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.
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.
“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.
When the Andaman Trunk Road was finally opened in 1998, the tribe’s men shot arrows at the passing vehicles and even killed some settlers, showing anger at the intrusion.
However, as the hostility to outsiders, especially among younger Jarawas, has begun to wane in recent years with more exposure to visitors via the road, tour operators also grew bolder about offering more interactions to clients, putting the tribe at risk. Various rules were placed on the frequency and number of vehicles permitted on the road at a time. Still, in 2002, after pressure from activist groups such as Survival International, India’s Supreme Court ordered the road be closed to tourists.
But Andaman authorities did not enforce the court order to close the road, as it saw the road as a lifeline for settlers.
"I think the real reason they haven't done it [before],” says Grig, is because “it's not popular with the settlers on the Andamans, and the tribes are a small population with no power or influence. The administration claims that the road is a lifeline but it's only a lifeline because they haven't put an alternative route in place."
Last month, amid fallout from the viral video of the tribeswomen dancing, Survival International wrote to the Supreme Court urging "immediate action" to have Andaman authorities enforce the past orders. Two weeks later, the court ruled that the "disgraceful" Jarawa tourism must be halted immediately. This time, the Andaman authorities closed the road to all tourist vehicles last month.
“We are happy that now the ‘human safari’ has been banned. But tour operators and many others are seeking the ban be overturned. We hope the Supreme Court will convert the interim order to permanent one soon,” says Jarawa rights activist Denis Giles.
For years Indian settlers in Andaman have been demanding the protected Jarawa tribe be mainstreamed with society, arguing that it is meaningless to keep an area so big reserved only for an estimated 300 to 400 members of the Jarawa.
Last year, India Tribal Affairs Minister V. Kishor Chandra Deo announced that the Jarawa were living in “beastly condition” and that it was unfair to leave them isolated that way, though recommended mainstreaming them gradually for their own good.
An Indian Parliamentary standing committee noted in a report last year that it, too, favored mainstreaming the tribe in an effort to economically develop the islands. Though it gave no estimate on what that would look like.
"We recommend the [tribal affairs] ministry to review the policy of Jarawa tribes, which should aim at facilitating a slow and smooth process of transition, i.e. bringing Jarawas into the mainstream with minimum damage to themselves and their cultural heritage," the committee said in its report to the Parliament.
"Like everyone else, the Jarawas have right to development," says Bishnu Pada Ray, a BJP member of Parliament. "If we push them further into isolation, we take them away from the light of development, and it's sheer injustice to them."
Mr. Ray says he's convinced that mainstreaming the Jarawas would empower the community. "Jarawa children should be taught modern life-skills and they should be provided all amenities of modern life as we enjoy them. Their children should be placed in modern schools. They should be helped to get good jobs in modern society. They should take part in the development process of the nation.... Jarawa children also have the right to become engineers, doctors, or other modern professionals.... I don't believe that any well-wisher of the community would ever want to keep them in isolation."
The Indian settlers – most of whom arrived to farm, fish, and do tourism-related business after the Andamans hit the tourist map – are eying the forest resources and the valuable land that is home to the Jarawa, says Mr. Giles.
“In their vested interest they resent the protected status of the tribe or the existence of the Jarawa reserve,” he says.
Most activists who have worked closely with the Jarawa agree that the tribe’s people lead a life that is happy in their own terms and that they prefer not to come out of the forest.
“Some years ago the [Andaman] authorities brought En-Mei, a Jarawa boy, to the city for medical treatment after he received an injury in the forest. After the treatment he went back to forest.
“Like most of his people, he very clearly said that he preferred to live deep inside the jungle – away from ‘outsiders,’ ” says Giles, who interviewed En-Mei.
“When tribal people around the world have been forced into the mainstream, rates of disease, depression, addiction, and suicides soar. Mainstreaming strips tribal people of their self-sufficiency unity and pride and leaves them struggling at the very edges of society,” says Grig.
“It also causes tribal peoples enormous trauma. They find themselves in an alien environment, stripped of everything that gave their life meaning.”
Where tribal people’s land and resources are protected, they have a better chance at surviving and can adopt aspects of outside life, on their own terms, says Grig, pointing to the successful example of the Enawene Nawe tribe of Brazil, who have been permitted to handle their own “development” and maintain their own independence. “There is no reason why schooling and medical treatment has to be done by outsiders and outside tribal peoples lands,” she says. “It can be something they can be supported to do themselves, on their own land, in their own way – if it's something that they decide they want."
Forced mainstreaming, on the other hand, could turn out like the Aborigines in Australia, she says.
“Attempts to mainstream the Aborigines have brought displacement, impoverishment, and the destruction of their communities,” says Grig. “Despite living in one of the richest countries in the world, compared to other Australians, Aborigines are six times more limey to die as an infant, eight times more likely to die from lung or heart disease, 22 times more likely to die from diabetes. Their life expectancy at birth is 17-20 years less than other Australians,” she says.