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The Rediff Interview/Samir Acharya, crusader for the Andamans

December 30, 2004

That's Andamans, you'll always get conflicting numbers -- islands numbering from 300 odd to 500 odd depending whether you count during high tide or low tide," Samir Acharya of the Society of Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, told Senior Features Editor Archana Masih from his home in Port Blair.

Till the tsunami struck the Andaman and Nicobar islands, most of India knew little of this part of the Indian Union in the Indian Ocean. Little of the number of islands there and even less of the tribes that inhabited some of those islands.

For the uninitiated, like me, these are the tribes of the islands -- Onge, Sentinelese, Jarawas, Great Andamanese, Shompen and Nicobarese.

Rescue and relief efforts are underway but there is no information about some of the endangered tribes -- as much as four -- of the six that live on the cluster of islands.

Acharya's daughter Samhita -- who substituted briefly for her father on the phone before he finished fielding calls from The Washington Post and the Indian television news channel NDTV -- said there have been no aerial surveys and no ships has passed near the north central island. "So we don't know what happened to them," she says.

"We have not sent any rescue operation to Campbell Bay (in Great Nicobar) where Shompens live as of now but a few aircraft have been flying and picking up people from there. But nothing has been heard of the Shompen because they do not live near where the non tribals do," says Samhita.

In an illuminating conversation a few minutes later, her father, who moved to the Andamans in 1967 and calls himself an Andamanian, spoke about the importance of the tribes and pointed out that these primitive people who had been marginalised were Indians first and had a greater claim to their land.

What is the situation of the tribes? I understand there is no news of at least four tribes.

In the absence of any specific information, all I can say is that on my understanding of the habits of the tribe, the Onge are accustomed to gathering resources from sea. They live in Dugong Creek in Little Andaman. They build huts near the seashore at this time of the year and go out in canoes into the sea to collect food.

Obviously, they must be very vulnerable to the tsunami. A tsunami can be three inches in height in the open sea but when it comes closer to the shore it can be furious, up to 10 to 15 metres. Therefore, the chances that a lot of Onges must have perished had they been out in the sea.

Onge women and girls go collecting seashells and small fish from the shore. They must also be vulnerable. The question is whether they were out in the sea at that time. But early morning is the time when they go out because they try to finish their gathering work before the sun get very hot. They are likely to be out in the sea at that time which makes them additionally vulnerable.

So one needs to go there and take an actual count and see whether they are safe or not in Little Andamans.

Shompen were more vulnerable because they are closer to the epicenter and source of the tsunami. They live in the southern most island -- the Great Nicobar island and live in the southern most tip of the Great Nicobar island. Therefore most vulnerable among all.

(They are a Mongoloid tribe. There are only two Mongoloid tribes -- Shompen and Nicobarese. Great Nicobar is just 90 miles from Sumatra.

Sentinelese are also seafaring people, who go out into the sea. They go in their canoes to collect food in the morning. Therefore, it is likely the tsunami could have smashed some of their boats to smithereens and there would be losses but it can actually be confirmed from actual observation and not in any other way.

Since it is not been done, it is very difficult to say how vulnerable were they or what losses have taken place.

Rare Andaman tribes may have perished

What about the other two tribes?

The other two tribes are the Jarawas and the Great Andamanese. Great Andamanese, as far as I am concerned, very few are alive.

(Turns away from the phone mouthpiece and comes back laughing, saying -- "Pranab Mukherjee has just said that Onge tribes are safe in Car Nicobar. They don't live there but in Little Andaman. Anyway forget it."]

The Great Andamanese have lost their culture and very few of the pure blooded are alive. Unlike other tribes, they do not occupy any special place as a unique race. Unlike, the other four tribes.

It is these four that you mentioned then that are the endangered ones?

That's right.

What islands do these tribes live in?

Shompen live only in Great Nicobar island, Onge only in Little Andaman, Jarawa -- south and middle Andaman, Sentinelese in North Sentinel island, Great Andamanese have been gathered and put on Strait Island.

In normal circumstances can these tribes be reached on their islands? Can other people go there? Or are they completely isolated?

Onges, yes, a census has been taken by the Census of India. People are accessing them regularly because they are a friendly tribe.

The Jarawas were a hostile tribe. But what happened is that we filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Calcutta high court and it ordered a study by a high powered committee, this committee sponsored some scientific study and they put the number as 264.

But Sentinelese nobody knows how many are there. Nobody. No way. Because there is no census. It is all guesstimate. If you look at the census of India report, you will find that the guesstimate varies so much, sometimes it is 40, sometimes 250 to 300.

Andamanese, yes they have been numbered but like I told you most of them are not full blooded. 35 to 40 is their number but more than 50 per cent are mixed. But you must remember that there is no tribe like Great Andamanese. They are the remnants of nine different tribes all resettled on an island called Strait Island. Each had a different dialect and culture which they have lost. What they follow is a mixed culture. They do not enjoy in my eyes, the place of a unique tribe.

