Expensive transport project in Andamans threatens Jarawas, fragile forests

The Andaman Trunk Road, which is being upgraded, is seen as the key to ‘exploit’ the tourism potential

November 23, 2018 03:25 pm | Updated 06:39 pm IST

A member of the Jarawa tribe

A member of the Jarawa tribe

It’s just after sunrise in South Andaman, but it feels more like mid-morning. At Jiratang Check Post, scores of vehicles wait in line: first it’s the public buses, followed by private ones, mini buses and cabs filled with tourists, and finally a long line of trucks and tankers. Tea stalls and breakfast joints are full, and sleepy tourists, most on their way to the Baratang limestone caves and mud volcano, gaze into a dense forest ahead.

Five minutes later, an announcement in Hindi blares through: no photography, no giving food to the Jarawas, no littering, no stopping and no breaking away from the convoy. The rules are also listed on a board and they must be strictly adhered to, we are told. We are in the Jarawa reserve.

The half-empty public transport bus takes time to wake up, then the music system kicks alive, playing Hindi songs from the 90s at full pelt. The bus hurtles down the narrow, potholed road, and within a few minutes, the convoy that started off obediently packed together has broken up and straggles kilometres long down the road.

Just 15 years ago, the 333 km National Highway 223, or Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), faced an uncertain future. The road gave settlers and tourists unfettered access to the isolated and self-reliant Jarawa tribe. The Supreme Court eventually banned all traffic on the road passing through the Jarawa reserve because it had opened the forest to logging and encroachment, and made the tribe vulnerable to diseases.

The Andaman Trunk Road is seen as key to ‘exploit‘ tourism.

The Andaman Trunk Road is seen as key to ‘exploit‘ tourism.


Now, the rule boards are the only sign of this order; along the road are signs of the opposite ‘development’ in the shape of road widening and upgrading, and gashes in the forest and mangroves where bridges are being built over two creeks to replace the ferries. The controversial road is being turned into a contiguous snaking stretch, and with that the archipelago will join the few such around the globe that are connected by road.

To 'exploit' tourism potential

‘NH-223 is the lifeline of Andaman Island,’ says the highways authority in a note to the Environment Ministry justifying the upgrade. The project will cost ₹2,100 crore, making it one of the largest infrastructure projects undertaken in the islands. Today, some 23,800 tonnes of cargo moves on the road annually — not an insignificant number for a population of barely 3.5 lakh.

The road is also key to ‘exploit’ tourism potential, says NITI Aayog’s document published in August. When infrastructure is in place, tourist numbers will increase from 4 lakh to over 12 lakh by 2030, says NITI.

“While ATR is an important logistical link for islanders, its use or rather over-use is not going to solve many problems of access... It will only result in a demand for a wider and wider road and subsequent repairs and all that comes with the poor road building capabilities we have seen in the past 60 years in the islands,” warns Manish Chandi, a senior researcher with the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team who has spent much time on the isles. The new projects may not be suitable considering the seismic upheavals the islands witness time to time, he adds.

As the bus barrels down the bumpy road, the forest flies past in a blur: various shades of green broken only by the violet tufts of the endemic Andaman Crape Myrtle. Once in a while, the driver raises his hand to return a greeting from the Jarawas waiting by the roadside and watching vehicles zip past or just watching workers pour bitumen into potholes.

“They used to be hostile, but now they are like one of us,” says Kammu Mura, a truck driver with roots in Kozhikode. He has, for the past two decades, been transporting potatoes and onions from Port Blair to Mayabunder in northern Andaman. “I used to be afraid of them. They would come in groups with bows and arrows. But now they ask us for food or even for a lift,” he says.

The 270 km trip from Port Blair to Mayabunder can take as much as 20 hours. “Some times, it can take three hours in each creek itself. Once the bridges come and the road is upgraded, it will take less than five minutes to cross the creeks,” says Murra.

Construction has begun on a two-laned bridge across Humprey strait

Construction has begun on a two-laned bridge across Humprey strait


During the construction of the road in the 60s and 70s, the Jarawas violently resisted the construction and the extraction of timber. Till the turn of the millennium, there continued to be sporadic opposition to vehicles infringing their forests. The driver points to the seat closest to him. “Reserved for gunman,” it says. Those were the old days, he says. “Now, they are friendly.”

