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The 'wisdom' of protecting the 'Jarawas'

Port Blair, Sat, 04 Feb 2012 ANI

Port Blair (Andaman), Feb 4 (ANI): The recent controversy over the Jarawas started with a video uploaded by a UK-based daily showing semi clad Jarawa tribal women allegedly being forced to entertain tourists. Accusations were made, government and police officials and activists visited the island, probe was ordered and finally two got arrested by Superintendent of Police. And we came safe out of it!


Ask a local for his opinion on the matter and he will tell you that much has been made out of that video. The reality, however, has no titillating storyline.


On January 7 at about noon, a group of Jarawas, locally referred to as Tirur Jarawas, simply walked out of the forest reserve and ventured into the revenue villages of Tusnabad Gram Panchayat in South Andaman District. Laden with baggage neatly packed in baskets on their backs and tied with woven creepers - Jarawas, evidently were prepared for a long stay away from homes deep in the reserve forests, they also carried raw material to make new baskets, unfinished bows and arrows, and basic tools meant for hunting and fishing.


1-litre PET bottles packed with rice grains; and floats made of table-sized thermocol sheets and tightly capped empty plastic cans in the hands of the 'protected' Jarawas group were surprising enough for everyone but the locals.


During their visit to the revenue villages, Jarawas bring forest produce for barter with local residents living at the fringes of the forests. Bringing crabs, honey and other products, they were lured by the offer of tobacco and old clothes, and more interestingly, pepe, or cash. This, undoubtedly, is the most disturbing aspect of recent 'transgression' by the Jarawas.


The sight of ten or hundred rupee notes changing hands between the Jarawas and the villagers is a far cry from the Jarawa Policy of 2004 laid down by the Calcutta High Court aimed at "protecting the Jarawa from harmful effects of exposure and contact with the outside world while they are not physically, socially and culturally prepared for such interface".


Characterized by their dark skin and frizzy hair, this Negrito race is believed to be amongst the first migrants to have reached the Andaman Islands, many thousands of years ago. Today, the 400-odd surviving members of the tribe present a unique combination of a community that continues to use its traditional wisdom for sustainable livelihood security while leaving the rich biodiversity of the fragile forests intact.


The reserve forest they know as home is presently the largest single contiguous stretch of untouched and undisturbed forests that remain in the islands. Their understanding of nature and ability to read her warning signs can be estimated from the fact that no casualties were reported among these tribal groups, though thousands were killed elsewhere on the islands.


Till 1998-99, the Jarawas resisted all contact with outsiders. Later, on their own, they started coming into contact with the outside world. Much of the disaster that followed is blamed on the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR). A 35 km section of this road cuts through the restricted Jarawa Reserve Territory, truncating their area of habitat. Primarily hunters and gatherers, they are today confined to 765 square kilometers of reserve forest in the South and Middle Andaman Islands. The fallouts were inevitable.espite of the orders of the Supreme Court in 2002 to shut the road in the interests of the Jarawas, the Andaman administration has continued to defy the ruling by permitting traffic on the ATR, in the larger interest of the communities originally hailing from Bengal, Tamil Nadu and other Indian states who have settled on the northern islands since Independence.


In view of the alarming rise in increase in interactions between the Jarawas and others, SC recognised the need of reviewing the Jarawa Policy of 2004 and constituted an 'expert committee' to assess the perceptions of the Jarawas. The members of the committee maintain that the policy is well conceived.


Their report records its observation that rice has found its way into the lives of Jarawas through clandestine barter between Jarawas and non-Jarawas. If rice becomes a preferred and sought after item by overtaking their traditional indigenous food items, the Jarawas would become not only dependent on others for their food but become victims of exploitations by unscrupulous non-Jarawas, hence there is an urgent need to control the inflow of the rice among the Jarawas!


Manish Chandi, a research scholar working in these Islands since 1995 and a member of the committee, presents his own perspective on what is increasingly a complex issue with no ready answers, "From what I understand, they come out and go back on occasion with varying regularity and irregularity at some places, and they do not do so because of any miseries that we assume afflict them. It is an opportunity that they are using ever since hostile stances from both colonizers and Jarawas transformed into spectacles of barter, negotiation and our perception of being capable to serve their needs through welfare."


The lone Member of Parliament from the Islands, Bishnupada Ray, is against the shutdown of the ATR because it is the life- line of communities living in the North and Middle Andaman Islands, with essential goods being transported by trucks daily. Besides, he points out, the Jarawas wanted to come into mainstream and the government needed to "welcome and support the Jarawa community to join the mainstream on humanitarian ground."


From a society that ignored the complaints of its own people and took action on the same issue, shamefully when reported by a foreign newspaper, we cannot expect much. While deliberations continue and reports are drafted, incidents like those in the video footage will manage to create stir for a brief period of time and soon, like everything else, we will forget them.


"Our intervention should be based on the least intervention, in terms of 'welfare measures', in terms of messing with other peoples affairs. The Jarawas and other hunter gatherers have worked out their strategy- hunt and gather, forage and pillage where possible," says Chandi. "We have to be able to desist [from] the temptation to give them a strategy, but rather allow them to devise their own - henceforth, and as always."


The Charkha Development Communication Network asks, "Are the experts listening?" By Zubair Ahmed(ANI)


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