Tuesday, December 26, 2017

In the next one month!

Over the next few weeks, there are a number of very interesting A&N things I'm going to be doing in different parts... Pune, Hyderabad and Jaipur. Do come by if you are around; the details follow:
1) Dec 30 in Pune; Release by Deepak Dalal of my new book 'Islands in Flux - the Andaman and Nicobar story' followed by an illustrated presentation on the islands. Happens at Pagdandi, Baner, Saturday, December 30, 11 am. Also a small photo exhibition on the islands at Pagdandi. Event details: https://www.facebook.com/events/155050761799769/
2) 4th January Onwards in Hyderabad: Will be part of the Krishnakriti Foundation's 'Mapping Frontiers' art exhibition curated by Lina Vincent Sunish that brings together some of the A&N photograph scrolls printed on silk under the title 'Mapped Together - The A&N islands'. This opens at the Goethe Zentrum in the evening on the 4th of Jan and will be up for a full fortnight. Details: https://www.facebook.com/krishnakritifoundation/photos/a.766515876696639.1073741827.184492544898978/1913580218656860/?type=3&theater
3) 28th Jan - at the Jaipur Lit Fest, will be in a conversation on the islands and 'The Last Wave' and 'Islands in Flux' with Amita Baviskar #jlf Schedule: https://jaipurliteraturefestival.org/programme

Monday, November 13, 2017

The story teller of the islands


When Pankaj Sekhsaria first travelled to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a student, he had little idea of how enduring his engagement with the islands would turn out to be. Over the last two and a half decades, he has been an environmental activist, a journalist, researcher, photographer and author—and in each of these roles, he has tried to unravel and communicate the complex issues that define the existence of the islands, its people and environment.
“What is the meta question to be asked about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands?” asks Sekhsaria rhetorically. “Broadly speaking, any system we are part of consists of three elements—the socio-cultural-political, the ecological and the geological framework. On the islands, all these three are always in flux, and we need to find a language to articulate and account for how they influence each other. All development planning needs to take this constant change into account.”
As a member of the Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, Sekhsaria was part of the team of three non-government organizations whose petition before the Supreme Court resulted in orders for the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) in 2002. This ambitious road on the Andaman island links Port Blair in the south to Diglipur in the north. It also cuts across the reserved rainforests that are home to the reclusive Jarawa tribals, exposing both the ancient rainforest and the Jarawas to exploitation. It was a vector, both metaphorical and literal, that brought in a number of undesirable and uncontrollable influences, on the one hand, and took away valuable resources like timber on the other.
The victory in the Supreme Court remained short-lived. Some of the orders, including those for the closure of the ATR, have never been implemented by the administration. The indigenous tribes that go back over 30,000 years continue to be vulnerable to the state and to ideas of development and mainstreaming that have not had any great successful precedence, certainly not in the case of these islands.

After years of trying to influence change as an activist and journalist, Sekhsaria published a novel, The Last Wave—An Island Novel, in 2014.
“The fiction writing came from the disappointment of the activist,” shares Sekhsaria. “The question became—can the same story be told differently?
“As a journalist or activist, there is a particular form in which the story must be told. There is a limited reach. Can a different genre of writing tell the same story to the same people and make some headway?”
Sekhsaria recounts the events that led to his book. There was the failure of the administration to implement the Supreme Court order, followed by the devastation suffered after a tsunami in December 2004. Around that time, Sekhsaria was also reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, a novel set in the vulnerable archipelago of islands in the Bay of Bengal.
“It was a little like a tubelight switching on in my head. Perhaps the story of the islands can also be told in the same way. When you are involved with any work for a long time, you understand that it is multilayered. As an activist, you end up portraying certain institutions as problematic. But, in reality, things are more ambiguous. The space in the grey is where everything lies. There is no one villain.
“What fiction allows you to do is explore motivations and actions in a nuanced way. Good fiction demands that. There are certain voices that are not heard in a certain context, and I wanted to express their points of view and perspective.”
In a chapter in The Last Wave, Sekhsaria writes about the connect, or lack of it, between the ancient community that faces inevitable annihilation and those whose actions are leading up to it.
“The other original islanders, the Onge and the Great Andamanese, who had cohabited these forests with the Jarawas, had all but gone. The Jarawa were now being dragged down the same path. There was the evidence and the weight of history—the Jarawa would be pushed down the road to annihilation—that was the word David had used in their first meeting. What do the annihilated feel? That was not the question Harish wanted to ask. What does the annihilator feel? How would he, himself, feel when the Jarawa were no more? Not because he wanted them to be vanquished, but because he could do nothing about their slide into oblivion. The world he belonged to did not want to annihilate the Jarawa, but it did not seem to know better.”
Sekhsaria recounts a recent exchange with a friend from Port Blair. “Hamara wajood kya hai,” asks the friend. “What is our relevance in the larger world?”
Like all islands, this archipelago has its own allure in the imagination of India’s mainland population. Besides the attraction of its beaches, forests and sea, there is the historical connection to the freedom movement and the Cellular Jail. The islands remain a strategic outpost for the defence services.

Where do the diverse people of the islands fit within this framework? Will they continue to be on the fringes of the national consciousness, their aspirations and conflicts forever marginalized?
Over the years, says Sekhsaria, he began to question what the core conflict between various people’s interests really was. “I realized that somewhere we are dealing with a battle of ideas and ideology and knowledge and knowledge systems. There is a certain hierarchy of knowledge creation. How can we say the tribals’ knowledge is less than the scientists’? They understand differently.”
“Has there been a difference in the way the book has been received in mainland India and on the islands?” I ask Sekhsaria.
“For many of them, it’s as if the story of the islands has now been told. There are friends who say that reading this book makes many people change their perspective of their own islands. It is an amazing thing to hear and extremely humbling at the same time.
“So what the activist was not able to communicate, in a way the fiction writer could do,” says Sekhsaria. “As an activist, your positions are pretty clear. You broadly take a stand and draw a border between right and wrong. Either the road is closed or the road is open. Either something is a violation or it is not a violation. An able chronicler, on the other hand, tells you all the stories.”
Sekhsaria explains, for instance, that the ATR is a central element in the novel. The people who will be affected negatively by the closure of the road have a strong voice in the book, explaining why the road should not be closed. Why it is not fair on them.
“It makes me wonder if it is possible that we become sympathetic to the other side when we feel that our own point of view has been understood fairly?”
As Sekhsaria articulates the eternal conflict between outsiders and insiders, the push for development and the pull of conservation, the island story begins to sound like a microcosm of the wider world. Conflicting interests, a hierarchy of power that seems immovable, a rapidly deteriorating environment, and entire societies teetering on the brink of annihilation.
“Why does it happen the way it does? Is it completely unavoidable? Are we all, in some sense, prisoners of our own context? We feel that there is agency but we are also caught up in our own biases,” Sekhsaria says. “With time, you realize that as individuals we are all as compromised as anybody else is.”
After touring with his fiction and non-fiction books, Sekhsaria has also designed a travelling exhibition of photographs from the island. He experimented with printing images on a large canvas of silk fabric and suspending them, so they moved in the air as light came through the prints. These photo installations are part of The Story of Space 2017, a science-meets-art festival in Panaji, on till 19 November.
“I wanted to create another space of engagement between mainland people and the islands,” says Sekhsaria. “The same words and photographs that I had used in court petitions or journalistic articles were now available in a new form—seeking to create a different experience and reflect the idea of flux and fragility. It is the same, yet it is new.”
Just like the islands, which are also always in flux, responding simultaneously to destruction and renewal at the hands of nature.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Scroll.in review of 'Islands in Flux - the Andaman and Nicobar Story

