Five months after two British newspapers released a controversial video film showing scantily clad Jarawa tribal women dancing for tourists in return for food and money, the government finally acted on Thursday: the Union Cabinet approved the promulgation of a law that brings into effect a buffer zone in the 5 km radius around the Jarawa tribal settlements in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and provides for imprisonment up to seven years for those violating government norms for this area.

Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said the decision to promulgate the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal tribes) Amendment Regulation 2012 has been taken under Article 240 of the Constitution, which empowers the President to take such measures in case of Union Territories. “This regulation will cover the entire Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Tourist establishments will be prohibited and other commercial establishments will be regulated in the buffer zone, which will protect the aboriginal tribes from undesirable outside influences.”

The law provides for tough penal provisions to deter unauthorised entry, photography, videography, hunting, use of alcohol, inflammable material or biological germs, or even advertisements to attract tourists in the buffer zone. Any violation can attract a prison sentence of three to seven years and a fine up to Rs. 10,000.

An earlier attempt by the Andaman Union Territory administration to prohibit all commercial and tourist activities, through a notification on October 30, 2007, within a designated buffer zone was quashed by the Calcutta High Court on the grounds that the principal Regulation only permitted such notifications for “reserved areas.” A Special Leave Petition, challenging this, was subsequently filed in the Supreme Court, and it is in the pendency of this SLP that the Union Cabinet, using Article 240, has approved the promulgation of a law that will create a buffer zone. Official sources said this meant that the lacuna in the regulation that saw the Calcutta High Court quash the earlier notification has now been addressed: it was tantamount to a policy change.

The government's decision on Thursday follows the intervention by the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council (NAC) that had mooted an amendment to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulations, 1956. A larger buffer zone, it was felt, would mean increased space for tribals, while preventing outsiders from intruding on their privacy.

Simultaneously, the NAC has also been working on drafting a comprehensive policy for the protection and preservation of primitive tribal groups (PTGs), including the Jarawas in the Andamans. In India, about 75 tribal communities have been classified as PTGs, who are the poorest among those listed as Scheduled Tribes: they are spread across 17 States and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The NAC, flagging the issue in 2006, had reported on the sexual abuse of Jarawa women and recommended policy interventions to ensure preservation and privacy of the tribe. Indeed, an NAC experts' sub-group had suggested eventual closure of the part of the Andaman Trunk Road that passes through the Jarawa Reserve.

Meanwhile, the debate on the Jarawas continues – whether they should continue to exist in their pristine habitat, cut off from the mainstream, or whether they should be “empowered” through interventions, especially relating to health and education.

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