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Who speaks for the Jarawas?

In 1997, a group of Jarawas made contact for the first time with the outside world. It was a move that triggered numerous problems for them and has left them teetering on the brink of extinction. S. THEODORE BASKARAN writes of efforts to save them.

Hunter-gatherers who now face problems from the civilised world.

IF you drive along the road leading to Mayabandar from Port Blair in the Andamans, you might catch a glimpse of the Jarawas, one of the indigenous tribes of the islands; often they come out of their jungle homes to accept fruits and coconuts from visitors. Their white teeth gleaming against their dark skin, the children look like ebony carvings. The story of the Jarawas has been the same as the vanishing people elsewhere in the world, until a group of concerned people came forward to speak for them.

The Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE) a non-government organisation based in Port Blair has taken up the cause of the Jarawas and sought legal remedies. On April 9, 2001 the Circuit bench of the High Court of Calcutta, sitting in Port Blair passed a significant order, directing the Central Government and the Andaman and Nicobar Administration to form a committee of experts, including sociologists, nutritionists and doctors to study the problems of the Jarawas.

Inhabitants of the dense rain forests of the Andaman Islands, the Jarawas have been living for millennia as hunter-gatherers. In the last century, loggers, settlers and poachers pillaged the forests, sealing the fate of the hapless Jarawas. Reduced to just 350 to 400, they are now teetering on the brink of extinction. Hidden from civilisation and resisting all attempts at contact, they had kept to themselves. In October 1997, in an inexplicable move, a group of Jarawas ventured out of their forest hideout and made contact with the outside world. And this has triggered a cascade of problems, provoking SANE to take up their cause.

Before intervening in a Public Interest Litigation petition in the High Court, SANE, led by one of the founders Samir Acharya, an islander, went about the task of collecting data on indigenous people, they contacted leading anthropologists and sociologists, all around the world, many of whom were familiar with the issues connected with the issues connected with the indigenous people of the islands and recorded their views.

Dr. Vishvajit Pandya, anthropologist at the Victoria University, New Zealand, who had studied the indigenous people of Andamans, felt that the Jarawas should be made culturally safe and that policy makers should take a well thought out stand on their future. Stephen Corry of Survival International said that small populations of tribal people are unlikely to survive the effects of sedentarisation. He cautioned that settlement of the Jarawas in a reserve — a common but disastrous solution — would constitute a violation of their human rights. The lives of many indigenous peoples are linked to the specific topography of their land and relocation can wipe them off the face of the earth. Other experts warned that allowing the Jarawas to mix with other people might cause them serious medical problems. Extinction through an epidemic is a reality.

Indigenous people such as the Jarawas may hold the key to some mysteries of human history. Recent DNA studies point out that the Jarawas are closely related to the Bushmen of Africa. If proved, this will lend support to the "Out of Africa" theory of human descent. Its proponents say that humans left Africa about 100,000 years ago and moved on land westward, eventually reaching Asia. Peter Bellwood, an anthropologist at the Australian National University, Canberra, suggests that these migrants arrived at the Andamans about 35,000 years ago when the islands were connected by land with the Arakan mountains ranges of Myanmar. Later, when the sea rose, cutting off the land and creating many pockets of elevated land, people survived in these islands and developed a distinct culture and language. In fact their languages may contain keys to the riddle of human migration. Their intimate knowledge of plants, birds and other creatures of the tropical jungle could help advances in medical sciences.

Samir Acharya speaks with passionate concern for the Jarawas. He points out that the attitude of the mainlanders is not very different from that of the British colonisers towards Indians. The belief of the dominant society that the Jarawas are backward and that they need improvement is actually a racist notion based on an ethnocentric viewpoint. SANE has pleaded in its petition to ban all contact with the Jarawas, to evict all encroachers, camps and outposts from the area traditionally occupied by them and to close the Andaman trunk road to all traffic.

The Honourable High Court in its epoch making order has directed the A and N administration to prevent poaching and stop anything that encourages the Jarawas to beg by the highway. The order also prohibits any new construction in the Jarawas territory and not to make any extension of the Andaman trunk road, as it would cut right into the forests, the home of the tribe for millennia. However, the main thrust of the order is that it directs that the report of the committee of experts should come within six months. The final judgment in the case will be delivered after that.

In its order the court has also directed the administration "to teach the local people that the Jarawas are not inferior but different". In a non-egalitarian society like ours, such a realisation would be a consummation devoutly to be wished for.

For more on the Jarawas read Action Plan to Save the Jarawas by Subramanya Nayudu. Centre for Future Studies, Pondicherry University, 1999.

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