This book tells us why we need to talk about the Andaman and Nicobar islands urgently

The little-known history of the islands is accessible and engrossing in campaigner Pankaj Sekhsaria’s ‘Islands in Flux’.

For over two decades, researcher and campaigner Pankaj Sekhsaria has been writing about the state of environmental, social and political affairs in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story brings together the bulk of his reportage since 2000 on key issues affecting the islands. Though this isn’t (as the author himself notes) a comprehensive history of the islands in that time frame, it is a solid beginning in understanding the unique conditions of an area whose complexities are largely ignored by the mainland.
Sekhsaria is quick to point out that the islands are misunderstood and underrepresented in the Indian media. He refers to the “marginalisation of the islands in the nation’s consciousness.” The original communities of the islands are the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa, and the Sentinelese. In the early years of India’s independence, the government devised a plan to colonise the islands. As a part of this plan, thousands of settlers from the mainland were incentivised with land and timber to settle in the island. The timber-rich forests were opened up to exploitation. In the last century, which has seen unprecedented population growth at the islands, approximately a 10th of the forested land has been wiped out.

Island in danger

The islands are home to unique flora and fauna which have been endangered by aggressive developmental policies. In one of several examples, the logging is noted to have threatened the populations of the saltwater crocodile and the endemic wild pig. We learn that the islands are an important nesting spot for turtles, including the giant leatherback turtle which is critically endangered, which is threatened by sand mining and a growing population of dogs.
The colonisation of the islands by mainlanders has also had the effect of drastically endangering and outnumbering the indigenous, tribal population. Sekhsaria notes in one example:
In the early 1960s, the Onge were the sole inhabitants of Little Andaman. Today, for each Onge, there are at least 120 outsiders, and this imbalance is rapidly increasing.
Of the first three tribes mentioned above, the Jarawa tribe survived the onslaught of forced development the longest. Sekhsaria narrates how their “hostility and self-maintained isolation in the impenetrable rainforests” insulated them from the changing times. But the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road in the heart of their territory forced them to slowly abandon their self-contained way of life.
One of the other themes explored in Islands in Flux is the role of naming in colonisation. He points out that a singular theory is popular on the mainland about the origin of the name Andaman – that it comes from the Hindu figure of Hanuman – even though historical accounts document various theories. He criticises the calls to rename the islands after freedom fighters as dismissive of the identity and history of the local tribes. The islands had already been re-christened by the British. Sekhsaria says: “If the real and complete history of the islands is ever written, the British would be no more than a page and India could only be a paragraph.”
Sekhsaria takes us through the complex journey of the islands in the last two decades. In response to a distressing report on the state of the islands’ forests by a court-appointed commission, the Supreme Court ruled that sand-mining operations had to be phased out and the Andaman Trunk Road closed.

Outsiders versus insiders

But as we read on, we discover that economic and political interests led to a wilful non-compliance of these orders. Throughout the book, the author highlights how the tribes’ interests are not protected, their land and people exploited and how they are not consulted in policy decisions.
He narrates the conflicts over land between the settlers and the tribes. In particular, the story of the Jarawa people is told in animated detail as small groups of them begin to unexpectedly emerge from the territory they had earlier fiercely kept themselves to. No one was allowed to enter their land, and they did not venture out either until the late 90s. This tribe has dwindled to a meagre 250 individuals. As Sekhsaria puts it, for them it “is literally a struggle for survival and against extinction.”
The little-known history of the islands is accessible and engrossing in Sekhsaria’s sympathetic, painstaking prose. Sekhsaria is hopeful that if change arrives, even at this late juncture, it will save the tribes from extinction and the islands from complete decimation. This is an important book for its lessons on the environment, on India’s uneasy and problematic relationship with some of its territories and on the implications of forcing development and modernisation on indigenous communities.
The book is available in stores and via amazon: http://tinyurl.com/y9pnz9ml

Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story, Pankaj Sekhsaria, Harper Collins.

Protected Area Update - 129, October 2017

Dear Friends,
Pls see below for the list of contents and the editorial from the new 
issue of the Protected Area Update (Vol. XXIII, No. 5, October 2017 (No. 
129). Click here to download the pdf of the issue 
To receive the full issue as a pdf or as a print copy via 
the post, please write to me at psekhsaria@gmail.com

I would also like to take this opportunity to request for your financial 
support for the PA Update. Of the annual budget of about Rs. 7 lakhs 
we've managed to raise only about half at the moment. All donations and 
contributions, big and small, are welcome. Pls do consider helping us 
out pls write to me at the above mentioned email id for any further 
details that you might need.

Many thanks
Pankaj Sekhsaria
Editor, Protected Area Update
C/o Kalpavriksh

News and Information from protected areas in India and South Asia

Vol. XXIII, No. 5       
October 2017 (No. 129)


Systemic injuries, band-aid solutions

- SC asks for explanation on permission for oil and gas drilling beneath 
Dibru-Saikhowa NP
- Eviction drive to remove encroachers from Amchang WLS

- Goa excluded from NGT’s Pune bench; activists condemn the move

- Number of lions in Gir touches 650

- Biodiversity management committees set up in 366 gram panchayats

- Government approves diversion of 1000 ha land from Palamau TR
- Palamau TR brings captive sambars to increase tigers’ prey base

- Kali TR to lose 75% of its ESZ; state bows to public pressure
- Policy for private conservancies for wildlife conservation adjoining PAs
- Over 3000 families displaced from Nagarahole NP to be rehabilitated; 
NGO express concern over implementation of plan
- Stop to illegal electrification work in Bhimgad WLS
- New management plan for otter conservation in Tungabhadra

