Stefan Kirschner, oritk2@yahoo.com

As the recent controversy over “human safaris” in the Andaman Islands has come to light we need to analyze exactly the situation and not be deterred by sensationalist claims from various groups and individuals.  The Great Trunk Road currently cuts through Jarawa territory and groups have called for it to be shut down completely.  Safaris have taken place where tourists pay guides to take them on the road and see the Jarawa who will line up alongside in order to get food and trinkets.  Tourists have made them dance in order to get food and otherwise behaved towards them in a condescending manner. 

A little background: the Andamanese consist of 4 groups: The Great Andamanese, which is the general name given to the ten northern tribes of the islands, who numbered about 5,000 when the British arrived.  They have been reduced to 41 individuals mostly due to diseases such as pneumonia, measles and influenza to which they had no immunity.  Other members of the tribes intermarried and assimilated into the general Indian culture.  Regrettably, in 2010, Bo Sr, the last member of the Aka-Bo tribe died, bringing that group to an end. (Additionally a separate group called the Jangil seems to have gone extinct by 1907.)  The second main group is the Onge who inhabit the southernmost island of Little Andaman and number about 100 members.  Since their resettlement by the Indian government into permanent Indian dwellings in small parts of their island in the 1970’s, their prognosis looks bleak.  The Jarawa are the third group.  They have not been settled by the government and live in the jungles on the west side of South Andaman.  They have been very independent until lately.  They number about 250-300.  The last group is the Sentinelese who live on North Sentinel Island and number about 50.  They are one of the most isolated people on earth and are hostile to anyone who approaches the island.  The North Sentinelese are in a different situation due to them being on a remote island that the Indian government has decided to deal with in a “hands off” approach. The Sentinelese, in the meantime, have resisted all approaches by the outside world.  Government workers had approached their island in boats and were often targeted with arrows by the Sentinelese. In the 1990’s, however, they had accepted gifts of coconuts from the government workers.  In 1998 the government of India declared there would be no more visits by anybody to the Sentinelese for fear of them catching diseases and so they could be left alone.  In December 2004 the tsunami hit this area of the Indian Ocean and it was feared the Sentinelese had perished as had thousands of other non-native Andaman Islanders.  A helicopter was sent to the island to check and while it was still in the air it came under fire by arrows and stones.  It seems like they received their answer.

So why are the Jarawa coming out of the forest at this point? The Jarawa only started to appear from the forest in 1998 and since then there have been incidents of encroachment on farmer land and property.  “The Jarawa, without any warning or negotiations, came out of their jungle hideouts and wandered - stark naked as is their wont - through Indian villages (where nudity is an absolute taboo). Wherever they went, the Jarawa (mostly young men) helped themselves to everything that took their fancy. They had no concept of money and were used to getting free "friendship gifts" from the authorities.”   

In 1998 a Jarawa boy broke his leg in a skirmish and for the first time a Jarawa was treated in an Indian hospital.  Indians came from all around to see him because most had never actually seen one before. When he healed, he was released into the forest with many gifts.  What then happened was a drastic change in Jarawa-Indian relations.  He came back with friends demanding more gifts.  This event was to begin a process that had more and more Jarawa coming out of the jungle to encounter outsiders face to face.  Each time they returned to the jungle with new items made out of glass, plastic, and other unfamiliar materials.  They also became sick.  10% of the Jarawa population perished from a measles epidemic in 1999.  The biggest issue right now for the Jarawa is the Andaman Trunk Road.  It is a road built in the 1980’s which is used for bus transport and logging and which cuts right through the forest of the Jarawa reserve.  Jarawa regularly come on the road and beg for food from every vehicle.  In May 2002 the Indian government ordered the closure of the road, the removal of the settlers there, and a ban on logging.  As of now this has not been carried out and the situation continues as before. 

The goal of groups like Survival International is to keep the Jarawa isolated and in so called “pristine condition”.  They claim that settling them will kill them. They also claim that the indigenous group itself has to decide what it wants to do and no outsider has the right to dictate to them what to do.  But as Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar says “But how can they make an informed choice without knowing what the alternatives are? Just explaining the alternatives properly will entail considerable contact between them and the mainstream.”  Have Survival International spoken with Jarawa leaders? Have Jarawa leaders told them they want the road closed with no more interaction from outsiders?

Does Survival even speak Jarawa?

It seems however, that there is an inevitable, inexorable process that is underway with the Jarawa and the Sentinelese, the last remaining groups that have until now avoided civilization. The Jarawa are not isolated on an island like the Sentinelese and therefore have a different set of problems but the process of meeting outsiders has been initiated by the Jarawa themselves.  From their actions we see that they are willing to come into contact with civilization. This modernization process however, must be done in a smart and very careful way so that the Jarawa will neither end up like the Onge or the Great Andamanese. This could include possible eco-tourism, employment of the Jarawa which could take into account their lifestyles, etc.  As Aiyar says “Giving Jarawas education, healthcare and other facilities will not mean depriving them of their culture or traditions. India has many ethnic groups thriving with their different cultures even as they join the mainstream. Tribal identity can definitely co-exist with national identity.”

As for transference of disease and the lack of immunity of the Jarawa, they are such a small community that immunizing them should not be a problem. Massive changes for any people in such a small amount of time will definitely be difficult but with hindsight and by learning from mistakes with other peoples, there should be one last chance to help the Jarawa before it is too late.  Those that wish to remain in the reserve should be given the right to do so and if they then want the road closed so be it. The will of the Jarawa themselves must be gauged and not just outside NGOs or the government.  In the end the Jarawa themselves must be able to articulate what their wishes are.

Read Survival International's Response here.

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