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India's 'human safaris' banned, as fight for tribal rights goes on

India finally halted the practice of allowing tourists to ogle the native tribes of a secluded Island in the Andaman Islands. But with a growing tourism industry there, the battle might not be over. 

By Shaikh Azizur RahmanCorrespondent / March 2, 2013



Calcutta, India

India’s Andaman Islands, situated in the Bay of Bengal, are surrounded by crystal waters and a sparsely populated coastline, and are home to lush forests – the perfect tourist destination. But recent scandals on the island have concerned international activists.

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Each year, thousands of tourists pay tour operators on the archipelago to catch a glimpse of the native semi-naked and naked Jarawa tribesmen and women - the main attraction for most tourists, despite several laws (beginning in 1956) banning tourists from coming too close to the protected tribe.

Then, last year, a tourist video of tourists ordering semi-naked women to dance went viral on the Internet, spurring national and international condemnation – and a new interim law, which was actually enforced on the island, starting last month.

It appeared to be a win for both activists and the tribe. But with a growing tourism industry the mainstay of the archipelago, the battle might not be over. India’s Supreme Court asked the island’s authorities to decide this month whether the small tribe, which is believed to be descendants of the first people to move from Africa to Asia, should be forcibly assimilated in the mainstream society or remain in isolation.

Activists argue that forced assimilation is an infringement of the tribe’s rights, and is unnecessary.

The decision whether the Jarawa will join mainstream society should not rest with the Islands' authorities, says Sophie Grig, of the UK-based indigenous rights advocacy group Survival International.

“It must be up to the Jarawa to decide how they want to live their lives – it is not a question of isolation or mainstreaming, but of the Jarawa making their own choices about their lives and their future,” says Ms. Grig.

For centuries, the Andaman Islands were hardly visited by anyone other than the prisoners sent to serve their time there, and the guards who ran the prison. It has only been since the 1990s that mainland Indian tourists started flooding the Islands, which are now home to some 380,000 people.

In the 1970s the government of the Andamans began the construction of a 230 mile-long road to connect Port Blair, the largest town, and capital of the territory, with Middle Andaman and North Andaman Islands to supply essential provisions and medical facilities to the settlers in far-flung areas. Activists warned then that the road, which cut through thick forests inhabited by the Jarawa, could have devastating consequences for the isolated tribe, not accustomed to outsiders and susceptible to disease.

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