- Institute for Western Ghats wildlife research
- Survey records over 120 species of amphibians and reptiles in Periyar TR
- 58 tigers in Periyar and Parambikulam TRs
- 400+ families relocated from Wayanad WLS
- Two new species of earthworm discovered in Western Ghats

- NHAI to build only one wildlife underpass near Tipeshwar WLS
- High-level committee to decide about tiger translocation

- Advance payment for human kills by wildlife

- NBWL denotifies over 400 ha of forest from buffer of Ranthambhore TR 
for mining

- 60 Irular families evicted from buffer zone of Mudumalai TR

- NBWL diverts tiger corridor for irrigation project; asks for 16 
eco-bridges to avoid fragmentation

- Build toilets to curb human-tiger conflict in Pilibhit: Chief Minister

- Tiger cell at WII gets three years extention
- Over 27,000 wild elephants in India; highest number of 6,049 in Karnataka
- Over 15% of species in India threatened: IUCN
- Dr. Mahesh Sharma takes charge as Minister of State in MoEFCC
- Centre seeks Supreme Court’s approval for cheetah re-introduction
- One person killed a day in wildlife attacks in India
- 12 important mangroves forests of the country identified
- Exotic species invading PAs: Minister
- Meeting held to discuss, curb wildlife trafficking using postal services
- SC asks Centre to consider suggestions on safe corridors for wild animals
- Eurasian otter presence confirmed in the trans-Himalayas
- Finance Act dilutes the NGT Act says Jairam Ramesh; SC issues notice 
to Centre
- Inclusion of Net Present Value of diverted forest in 
cost-benefit-analysis mandatory; - - - NPV to be 10 and five times more 
than normal for NP and WLS respectively
- NGT asks MoEFCC to prepare a policy for prevention of forest fires
- More than 700 projects awaiting environmental clearance: Minister
- SC questions Centre over reduction of ESZ by 100 times

SOUTH ASIA             
- 50 rhino calves swept away from Nepal to India; eight returned

- Call to decommission the Ithai dam

- Openbill storks abandon nesting in Keoladeo NP because of water shortage


Why I care about the KBR National Park?
'Systemic injuries, band-aid solutions'

Even a quick survey of the conservation scenario in the country today 
makes one thing rather crystal clear – that the imperatives of 
conservation cannot (will not!) be allowed to come in the way of 
industrialization projects and economic growth. This, in fact, has 
become the defining narrative, and PAs are more in the news for policy 
that is constantly being diluted to make clearances and permissions 
easier; for railway lines, roads and canals that will cut through 
forests and other habitat; and for land in PAs (and elsewhere too) being 
made available for mining, dams, and infrastructure projects.
We have in this issue of the PA Update, like we’ve always had in the 
past, a number of such examples: of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) 
being undermined by structural change, of land around tiger reserves 
like Ranthambhore and Palamau being made available for mining and dam 
projects and of linear intrusions being approved in PAs in Maharashtra 
and Telangana.
There are two different kinds of narratives that seek to justify these 
developments. The first and the more blatant one articulates explicitly 
that PAs, environmental regulation and such concerns are impediments in 
the ‘development’ of the country. The other is the more confused and 
self-contradictory one. It pretends to be concerned even as it goes 
about its job of undermining precisely these concerns.
If offers, in cities for example, to transplant full-grown trees because 
roads have to be widened and growth in vehicle population cannot be 
questioned; it claims to be concerned about climate change even as it 
pushes the economy towards a larger emission load; and it allows for 
linear intrusions like power lines, roads and canals to splice through 
PAs and then offers underpasses and over bridges so that wild animals 
can cross over. We have very little idea of how the underpasses and 
bridges for animals will actually work, if they work at all, but caught 
up in the belief that we can have the cake even as we eat it, we are 
willing to go along with these solutions.
We are being enticed and dissuaded by band-aid solutions when the 
injuries being inflicted are systemic and deep. The price to pay will 
also be very high!


Protected Area Update
Vol. XXIII, No. 5, October 2017 (No. 129)
Editor: Pankaj Sekhsaria
Editorial Assistance: Reshma Jathar, Anuradha Arjunwadkar
Illustrations: Ashvini Menon, Mayuri Kerr, Shruti Kulkarni,
Madhuvanti Anantharajan & Peeyush Sekhsaria

Produced by The Documentation and Outreach Centre

Apartment 5, Shri Dutta Krupa, 908 Deccan Gymkhana, Pune 411004, 
Maharashtra, India.
Tel/Fax: 020 – 25654239
Email: psekhsaria@gmail.com

Publication of the PA Update has been supported by

Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) http://fes.org.in/
Duleep Matthai Nature Conservation Trust, C/o FES
Donations from a number of individual supporters


-- Pankaj Sekhsaria, PhD Senior Project Scientist, DST-Centre for Policy Research, Dept of Humanities and Social Science, IIT- Delhi Author, 'Islands in Flux - the Andaman and Nicobar Story' (HarperCollins India, March 2017) & 'The Last Wave - An Island Novel' (HarperCollins India, 2014) Also, member, Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group --- facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pankaj.sekhsaria twitter: https://twitter.com/pankajsekh

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A review of Islands in Flux in Hindustan Times

Review: Islands in Flux by Pankaj Sekhsaria

An important book provides insights into a region that is largely neglected by mainstream India

books Updated: Sep 23, 2017 13:45 IST

The tsunami, I gathered, was one among the many storms — none so pronounced — the islands had been battered by, their violence gradual, but no less virulent.

It is this steady invasion of the island, of its people, cultures and ecology, so that its original identity is subsumed that journalist and researcher Pankaj Sekhsaria has meticulously chronicled over the past two decades and brings together in the Islands of Flux. He calls it — bluntly and boldly, a colonization. The exploitation of the islands was started by the British who systematically logged the great forests for timber, unmindful of the animals and plants they housed, and the tribes that depended on it — an agenda followed with “clinical efficiency by a modern, independent India.” After 200 years of tyranny by a colonial power that fattened itself on the back of its people, land and resources, India gained freedom only to itself emerge as a colonizer. In the late 1960s, the Government of India had an official plan in place to “colonise” the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
This is the subtext that runs through the book, a collection of Sekhsaria’s articles, published in different newspapers and magazines. The pieces give insights into the islands — there are 572 in all, with only 36 being inhabited — their environment, wildlife, indigenous people, the influx of mainlanders, and their idea of development.
Massive deforestation took away from the tribals their means of sustenance. The consequent soil erosion killed live coral and marine life. The other onslaught was from settlers from mainland India — they encroached on and cleared the jungles, brought in disease, alcoholism, industry, and an economy alien to the local cultures. They ridiculed the Onges, the Great Andamanese and other tribal people — isolated for millennia — as ‘uncivilized’, making them outsiders in the land they belong to. Their numbers dwindled, and were soon vastly outnumbered. From instance, from being the sole inhabitants of Little Andaman, there are today over 120 outsiders for each Onge.
This exploitative vision has only worsened with successive governments, who have given a thrust to ports, industrial infrastructure and tourism, including inside sanctuaries and tribal reserves. Coastal and environment norms are being tweaked to accommodate these.
No contemporary record of the islands can be complete without the tsunami, which shifted the very geography of the islands. Sekhsaria delves on these wounds and suggests other far-reaching consequences one of which is escalating military activity. Owing to its strategic location — far from mainland India and close to Myanmar, and Indonesia, the archipelago has always been of strategic importance, serving as a launching pad and a look out post. Post tsunami, there was a flurry of defence activity and proposals. The Brahmos missile, test-fired on one of the remote islands, made news in March 2008. Other controversial proposals include a missile-firing testing system that would endanger the ground nesting of the endemic Nicobar megapode in the Tillanchong Sanctuary and a RADAR station in the only home of the Narcondam Hornbill on Narcondam Island.

