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THE CULTURAL DIMENSION OF ECOLOGY
Ecology, Culture, History and World-view
The Andaman and Nicobar Islanders
T. N. Pandit
The Andaman and Nicobar islands (also known as the Bay islands), a chain of 300-odd islands in the Bay of Bengal, are geographically one of the most scenic and beautiful and historically and sociologically one of the most interesting areas of the Indian Republic. They are situated between 60 and 140 North latitude and 920 and 940 East longitude. The evergreen tropical islands are washed by two heavy monsoons a year and the equatorial sun keeps them hot and dry from January to early May. Their total area is 8293 sq km and their total population according to the 1981 census was about 189,000. Of these 84 per cent live in the Andaman islands and the other 16 per cent in the Nicobar islands. The total population has since risen to about 2,81,000 (1991 census) — an increase of about 92,000 in a ten-year period — mostly through immigration from the mainland. Only 34 islands are inhabited, the rest lacking any permanent human habitation. As per official records, 87 per cent of the land area is still under forest cover. The island’s forests are rich in tropical fauna and flora but the only mammals are wild boar, civet cat and spotted deer (introduced by the British administration in the nineteenth century). The dark blue waters of the sea abound in marine life. Very few islands have perennial streams, as most of the rainwater washes down to the sea.
The entire Andaman and Nicobar islands provide a broadly similar natural setting and environmental conditions, though micro-level variation exist, with the islands being spread over 600 nautical miles of sea. But as has been very well established by a wealth of data provided by anthropologists and human geographers, very different cultures can flourish in terms of their adaptation to similar ecologies. That is inevitable because each human group, in its collective wisdom and inclinations, makes its set of choices from among the numerous possibilities that exist, to evolve and develop cultural traditions to adapt their life-styles to the conditions in which they live.
This point is very well illustrated by studying the cultural and economic categories that exist in the Bay islands.
There are five small traditional hunting-gathering tribes, the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese on the Andaman islands and the Shompen on the Nicobar islands.
Herders and horticulturists
The Nicobarese of the Nicobar islands are spread across twelve islands of the archipelago.
By far the predominant population of the islands consists of migrants from the mainland who have settled here from 1858 onwards. The vast majority live in the Andamans and only a few thousand are in the Nicobars. The rural population is attached to land, practising agriculture and animal husbandry.
Subsumed under this category are also people living in urban and semi-urban areas working as unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers and in white-collar jobs. But we shall mostly leave this sub-category out of our main discussion.
The hunter-gatherers are today very small tribes in terms of their populations, which range from 28 to 200 or so. The four tribes who occupy a few pockets of land or forest area in the Andaman islands are of negrito stock, while the Shompen, living in the forests of Great Nicobar, are of Mongoloid stock (like the other Nicobarese). In popular parlance and even in official correspondence they are referred to as ‘primitive tribes’. Along with the Nicobarese they are listed as scheduled tribes by the Andaman and Nicobar administration.
The Nicobarese live in large, well-organised permanent coastal villages. Their relatively large population of 21,172 (1981 census) is spread out in twelve Nicobar islands, and a small number have in recent years settled in the Little Andaman island. The Nicobarese are herders of pigs and horticulturists, with plantations of coconut, areca nut, yams, bananas, pandanus, etc. A majority of them are converts to Christianity, major conversions having taken place from 1945 onwards. While all the hunting-gathering tribes are pre-literate and hence illiterate in census terms, the Nicobarese show a literacy rate of about 31 per cent (1981 census). They have been attending church and government schools with great interest. This percentage is quite high when compared with the situation among tribes elsewhere in India. The Nicobarese, for obvious reasons, are not considered or referred to as ‘primitive’, but all the same are looked upon as ‘backward’ by the settlers.
Besides, the six scheduled tribes mentioned above, there is a huge migrant population from India (189,000 according to the 1981 census) that has settled here since 1858 when the penal settlement was established at Port Blair by the British. The bulk of them (158,000) are concentrated in the Andaman islands. In the Nicobars there are only about 6,000 settlers, and most of them are on the Great Nicobar island, the largest and the southern-most island in the Nicobars.
Prior to 1947 most of the people were brought here as individual prisoners or as groups (e.g. Mopla, Bhatu and Karen, etc.) by way of punishment or otherwise and some came here as government officials, traders, workers, etc. Many of them settled here for good. These are the ‘old settlers’.
