The damned road of Andamans
15 August 2014
Tourism interests and enhanced road access threaten the existence of the indigenous Jarawa.
To the north of Port Blair, if one follows the Andaman Trunk road away from the sea and along the treeless countryside, modern civilisation as we know it comes to a halt. The road sees you through iron gangplanks and hillocks of half-abandoned houses, as the landscape first gives into marsh land, and then into tall trees in the far sight. As Murugan would tell his bus passengers later, the next 50 kilometres of the passage went through rainforests belonging to one of the world’s most endangered groups, the indigenous Jarawa. It was 16 years ago, in 1998, when the Jarawas first made the choice to abandon arms against mainstream entrants into their reserve. Driving through these forests, Murugan said raising his chin, had always been one of the more dangerous jobs in the history of the Andaman Islands.
Every morning at 6 am, the gates to the Jarawa Tribal Reserve, located in the Middle Straits of the Andamans, are thrown open with a loud pre-recorded voice reading out instructions of social conduct to be followed inside the forests. Following this, a convoy of cars and buses cross into the forests from the hamlet of Jirkatang, the last housing settlement towards Baratang Island, a less popular attraction for tourists. En route the convoy crosses another that approaches Jirkatang from Baratang. Throughout the day, six more convoys enter the reservation from either side at three hour intervals.
Before entering the reservation, Murugan takes out a court order to frighten the passengers into burying deep their camera equipment. In 2012, one of these tourists was British journalist Gethin Chamberlain of the Observer, who exposed these excursions inside the reservation and the role of the police in facilitating them. When the Supreme Court ordered the Trunk Road to be permanently shut down in January 2013 – effectively banning what turned out to be oppressive occurrences of human safaris – both tour operator friends of Murugan and tribal-rights activists believed that this was the end of the safaris and the tribe’s claim to their land had finally been granted. To the former’s delight and the latter’s despair, just over a month later the Supreme Court removed the ban, putting the likes of Murugan back in business.
From past to present
In the beginning of the 18th century, the Jarawas inhabited the South Andamans while being at war with the Aka-Bea-da tribe. The Jangils, who bore some relation to the Jarawa, were situated further south on Rutland Island. The first colonisers of the land, the British East India Company, built their townships around Chatham and Ross Island, cleared the forests starting with southeast Andamans and managed to push the tribal demographic towards the north. They frequently attempted to make contact and engaged in the practice of ‘gift-giving’ with Jarawas, efforts which were sometimes reciprocated with hostility. As the number of colonial villages and forestry expeditions increased, small battles between the tribe and the police or bandits became common. While the other two tribes perished into extinction, the Jarawas survived the exodus. In 1957, their habitation area from the southwestern forests of Constance Bay through the Middle Straits into the Middle Andamans and the marina around it was declared a tribal reserve under the Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation Act, 1956.
The settlers who came to the North and Middle Andamans with the establishment of penal colonies and later the refugees of Partition lived in a mortal fear of the sea. The development of the Andaman Trunk Road through the tribal reserve was sanctioned in the early 1970s as a result of their nautical discomfort. The Jarawas have resisted the building of the road since then. In fact, the convoy system was initiated as a way to protect the Public Works Department workers constructing the road from arrows shot by the natives. Existing folklores even account for a number of Jarawa deaths as a result of electric wires laid down by the state. Out of fear, no official complaint of such deaths were ever made, but the tribal elders have recorded them in their oral history. The construction of the road was completed two decades later while the convoys continued to protect the intruding travellers.
Today, the upkeep of this road faces no opposition from the Jarawas. In a reversal of history, the convoy system is now in place to prevent tourist intrusion into tribal lives. The police bikes that tail the convoys keep all passengers from straying off the road and establishing any contact with the tribe. However, according to Sophie Grig, an activist with Survival International, this road robs the Jarawas of their rights to control their own land and strips them of security. Her organisation has petitioned the Indian Government to shut down the road and stop the violation of indigenous rights, and, in April 2013, launched an international boycott of the islands.
The two sides of access
The convoy reaches a jetty from where a vessel ferries it across the sea to Baratang. The tourists get off, but the journey continues for other passenger buses beyond Baratang. The Trunk Road from Port Blair goes deep into more densely populated areas of North and Middle Andaman districts, passing through Kadamtala, Smith Island, Mayabunder and Diglipur. A total of 105,597 people are estimated to be settled in 400 villages in this area. Most of the passengers who board the returning vessel seem to be designated traders carrying farm products from the villages to the capital, students, or just residents carrying an overnight bag for themselves. The Andaman Islands have only a few shops, and most of the islanders need to go to Port Blair to purchase goods. For locals, the importance of the Trunk Road that passes through the tribal reserve is related to the access provided to the capital, but for tourists, it appears to be for the purpose of a remorseless human safari.
Around noon, Murugan drives a group of us further into Baratang in a Maruti Gypsy. Many of the settler houses that we drive by have red, hammer and sickle flags sticking out of their tin hatchments. Another 13 kilometre stretch of Jarawa land lies deep in the Middle Andamans but tourists led by Murugan rarely make it to that point. He takes us to see the mud volcanoes towards the eastern part of the island. Since the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, mud volcanoes have erupted in Baratang, which have lately become a tourist attraction. Upon reaching there, some of the tourists who found the volcanoes to be underwhelming shouted at Murugan for charging them money for a sight not worth seeing. But Murugan knew they may feel differently in the end.
