The Andaman Tribes - Victims of Development

The current position and future of four distinct negrito tribes of the Andaman Islands, a Union Territory of India in the Bay of Bengal, is disturbingly demoralizing. The past and present trends in these islands provide a textbook case study of the dangers of too-sudden contact with indigenous and isolated peoples, and of the invariable tendencies of land imperialism which governments all over the world practice in relation to tribal peoples and their needs.

Of these four groups, it is significant that the Sentinelese tribe is the only one which is culturally intact and healthy. But if present trends and policies continue, the situation will undoubtedly change; it may not be too long before the Sentinelese join the ranks of the demoralized, unhealthy, declining tribal groups which are the order of the day in the Andamans.

The Andamans are a chain of over 500 islands (of which 27 are inhabited), islets and rocks, running about 370 km north-south in the Bay of Bengal, 1,000 km east of the east coast. Together with the Nicobar Islands to the south, they constitute a Union Territory under the jurisdiction of the Home Ministry of the Indian Government. Covering a land area of 6,430 sq km, the Andamans are characterized by their extensive coral beds and hilly terrain. Covered by tropical evergreen vegetation, they contain fauna and flora representative of the Indian, Burmese and Malay regions. There are numerous endemic taxa on which practically no work has been done, with no doubt many more to be discovered.

The four tribes that inhabit the Andaman group include in addition to the Sentinelese, the Jarawa, Onge and Andamanese. While there are vague, fanciful references to the Andamans and their inhabitants as early as 670 AD, the first accurate accounts begin in the late eighteenth century, when the British government in India decided to colonize the islands. This action was taken to end the depredations of Malay blackbirders and pirates, who also preyed on the islands for the above market, and to protect shipwrecked crews landing to replenish their water supply, who were sometimes attacked.

In 1789, Lieutenant Archibald Blair of the Indian Navy was asked to survey the islands and find a harbour "where fleets in time of war can refit by any means...or to which any part or the whole may retire in the event of a disastrous conflict with the Enemy..." Blair's survey report led to the formation of the first settlement, in 1789; a colony of just over 100 settlers at Port Cornwallis (now Port Blair) on the island of South Andaman. In 1792, the settlement relocated to the island of North Andaman because of its superior harbour. It proved to be a disastrous decision due to the prevalence of cerebral malaria; most of the settlers lost their lives and the settlement was abandoned in 1796. For the next 50-60 years, the tribes were once more left to themselves.

A combination of further shipwrecks and the question of accommodating thousands of mutineers sentenced to life imprisonment after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, triggered another attempt at colonizing the Andaman. The notorious penal colony and central jail on the island of South Andaman were the beginning of the end for the Jarawa and the Andamanese, as they succumbed to disease and the prejudiced, imperialistic policies of the new owners of their land.

The Andamanese

The Andamanese were the first victims of colonization and development in the Andamans. In 1858, when the penal settlement was started in present-day Port Blair, there were 4,800 Andamanese; today only 19 inhabit the area. Initially, casualties resulted from the tribe's defensive attacks and the retaliation by British officers and Indian sepoys.

But soon the Andamanese's friendship was bought with gifts of coconuts, bananas, tobacco and even opium. To appease the Andamanese further, in 1863 the government established the Andamanese Home. Here, particularly friendly Andamanese, who proved useful in locating runaway convicts and in setting a "good example" to less friendly Andamanese septs, resided. The inhabitants of the Andamanese Home, however, soon contracted disease and mortality increased every year. None of the over 150 infants born at the Home survived beyond two years. Pneumonia in 1868, a measles epidemic in 1877 and, later, syphilis wiped out perhaps half the total population of the Andamanese - in less than 40 years of contact with outsiders.

M.V. Portman, who was in charge of the Andamanese Home, wrote in 1885, that "it is sad to see the ravages which syphilis is working among [the Andamanese] and their numbers are becoming less year by year." Eleven years later, in 1896, following an outbreak of influenza, Portman recorded that two-thirds of the Great Andaman Island was depopulated and that "the extinction of this branch of the race cannot be far off." The first census, in 1901, estimated about 625 Great Andamanese of 10 septs, about 15 percent of their pre-settlement numbers. By 1930, there were 90 and M.C.C. Bonington, superintendent of Census Operation, noted that "this devastating fall in the numbers of the Andamanese in less than 75 years of contact with administration paralyzes comment.' Today, the administration has resettled the 19 survivors on 603-hectare Strait Island, with coconut trees, pigs and cows.

