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Monday, 23 January 2012

Tribe and tribulations A video on the Jarawa tribe of Andaman islands has kicked up a rumpus. Sonia Sarkar turns the spotlight on a dwindling community that’s caught between the forces of modernity and their desire to remain true to their native life


Tribe and tribulations

A video on the Jarawa tribe of Andaman islands has kicked up a rumpus. Sonia Sarkar turns the spotlight on a dwindling community that’s caught between the forces of modernity and their desire to remain true to their native lifestyle
CHANGE CHALLENGE: The Jarawas now occasionally enjoy bread, biscuits and vadas while some even speak HIndi
Beads of sweat roll down his taut dark neck as the 20-year-old man sharpens a piece of iron with a stone to make an arrow for a hunt. Behind him, his mother boils potatoes and fish for lunch.
The youth belongs to the Jarawa tribal community of Andaman. Last week, the tribe figured in a video which showed Jarawa men and women dancing for tourists. And as the government investigates the origins of the video, the future of the Jarawa people is once again being debated.
It’s an old fight. The government wants the tribe to taste the fruits of development; activists argue that the tribe will not just lose its culture, but die of diseases they’ve never known before. The tribe — believed to be over three centuries old — has only 395 surviving members who live in a 1,028 sqkm reserve area.
But changes have slowly been creeping into their lives. The young hunter’s mother, for instance, is wearing a long dress, and cooks food in aluminium vessels. Though the traditional attire is a thin strip of red threads worn around the waist, some have taken to clothes sent by mainstream groups.
Food habits are also changing. The tribe hunts and eats wild boars and monitor lizards, along with wild fruits and tubers. Now, they occasionally enjoy biscuits, vadas and bread — provided by locals and government officials. Some even speak Hindi.
“Curiosity has pulled them out of their shells but at the end of the day, they’d rather go back to their jungles,” says an officer at the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), an autonomous body run by the tribal welfare department.
Union tribal affairs minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo says the government has plans to gently assimilate them into the mainstream. “We will not do it in haste as the culture of the tribe has to be preserved. But we are discussing with experts how the Jarawa people can avail of our education and health systems,” he says.
The plans worry activists, who cite the example of the Great Andamanese people, some of whom were schooled. “What good have we done to them? Government officers recruit them as drivers and maids. Can we offer anything better,” asks Anvita Abbi, professor of linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who has worked on the languages of Andaman tribes.
Any forceful attempt to induct them into the mainstream will kill the tribe, warns activist Pankaj Sekhsaria. “But we should not stop them from coming out of the reserve. We should let them do what they want,” adds Sekhsaria, who is with a non- governmental organisation, Kalpavriksh.
For long years, the Jarawa people have been wary of non-tribals. Then, in 1997, a Jarawa boy, Enmei, was treated by doctors at Port Blair’s GB Pant Hospital after he fell into a ditch and fractured his leg.
“The boy was provided with the best treatment and also pampered with clothes and food. When he left, he was given bananas and coconuts to distribute among his community. He worked as a peace ambassador between his tribe and others,” says a former tribal welfare officer.
In 1974, the government tried to connect with the tribe. Every full moon day, officials would leave coconuts and bananas near the Jarawa habitation. “Though the people picked them up they never shook hands with non-tribals,” says the AAJVS officer.
The conflict between the Jarawas and the non-tribals, mostly refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, started when the refugees started spreading to the Jarawa areas from their original places of settlement.
“The Jarawas saw the settlers as intruders who went inside the jungle to collect minor forest produce such as honey and fruits. Many settlers were killed but after Enmei’s life was saved, the tribe befriended them,” the officer adds.
Once the hostilities thawed, AAJVS workers started visiting the reserved areas and providing them with iron for hunting tools, aluminium vessels, clothes, food and medical aid.
Ironically, the bid to help the Jarawas led to health complications. With no immunity to modern day diseases, they have now been falling prey to measles, malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea, medical experts say. At the GB Pant Hospital, a floor with seven beds is reserved for the Jarawas. “Malaria cases are on the rise; we treated three cases last year,” says a medical official.
The hospitals have also unwittingly brought about changes in Jarawa habits. Boiled eggs and rice — which were never a part of a Jarawa meal — are now popular. “The hospital serves them rice whenever they are admitted,” observes S.A. Awaradi, a former tribal welfare director in the Andamans.
“Women are given gowns and men a piece of cloth when they come for treatment. So they have now started experimenting with clothes,” says Suresh Babu, assistant professor at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, who has studied Andaman and Nicobar. Samir Acharya, of the Society for Andaman & Nicobar Ecology, a local NGO, points out that sometimes a tribal wears the same clothes for months on end, leading to skin diseases.
But the hospital is not the only point of contact. A major source of concern is the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) which passes through the restricted Jarawa reserve territory.
This is where tour operators, who are mostly locals, take tourists for “human safaris” and film Jarawa children and women singing and dancing. In exchange, gifts ranging from tobacco and samosas to pens or clothes are given to the tribals. The controversial video was also shot on this road.
A 2002 Supreme Court order on closing the road has not been implemented. “The ATR is our lifeline. How can one shut it,” asks Bishnu Pada Ray, the local BJP MP.
With the rise in tourism, restaurants and shops have opened up along the 5km Jarawa buffer zone, violating another Supreme Court directive. Ray, however, believes that if the Jarawas are coming out for food, their own resources are possibly depleting. “If we don’t integrate them now, this tribe will get extinct,” he says, citing a 2011 Parliamentary report that said many Jarawas were willing to join the mainstream.
JNU research scholar Pramod Kumar, who has lived with the Jarawas, refuses to buy the argument. “They pick up things out of curiosity. Also, only a handful of people living close to the ATR come out of their areas,” he says. A 2003 Supreme Court-appointed expert committee report, he adds, said there should be minimum interference with Jarawas.
But can the Jarawas be left alone now that their habitation and customs have been disturbed? “We have introduced them to diseases by making them wear our clothes and eat our food. Now we cannot leave them unattended,” says Awaradi, who in a report to the government last August recommended that the ATR traffic be restricted.
Meanwhile, tourists and tour operators continue to record the tribe as they sing and dance for food and gifts. “Tourists want to see the Jarawas, not the other way round,” says an AAJVS worker. “For tourists, spotting a Jarawa tribal is no less than seeing a tiger in the jungle.”