Tragedy of the Shompen

Ancient tribe: Their self-sufficiency is slowly being undermined.

Ancient tribe: Their self-sufficiency is slowly being undermined.  

The Shompen are as precariously poised on the brink of extinction as the four other hunter-gatherer tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. MEENA GUPTA

It is India’s last island and its largest. Beyond it stretches the mighty Indian Ocean. One of the 556 islands in the Bay of Bengal, known as the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Great Nicobar first entered the wider public consciousness in December 2004, when the tsunami wreaked havoc on the island. Great Nicobar, with its large habitation, of settlers from the mainland at Campbell Bay suffered enormous damage, both in terms of human lives and in terms of property and infrastructure. The scars are still vivid, more than two years later.

Its tsunami connection apart, Great Nicobar is also known as the land of the Shompen, one of the last surviving stone-age tribes in the world. Not as well known as the Jarawa tribe of the Andaman islands, the Shompen are as precariously poised on the brink of extinction as the four other hunter-gatherer tribes (the Jarawa, the Andamanese, the Onge and the Sentinelese).

Classified as a Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) along with the four other tribes, the Shompen are, unlike the other primitive tribes of the Andaman Islands, not of negrito but of mongoloid stock. Their light yellow-brown skins, straight hair, narrow eyes and stocky build give them a strong resemblance to the people of Myanmar and Indonesia.

Like the Jarawa, they are skilled hunter-gatherers but, unlike them, also raise plantations of various crops such as pandanus and lemon and colocasia. They subsist primarily on these plants, wild boar, wild fruits, honey and fish. And like the Jarawa, they are, by and large, disease-free.

The tragedy of the Shompen — indeed, of all the primitive tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands — is that until a few decades ago, they were monarchs of all they surveyed.

Only 50 years down the line, their lands have been occupied, their forests chopped down, their animals hunted and they themselves outnumbered by people from an alien culture. Unlike the major islands of the Andamans and some Nicobar Islands, Great Nicobar was, by and large, undisturbed by incursions of outsiders until the late 1960s. The Shompen lived in the interior of the island, inside the forest and along the rivers; the Nicobarese lived along the coast, to the north of the island. The two tribes lived in a kind of armed truce after intermittent skirmishes.

A major influx of population started in 1969 with the settlement of several hundred ex-servicemen from the mainland on the south-eastern coast of Great Nicobar, and a proposal to settle several hundred more on the western coast.

Even more damaging, the East-West road (measuring 43 km in length) was constructed through pristine Shompen territory. Thus a tribal reserve area under the Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956, was opened to outsiders.

Shrinking reserve area

The area of the reserve has also shrunk over the years. The ‘reserved area’ in Great Nicobar, which initially covered the whole island (1044.54 sq km as per the notification dated 2 April 1957, issued by the Chief Commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar islands), has been reduced to 853.19 sq km. The population of outsiders has been growing steadily since 1969, while the number of the Shompen, which is alarmingly low, has remained stagnant or is shrinking.

According to the Census, the population of the Shompen was 212 in 1971, 223 in 1981, 131 in1991, and 398 in 2001. These figures are, of course, estimations and the discrepancies, particularly in the last figure, are quite obvious, as the Shompen, being forest-dwelling, nomadic hunter-gatherers and averse to the entry of others into their settlements, do not lend themselves to easy or accurate counting.

Several development activities are currently happening in Great Nicobar, all with an inevitable deleterious impact on the Shompen. Some are security-related given the strategic location of Great Nicobar almost at the southern end of India and its proximity to many international shipping routes. Such activities cannot, perhaps, be avoided.

Three dangers

But the three issues that pose the greatest danger to the Shompen are not defence or security-related: the burgeoning population of outsiders, the renovation and continued construction of the East-West road through the heart of the Shompen reserve, and the free food and other items being given to the Shompen by the government.

Even though Great Nicobar was severely affected by the 2004 tsunami, it does not seem to have had any permanent impact on the number of people who wish to live there; the population today has grown considerably from that in 2001. Apart from the impact on the Shompen, the numbers need to be controlled and reduced from the point of view of the island’s carrying capacity. The island’s ecology will definitely be destroyed by such large numbers and so will the people who live in harmony with it.

The construction and repair of the East-West road is an even greater threat to the Shompen. This road, which had been constructed long ago and abandoned, fell into disrepair and was not used for several decades. Indeed, there was no real need to maintain it since the settlement on the western coast which the road was supposed to link, never came up. Since the tsunami, however, repair work on a lot of structures was taken up, including on the East-West road. Thus the Shompen are faced with the renewed danger of incursions into their territory. Moreover, the labourers from the mainland bring with them a totally different culture. Even more worrisome, they bring diseases to which the Shompen have little or no immunity. Such diseases can spread like an epidemic, as happened some years ago when diarrhoea killed a large number of the tribe.

But, by far, the most damaging activity is the administration’s practice of doling out free rations. This has been in operation for some years, but increased after the tsunami, in the mistaken belief that the Shompen were being protected from hunger and starvation.

The Shompen, who are a totally self sufficient hunter-gatherer-grower people living on wild animals, fruit, tubers, fish and honey, are being given rice and biscuits and alien food products. They are also being given cloth, though the Shompen have an ancient tradition of making cloth out of tree bark, which they wear swathed around their waists. Thus an insidious culture of dependency is being created, undermining the self-sufficiency of these people.

Specialised handling

The issues of the tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands are so different from that of other tribes that it calls for extremely sensitive and specialised handling. Unfortunately, most senior officials in the Andamans and Nicobar come to the islands from the mainland, for a brief period and do not have a clue about the approach required for these rare heritage tribes.

When there is a conflict between the interests of the few hundred tribal people and that of the few lakh people who have settled there, the administration tends to decide in favour of the larger number, though such decisions might have a direct and extremely adverse impact on the primitive tribal groups. Such officials also resist any kind of sensitisation.

Unless the administration wakes up to the fact that they have a very uncommon and precious commodity in the form of these heritage primitive tribes, one that needs extremely delicate and sensitive handling, it is more than likely that these few hundred people will, in due course, disappear.

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