The Onge

In 1867, the captain and seven crew members of the ship "Assam Valley" who went ashore on Little Andaman to cut a spar were killed. The resultant punitive mission took 70 Onge, 10.5 percent of the tribe's total population. Friendly relations were eventually established in 1887, after a number of Onge were taken to Port Blair, given presents and released.

The Onge's relative isolation partly shielded them from the lethal effects of contact with the settlers, but they too soon succumbed to disease. In 1901, the census estimated their numbers at 672 and in 1931, at 250. On August 6, 1984, an Onge girl was born, making the present population, which lives on a reserve at Dugong Creek on Little Andaman, 103.

In the early 1950s, the Onge started visiting Port Blair in their canoes to trade for or get handouts of tobacco, sugar, etc. The then Chief Commissioner, A.K. Ghosh, remarked: "If this continues, they will go the same way as the Andamanese." While the policy of help and conciliation for the tribals is enlightened on one level, their territorial requirements need to be given more importance. In 1977, two-thirds of the over 700 sq km of Onge land on Little Andaman were allotted to settlers and the Forest Development Corporation (FDC). The 1966 census report predicts that "the possibility of preventing their [the Onge's] ultimate extinction seems remote."

Nevertheless, there has been no relent in the massive clearance of primary forest and construction of roads, helipads and jetties for the Little Andaman masterplan of 25,000 hectares for agriculture and plantations (Yojana 1976). Considering the inevitably detrimental outcome of these plans on the island's ecosystem, this may just become the cover to the Onge coffin.

Robert Allen of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (UCN) disagreed with the pessimism of the census report:

Personally, I do not accept the census (1966) statement that the possibility of preventing their ultimate extinction seems remote. As a general rule, hunter-gatherer people have every chance of surviving as hunter-gathers and of living well, provided:

1. they want to;

2. their entire economic and spiritual territory is conserved;

3. they receive appropriate medical help;

4. their numbers are in equilibrium with their environment;

5. they do not become demoralized, losing faith in their own way of life" (personal communication 1975).

He added:

By economic territory I mean the full area of forest and coastal waters used for hunting fishing and gathering by a healthy stable population. Often this area embraces their spiritual territory (area important to them for other than economic reasons). Clearly medical aid is essential. However, there is a danger that medical aid can become a form of cultural aggression displacing indigenous medical techniques and materials.

The Onge are now confined to a reserve of 110 sq km. This must be hard for a seafaring tribe that used to visit the islands of Rutland, Cinque, Brothers, Sisters and Passage in their finely built outrigger dugouts. As Allen writes, "Probably the most destructive impact of development on forest peoples is loss of land" (personal communication 1975). Although the administration has given considerable help and support to the Onge, the fact remains that Little Andaman, the most intact large island in the Andamans group, has recently received thousands of settlers from the rest of the Andamans and Nicobars. A fairly flat island, it was a prime target for forestry, plantation and settlement.

The resolution adopted by the 12th General Assembly of the IUCN regarding the protection of tribal societies provides useful guidelines for the Andamans' situation. It stresses the psychological importance of hunter-gatherers having adequate "habitats," and the vulnerability of previously isolated people when suddenly exposed to outside culture.

In 1975, the late prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, addressed the people of the Andamans and Nicobars, and said: "Neither resettlement nor development should be made an excuse to uproot tribal groups, or cut down forests. The tribals are the original inhabitants and any disturbance may threaten their survival." She, obviously, had dark forebodings about the disturbance that is threatening the survival of the Onge now and will probably jeopardize the Jarawa in the future.

A multidisciplinary team sent to the island in 1975 to report on the impact of deforestation, stated that forest areas inhabited by the aboriginals should not be cleared any more. However, recent developments on Little Andaman include:

* clearance of 3,000 hectares of virgin forest for settlement and plantation

* construction of roads from Hut Bay north and west

* construction of jetties at Hut Bay and Dugong Creek

* settlement of Nicobarese at South Bay

* establishment of a match splint factory

* consolidation of the Onge to one area and construction of tin sheds for them to live in.

In 1972, the government-requested investigation to study nutrition in the Onge context and determine reasons for their decline reported that infant and child mortality was 40 percent and that 42.1 percent of the women were sterile. The Andamanese's decline was largely attributed to diseases such as syphilis, but remarkably, no evidence of such disease, congenital or otherwise in the 60 Onge (50 percent of the population) examined was found. The demoralization of the Onge tribe in the face of our aggressive, domineering culture could be the basis for the rapid decline in their numbers.