The problem in this vision of development, a view of the islands as a military and economic colony is that it fails to consider the fragile ecology and the vulnerable indigenous communities. “The islands has always only existed on the margins of the consciousness of the nation. Did the earthquake and tsunami further ratify the fringeness of the fringe, allowing for experimentation, explosions and targeting in the interests of the Centre?” asks Sekhsaria.
The writing is elegant, the pen compassionate, the vision clear, even if the book is hampered by the fact that it is a collection of reports, hence lacking flow, and with a few overlaps across reports.
That apart, Islands of flux is an important book, providing a unique document from a region that rarely features in the mainstream media, and in dialogues in faraway Delhi. Even more lacking is an understanding of its unique wildlife, forests, people, culture and the intricate link between these, which the author writes of with finesse. This book is particularly relevant as the country sees mounting tensions from other such ‘colonies’ in the hinterland, where farmers, fisherfolk and tribal people are up in arms against the juggernaut of development: mines, ports, power plants, industries that erode ecology that sustains them, and a way of life.
The writer tackles this complex, nuanced subject with sensitivity and an insight backed with his years on the ground.

I hope that the book will bring the islands closer to the state that rules it but fails to serve it, and to tourists who visit it, unseeing and uncaring of their footprint. I know I need to visit again, to see the island with eyes anew.

The book is available in stores and via amazon: http://tinyurl.com/y9pnz9ml 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

In Deep Water - on the Hyd release of 'Islands in Flux'

In deep water

In his new book, Pankaj Sekhsaria continues his analysis on complex issues that put the beautiful Andaman and Nicobar islands in a state of flux

‘Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story’ (HarperCollins India; ₹399) is a collection of writings by researcher Pankaj Sekhsaria over two decades, many of them published in mainstream media including The Hindu. While a collection of fictional works might be of nostalgic value or help analyse the evolution of a writer’s style and thought processes over time, this compilation aims to educate and inform readers of the history, geology and ecology of the earthquake-prone islands.
Hyderabad-based Pankaj Sekhsaria, who unveiled his book in the city recently, first visited the islands in 1994-95 on a friend’s invitation. An avid photographer with an interest in wildlife, environment and conservation, he travelled extensively between the islands of the archipelago for two months. Since then, he has gone back several times and chronicled the changes and conflicts in the island.
When we begin to talk, he puts things in perspective on the need for this compilation: “As a researcher or an activist, you have a sense of the history of a place and its issues and you see things coming back in circles. There is enough information out there — be it on development, ecology or about the indigenous people. But issues crop up and you feel the need to respond and react, though it feels repetitive since you’ve already written about it. In a sense, it feels like being on treadmill — running in the same place,” he says.
A keen observer of events in the islands, he observes how those in authority, irrespective of the political party, announce development projects as though starting on a clean slate, but oblivious to the ramifications.
Seismic activity
In the islands, Sekhsaria explains, geological activity is a crucial factor. “The Andaman and Nicobar islands are among the most seismically active zones in the world, with earthquakes occurring even twice a month. The earthquake measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale that triggered the tsunami of 2004 happened off the Sumatra coast, which is 100km off the Nicobar, and caused huge damage. A decade later, new development projects haven’t taken into account the geological, socio cultural and ecological components of the islands. Indigenous people who’ve been there for 30000 to 40000 years are part of the unique ecology. A characteristic of the islands is the high endemism — plants, animals, birds and butterflies not found anywhere else,” he points out.

Having highlighted various issues pertaining to the islands through his ‘Faultline’ column in The Hindu, Sekhsaria hopes his writings will raise awareness. He feels the islands need plans that understand its seismic activity and the inherent risks, while also factoring in the presence of indigenous tribes and forest areas that need to be conserved. By not having a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, he feels projects might increase the “vulnerability of both the tribals and around 400,000 settlers from mainland who live modern lives like any of us.”
Living in denial
To cite an example, he talks about the union home minister’s (Rajnath Singh) visit to the islands this summer. “A delegation of farmers from Port Blair met him to request compensation for their lands that were submerged following the tsunami of 2004. On another day, there was a tourism delegation requesting relaxation of CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone). The 2004 tsunami raised some parts of Andamans by 4ft while sinking parts of Nicobar by 15ft. If there are tourism-driven properties closer to the coast, aren’t they also vulnerable? We have to acknowledge the risks and think of a solution; we can’t live in denial.”
Over the years, Sekhsaria has interacted with people and organisations working on environmental conservation and education in the islands.
Writing or holding talks are his way of increasing the dialogue. “The least I can do is talk or write so that there’s a counter narrative,” he states.
Sekhsaria draws attention to how every now and then, political parties toy with renaming some of the islands or their landmarks. “The islands have a complex history — the first war of independence, kalapani and colonisation. Some may argue in favour of renaming the colonial-sounding names after Indian freedom fighters. But the islands have a history longer than that of colonisation; there are original names given by indigenous people,” he states.
As a parting thought, he states that even if some of the writings in this book have been more than a decade ago, it assumes more relevance today.

The author’s previous books on the islands:
The Last Wave – an island novel (HarperCollins India; 2014)
The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier – Cultural and Biological Diversity in the Andaman Islands (UNESCO and Kalpavriksh; 2010)

The books are available in stores and via amazon: http://tinyurl.com/y9pnz9ml

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Islands in Flux - Released in Hyderabad

The story of two Islands


THE HANS INDIA |   Sep 16,2017 , 12:05 AM IST

  The book ‘Islands In Flux’, released recently in the city which explores the story of Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Aasheesh Pittie and  Pankaj Sekhsaria. 
Photo: N Shiva Kumar Meru
Aasheesh Pittie and Pankaj Sekhsaria. Photo: N Shiva Kumar Meru
Ornithologist Aasheesh Pittie launched the book ‘Islands In Flux’ written by Pankaj Sekhsaria, researcher and author, recently at Goethe-Zentrum, Banjara Hills.

