The Tribe From The Stone Ages: Jarwas Of Andaman And Nicobar Islands

Posted on November 19, 2011 in Society

By Brototi Roy:

They are considered one of the first successful migrants out of the African continent.  They are one of the few tribes that were not affected by the Dec 26 tsunami and are considered to know the science of detecting natural early warning signals. Sadly though, they are also on the verge of extinction, with their present population being merely 250.

I am talking about the Jarawas, one of the tribal communities of the Negrito group residing in the Andaman Islands, and have done so for the last 20,000 years. Their way of life over the years hasn’t changed much. They have always resisted contact with the outside world, their first contact being in 1998. The Jarawas are basically nomads, living in groups of 40-50. They hunt pigs and monitor lizards. They also gather seeds, berries and honey and fish with self made bows and arrows.

Over the years, the survival of the tribe has become more and more difficult. The major factor responsible for their alarmingly low population is the 340 km long Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) which originates in Port Blair in South Andaman and cuts across the island to reach Diglipur in the north, encroaching the land that was formerly used by Jarawas. This road destroyed some of the finest rainforests and led to huge scale deforestation which effectively   damaged their lifeline- the forest habitat. Not only that, contact with the outside world brought diseases to this small community. In 1999, a measles epidemic struck the tribes, affecting nearly 60% of the inhabitants. The road also brought in poachers and loggers in the Jarawan land, who stole the basic necessities of the tribe for their profit. The Jarawan women were also sexually exploited.

The Jarawas had opposed the construction of the road right from the beginning fearing its nefarious impact on their lives. Since they were not consulted, they restored to hostile attacks on the construction workers to prevent the construction of the road due to which the work was temporarily halted in 1976 but was resumed soon ignoring protests by various anthropologists and environmentalists. Over the four decades it took to build the highway, the government paid no heed to the multitude of protests and continued to turn a blind eye to the plights of the Jarawa community and build the ATR right through the heart of the Jarawa land, exposing them to tourists, settlers, poachers, diseases and ultimately death.

However, it would be unfair to claim that nothing of significance has been done for this marginalized tribe. The Calcutta High Court (Andaman & Nicobar islands falls under Kolkata jurisdiction) had issued an order to frame a policy which was prepared with the help of a number of experts and was adopted in December 21, 2004. The policy strictly forbade interactions between Jarawas and tourists and restricted traffic on the ATR. Unfortunately, the policy remains unimplemented for the major part.

Many NGOs have been working diligently to ensure that the tribe is not wiped out from the face of the earth due to the negligence and insensitivity of the so called cultured masses, noteworthy among them being Survival International. They have been trying to propagate that bringing this tribe to “mainstream” would ensure their extinction. The need of the hour is to implement the policy which forbids interaction with the tribe and allows them their well deserved peace to allow the inhabitants of the islands since Stone Age to continue living. Sonia Gandhi, the president of Congress strongly supports the right of Jarawas to not be forced into “mainstream” and has been following the tribe’s plight for many years. India’s National Advisory Council recently told the ministry of tribal affairs to consult with Jarawas before drafting any policy with respect to them. There are strong protests to close the road that exposes these people to tourists and urges to tourists to boycott the ATR.

Let us hope that the administration and the local people are not too late to save this ancient tribe from the face of extinction.