Turning point

In 1997, a boat full of Jarawas made its way to Uttara Jetty. It was the first time they reached out to the settler population, and it was a monumental turning point for the tribe, who number less than 400 people.

Meanwhile, in the remote North Sentinel Islands, home to the Sentinelese tribe, an American tourist was killed when he entered the island alone. “The authorities should have enforced the protection of the Sentinelese and their island for safety of both tribe and outsiders,” said Survival International, a movement for tribal peoples’ rights. It added that it is not impossible that the American might have infected the Sentinelese with pathogens they have no immunity against, “with the potential to wipe out the entire tribe.” This is the daily threat the Jarawas face through the ATR.

The changes have been rapid. Villagers claim to have seen Jarawas do odd jobs in plantations or farms; tourist cab drivers talk about them knocking on windows asking for paan or tobacco; while in the offices of Port Blair, government officials joke that the relationship is so far advanced that Jarawas can be brought under skill development programmes.

“Over the past decade or more, ATR is a passage that encourages tribal tourism… Indigenous islanders still do not get the respect they deserve,” says Chandi.

There have been changes in the interactions between Jarawas and outsiders, brought about by the road. There are frictions too. In May, Jarawa youth were reportedly involved in three incidents of theft, of laptops or cash from tourists, and one incident of shooting arrows at trucks. As one activist says, this is just a reflection of the deeper tectonic shifts taking place within the community.

The road threatens not only the Jarawas, but the forest ecosystems too. In the 70s, when road work was stopped, D.N. McVean, a consultant for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, warned about the ecological impact once the road becomes fully operational. “(It is) already providing a corridor for the spread of weeds and insect pests which would otherwise have failed to penetrate the heart of the forest,” he wrote in his June 1976 report on land use on the islands.

Four decades later, researchers in Regional Medical Research Centre (Indian Council of Medical Research) at Port Blair collected stagnant water in containers along inhabited areas of ATR. They inferred that trade through the road was probably the ‘main source of dissemination’ of the invasive Aedes albopictus mosquito species into the forests.

Scratching the surface

In 2010-11, botanists from University of Calicut and Botanical Survey of India found a non-flowering orchid, which they later confirmed as the Zeuxine rolfiana , endemic to Andaman, and rediscovered after 121 years. However, by 2013, their research found it to be ‘critically-endangered’ and warned that the constructions associated with the ATR was a significant threat. But this is probably just scratching the surface.

For an island chain of more than 572 islands, with at least 38 inhabited, the need for road connectivity is a recent idea. Most major towns and local trading hubs have harbours, the majority of which are under-utilised or in disrepair. “These ports do not figure in the imagination of planners. Developing cargo-handling capabilities will be much more sensible than strangulating the already choked and dirty town of Port Blair,” says Chandi.

When vehicles were banned on ATR, the court emphasised on shipping routes that skirted the tribal reserve. The island administration, however, has taken it slow. The focus has not been on lessening traffic along the ATR, but to cater to the tourist islands of Neil and Havelock, which now have the best ferry service.

Unlike the cramped, noisy public bus, the passenger ship MV Coral Queen is spacious with train-like berths. More than half the berths are empty for the ride from Diglipur in North Andaman to Mayabunder in Middle Andaman and then Port Blair in South Andaman.

It was just earlier this year that the ship, capable of seating 451 people and carrying 100 tonnes of goods, was inducted. It already has a reputation for being unreliable and barely reaches its capacity on most days; often, smaller ferries are used instead.

In October, one more ship was inducted, this time in the hope of taking tourists off the ATR towards Baratang. After the launch of the Port Blair-Baratang sea route, Chetan Sanghi, Chief Secretary of the islands, tweeted: “Many tourists seek to look at Jarawa tribals. This is insensitive and avoidable. Aboriginal tribals are not objects. They need space and dignity.”

Without empathy and understanding, these superficial steps are simply not enough to save the island’s tribal pockets. Instead of being a lifeline for the island, ATR is set to become a controversial road that cleaves it.

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