The book features the information, insight, and perspective related to the environment, wildlife conservation, development and the indigenous communities and contemporary issues in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

It provides an important account that is relevant both for the present and the future of these beautiful and fragile Island but also very volatile Island chain.

Pankaj Sekhsaria said, “It is not new for me to write about Islands and it this is my collection of writings about Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands are far away from India but they are part of it. The islands have various kind of animals, birds and more.”

Pankaj Sekhsaria said that everybody started talking about these Islands after the Tsunami in 2004. “Today our oceans are filling up with a lot of plastic. Many scientists are fearful that our oceans will have more plastic than fish in 2050,” added Pankaj.

He informed that no government has taken care of the tribal people of these Islands since independence. “No one is concerned about the tribal people, who have been living there for more than 40,000 years. In 1956, these Islands are declared for the tribal, but no one is taking care of them,” he adds.

Pankaj hopes that his book will create awareness in people about these Islands.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Islands in Flux - Presentation in Bangalore, Sept 8

Friends in Bangalore...

Copies of the book are available in stores and via amazon: http://tinyurl.com/y9pnz9ml

Shaping Wilderness

Shaping wilderness

The use of technology is challenging long-held ideas about conservation


One of the most significant trends visible in wildlife conservation and management today is the increased use of ‘technology’. Camera traps, for instance, have provided new evidence of tiger presence in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa and of the Asiatic wildcat in Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh; radio collars have helped solve the mystery of tiger deaths in Bandipur in Karnataka and Chandrapur district of Maharashtra; and satellite telemetry promises to provide new insights into the behaviour and movement patterns of the Great Indian Bustard in Gujarat, which includes its journeys across the border to Pakistan. New software and sophisticated surveillance technologies are being operationalised to keep an eye on developments across large landscapes and the use of contraceptives has been suggested to contain runaway populations of animals ranging from the monkey in large parts of India to the elephant in Africa.

Within easy reach

We may not be able to escape such a technology-based framing, but is it possible that the current set of technologies, like those mentioned earlier, are profoundly different from those of the earlier era? And is the change that we are seeing, therefore, a more fundamental one?
What these innovations appear to do is increase our proximity to the subject of our interest and of our investigation. Surveillance technologies are bringing distant and topographically complex landscapes right into our homes and offices so that they can be observed and monitored without moving an inch. More individual wild animals are perhaps being caught and handled today than has ever happened earlier. And then there are various levels of physical intrusion that these sentient beings are subjected to — be it a microchip in the tail, a radio collar around its neck or a contraceptive injected into its body, not to mention the sedation that most of these individuals are forced into to enable such intrusions.
Technology has always allowed us deeper access into and control over our environment; in many ways it has been key in the human conquest over nature. And yet there are some things — a ferocious large cat or a free flying bird or a deep-sea mammal — that had still seemed out of reach. They were wild, defined as an animal ‘living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated’. They were wild and therefore inaccessible or inaccessible, therefore wild. Technology is closing that gap and it is the very idea of the ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ that comes into focus in important public initiatives such as conservation and protection of biodiversity. How wild or natural, for instance, is an animal that cannot perform its fundamental biological function of procreation because it has been sterilised by human intervention? Is a tiger that has been sedated multiple times and now carries a radio collar as ‘wild’ a tiger as one that has never been photographed, sedated or collared? How wild is a wilderness where everything has been mapped, where everything is known and where all movement is tracked in real time?

Aesthetic and ethical issues

The matter here is both aesthetic and ethical. The basic pleasures of enjoying the wild are essentially technology mediated intrusions (think binoculars and cameras) into the private lives of animals that the human species does not allow in its own case. Aldo Leopold pointed out, for instance, to the role of the automobile, and the dense construction of roads to accommodate them, as central to the emergence of wilderness areas in 19th century United States. Does the radio collar go only a step further, or is there a fundamental shift here? One could argue that this collar is a signifier of further human dominance and authority over the wild animal if not complete control. A photograph of a collared tiger is unlikely to win an award in a wildlife photography context just as an encounter with a collared animal is unlikely to evoke the same experience of thrill because the element of surprise will have been removed. The issue is one that goes to the very heart of the notion of the ‘wild’ and of ‘wilderness’, marking as it does a paradigm shift in our relationship to and understanding of wildlife.
This is not an esoteric matter because it has a direct bearing on the agenda of conservation; it is the conservation of this ‘wild’ life that we are talking about after all. If we agree that technologies and technological interventions are bringing about fundamental changes in the identities and essence of wild subjects, it follows that current ideologies and methods of conservation will also have to change.
Are we willing to characterise wilderness areas as glorified theme parks? Are attempts at conservation then just routes to manage these slippery slopes? If this is not an appropriate aesthetic or ethical stance, then how do we think of the ubiquitous use of high technology to shape wilderness, and to intrude into ‘wild’ bodies, even as they are used in the name of protecting them?

Pankaj Sekhsaria and Naveen Thayyil are researchers at the DST-Centre for Policy Research, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Delhi. The views expressed are personal

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The last straw

The last straw that triggered the battle against plastic

Could the ocean soon have more plastic than fish?   | Photo Credit: AP

The humble straw might have just triggered the first fight in the battle against plastic 

Think of anything you have had to drink today — a cola, fruit juice, cold coffee or lassi — and it is likely that it was served with a straw. The ubiquitous pink, white or blue plastic drinking straw has indeed become an unlikely marker of the modern culinary culture. Now think of the number of drinks served in a restaurant every day, the number of restaurants in a city, and the number of cities, big and small, in the world today, and one can only imagine the volume of plastic straws used on a daily basis. The plastic straw is also emblematic of the ‘use and throw’ culture.
And the ease with which we ask for a straw and then dispose it underlines both the mindlessness and the magnitude of our actions and their repercussions.
In Kerala 3.3 million plastic straws are used every day. It is 500 million daily in the U.S.. So billions of these straws, by implication, are thrown away around the planet. A significant chunk finds it way to the oceans and not surprisingly, plastic straws are consistently in the top 10 items collected every year during efforts to clean up the coastline.
While the single straw multiplied a billion times over might still only be a fraction of the total production and consumption of plastic in today’s world, it has become the inadvertent stimulus of a very significant anti-plastic campaign that has gained rapid traction all over the world.
The initiative against the plastic straw had started a little earlier, but it was about two years ago that the campaign took off.

