The human safaris promoted by some tour operators in the Andaman Islands — offering their customers a glimpse of the Jarawa tribal community — are not only an outrageous insult to human dignity. They are also a symptom of the larger problems facing the 300-odd members of this indigenous community. For hundreds of thousands of years, the tribe lived life on its own terms, hunting and gathering food within the boundaries of its pristine forest home. Despite the coming and going of the Europeans and then the settlers from mainland India, the creation of a Reserve in the 1950s, and the construction of the Andamans Trunk Road cutting through their homeland in the 1970s, the Jarawas maintained a hostile distance from outsiders until 1997. Since then, their interactions with settlers and tourists have had a mixed bag of consequences, which include two measles epidemics, and encounters with curious tourists doling out food and snapping photographs. Many NGOs feel the damage can be limited if the government follows the Supreme Court of India's 2002 order to close down the Road. While this could mean a serious inconvenience to a few thousand settlers, the very survival of the indigenous peoples may lie in the balance. In any case, the development of a water transport infrastructure may be better for an island system lying in an earthquake-prone area than a highway. The administration must also intervene actively to protect the Reserve against illegal coastal incursions by poachers and hunters.

The wider question of what the future of this tribal community should look like — and more importantly, who should determine that future — has few easy answers. In an earlier era, it was simple enough to say that the Jarawas must be left strictly alone, and construct the dubious safety of a Reserve around their lands. But if they foray out of the forests on their own, if they do not want to be left alone, the isolation paradigm holds no relevance any more. However, any attempt to ‘civilise' the Jarawas, or yank them into the modern era, is fraught with danger. Other indigenous tribes on the Islands have already been wiped out, largely due to diseases caught from outsiders. This year has already seen the death of the last Great Andamanese speakers of the Bo and Khora tribal languages. The tribes who remain, including the Jarawa, hover on the brink of extinction. A dossier on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands released by UNESCO last month suggests that self-determination by the Jarawas must be the ultimate aim, “to help them negotiate with a rapidly changing, predatory world that exists around them.” This is a world that has tourists ogling at them as if they were on a wildlife sanctuary.

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