A 1998 photo of the barrier on the ATR at Jirkatang
Five years ago on May 7, 2002— the Supreme Court passed a set of landmark orders for the protection of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ unique ecosystem. Besides the fragile ecology of the islands, the orders were also meant to protect its tribal communities, which are slowly being pushed to the brink.
The orders included, among others, a direction to stop all timber exports from the islands’ tropical forests, restrictions on sand mining on the islands’ beaches, the creation of an inner-line regime to regulate the influx of people into the islands from the mainland, shutting down of the Andaman and Nicobar Forest Plantation and Development Corporation, which had illegally logged forests set aside for the tribal communities, and the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) that runs through the heart of the forests of the Jarawas—one of the tribal groups native to the islands.
Much traffic has moved down this road since then and the message that comes across loud and clear from the islands is that no one really cares if the Supreme Court orders are implemented. Since the order, the islands have had four chief secretaries, three lieutenant-governors and two members of parliament, and each of them has shown that Supreme Court orders are not for him to implement. There have also been many entreaties on behalf of the islanders in these five years: many petitions have been sent to New Delhi and Port Blair. Various committees of the government—including the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (cec), another expert committee created by the Calcutta High Court and most recently, one that was formed by the National Advisory Council, with Jairam Ramesh and Syeda Hameed as co-chairs—have pointed out that the islands’ administration continues to violate orders of the Supreme Court. The response of the local administration? Continued indifference. The ATR continues to be open, bringing in a huge set of disastrous influences on the Jarawas.
What the ATR brings to the Jarawas
This is a series of pictures taken on the ATR in February 2003 showing the driver of a passenger bus handing out biscuits to a young Jarawa woman on the part of the road that runs through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve and which has been ordered shut by the Supreme Court in May 2002
KISS OF DEATH
When construction of the ATR began in the late 1960, Jarawas had opposed it violently. It is alleged that in retaliation, camps of construction workers were fortified with high voltage wires and many Jarawas were electrocuted. As work on the road progressed, more of the Jarawa’s forests became accessible for settlements, agricultural fields and horticultural plantations. It brought in people from the outside and took out thousands of cubic metres of tropical evergreen forests, forests that the Jarawa needed for survival. For the Jarawa, the road only brought the kiss of death. The small community has been hit by an epidemic of measles twice in the last seven years. The first, in 1999, affected roughly 60 per cent of their total population of 300-odd individuals. The second epidemic happened about a year ago when a significant portion of the population had to be hospitalised. There are innumerable examples of forest-dwelling communities from around the world that have been annihilated by diseases like measles, which might be common in the outside world. The Jarawas could be the latest on that long list.Disease is just one of the miseries that ATR brings. The others include alien food, intoxicants and, reportedly, even sexual exploitation. atr has also facilitated the rise of a pernicious endeavour, perversely called ‘Jarawa Tourism’. Tourists visiting the islands are being openly solicited with offers of rides along atr and the promise of seeing stone-age tribes.
Traffic on the ATR: A huge line of vehicles (top) waits at the Jirkatang police chowkey before starting on the ATR through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve. Tourists and passenger buses (right) at the jetty on Middle Strait on the Andaman Trunk Road
R K Bhattacharya, Former director, Anthropological Survey of India, and member of the Expert Committee appointed by the Calcutta High Court. In the report submitted to the court in 2003, he says: “…The ATR passes through an area that contains an important aspect of cultural heritage of mankind and this highway disturbs the heritage in probably irreversible ways. We are committed to preservation and maintenance of culture and heritage and the human component of culture...ATR is like a public thoroughfare through one’s private courtyard.”
The writer is author of Troubled Islands Writings on the indigenous peoples and environment of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.