International outrage

The specific catalyst was a 2015 video that showed a plastic straw jutting out from the nostril of an olive ridley turtle in Costa Rica.
The video that went viral on social media (more than 12 million people have seen it so far) has a marine biologist trying to pull out the straw with a plier, when blood starts to flow from animal’s nose. The rescuer continues to struggle for nearly five minutes before being able to pull out the nearly-four-inch-long straw, revealing how deep it had been embedded inside the animal’s body. The video sparked international outrage, giving wings to a movement to fight the menace of the plastic straw.
Much has been achieved since then. The Plastic Pollution Coalition (www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org) has estimated, for instance, that nearly 1,800 institutions worldwide, including prominent ones like Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Smithsonian have banned plastic straws or give them only on request.
Volunteers who clean up beaches regularly are reporting fewer straws now than they did about a year ago and there is a small boost to those who make reusable straws from metal or bamboo.
The international movement has had its impact in India as well with reports of initiatives coming in from different parts of the country. Responding to the global online campaign #refusethestraw, earlier this year, restaurants and bars in Mumbai decided to stop giving their customers straws with their drinks or to offer them paper straws.
The restaurant industry in Kerala too made a similar decision to mark World Environment Day this June, and responding to complaints from citizens, the Kozhikode Municipal Corporation in the State too decided around the same time to ban plastic straws. It is one situation where the individual appears to be in a position to make a very significant difference.

Anthropocene marker

One of the markers of the Anthropocene, scientists say the planet has now entered, is plastic pollution (others include nuclear tests, concrete, and domesticated chicken).
Not only is plastic being produced and dumped in ever increasing quantities, it is unique in that it does not decompose or decay. A paper published in the journal Science Advances in July 2017 estimates that the world’s oceans now have nearly nine billion metric tonnes of plastic with an additional 5 to 13 million metric tonnes being added every year.
This being the case, it is expected that oceans will have more plastic than fish by the year 2050. It’s a problem of gigantic and timeless proportions and the humble plastic straw might just have triggered the first fight in a battle that will need to be sustained.
The author researches issues at the intersection of environment, science, society, and technology.

Friday, August 18, 2017

An interview with Aniket Latpate


Pankaj Sekhsaria has a long-standing association with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) as a member of the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh. He is the author most recently of ‘Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story’ (Harper Collins India 2017), a collection of his journalism based on the islands over the last two decades. His debut novel ‘The Last Wave’ (HarperCollins India, 2014) was also set in the Andaman Islands and he is also co-editor of The Jarawas Reserve Dossier for UNESCO (2010).
He is also author of ‘The State of Wildlife in Northeast India 1996-2011: News and Information from the Protected Area Update’, published by Foundation for Ecological Security.
He recently finished his PhD thesis titled ‘Enculturing Innovation – Indian engagements with nanotechnology in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS)’ from the Maastricht University, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
He currently works as a Senior Project Scientist, DST-Centre for Policy Research, Dept of Humanities and Social Science at IIT- Delhi.
  1. when did you first realized that you want to write?
My interest in writing began, interestingly, because of writing letters. These were my early days of college and while I was not a loner, I did not have a very large circle of friends. Those were also the years I was learning about environmental issues and thinking about things that as a teenager are full of questions and have no straight forward answers. There were a couple of friends who lived in different places and we would regularly exchange hand written letters. Remember, this was the era of no email – even computers were hardly there. And I would write really long letters – running into many pages. And they would write back often saying they enjoyed reading what I wrote and the way I wrote. Those responses, I think, sowed the seeds for me and that is where I began thinking of writing more seriously. Being an author, however, was never on my list of things to become. The writing progressed then from letters to friends, to letters to newspapers, to articles and photo-features and eventually, now, to books.

   2. Where did you get information for your books?
Both my recent books on the islands – ‘The Last Wave’, which is my debut novel, and ‘Islands in Flux’ which is a collection of journalism have come after nearly two decades of research, writing and photography in the islands. So, it is this body of experience, research, traveling and reading that I have drawn upon to put the two books together. In some senses, the books are a consolidation of nearly two decades of my work in the islands.

   3. What do you do when you are not writing?
Research and writing is an integral part of what I do and I do end up writing quite a bit. There is a newsletter on wildlife that I edit for the environmental action group, called Kalpavriksh. I also write a monthly column on the environment for ‘The Hindu’ and besides that regularly put together articles and photo features for other publications. My research work is at the intersection of the environment and social sciences and there is a lot of writing to be done there as well. So I do end up writing a lot. To answer your question more specifically – I do read quite a bit, I like to travel too and I am also a keen photographer. My photography has in fact, been an integral part of my writing and research work.

    4. How did the idea of ‘Islands in Flux’ come about? Was there a certain incident           or experience that led to this narrative?
‘Islands in Flux’ is a book that brings together my journalistic and research based writing about the Andaman and Nicobar islands over the last two decades. The attempt is to bring together the wide  range of experiences, issues and challenges that constitute the islands, the three main dimensions of which are the histories of the human communities here, the ecological diversity and fragility of this unique island chain and the constant geologic and tectonic activity that is very much part of life here. These are subjects I have been writing about since the mid 90s for a range of English publications in India and I realized that there is a considerably vast terrain that these articles have covered. In many contexts these writings continued to be relevant today, even as the issues they deal with are very interesting.
So, Islands in Flux, is not one narrative; the idea was precisely to show that there are multiple narratives and stories and all of them are important and relevant in different ways. And this becomes particularly important because of the specific vulnerabilities of the islands – one of the issues that was raised, for instance, during the Home Minister’s recent visit to the islands was related to compensation for land and other losses suffered by people here during the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami of December 2004. A simultaneous demand was for relaxation of Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms because these are coming in the way of expanding tourism in the islands. I am not sure about others, but I see very clear contradictions here and the fact that policy planning continues to ignorant of these very specific contexts and vulnerabilities of the islands. A recent proposal for the development of the islands being pursued by the Niti Aayog has proposed, among others, plans for port construction, an integrated tourism complex, construction of a trans-shipment terminal and creation of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in areas that are ecologically fragile and also legally protected in the name of the indigenous communities. The scale of what is being proposed in the islands today is unmatched, and its implications for the local people and the local ecology barely understood.
In recent years it has also been frustrating for me to see that many of these issues have been discussed in various fora including in my own writings in the past and yet none of these are seen reflected in new proposals, statements and policies being put forward by politicians, ministers, and the administration. The whole discussion has to be started from scratch – it’s like being on a treadmill for ever. And so, this was one of the most important reasons for me to put ‘Islands in Flux’ together – to kind of move on from that treadmill and force others to do the same as well.

