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In deep water

(FILES) This photograph shows the sea off the rocky base at Port Blair in the Andamans

(FILES) This photograph shows the sea off the rocky base at Port Blair in the Andamans   | Photo Credit: DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY

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In his new book, Pankaj Sekhsaria continues his analysis on complex issues that put the beautiful Andaman and Nicobar islands in a state of flux

‘Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story’ (HarperCollins India; ₹399) is a collection of writings by researcher Pankaj Sekhsaria over two decades, many of them published in mainstream media including The Hindu. While a collection of fictional works might be of nostalgic value or help analyse the evolution of a writer’s style and thought processes over time, this compilation aims to educate and inform readers of the history, geology and ecology of the earthquake-prone islands.

Hyderabad-based Pankaj Sekhsaria, who unveiled his book in the city recently, first visited the islands in 1994-95 on a friend’s invitation. An avid photographer with an interest in wildlife, environment and conservation, he travelled extensively between the islands of the archipelago for two months. Since then, he has gone back several times and chronicled the changes and conflicts in the island.

When we begin to talk, he puts things in perspective on the need for this compilation: “As a researcher or an activist, you have a sense of the history of a place and its issues and you see things coming back in circles. There is enough information out there — be it on development, ecology or about the indigenous people. But issues crop up and you feel the need to respond and react, though it feels repetitive since you’ve already written about it. In a sense, it feels like being on treadmill — running in the same place,” he says.

A keen observer of events in the islands, he observes how those in authority, irrespective of the political party, announce development projects as though starting on a clean slate, but oblivious to the ramifications.

Seismic activity

In the islands, Sekhsaria explains, geological activity is a crucial factor. “The Andaman and Nicobar islands are among the most seismically active zones in the world, with earthquakes occurring even twice a month. The earthquake measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale that triggered the tsunami of 2004 happened off the Sumatra coast, which is 100km off the Nicobar, and caused huge damage. A decade later, new development projects haven’t taken into account the geological, socio cultural and ecological components of the islands. Indigenous people who’ve been there for 30000 to 40000 years are part of the unique ecology. A characteristic of the islands is the high endemism — plants, animals, birds and butterflies not found anywhere else,” he points out.

Pankaj Sekhsaria

Pankaj Sekhsaria  

Having highlighted various issues pertaining to the islands through his ‘Faultline’ column in The Hindu, Sekhsaria hopes his writings will raise awareness. He feels the islands need plans that understand its seismic activity and the inherent risks, while also factoring in the presence of indigenous tribes and forest areas that need to be conserved. By not having a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, he feels projects might increase the “vulnerability of both the tribals and around 400,000 settlers from mainland who live modern lives like any of us.”

Living in denial

To cite an example, he talks about the union home minister’s (Rajnath Singh) visit to the islands this summer. “A delegation of farmers from Port Blair met him to request compensation for their lands that were submerged following the tsunami of 2004. On another day, there was a tourism delegation requesting relaxation of CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone). The 2004 tsunami raised some parts of Andamans by 4ft while sinking parts of Nicobar by 15ft. If there are tourism-driven properties closer to the coast, aren’t they also vulnerable? We have to acknowledge the risks and think of a solution; we can’t live in denial.”

Over the years, Sekhsaria has interacted with people and organisations working on environmental conservation and education in the islands.

Writing or holding talks are his way of increasing the dialogue. “The least I can do is talk or write so that there’s a counter narrative,” he states.

Sekhsaria draws attention to how every now and then, political parties toy with renaming some of the islands or their landmarks. “The islands have a complex history — the first war of independence, kalapani and colonisation. Some may argue in favour of renaming the colonial-sounding names after Indian freedom fighters. But the islands have a history longer than that of colonisation; there are original names given by indigenous people,” he states.

As a parting thought, he states that even if some of the writings in this book have been more than a decade ago, it assumes more relevance today.

The author’s previous books on the islands:

The Last Wave – an island novel (HarperCollins India; 2014)

The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier – Cultural and Biological Diversity in the Andaman Islands (UNESCO and Kalpavriksh; 2010)

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 2:05:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/in-his-new-book-pankaj-sekhsaria-continues-his-analysis-on-complex-issues-that-put-the-beautiful-andaman-and-nicobar-islands-in-a-state-of-flux/article19698573.ece

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