Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vanishing Futures

The Hindu, July 26, 2009

Vanishing futures


It is a small consolation that the Jarawas have not been wiped out like the great Andamanese.

“Those who forget history,” it is said, “are condemned to repeat it.” What happens, however, when you forget history, but condemn someone else for it? Where does responsibility lie then and, importantly, what happens to those who are so condemned? The chilling answer can be found if we look at the history and the present of the indigenous communities of the Andaman Islands. One word: “extinction”.

Retracing roots

The fate of the Great Andamanese is a classic case in point. In the mid-19th century when the British established the penal settlement in the Andamans, it was estimated that there were at least 5,000 members of the Great Andamanese community that was divided into 10 distinct language and territorial groups. In just a century and a half, the population has come down to a little more than 50; all herded onto the small Strait Island a short distance away from Port Blair.

The damage was mainly done in British times. In his 1899 classic A History of our Relations with the Andamanese, M.V. Portman, the British officer in charge of the Andamanese, describes in a bleak, unnerving record the impact of the 1877 epidemic of measles, the worst to hit the Great Andamanese.

…All the people on Rutland (Island) and Port Campbel are dead, and very few remain in the South Andaman and the Archipelago. The children do not survive in the very few births which do occur, and the present generation may be considered as the last of the aborigines of the Great Andaman…

The story of the Onge of Little Andaman Island is very similar. From nearly 700 in the 1901 census, their number has fallen to about 100 today. While a large part of their 730 sq. km. island home is still called the ‘Onge Tribal Reserve’ the protection is only on paper. The biggest violator, tragically, has been the Indian state that ruthlessly (and illegally) logged the forest home of the Onge for nearly three decades till the Supreme Court put a stop to it in 2002.

From late 1960s onwards, thousands of people from mainland India were sent to Little Andaman Island under a Government of India programme to ‘colonise’ it. From being complete masters of their traditional forests of Little Andaman, the Onges have become outsiders in just four decades. Only the Onge lived on this island in 1965. Today, for every Onge on Little Andaman, there are at least 200 people from outside and the equation is changing even as we read this.

In one of the most bizarre incidents in the islands, eight members of the community died and 16 more were hospitalised after consuming a mysterious liquid that was washed ashore in a jerry can near their Dugong Creek settlement in December 2008. The administration says that the Onge consumed the liquid believing it to be alcohol, but doubts persist. Six months have passed but nothing is known of the liquid or the post mortem reports. Maybe the Onge made a mistake, but the authorities too have shown no urgency in getting to the bottom of the matter. The colonising enterprise has been successful and the annihilated, as we all know, tell no tales. They have no history even.

The story of the Jarawas is complex but follows the same trajectory. Thousands of settlers have been moved into the forests of the Jarawas, huge areas of their traditional forest home turned into agricultural and horticultural fields and the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) constructed through the heart of Jarawa forests. Over decades, the road became the main channel to remove precious timber from these forests and also the main vector in bringing a whole range of vices to the Jarawa: alcohol, tobacco, gutka, reportedly, even sexual exploitation.

The road has even facilitated a new kind of tourism: “Jarawa tourism” where visitors drive down the ATR hoping to ‘see’ the Jarawa, as if they were some kind of living exhibits in an open air museum. Traffic continues to ply on the road in spite of clear Supreme Court orders in 2002 to close it down. Two epidemics of measles have already hit the Jarawa in the last decade. It can only be a small consolation that they were not wiped out like the Great Andamanese a little more than a century ago.

Disappearing race

I recently heard a fascinating presentation on the language of the Great Andamanese by Dr. Anvita Abbi, Professor of Linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. It showed new ways of how the world can be perceived, of a different understanding of the universe, of an experience of life and creation, which is as fascinating as it is strikingly original. The calamity struck when the presenter informed that only four of the original Great Andamanese languages are still spoken and, tragically, only six people live who can still speak the language of their ancestors That day I also learnt something else that was new — the first thing that dies when a language dies are the songs of a people!

When the non-profit organisation Terralingua mapped the distribution of languages against a map of the world’s biodiversity, it found that the places with the highest concentration of plants and animals, such as the Amazon Basin and the island of New Guinea, were also where people spoke the most languages. There is a deeper link between culture, language and biodiversity than we seem to know. Nothing will remain if these people and their cultures are exterminated.

Extinction is not only for the plants, the animals, the birds and the bees. It is also what humans to do other humans and in what they do to themselves as well. Every extinction, be it in the world of the wild or of something human is the loss of a part of our very own.


For related stories

Andaman's Tribal Reserves

On renaming of islands in the Andaman and Nicobar

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