Invaluable for the Nicobarese people and endemic wildlife, Tillanchong island in the Nicobars is threatened by a proposal to make it a missile-testing site.

Located furthest east in the Central Nicobar group of islands, Tillanchong is a long sliver of an island of about 17 sq km in area. Its name, as attributed by Col. Gerini in his work on Ptolemaic geography, is apparently derived from the name given by Chinese sailors of yore: tswe-lan-chan or ‘island of blue waters'.

It is uninhabited most of the year except when Nicobarese people holding customary rights visit it for a few months every year in the fair season. The Nicobarese are organised into joint family groups called ‘Tuhets' to share and partition resources on their islands. On Tillanchong, they follow many regulations on how the island needs to be conserved, based on traditional beliefs and customs. The island is under the customary ownership of three large joint families of Central Nicobar who respect and practise these regulations and taboos related to their mythic beliefs and customs even to the present day.

It is believed that the first man who visited the island from Central Nicobar some centuries ago was an early ancestor called ‘ Lawaoh' from Trinket Island. He, along with his friend Kotekleong of Kakana village, began a system of sharing the coconut resources on the island and evolved the system of taboos, where no animal or bird excepting wild pigs, turtle or fish may be hunted and used for food on the island. Harvest or the exploitation of any other species of flora or fauna is taboo. Even snakes, mostly pit vipers found on the island, are not to be killed even if they bite a person.

Different rules

Strange though it may seem, the island is visited by members of these families from Central Nicobar who, during their stay on the island, speak a different dialect even to this day.

This phenomenon of a separate dialect and customs such as hunting taboos and initiatory rites for visiting Nicobarese was common on a few other uninhabited islands in the Nicobar archipelago as well, although changing cultural value systems have taken a toll on such traditional practices. Tillanchong is now a declared wildlife sanctuary and the cultural practices of the Nicobarese are being documented. Given the changes and modern world views that are emerging following the December 2004 tsunami, it is remarkable that these customary practices continue with a sense of conservation and reverence for what most people would consider a seemingly inanimate object — the island! Those families with customary rights believe that their practices and methods of self-regulation toward sharing the island's resources bringing benefits from the common property are soundly based on dictates of ancestral wisdom. Aberrations will not be tolerated by resident spirits and users of the island.

Tillanchong harbours virtually all animal species found in the Nicobar archipelago, including endemic bird species such as the Nicobar Megapode, Nicobar Sparrowhawk, Glossy Swiftlet, Edible-nest Swiftlet, Andaman Wood Pigeon, and Nicobar Parakeet. Many other species, such as imperial pigeons and parakeets that are occasionally hunted on the main islands, are also found here, but no birds are to be hunted by customary law and regulation on Tillanchong. Coral reefs around the island remain unexplored. Saltwater crocodiles and water monitor lizards are known from the few inlets on the island, and apparently a large male saltwater crocodile used to inhabit a small water body for years without ever harming any of the visitors who crossed over. It was supposedly killed by Thai poachers some years ago.

Changes in the way the island has been traditionally managed these past centuries may come from external agents such as poachers and non-Nicobarese who do not appreciate the essence of resource conservation on Tillanchong. Most recently, a proposal was placed before the State and National Boards for Wildlife regarding clearance for the Indian Navy to set up a structure to test fire dummy missiles into the island from submarines. Preposterous as it seems, it is in complete contrast to how the island is used and viewed by the indigenous Nicobarese for centuries.

Will it all change?

On Tillanchong, then, many questions remain. Will birds continue to fly or live on the islands without fear of dummy missiles fired in their direction? Will there be respect for and continuity of the traditional use of resources on the island by the Nicobarese people? Will the unexplored coral reefs surrounding the island bloom, and scores of fish, turtles and other marine life thrive unthreatened by submarines and missile target practice sessions? Or, using a line from a Pink Floyd song, one may well ask, “Mother, do you think they'll drop the bomb?”

Manish Chandi is a Research Scholar with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore, and with the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team (ANET). E-mail: manish@ncf-india.org

This is the first of six articles that highlight environmental problems in the Andamans and Nicobar Islands.