    5.What has been the biggest challenge while penning this book?
The format of the book – of putting together old writings to make them relevant for a contemporary context and reality – I think, is an interesting one. It is not a new format at all and has its limitations, but it also offers some striking possibilities. And the key question is whether I’ve managed to do it right. That would depend on how the book is received and what kinds of discussions and debates it generates. The initial responses from readers have been very encouraging and interesting. At least a couple of people have written in saying they realized on finishing the book how unaware they were of the multiple realities and challenges in the islands – that there is much more to the islands than the cellular jail, pretty beaches, and sparkling beaches that the tourism brochures show us. All of this is very much the reality in the islands, but there is much much more and conveying this is the challenge that ‘Islands in Flux’ seeks to take up.

    6.Tell us about cover of your latest book and how it came from?
The book as you know is titled ‘Islands in Flux’ and the central idea for the cover was to focus on this idea of ‘change’ and ‘flux’. So what we ended up doing was to create a rather serene and calm scene with the boatman, the water and a tinge of green via the coconut. It in some senses, depicts the calm before a storm – the idea is that the calmness and the serenity is only momentary and change is just around the corner. And this has worked well, I think because of the contrast between what this scene depicts and the title where the letters that make up ‘flux’ themselves are struggling to find a balance.

    7.Are you writing new book? If yes. What is it about?
There are two books that I am working on at the moment. One is an edited book that looks at wildlife in the state of Maharashtra and the other is in what is broadly called the Social Studies of Science and Technology. This is based on my recent PhD thesis that studied nano-science and technology laboratories in India to understand life inside the lab and to also understand what innovation means inside these labs and for scientists and technologists who work at the nano scale

    8. What advise would you give to aspiring writers?
Writing is hard work and the more we write the better we get. Every single iteration of a piece of writing is better than its preceding version. So one should never think that what I have now cannot get better. It can and being at it all the time is very important.
The other thing I believe is useful if not important to be a good writer is to read – to read to learn and get new ideas but to read, also to see how other writes write, how they use the language, how they work with ideas…

    9. How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Blog: http://pankaj-lastwave.blogspot.in/
Facebook Handle: https://www.facebook.com/pankaj.sekhsaria?ref=bookmarks
Twitter: @pankajsekh
Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/y9pnz9ml

 Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Andaman & Nicobar Story

The Andaman & Nicobar Story

On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Pankaj Sekhsaria discusses the ecology of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and his new book, Islands in Flux
by Aadya Singh

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a microcosm of multitudes – not just because of their unique location, ecology and biodiversity, but also because of the variety of contexts within which they can be experienced and studied. (But information and studies on the islands are sparse and hard to find, so you might find this backgrounder useful for some cultural and historical context.)
As a noted researcher, writer, activist, and photographer of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Pankaj Sekhsaria embodies the diversity of the region in his own work. Sekhsaria has been chronicling the stories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades now. With a sharp understanding of the islands’ issues, ranging from the cultural to the political to the economic, he has been instrumental in crafting both intellectual discourse and active intervention pertinent to this landscape. His recently released book, Islands in Flux – The Andaman and Nicobar Story, is a collection of his journalistic writings on the ANI over the past twenty years.
Pankaj Dekhsaria is a noted researcher, writer, activist, and photographer. Photograph by Peeyush Sekhsaria
Islands in Flux is a tapestry of events in the island story, organised by themes that transcend timelines and continue to be relevant today. With their unique location off the mainland and their interconnected threads of culture, community, ecology, and geology, the Andaman and Nicobar islands defy singular, linear narratives – they are truly islands in flux.
We sat down to talk with him about his experiences from the union territory that most of us on the mainland know shamefully little about.
What motivated you to put together a chronicle of the islands?
What motivated me was the need for a consolidated account of the islands, that could comprehensively cover a gamut of issues. I realised that every few years, with every new person that comes into the administration, we had to start from scratch. Despite so much information out there in the public domain, it’s like these people were saying things in complete ignorance of certain issues, without any historical knowledge. So two years ago, I thought, why not make another consolidated account [his first compilation was titled Troubled Island and released in 2003] so that all the facts are in one place. 
Tracks of a nesting Giant Leatherback Turtle. Galathea, Great Nicobar, 2003. Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria
When you compile such a large body of writing, certain themes begin to emerge, and that’s how this book is organised. It offers a snapshot of issues beyond the usual. The islands aren’t just about the tsunami, or about the Jarawa. Even older stories have a new salience in today’s context – those issues haven’t gone away. I have had readers telling me that they weren’t even aware about some of these issues that plague the islands.
What first brought you to the islands, and what has the journey been like so far?
I grew up in Pune, and was pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in engineering. By then, I was already interested in wildlife and writing. It was a ‘forced’ gap year that started it all. I had enrolled in a post-graduate degree in journalism, but two months into the course, I found out that I hadn’t cleared my Bachelor’s and couldn’t continue the journalism course, so I had a lot of time on my hands. At the time, a very dear friend of mine was based in Port Blair, working in the Navy. He invited me to come over, and that’s how I showed up at the islands for the first time, more than 20 years ago. I spent about two months there, travelled, met people, and got to know about the issues at the forefront. I came back to complete my graduation and then enrolled for a masters in communication at Jamia [Millia Islamia University] in Delhi. It was when I moved to Delhi that I got in touch with Kalpavriksh, which had been working in the islands for some time. And then I went back for a research project in 1998.