On the way back from Baratang, the people on the bus stayed awake to spot more Jarawa people, even as the sea breeze kept coaxing them to sleep. Earlier at the jetty, much to the local police officer’s distress, two Jarawa boys with their father came too close to the awaiting convoy while hunting.
They came out of the bush wearing factory made clothes and sat down grinning, only to receive mockery from the staring faces. A young couple is overheard saying how their appearance makes every penny spent worthwhile. Another man takes out his cell phone to sneak a quick picture. Soon the officer approaches the father and two boys, whispers something in Andamanese, walks them across the road and points them to move away towards the bush behind the swamp on the other side of the road. The two kids with their bows and arrows playfully attempt to outrun each other, while the man keeps looking back at the gaping onlookers, perhaps bemused at this new dynamics of belonging. Whose land is this and who are the trespassers?
Acceptance of factory-made clothes as a substitute for their aboriginal wear and carrying plastic bags instead of weaved baskets during hunting could be an augury of what is to come – incorporation with the non-tribal population for survival. In the past, tribes like the Great Andamanese and the Jangils, who opened their communities to the mainstream out of compulsion, are either lost tribes or on the verge of extinction. The descendants of such lost tribes have been assimilated into the Bengali-, Burmese- or Tamil-speaking settler population; their languages are dead and their heritage forgotten.
The road bisects the reserve unceremoniously. Jarawa people, who are believed to move around their territory in large groups either for the purpose of foraging or for paying social visits to other members, have been instructed to stay away from the road during the day. This makes their daily life extremely difficult and ghettoises them in their own land. The shrinking of the buffer zone around their reserves due to increasing deforestation and expansion of commercial spaces points to another form of creeping exploitation.
Popular sites inside the reserve or along the coast have been identified as areas which the tribe frequent. Historically, these were the areas warring tribes or the British used to attack. Presently, these are places where poachers illegally enter to approach the tribe. In the past poachers have cleared land, committed theft of timber and game, and have been notorious in harassing the tribe. Recently, local journalist Denis Giles, who is editor of the Andaman Chronicle, procured a video showing poachers sexually harassing Jarawa females. Given their physical proximity, the poachers also expose the tribe to diseases like measles, which in the past have proved to be fatal for other indigenous groups.
Persisting against ‘progress’
The discourse on the assimilation of the Jarawas into the mainstream is a subject of conflicting opinion on these islands. The rapidly increasing settler population and growing mainland investment have put the Jarawa Tribal Reserve under a lot of pressure. The Reserve, besides everything else, has one of the bounteous forest belts in the Southasian region. With the entrance of the tribe into society, the incalculable natural wealth of their territory could be extracted for economic benefit. The recently elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government had contested the elections on the promise of ‘development’ and in support of a pro-capitalist agenda for India. In the run up to the elections, the local MP Bishnu Pada Roy from BJP imitated the party’s slogans and made similar pledges to the islanders. Sadly, Roy’s view of development means widening the Trunk Road, constructing two bridges inside the reserve and forcefully assimilating the tribe into mainstream society.
A potential alternative to the Trunk Road would be in reviving the old sea route. The maritime traffic for the islands is already among the busiest. The journey through the Trunk Road can be long and tiring compared to any sea passage from Port Blair to the other islands. The local administration has committed to establishing a sea route from Port Blair to Baratang by early 2015 – not as an alternate route but as a supplementary one – and the Reserve areas heading north to Baratang will remain open to road traffic for all purposes. Another issue is that the upkeep of the road is expensive: according to a study by UNESCO the annual costs to maintain the road is INR 450 million, including INR 40 million worth of firewood. The sea route is less costly, more convenient and would contribute to the preservation of the Jarawas and their 55,000-year-old legacy.
The Jarawas have persisted through a long history, and still subsist on humankind’s oldest form of social production as hunter-gatherers. With the passing centuries, their insulated indigenous society has only improved their survivability and preserved their forests as an unparalleled repository of biodiversity. Their abandonment of arms since 1998 has been misinterpreted as an inclination to move closer to mainstream cultures, and poachers and tour operators alike have exploited this opening to make corrosive inroads. If forced to open their civilisation to the mainstream, the Jarawas, who are only about 400 in number, will in time be severed from their aboriginal legacy. The Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island, the other longstanding Andaman tribe that is successfully intact, have so far resisted all contact with outsiders. Their total population remains vaguely large and has not been displaced. The Jarawas, however, have suffered through the excuses of ‘progress’.
At sundown, as the bus re-enters Port Blair, the passengers joyfully re-live their experiences of ‘spotting’ Jarawas throughout the day. Later, an almost philanthropic feeling of concern for the tribe’s welfare emerges, and admissions of guilt that are very common among tourists travelling in the Third World take effect. But real welfare for the Jarawas can be attained by leaving them alone.
Life in the capital town of Port Blair retains a certain insistence on clinging to its past. That a colonial sense of history is good for business is evident. At the Aberdeen Bazaar, miniature clay dolls of the Jarawa greet visitors from most of the window displays. What seems like covert tourism throughout the Middle Straits becomes more open at the bazaar, and for the many state-run museums in the town, the same comes to be seen as an anthropological enterprise. However, these historical projects contribute little to preservation where the Jarawa are concerned as the human safaris continue to happen daily.
~ Ankita Chakraborty is a freelance journalist living in New Delhi.