This downhill trend will soon be irreversible. It is therefore essential to stop all forestry and developmental work on Little Andaman. As Alien explained.

Here is where the interests of hunter-gatherers like the Onge and Jarawa, of peoples and governments like those of India and of conservationists coincide. If Little Andaman were declared a protected area, for use by the Onge alone, a unique area of tropical forest would be conserved while at the same time assuring the Onge way of life. If an ethnobotanical program were also begun, studying and recording Onge plant knowledge, the Onge could be shown how much we value their environmental understanding, while the rest of the world would be shown both the potential of tropical forest plants and also how harmoniously some peoples can live in environments which at present we only know how to exploit by destroying (personal communication 1975).

The Jarawa

The Jarawa did not succumb to the British administration's efforts to win them over; perhaps the rapid decimation of the Andamanese frightened them off. When Captain Blair first landed in the islands in 1789, however, it was the Jarawa who were less hostile than the Andamanese. After the establishment of the second (penal) settlement, the Jarawa started moving west, south and north, obviously unable to face the new and alien situation. But even as they kept their distance, they were repeatedly punished by the British administration. M.V. Portman records in his History of our Relations with the Andamanese (1899), "On our arrival the Jarawa were quiet and inoffensive toward us, nor did they disturb us until we took to continually molesting them by inciting the coastal Andamanese against them. After a few years of this disturbance the life of the Jarawa became very hard and in retaliation they began to attack us."

In desperation, the Jarawa retaliated by raiding the settlements, which soon sparked a battle between them and the outsiders. This unequal war continues to the present day. Each raid was followed by drastic measures from the British in the form of search parties and punitive expeditions. One year, when the Jarawa killed four convicts and a policeman, in return 37 Jarawa were killed.

With independence came the ever-increasing pressure for more and more land, and the additional burden of thousands of refugees from East Bengal. Many were settled in the Andamans, and in time, the Jarawa were pushed away from the better-watered east coast. They now occupy the 742-sq km Jarawa Reserve which was demarcated in the 1920s and which consists of most of the western drainages of South Andaman and the central part of Middle Andaman.

The most serious threat to the Jarawa today is the ever increasing human pressure on the islands and the continued encroachment on their territory, which is prime fishing and hunting land. In the last 20 years the Andamans have been increasingly ravaged for resources and used as a dumping ground for the landless; since 1960, the population has expanded from 50,000 to about 180,000, and over 100,000 hectares of forest have been cleared and 600 km of road constructed. The Andamans Grand Trunk Road will eventually link Diglipur on North Andaman with Port Blair, and will be 340 km long. The road building was brought to a halt in 1976, however, when several of the Public Works Department's road-building crew died from arrow wounds. The engineers had aligned the road north well into the eastern edge of the reserve, which the Jarawa consider their own territory.

Every year one or two people are killed in "Jarawa encounters," but there are no figures on the number of Jarawa casualties. According to the 1966 census, between 1946 and 1961, 76 encounters with Jarawa resulted in the death of 15 settlers and "many" Jarawa. In February of this year, two settlers were arrowed to death by Jarawa when the two illegally entered the tribal reserve in search of valuable ambergis, a substance washed upon tropical beaches which originates in the intestines of sperm whales and is used in perfumery. On several visits to the islands, first-hand accounts of similar encounters were often heard; the circumstances invariably arise from encroachment into the tribal reserve. To protect the interests of the Jarawa, these encroachments must be controlled and dealt with by heavy fines. The Jarawa now use metal for their arrowheads and will take considerable risks to obtain it, raiding road-building camps, forest camps and farms.

The post-independence policy toward the Jarawa mimics that of the British administration in trying to appease and buy the Jarawa's friendship. In a typical display of bureaucratic short-sightedness, we have yet to learn our lessons from the tragedy of the Andamanese extermination. Regular patrols are still sent out with gifts such as cloth, plastic buckets and matches; one group of Jarawa has been in contact with these parties for 10 years, and another group has now Joined in. These "gift patrols" may spell the end of the Jarawa; the government should take heed and leave them alone. Isolation is apparently the best policy in the delicate Andamans situation until we can be sure our friendship won't kill them.

