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Jarawas: To protect or not

Feb 08, 2012

How safe is it to expose the ancient Andaman tribe to the outer world in the name of development, explores Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava.

A recently released video showing Jarawa women dancing in front of tourists has triggered a debate on whether the ancient tribe of Andaman and Nicobar Islands should be brought into the mainstream. In this context, an expert committee of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs has recommended the Central government should not alter the policy of protecting the Jarawas from exposure to the outside world until studies are conducted on their concerns and aspirations. The Jarawas, whose population is just about 300, are known to have little immunity to outside illnesses.

In 2004, the government formulated its “Policy on Jarawa Tribe of Andaman Islands” to mandate limited interference in the cultural life of the tribe. The policy stated no attempt should be made to bring the tribe into the mainstream against their will. However, a section of politicians, including member of Parliament from the Islands Bishnu Pada Ray, have been demanding an aggressive policy to integrate the Jarawas into the mainstream. In June last year, the Andaman administration said the policy should be altered to empower the tribe to deal with the challenges of the modern society.

To reach a consensus, the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi asked the tribal affairs ministry last year to review the policy. The ministry then formed an expert committee, headed by the tribal welfare secretary, which asked the Islands’ administration to form a group of experts in July 2011 and visit the Jarawa reserve in the middle and south of the Islands to assess “the actual perceptions, needs and expectations of the Jarawas”.

Down To Earth has got exclusive access to the report of the group and the committee’s recommendations based on the report. The recommendations were sent to NAC in November last year.

The group says post 2004 Jarawas have increasingly come out of forests and interacted with outsiders but the phenomenon has been confined to the young males, 20-30 years of age. There has been no loud articulation from the tribe to leave the forests or to not return to the forests. However, the Jarawas need to be empowered to deal with external changes based on the knowledge derived from the tribe itself. “We have really never made an effort to understand what the Jarawas would say to the difficult proposal posed by the present situation and the issue of determining the possible future course,” says the report. The matter cannot be seen in relation to extraneous development in terms of courts, roads and government departments, it adds.

The group suggests the government should conduct social impact assessment, and monitor movement patterns and nutrition of the Jarawas. The current policy should empower them to deal with the challenges of integration with the mainstream and provide a definite role for the Anthropological Survey of India in their empowerment. The group also says adequate forest resources are available to the Jarawas to hunt and gather. The tribe, however, resents there is pressure from the outside to illegally or informally seek those resources, it adds.

Based on the findings of the group, the committee recommends no changes should be made in the policy till the studies suggested by the group are carried out. The committee shies from commenting on the issue of closure of the Andaman Trunk Road that passes through the Jarawa reserve, saying the matter is sub judice. The Supreme Court, in 2002, had ordered that the portion of the road which passes through the reserve be closed as vehicles expose the tribe to the outside world. The video footage was also shot near the same road. The Islands’ administration appealed to the court to defer the decision and did not close the road.

Sophie Grig of non-profit Survival International says studies have shown that when tribals are forced into the mainstream, rates of disease and suicide soar. “The Jarawas have thrived in their forests for more than 55,000 years—they may be poor but their quality of life is good.”

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