After 1947 the first people brought here by the Government of India as free settlers were Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi (erstwhile East Pakistan) refugees. They kept on coming here, even on their own, through the 1970s. Besides, large groups kept coming here from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in search of white-collar jobs or to work as labourers, artisans, and fishermen and small traders.
Since 15 August 1947 (when India achieved independence from British rule) the Bay Islands have constituted a Union Territory that is directly administered by the through an administrator designated as the Lieutenant-Governor (earlier called the Chief Commissioner). There is an indirectly elected Pradesh Council whose role is advisory. The Lieutenant-Governor nominates a tribal leader from among the five small tribes to represent their interests, while the Nicobarese are able to elect their own on the basis of their numerical strength. The Andamans and Nicobars are districts of the territory each administered by a Deputy Commissioner. The islands elect one member to the Lok Sabha (lower house of Indian Parliament).
The existence of the Bay Islands has been known to travellers, explorers and geographers during the last 2000 years, as references in various reports show. But in place of authentic accounts there have been many myths, weird tales and lots of mystery about them. The more reliable information has come only after European missionaries and explorers started visiting the islands from the fifteenth century onwards. Colonisation efforts started from the eighteenth century onwards on behalf of the European powers. By all accounts, the Negrito hunter-gatherers and the Mongoloid Nicobarese are the oldest known inhabitants of these islands. The probability is that the Negrito people held sway in large areas of the South-East Asian mainland and migrated to these islands several millennia ago, perhaps under pressure from migrant Mongoloid hordes from mainland China. At a later stage Mongoloid people also migrated to these islands and they confined themselves to the Nicobar islands. This story remains yet in the realm of speculation.
However, the hunter-gatherers apparently found these islands very suitable and seemed to flourish here except for the occasional visits of Malaysian pirates who would try to collect birds’ nests (a great delicacy) and also try to capture the Andamanese negritos to be sold as slaves in South-East Asian markets. But in return the Andamanese would try to kill foreigners and destroy their vessels whenever they could. The islands thus acquired a fearsome reputation. In any case, the Andamanese and the Nicobarese were not seriously disturbed by any outside elements.
The situation changed drastically and decisively when the European colonial powers started exploring these areas with a view to establishing permanent settlements. In 1788 the islands were surveyed by Lt. Archibald Blair and Lt. Colebrook of the British navy, and a year later the first penal settlement was established by the British East India Company on South Andaman. The settlement was shifted to North Andaman in 1794 and abandoned in 1796 due to heavy casualties.
In 1858 the British came back, following the great Indian Mutiny of 1857, and established a second and more permanent settlement. In the mean time the Nicobar islands had passed under the control of the Danish East Indian Company, but Denmark ceded the area to Britain in 1869 through a treaty.
The Andamanese, who were the sole inhabitants, thus came into direct conflict with the British administration over the occupation of their lands and forests and coastal areas (their resource areas). The conflict and skirmishes lasted several years in various areas, but the Andamanese had to give in eventually to superior technology and might at the cost of hundreds of lives. Subsequently, when peace and friendship were established on most of the islands, the Andamanese came into closer and more intimate contact with the local administration, the British soldiery and the convict supervisors. This close contact led to the spread of new diseases in epidemic form that caused a sharp demographic decline among the negritos. An estimated population of 5,000 in 1858 was reduced to less than 2,000 by 1900, and by 1931 to a mere few hundred.
Today the total population of these tribes has stabilised around a few hundred, though estimates for individual tribes vary (see Table I). In the case of the Shompen the 1981 census figure is 214, but Rizvi in 1984 reported a population of only 134 (1990).
|Sources: Census reports (1901-61) and Anthropological Survey reports. Figures below the dotted line are only estimates. Estimates of total populations in 1858 (start of the penal settlement) was about 5,000 (3,500 Great Andamanese and 1,500 Onge-Jarawa-Sentinelese).|
Populations of Shompen and Nicobarese
|Source: Census of India
The stark fact that emerges from the above two tables is that the most serious problem being faced by the five small tribes of the A&N islands has been their sharp demographic decline following their close contact with outsiders. The worst sufferers have been the ten original Great Andamanese tribes (described by Man 1883 and Radcliffe-Brown 1922). From an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 in 1858 they have come down to a group of a mere 28 souls today (descended from five tribes). The fate of the Onge-Jarawa-Sentinelese group has been relatively less calamitous, as an estimated 400 survive against an estimated 1,500-2,000 population in 1858. The reason is not far to seek. The former have been in the longest and most intimate contact with the settlement and bore the brunt of the ill effects of long drawn out conflicts and skirmishes and new diseases. In the case of the latter, less contact must have helped. Let us summarise the situation obtaining today among the hunting-gathering tribes.
