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“Insights into environment, indigenous communities and development in
the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.” By Pankaj Sekhsaria

Change and flux are major things in any system, it might be
political or ecological or geological or cultural system, sometimes we think
change should happen and at the same time change shouldn’t happen.
Sociocultural, ecological and geological are the three major factors that
contribute to Andaman and Nicobar islands. Andaman and Nicobar islands are well
known for tourism, cellular jails, and 2004 tsunami and Jarawas. Jarawas is an
ancient tribe which is in existence for more than 40,000 years in Andaman and
Nicobar islands.

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Since India’s independence, the government was keen to take
advantage of the fertile land, mineral resources, timber and other natural
wealth that the Andaman Islands had to offer. As early as November 1948, a
group, designated as the Andaman Exploratory Delegation, was sent to these
Islands to examine ‘the prospect of colonization and settlement there and they
found the islands favourable for “colonization”. It was observed that ‘there
are large possibilities for settlement by those who take to cultivation or
fishery as their principal occupation. But to exploit the resources of Andaman,
there was an ‘urgent need for labourers of all types as well as skilled
labourers of artisan class’.  Initially
the government attempted to identify individuals from the settled population
who would be “willing” to relocate in these Islands.  But the unwillingness of the settled
population to go to these far off islands made the government shift its
attention to the refugees. Seemingly, the rational was that the refugees, who
had already migrated once, would pose fewer problems if asked to move again.
Thus, the policy of dispersal presupposed that the refugees had no sense of
belonging and no choice for destination. Or, rather they should not have a sense
of belonging and a choice of destination. The fallacy of this logic was evident
though. That places like Calcutta attracted more refugees than other parts of
the region proved the refugees had clear sense and their own reasons about
where to go and where not go. Pankaj in his debut novel, The Last Wave states
that, for these people, the Jarawas were as much myth as the ghosts or the gods
inhabiting the unknown forests of their own imagination. Refugees from East
Bengal, who began settling down on the outskirts of the Andaman Islands’ Jarawa
Reserve in the ’60s and ’70s. Despite living in close proximity to the Jarawas
for several decades, the Bengali settlers have had little interaction with one
of the world’s most isolated tribes. “There are huge legacies and histories of
mistrust between the two communities, which is fuelled by the lack of
interaction. Until 1998, the Jarawa tribe, who have inhabited the island for
thousands of years, were under voluntary isolation and survived reasonably well
within the thick forests. Any interaction between the tribe and settlers would
lead to a conflict from both sides,” explains Sekhsaria, who has based much of
his story on the cataclysmic event that took place in 1998, when a group of
Jarawas stepped out of the forest unarmed.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory in around 1998 announced
that the first sunrise of the new millennium would be visible from the island
of Katchal, of the Nicobar group. Efforts were on to get more than 20,000
tourists (largely foreigners) to the tiny and remote island of Katchal, which
was advertised as the only place in the world where the first sunrise of the
millennium will be visible.

It appeared to be the perfect situation for a huge tourism
event of an exotic, remote island, an occasion that will never come again, and
a government was very eager and willing to make this event a grand one which
intern generates revenue to the government in huge amounts. However, the entire
event was seriously questioned and opposed by many environmental groups across
the country as there were serious flaws in the event and also the serious
consequences of the event. The opposition was strong enough to sustain and make
administration to respond to the consequences. In early August 1999 a
secretary-level meeting held at Port Blair, a decision was taken to scale down
the plan drastically.

The campaign that was coordinated by SANE was based on
detailed research and solid facts. The very fact that Katchal was being
promoted as the only place where the first sunrise of the new millennium will
be visible was never correct. A clarification was issued by experts of
Pune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics categorically
asserted that these claims were preposterous and also stated that there were at
least two fake news that were being perpetrated, one is that the new millennium
begins on January 1, 2000, and the other is that Katchal is the only place
where the sunrise will be visible. Experts all over the world from
organizations like the United States Naval Observatories, the National Bureau
of Standards and Technology of the US and the Royal Greenwich Observatory, England,
before its demise in 1998 have accepted and adopted January 1, 2001 as the
beginning of the new millennium and January 1, 2000 as the first day of last
year of the millennium.

The arguments over the timing of the new millennium, the
time of the sunrise and the exact location could well have been discarded as
academic. The logic of raising these points can also be questioned if this
unique opportunity had been beneficial to all. But that was precisely the
point. There are far greater and serious issues involved in allowing this
incorrectly nomenclature event on the tiny island of Katchal, says experts from
SANE, who was the first to realise the problems with an event of this nature.
Therer are only 12 thousand local resident population of Katchal, and among
them nearly 4 thousand of these are form Nicobar Islands. The impact of sudden
appearance of an additional 20 thousand outsiders on this island for a day or
two which if very small in size can well be imagined. Anyone can imagine how
much of the geological life would be disturbed, more than 500 acres of forests
might be mangroves or anything else should be cut down for the sake of just one
or two days.  Acharya points out that
this could create a huge health hazard. The presence of 20,000 people means
that a minimum of 20 to 30 thousand kg of human excreta and thousands of litres
of liquid waste will be added to the local environment and this will be in
addition to unknown quantities of other solid waste like paper and plastic, to
name the common ones.

From Pankaj’s lecture we can deduce some more insights like
there is a very huge risk for the vegetation, animal life and also human life
who make their living on Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the best example is the
2004 earthquake, we are aware of the loss it caused in indian coastal areas
like Vishakhapatnam, Chennai whereas one can imagine the effect of this
earthquake on a small areas like Andaman and Nicobar who’s epicentre is an
Island called Sumathra which is very few kilometres from Andaman and Nicobar
Islands. One more interesting insight is about the wild life which is only
visible or existed in only Andaman and Nicobar group of Islands, few examples
are Andaman pep wiper, Nicobari fowl, Jaint Ledopath (locally called tractor
katchuva), jaint coconut crab(one the biggest crabs in the world), mud skipper
and Andaman embroid geco. And the other interesting point is its mangrove forests
and breathing roots of these trees which is major part of a coastline and also
a most neglected one in our country and under water life of corral leaf. He
also raised some interesting points like if we consume the way we do now and
most importantly the way we dispose them in oceans and seas, by 2050 the oceans
might have more plastic than that of living fish. So, I think it’s time we need
to be cautious about what we are doing either it might be for our enjoyment or
entertainment or it might be for the cause of development and how our works are
effecting our surrounding and also socio-political and ecological behaviours of
our environment and start contributing also to environment’s and ecological
life around us.

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