As a resident of Port Blair, what is your reading of the situation there?

The Andaman islands are much better off mainly because we were far from the source of the tsunami. Nicobar was very, very close and therefore much more affected. My concern is for the islands Car Nicobar, Chawra, Katchal, Central Nicobar. These are the places that have taken the brunt of the tsunami and, of course, Great Nicobar. We need to do everything we can to restore them.

Half the people in Car Nicobar missing

Is the Nicobarese tribe the largest?

Yes. They are also much more 'advanced', they have an agrarian economy. They have plantations, animal husbandry, as compared to the other five tribes of Andamans who are hunter tribes and do not grow anything and depend completely on nature.

Yes, Nicobarese tribe is the largest in number.

So they have suffered the greatest loss? Is it true that non-tribals are been evacuated first and looked after better in these relief operations? Is it happening to the Nicobarese too?

I have not been there what I will tell you is my subjective impression. What I have gathered from people in Nicobar in my communication with them off and on and also from the media. NDTV showed a large number of Nicobarese sitting passively, quietly, weeping while a large number of mainlanders, 'civilised Indians' surrounded their vehicle and demanded to be looked after, provided solace and comfort etc.

On one side we have a very vocal, politically empowered group of people and on the other side we have people who are not empowered and do not know what to do about it. Who do not know the ropes, so to say.

If you look at the number of people who have been evacuated although the Nicobarese population is 18,000 as against the 20,000 total population of Car Nicobar, the number of people rescued in that proportion is very very small. Most of the people rescued are defence, government employees, contractors of PWD and so on but I don't blame the administration because this is a very vocal and political powerful group which is trying to corner all the help that is coming there at the expense of the Nicobareans.

It will be a great loss if these tribes were to perish.

It's terrible. The problem is that we lump all the Nicobareans together. Each island has its own culture, tradition which is unique. They are not one tribe. Like we say all Chinamen look alike but we know there is great diversity among them. Similarly is the case here. So it will be a unique loss of culture. Each island has a very small population. Each has its own culture. If one island also gets wiped out it will be the loss of an entire culture, a whole tradition.

Why is it that we know so little of these tribes who are also a part of the Indian Union. They are Indians after all and we know so little of them?

I do not like the term 'they are Indians after all.' They are the original people, they came first, we came later. We came to Andaman and Nicobar islands 150 years ago, they have been living here for millenia. So they have a much greater claim to everything here. We have cornered them and taken so much as 80 per cent land from them without so much as by your leave. We marginalise them, acquire the resources for ourselves and throw them out.

I feel Andamans is still happens to be a colony. Madushree Mukherjee -- says the Indian Union became free from being a British colony in 1947 but at the same time acquired a colony which is the Andamans. This is true. We still have a very colonial approach in managing Andaman.

Why do you say that?

All decisions about Andamans are made in Delhi by people who have never seen the island or have a very little idea. It's a fiat regime, where orders prevail. Where there's little consultation with the people, where the people are not empowered.

For example, the sole authority for conducting anthropological research in the Andamans has been vested with the Anthropological Survey of India, no other university or private anthropologists have been given access. Most of them have not and those who have been, they've been highly critical of the regime. The only way we can do it is to open it up. Where we invite private initiative and reputed universities, NGOs to come and do work, that's the only way we can learn more about the tribes and disseminate information.

AIR triggers exodus from Nicobar

In the past what is the treatment of the Indian government been to the tribes? Accommodative or too bent upon including them in the mainstream?

Overtly and in policy statements -- very, very conducive. When translated into action, they have been very oppressive but that's probably true in much of India that things decided by well meaning people at the top do not get translated into action.

Like Rajiv Gandhi said of every rupee that is spent by the government on the people only 15 paise reaches the people, Andamans is not much different from the rest of the country in this matter. Decisions don't get implemented, policies don't get implemented.

Compared to other endangered tribes of the world, how ancient or rare are the Andaman and Nicobar tribes?

Erika Hagelberg at the University of Cambridge did a study of DNA fingerprints here of Andaman tribes. She put the antiquity to 30,000 to 70,000 years. Many other studies have put around the same figure. But studies still need to be done. There are 200 lime stone caves in the Andamans, any people who have migrated to a new land would normally take shelter in caves first. Our ancestors were cave dwellers, the deposits on these caves have not been studied therefore we do not really know their antiquity.

What is the mood in Port Blair?

People of Port Blair are politically empowered, they would like to milk the Indian welfare state for as much as possible. The lions share of the aid is being used in Port Blair but to my mind it ought to have gone to Nicobar, they are much more deserving. But this happens, in a democracy this happens.

The Rediff Interviews

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