The government's maneuvers look alarmingly like the practice of scattering rice to attract birds to the snare. Given the unique and vulnerable situation the Jarawa are placed in, any contact should be carried out only by highly qualified anthropologists. The acknowledged authority on the Jarawa, T.N. Pandit of the Anthropological Survey of India (1975) emphasizes caution at every stage, with one of the first steps being the learning of the language. He rightly recommends that the matter should not rest in the hands of administrators and police officials, however sympathetic and intelligent they may be.

It is not known how many of these diminutive (under 150 cm) negritos there are, but estimates are close to only 300. The Jarawa Onge group and other Andamanese negritos show a considerable affinity to the Semangs of Malaysia and the Aetas of the Philippines, but how and when they reached the Andamans is not known. Cipriani advanced the theory that they arrived by boat via the southern islands many thousands of years ago. A second immigration brought the wild pig and the art of pot making, as evidenced by the remains in many kitchen middens scattered around the islands.

Without a doubt, whatever their numbers, the Jarawa are part of the Andaman mystique. According to Pandit, Jarawa bones are believed to be necessary at divination rituals among settlers. But many of them hold that the army should be called in to deal once and for all with these "black junglies."

The Sentinelese

On the 60-sq km North Sentinel Island, located due west of the Labyrinth Islands in South Andaman, live 50-150 Sentinelese. The Sentinelese (and the Jarawa) were said to have had canoes 50-100 years ago, which could explain the arrival of the Sentinelese on North Sentinel at some unknown period - perhaps not more than 150 years ago. Whether they were part of a Jarawa sept which accidentally drifted or purposely left the main islands is a matter for conjecture.

Unlike the Andamanese, Onge and Jarawa, the Sentinelese have refused to have contact with outsiders, and seemingly as a result remain culturally intact and healthy. Repeated attempts by the administration to make friendly overtures to them have resulted only in arrows fired from trees or beaches on the island's periphery. In 1975 journalist Raghubir Singh described officials' attempts to visit the island along with three Onges as go-betweens:

As our ship anchored offshore, we clambered aboard a lifeboat and puttered toward the shore, accompanied by three Onges. Several armed Negritos emerged from the forest, drawn bows in hand and arrows tucked in belts of bark. One Onge, holding a portable mike, shouted, "We are friends, come close, we mean no harm." The answer was the clang of an arrow against the side of our boat less than 80 yards from shore. The Onge tried a song: "We come from a distance to befriend you." One Sentinelese rocked his hips in tune and flashed smiles of amusement, but the group on shore showed no signs of welcome; we chose not to disembark (we learned later that our Onge escort was not understood by those on shore, although it is assumed that the linguistic base of all four Negrito dialects is the same).

For two days we went about outdistancing the Sentinelese and dropping ashore gifts of coconuts, bananas, red cloth, live pigs, axes, shovels, toys, and pots and pans. The Sentinelese speared the two pigs and the doll and buried them in the sand. They left the red cloth untouched and shot at least a dozen arrows at us in several confrontations.

It seems the present official policy of leaving the Sentinelese more or less alone is the best we can do for them. However, if the government's proposal to establish a free port commercial center in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the interests of nonresident investors is approved, it would likely result in the demoralization and destruction of the Sentinelese as well as the Andamanese, Onge and Jarawa.

Proposed Free Port Threatens Andaman Tribes

While Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has said he does not want the proposed free port to turn into a Hong Kong, he hopes that it will certainly rival Hong Kong and Singapore. The government proposal includes a tourist resort, vast privately run palm oil plantations and a satellite-linked communications system in addition to the Hong Kong style free port.

Large-scale agricultural settlement, however, will result in extensive deforestation and ensure further degradation of already less than fertile soil. In addition, although the islands receive sufficient rain, due to the topography, soil composed largely of sand and clay, a high run-off rate and few valleys to create reservoirs or dams, there is little capacity to retain water. Not only would large additions to the islands' population destroy one of the nation's last low-lying tropical forests and animal and plant wealth, but the already near-extinct Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese peoples.

In order to be sensitive to the needs of 150,000 mainlanders, a different approach toward development involving wildlife and resource management must be evolved to replace the present exploitative and detrimental approach. Crocodile and turtle farming are possible alternatives to hotels to help develop the islands' economy. At the all-Indian workshop on ethnobiology and tribal welfare held in June 1985, the creation of monopoly procuring bodies, co-operatives or other mechanisms to collect minor forest produce was suggested. Afforestation with chosen species is another way to provide permanent employment to the tribal peoples. What is clearly needed is a complete assessment of land use by experts before further development takes place.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: