Samir Acharya was one of the leading voices for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for over three decades

Acharya, who passed away in mid-October, fought some of the most important environmental battles for these islands and was made to pay for it too, by a system that was hostile and a people who were both unable and unwilling to understand

October 31, 2020 12:12 pm | Updated November 01, 2020 11:16 am IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Samir Acharya. I was about half his age when I first met him. I was in my mid-20s, he was touching the half-century mark. It was two-and-a-half decades ago — 1994 or perhaps 1995 — and I was making my first trip to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I have a surprisingly strong recollection of that first meeting. It was past dusk when we reached his shop in Middle Point, Port Blair. He was sitting, just as I would see him umpteen times in the years to follow, in his famous chair behind the working desk. There was the smoking cigarette, there were the hot samosas, and there were the steaming cups of coffee. And there was tremendous warmth, friendliness and respect.

He was the first person of my father’s age who I did not need to address as ji , sir or ‘uncle’. We were on first-name terms from the moment we met. For him, of course, it could not have been otherwise. When he spoke, it was with childlike enthusiasm and passion, and when he listened it was with a combination of sage-like wisdom and a genuine desire to know. He made you feel like an equal and it afforded an immediate if strange sense of comfort and freedom.

I was excited about the travel tips he gave me for the islands. I travelled widely and wildly then — down to Indira Point in the deep south, then back, and up north to Diglipur. I remember him telling me about the Jarawa and some of the threats being faced by the tribal reserve that had been created in their name. He even sent me with a government officer friend on a jeep journey to Kadamtala via the Andaman Trunk Road at a time when the Jarawa’s reputation as a hostile community was at its peak.

The most interesting evenings in Port Blair were in his shop, with coffee, conversation and yes, those samosas. He wasn’t just a fountainhead of information about the islands; his interest in other matters — national, global, esoteric — was as deep as it was encyclopaedic. He read fiction with as much enthusiasm as he read history or scientific tomes. He received reading material from across the world — a pile of freshly arrived magazines, newsletters and newspapers could always be found on that corner of his desk. As I think back today, it becomes clear that remoteness and isolation are more a state of mind than of any physical or communication infrastructure. Sitting then in far-off Port Blair, 25 years ago, Acharya was more well-connected than anyone I knew.

Vital battles

He was far ahead of almost everyone on issues of environment, civic matters, and the rights of indigenous peoples. He was the first to oppose the introduction of exotic fish farming in the islands on the grounds of ecological concerns about the oceans. He argued tirelessly to strengthen the shipping services, reasoning that road-based transport would be a huge environmental and infrastructural liability in an island system. He wanted swimming to be made compulsory in the education system, and he wanted the spectacular biological diversity of the islands — the corals, forests, dolphins and turtles — to be an integral part of the school curriculum for a people who live surrounded by water.

Acharya fought some of the most important environmental battles for these islands and was made to pay for it too, by a system that was hostile and a people who were both unable and unwilling to understand. In 2002, the Supreme Court, responding to an intervention filed jointly by his organisation, the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, the Bombay Natural History Society, and Kalpavriksh that I represented, passed landmark orders to protect the island’s fragile ecology and deeply vulnerable indigenous people. I was witness then to his own deep vulnerability and loneliness.

In an Andaman rainforest.

In an Andaman rainforest.

There were accusations and threats and I realised how much courage it takes to be at the centre of it all, and in a small place where everyone knows everyone. We too were accused — the outsiders with no stakes intervening in the islands and the islanders. It was an immediate lesson on the futility of creating an insider-outsider dichotomy, which he understood well.

Go-to person

The tsunami of 2004 struck soon after, and he became, as in most situations, the go-to person for anyone wanting an independent insight into what was happening. His deep understanding of the islands and wide network meant he was a reliable source not just for the outsider but often for the administration and even the intelligence networks. I remember vividly the glee on his face one evening (a few years earlier) as I sat in his office with a prominent tribal rights activist from the mainland. He was on the phone with someone and looked hugely amused when the call ended.

The man on the other side had been an IB officer asking if Acharya could provide him information on an activist who had just arrived in Port Blair that morning. He guffawed loudly and told us what he had said — “Yes, he is here and I am having an interesting chat with him.”

There was childlike glee in his face. This joy of the unexpected, the thrill of a new exploration, the endless quest to know — this is what made him click. And the challenge of a good fight. He fought hard for what he believed in. The values were as important for him as the thrill of the fight itself. And that is a difficult combination to beat.

Samir Acharya made his final journey in the middle of October this year. His was one of the most important voices for the Andaman and Nicobar islands for over three decades. The loss is a big one and irreplaceable.

The writer is a member of the environmental group Kalpavriksh and teaches at IIT-Bombay.

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