpavriksh, led a sustained campaign since 1990s against ATR. “Supreme Court order in 2002 Supreme court put severe restrictions on the movement of vehicles on ATR virtually closing it. It was not implemented,” said Acharya. In 2013, the Supreme Court allowed reopening of the road with restrictions.
“Can you give me Rs 20? 10?,” asks Elpe. He is a Great Andamanese and spends most of his time now on the streets of Port Blair, begging for money to buy alcohol.
Pushed now to the verge of extinction, the 50-odd Great Andamanese tribals remain confined to Strait Island, where the administration has built them houses.
“We are just a few left now,” says Elpe, sitting down to talk in the Phoenix Bay area of Port Blair. His daughter Honcho studies in Class 9 in a school in Port Blair while his son Boe “is too small to go to school”.
He has a long list of complaints: “The government gives 5 kg rice per family along with pulses, oil and salt. But nowadays they do not give clothes. They also buy copra and coconut shells from us and don’t pay at times. Crooks! The government built houses for us on the hill top, but we prefer to live near the sea… There is no pharmacist at the primary health centre near our village.”
Elpe says he brings honey, venison, tortoise, wild boar meat from the forest and sells them in Port Blair. “I somehow bring all this to the Junglighat jetty in Port Blair. There are so many customers for those things. They pay some money, sometimes a bottle. Some babus are good some are not so good,” he says, before moving to beg from a tourist.