It was during this visit of yours that the Jarawa first came out in large numbers. Could you describe that experience?
Yes, the first big interaction of the Jarawa was in early 1998 and I, absolutely by chance, happened to be there at that moment in time. It was the first time they’d come out in such large numbers, though we didn’t know that at the time. I had a camera on me and took a lot of pictures, which today serve as historical documentation of a historic moment. It was particularly puzzling, given the fact that Jarawas have long been hostile towards the settlers, to whom they have lost large swathes of their forests. In fact, over the next few months, there were several more reports of Jarawas coming out of their forests. 
(To read more about the Jarawa’s trysts with their neighbours, read Pankaj’s article “Jarawa Excursion”, published in Frontline in 1998)
Had you known about the Jarawa before that?
The Jarawa have always incited a huge amount of fear and curiosity. I remember a time during my first visit when I was on a harbour cruise with one of the local boats that take tourists to popular sites around Port Blair: I heard one of the tourist guides telling stories to her captive audience about how the Jarawa are an extremely dangerous people; that they applied their saliva, which was poisonous, to their arrowheads before shooting at you. Knowing this to be untrue, I became incensed and spoke up, telling her she couldn’t claim such things without any evidence.  
At the same time, there were organisations that would defend the rights of the Jarawa. One of the first was the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE), started by Samir Acharya. SANE began their work much before anyone else was even in the picture. Samir has been a pioneer of tribal rights and environmental activism in the islands for almost 30 years, and is a great influence on me. Along with BNHS, we took a case for the protection of the forests and the tribal communities here to the High Court and then to the Supreme Court in 1998. At that time, one knew only a little bit about these issues.
While reading your book, I noticed the use of language that is particular to the islands – from a colonial definition of tribes as “primitive relics” to the contemporary “settlers”, the people who’ve come from outside. How have you seen the dynamics between them play out?
There’s a complex historical context to these issues. According to recent research, indigenous people have been on the islands for 30,000 to 40,000 years. Most of the current population came to the islands from the 19th century onwards; the Cellular Jail itself was built only in the beginning of the 20th century. All that’s a very short story – it’s only 150 years old. 
The settler population is even more recent – it only dates back to the late 1950s and ’60s, when the Indian government thought of the Andamans as an ‘empty space’, and encouraged people to go live there. The government often gave incentives such as 10 acres of free land to settlers. It’s a very interesting history, and it’s only now that people are studying it deeply – who were these settlers? What were their compulsions and limitations that forced them to make such a choice? We have to remember that they were also vulnerable. 
Headed towards South Sentinel Island, home to the humongous Coconut Crab. Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria
Historically speaking, we have put them in conflict with the Jarawa, because these lands originally belonged to indigenous peoples. And sure, with two communities living side by side, with one’s lifestyle being imposed on the other, much conflict has ensued; biodiversity has suffered. Administration officials admit in private that they are unable to do anything to ease the tension between the tribal communities and the settlers. The two groups are locked in a tussle over land rights, and the atmosphere has been vitiated by some administrative policies of the past.
The settlers aren’t the ‘outsiders’ though – what’s interesting is that they, as local people too, are very upset with people like us from the mainland taking a stand on island issues. The insider-outsider card is played often, however futile it may be. The real challenge is that policy decisions are made far away in New Delhi.
At a talk you recently held in New Delhi, you mentioned that it’s difficult for you to fully comprehend the situation of the indigenous communities of the ANI today. Could you delve a bit deeper into that? 
At this point of time, I don’t know enough of what is happening, say in the case of the Jarawa. In any case, we have limited knowledge of these communities, and that in itself can be problematic. We are often asked how we can represent the Jarawa, even going to court for them. The work we have done is from the outside, we are operating as outsiders. What we do know, is that changes are taking place very rapidly. The outlook for indigenous peoples is a very sad state of affairs – physically and culturally – and one that’s being repeated in different parts of the world, not just the Andamans. 
One interesting thing is that what’s being tried for the Jarawa – in terms of education, health, rehabilitation – is better than what’s been done before. There is an awareness and an acknowledgement that we have to do things differently. What we don’t understand is whether that’s good enough. If the Jarawa were still in the forest, and hadn’t come out, it would be a different situation. But they have been coming out and interacting, and if we remain fully aware of the historicity and context behind their presence here, that’s what may help. But at the end of the day, I don’t really know. The position of the administrators is extremely unenviable.
This photograph, taken in 2003 on the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR),  shows the kind of undesirable interaction that the traffic on the road was helping to facilitate. The driver of this passenger bus was handing over something (most likely biscuits) to a Jarawa woman. The pictures were submitted to the Supreme Court via its Central Empowered Committee as evidence of the impacts of the ATR. Photograph by Pankaj Sekhsaria
Now that there’s more of a focus on the development of infrastructure and strategic outposts on the islands, how have you seen policy pertinent to the ANI evolve over the past decade? 
My key concern and contention is that, not just in the last ten, but fifty years; government policy, planning, bureaucracy and the political establishment has not understood the key challenges faced by the islands. The key thesis, if I might, is that the idea of ‘flux’ is central to the existence of the islands. There are three levels of flux that the islands are facing – socio-cultural, ecological and most important, perhaps, geological. You can think of it as a pyramid, at the very top is the socio-cultural context – for instance, the constant change and dynamism of the communities: indigenous peoples such as the Jarawa, the Onge, the Great Andamanese, the Sentinelese, and the settlers who have come in in the last few decades. Their reality is dependent on the next block of the pyramid, the ecological and environmental context – the land, water, soil, coast, sea – which decides the conditions in which these communities will live. You have to take into account the unique tropical conditions, the climate, the high endemism of species. The third, and perhaps most critical level of flux is the geological context. The islands are located in one of the most seismically active zones in the world. The tsunami of 2004 was caused by an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, just a couple of hundred nautical miles from Nicobar. 
Sekhsaria has been chronicling the stories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over two decades.
For the last fifty years, we have not acknowledged these independent, but connected realities. A recent NITI Aayog report does not take any of this into account while planning large infrastructure projects. In 2009, at a defense-related seminar, former President Kalam talked about building a nuclear power station in the islands, in a landscape where you’ve had earthquakes which have been 9.3 on the Richter scale. Imagine the vulnerability we’re setting ourselves up for. What happens to the nuclear power plant if another earthquake or tsunami happens? Similar plans were made long ago in a 1965 report. The same ignorance is still prevalent in 2017, despite so much more information being available, despite a deeper understanding, despite technological advances. 
(To learn more about policy measures designed for the islands, read Pankaj’s article “Islands on the Seam”, published in The Hindu this March) 
Tourism in the islands is on the rise. From an ecological perspective, how much tourism is too much tourism? 
That’s a genuine concern, but the scale of tourism hasn’t increased all that much yet. The number of proposals to take tourism to more remote parts of the islands is small, but growing. There are issues of resource availability and waste management which will have to be considered. On the whole, I find it difficult to say no to tourism, but it’s a slippery slope. A very critical understanding needs to be built, and we need to develop the tools and arguments to help people understand that for all its benefits, tourism isn’t the ultimate solution. 
Even from an economic and livelihoods perspective, tourist arrivals in 2004 fell from a lakh to zero in a matter of a week after the tsunami. So it’s important to remember that tourism could become unviable at any point, and we shouldn’t be putting all our livelihoods eggs in the tourism basket, so to speak.
We recently wrote about a photo exhibition of Pankaj Sekhsaria’s photographs of the islands, reproduced in silk. Read about it here. The exhibition travels next to The Story of Space festival, an interdisciplinary arts and science festival in Panjim, Goa from November 10-19.
Sekhsaria writes a regular column on the environment for The Hindu. You can read it here. Pick up a copy (print or digital) of Islands in Flux here.  
Aadya Singh Features Writer, Nature inFocus
Aadya is an independent researcher currently working with Nature inFocus. Through her work, she has been exploring the intersection between livelihoods, environmental conservation and skill development with a focus on Himalayan communities. In her spare time, she enjoys playing pretend naturalist, musician, photographer and writer.