Lost song of the Jarawas
The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier
Pankaj Sekhsaria and Vishvajit Pandya
Published by UNESCO and Kalpavriksh
The Jarawa are among the most threatened people in the world. These hunter- gatherers live in great evergreen rainforests along the western coast of South and Middle Andaman, and number 365 at last count. Genetic studies indicate that they have occupied these islands for tens of millennia, being direct descendants of the first humans to colonize the territory. Throughout history the Jarawa have resisted outsiders— attacking and killing those who would fell trees or hunt and fish within their territory. In the process they have maintained their environment in a pristine condition, so that it overflows with resources such as timber, cane, fish and game that outsiders covet. Therein lies the danger.
British occupation of the Andaman Islands in 1858 led to the extinction by epidemics of most aboriginal tribes on the islands. (Having been isolated since prehistoric times, the islanders have no immunity to killer diseases such as syphilis that are common in the “civilized” world, and easily succumb.) The Jarawa were spared such decimation because of their sustained hostility to outsiders, which limited contact. But a decades- long programme of pacification by the Indian government resulted in their laying down their arms in 1998. The Jarawa immediately started falling prey to diseases such as bronchitis, measles, mumps and malaria, the effects of which have been partially contained by medical intervention. A single new germ line, such as HIV,
could still wipe them out.
The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier, a compilation of documents that describe the history, geography and biology of the Jarawa homeland, is a valuable resource for researchers who seek to familiarize themselves with this obscure but fascinating terrain. Its editors are environmentalist and journalist Pankaj Sekhsaria, who runs a vitally important webgroup on the islands, and anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya.
Both have extensive experience of the Andamans. So do the contributors, especially activist Samir Acharya, who as founder of Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE) has led the struggle to protect indigenous rights and environment on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Researchers Manish Chandi and Harry Andrews acquired intimate knowledge of the islands’ flora and fauna during their tenure with the
Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team (ANET), and provide rare insights. Also featured are members of the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), who surveyed the food resources of the Jarawa. The appendices are especially useful, containing legal documents and other materials that are hard to find elsewhere. These include a list,
compiled by Chandi, of encounters between settlers and Jarawa that goes all the way back to 1789. Another list, of the Jarawa’s forest camps, was compiled in 2002 and indicates the extent to which their privacy has been penetrated.
The most worrisome development is that ever since pacification the Jarawa reserve has been overrun with poachers. As an essay by Andrews shows, now that the Jarawa are no longer hostile their species-rich jungles, swamps, hills, streams and beaches have attracted hundreds of trespassers from villages around the reserve. The invaders no longer shoot the Jarawa, as they used to, but seek instead to manipulate them by offering gifts, or by inculcating addictions such as to tobacco and alcohol. They come in search of timber, cane, fish, boar, honey, fruit, and sex. The threat to the Jarawa, through introduced disease and loss of their resource base, is immediate and urgent.
To make matters worse, the Andaman politicians make no secret of their determination to throw open the resources of the Jarawa reserve to their constituencies.
The current MP even advocates seizing Jarawa children and raising them on the Indian mainland—actions similar to those for which the Australian government was recently forced to apologize to aboriginals. One can see the MP’s point of view: Once the Jarawa are rendered sedentary and dependent on a welfare system, as the Onge of Little Andaman have largely been, their resources can all the more easily be claimed by grateful voters. No matter that such a seizure would mean cultural genocide of the Jarawa, if not actual genocide. One hopes that the MP will come to realize that if the Jarawa forest is further degraded, its ability to retain and supply fresh water to surrounding settlements will be depleted his vote bank will then have to pack up and depart.
More than a decade of activism to defend the Jarawa, and to educate the Andaman’s settler population as to the vital role these hunter-gatherers play in maintaining the island ecology has, however, resulted at best in stalemate. The Andaman administration has failed to implement court orders regarding the protection of Jarawa territory: in particular, it has ignored a 2002 Supreme Court order closing the parts of the Andaman
Trunk Road (ATR) that run through the Jarawa reserve. As a result, the administration’s laudable new effort to create a buffer zone around the reserve has run up against complaints of inconsistency.
Predictably, the MP has threatened a bandh against the measure he has also called for further defying the Supreme Court by constructing a railway line alongside the ATR. The dossier provides an insightful survey of the past, and contains necessary information for pointing the way to the future, if the Jarawa are to have any. It would have been even more useful, however, had it contained a description, either by
Sekhsaria or Acharya, of the various efforts to protect the Jarawa, through appeals to the public, the courts, and the National Advisory Commission—and an analysis of why these endeavours have faltered. To be sure, no one had expected that the administration would ignore the Supreme Court, and the fact that it continues to do so is symptomatic of the collapse of governance across India.
Those rare battles that adivasis have won against dispossession, such as the triumph of the Dongria Kondh in Orissa, suggest that a groundswell of protest, properly publicized, can on occasion gain indigenous peoples their rights. But the Jarawa are not being given a chance to speak on their future nor, as the MP’s stand indicates, are their territorial or other rights getting much support from the mainstream population of the Andaman Islands.
As if that were not enough, a long-standing debate over whether the Jarawa should be “civilized” or not continues to rage— despite the acceptance, throughout the world, of the principle of self-determination. It is for the Jarawa alone to decide whether or not, and at what pace, to integrate.
Becoming integrated, or “civilized,” will inevitably lead to sedenterization of these nomadic people—with its attendant social and medical problems, such as depression and alcoholism—and must not be forced on them by robbing them of their resources.
In this context, it would have been useful to have the United Nations declarations on indigenous rights, which calls specifically for the protection of Jarawa territory, in the appendix. A review of how similarly fraught situations are being dealt with on other continents (perhaps by anthropologist Sita Venkateswar) would have been instructive. Creative solutions have been developed for informing semi-isolated peoples about the outside world without disrupting their culture, and these can show the way for empowering the Jarawa.
Such omissions do not, however, detract from the usefulness of this compendium, which is an essential resource for anyone who seeks to understand the plight of the Jarawa and appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of the environment they have preserved, often at the cost of their lives.