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ROAD TO RUIN

What ban on Andaman?

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MATERIAL WORLD: Members of the Jarawa tribe don't own clothes but increased contact with the outside world has brought changes to their way of life

Survival International, a UK-based NGO, has called for a ban on tourism and the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road to protect the Jarawa tribe from 'human safaris'. But, neither the traffic nor the inflow of tourists have stopped.

News from Andaman & Nicobar (A&N), a group of islands that are part of the union territory of India, gets a rare mention in the national media. The onset of South-West monsoon and an earthquake above 6. 0 on the Richter Scale find cursory reference;a devastating tsunami of December 2004 is reported with some depth. Over the last decade, another issue that has found some mention is news of the Jarawas, a 50, 000-year-old indigenous tribe that lives on the Andaman Islands.
The tribe hit the headlines in January 2012, when a UK-based paper released a video recording of tribe members dancing for a group of army men, sparking international outrage. Recently, Survival International, a UK-based tribal rights group, called for a boycott of tourism to Andaman Islands, demanding closure of a stretch of Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) that passes through the Jarawa Reserve, set up in 1956 to protect the tribals from intrusions. The NGO alleges that use of the road by tourists visiting Baratang Islands, promotes "human safaris". Apart from demanding that tourists stay away from Andamans and the ATR be closed, the NGO wants work speeded up on an alternative sea route as well.

Two international tour operators - Travelpikr, based in Canada and India and Spanish company Orixa Viatges - have responded to the ban but island officials aren't worried. "The propaganda against the islands has been going on for the past few years and it has absolutely had no impact on tourism, " say s Amit Sateja, director, Directorate of Tourism, A&N Islands. Sateja claims tourist traffic has doubled over the last six years. The year 2012 saw 2. 56 lakh visitors;in 2011 the number was 2. 18 lakh. The increase in tourism traffic has been both domestic and foreign, Sateja claims, revealing the number of foreigners visiting the islands has grown from 13, 692 in 2009 to 17, 538 in 2012. "Even figures of the period between March and May show a 14 per cent growth in foreign tourists in 2013 compared to the year before, " he states.

Akshay Rawat of Barefoot Resorts, Havelock, one of the island's most popular resorts for international tourists, says their numbers are better than last year.

Tour operator Abdul Majeed of Andaman Fiesta says the islands are popular with domestic travellers who avail the Leave Travel Concessions (LTC) the central government introduced to boost tourism after the 2004 tsunami. Tour operators from Port Blair emphasise they do not promote human safaris. "Foreigners who travel to North Andaman are visiting for the beaches, and not sightseeing in Baratang and don't travel on the ATR, " Rawat says. R Rathnam, Andaman Holidays, who is also part of Port Blair-based Forum for Responsible Tour Operators (FORTO), adds, "Most tour operators do not want to disturb the Jarawas by using the ATR, but without an alternative route, they have no choice. "

The effectiveness of the ban notwithstanding, the question of how to protect the Jarawas continues to elude island officials and researchers (see box). Manish Chandi, who has been working on the islands since 1995 and is a member of the Expert Committee on Primitive Tribal Groups set up in 2010, says, "The crux of the issue is tourism on the ATR, which is problematic. " Denis Giles from Andamanbased NGO Search says, "The ban may only affect high-end tourists, which is hardly two per cent. " Giles supports closure of the ATR, but draws the line at boycotting tourism to the islands.

Two stretches of the arterial ATR, which connect South Andaman to Middle and North Andaman Islands, intersect the Jarawa Reserve. In 2002, following a public interest litigation, the Supreme Court ordered that the road should be closed to restrict outsiders. Despite the ruling, the road has been kept open by island administration, who claims it is the "lifeline" for the 1. 5 lakh settlers. Originally from Bengal and Ranchi, they resettled in North and Middle Andamans.

Tourists wanting to catch a glimpse of Jarawas by the road cannot be ruled out on the ATR, though interaction with and photography of these tribes is legally prohibited. The ATR has seen its share of controversies over this - the 2012 video showing tribals dancing, for one. Contrary to claims made by the UK-paper that it was filmed by their journalist, local newspaper Light of Andamans' follow-up investigation revealed the video was shot by army personnel - and not a tourist - travelling on the ATR. The incident led to a 2012 amendment of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Amendment Regulation 1956, but failed to punish the real culprits of the exploitation.

In 2007, the administration created the controversial five-kilometre Buffer Zone around the reserve, banning commercial activity in this area. The rule was challenged, as it failed to account for the 34 villages that came under its jurisdiction, and their livelihood. The administration was forced to modify the regulation, excluding the villages and Baratang Island, whose limestone caves and mud volcano are popular tourist spots.

In July 2012, following yet another PIL, the Supreme Court asked for total compliance of the 2002 ban. But it was only in February 2013 that the ATR was closed, for one month and traffic reduced by one-third. The road was reopened in March 2013, after the Buffer Zone Regulation was amended.

The failure to close the road has led to the loss of precious forest cover, a means of sustenance for these tribes, and indispensable for the conservation of biodiversity. The ATR also effectively cuts off access to the east coast, thereby reducing the Jarawa habitat as well. Ironically, tourists and islanders both prefer travelling by boat as it is cheaper and faster. But the administration has been slow in developing sea routes and infrastructure and procuring sufficient boats. As the hullaballoo by tribal rights group and back and forth by the government continues, the hope is that some day, the interests of all the islanders will be addressed.

Mainstreaming matters
Till the 1990s, the Jarawas resisted all attempts to establish friendly contact with outsiders, preferring to live in isolation. Today, they have abandoned their 200-year-old hostility, but the official policy has been to not interfere with their way of living and desist from encroaching upon their land. The Jarawa Policy of 2004, laid down by the Calcutta High Court, aimed at "protecting the Jarawa from harmful effects of exposure and contact with the outside world while they are not physically, socially and culturally prepared for such interface".

But today, the sight of Rs 10 or 100 notes changing hands between the Jarawas and islanders is commonplace. In view of the increase in interactions, the court constituted an expert committee to assess the perceptions of the Jarawas in 2010. The report records that rice has now found its way into the lives of the Jarawas through clandestine barters. Manish Chandi says, "From what I understand, they come out and go back with varying regularity and at certain locations, and they do not do so because of any miseries that we assume afflict them. It is just an opportunity they are using since hostility has given way to barters. "

In 2012, a Parliamentary Standing Committee recommended reviewing the policy, favouring the mainstreaming of Jarawas.

The writer is the editor of a weekly published out of Port Blair.

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