The Great Andamanese: Their total population is only 28 souls. They have been settled on a small island called Strait island (off the eastern coast of South and Middle Andaman islands) since 1970. The settlement was built by the A&N administration. and is being maintained at government cost. Each small family has a wooden house and they get monthly their requirements of food, a cash allowance plus other periodical needs. Those members who work in specific jobs (like those of teacher, medical assistant, plantation worker) are paid for their work. The leader of the group gets an extra cash allowance. The government also meets the entire expenditure on their medical care, including special treatment in mainland hospitals. A plantation has also been established in Strait island. Efforts at having a piggery have not been very successful. The social worker who stays there permanently is required to take general care of the people and the settlement. Also the idea was to encourage the Great Andamanese to do useful work for their own benefit instead of idling away their time. Besides, the habits of opium addiction and drunkenness are discouraged and medically treated wherever necessary. It was also hoped that over a period the members of the community would develop a sense of belonging and greater social cohesion. This has happened, but to a partial degree. One has to remember, of course, that the present community has come into being by bringing together the surviving members of the disorganised original ten Great Andamanese tribes. These tribes had ceased to be viable communities due to the trauma of demographic destruction caused mainly by new diseases and the upheavals resulting from their uprooting by the British administration.
In the last two decades opium addiction has been controlled to a large extent but drunkenness remains a problem not yet solved. Attention is also being paid to the serious question of outside people trying to exploit the tribals. Their young women have been physically exploited or have willingly developed liaisons with outside people, which has even led to the birth of children. There is also a case of a non-tribal woman marrying an Andamanese man and bearing him a child. The couple are now separated. But this woman’s sister is in love with another young Andamanese man and wants to marry him.
All told, the 28 members of the Great Andamanese community have been pulled out of an abyss into which they had been driven due to total neglect by all concerned and their own loss of nerve and social will due to overwhelming destructive factors beyond their control. But for the intervention of anthropologists and the A&N administration since 1968, there would have been only a small fraction of this population living today, or they might have disappeared altogether.
The Onge: Friendly contact with the Onge was made in 1885 (110 years ago). But prior to that there had been several violent and hostile encounters with British ships and their crews. Sometimes the latter got killed and on other occasions the Onge had to retreat, leaving heavy casualties. The population on the island of Little Andaman and the nearby smaller islands could have been around 1,000 in the mid-nineteenth century. But by 1931 the estimates had come down to 250, in 1951 it was 150 and in 1961 the census head count was 129. In the 1971 census they were 112, in 1980 they were 97, and today they are 98. The Onge were left more or less alone by the British administration except for occasional visits by the administrators and occasional visits by Onge groups to Port Blair (quite often in their own canoes). This situation continued till the late 1960s. In 1953 a coconut plantation was built by the Agricultural Department at the Dugang Creek Onge settlement, though coconut is not a traditional food item of the Onge or other Andaman tribes.
In 1967 a big change occurred when the island of Little Andaman was opened for resettlement of outside people and with the starting of a red oil palm plantation by the Forest Development Corporation. Today the Onge share the island with several thousand settlers in several big villages. These include the Nicobarese (near the South Bay Onge settlement) and Bengali and South Indian migrants. A big jetty and breakwater have been built near Hut Bay (once an Onge settlement area). This has been a major new development, as for the first time the Onge have had to live face to face in their once exclusive habitat with an alien population (3000 or so) which is 30 times their own number and likely to increase. During the 1970s and 1980s the two major Onge settlements were redesigned with new huts of an altogether new design being built, with consequences which have not been too happy. This has gone on with parallel efforts to sedentarise them to enable the official agencies to take welfare aid to them more easily. A social worker, a doctor and a nurse, a plantation worker, etc., have been posted there. A teacher was also there for several years, but this did not lead to any literacy among them. Among the Great Andamanese only some adults and children can read and write a little Hindi. Several health surveys were done among the Onge, starting with an ICMR team which visited them in March 1969. Health records are brought to Port Blair whenever required or possible. But this kind of help during the last 20 years has not helped check the decline in their population, though it has remained steady at the level of about 97 to 49.
The closer contact with the settlers and the supply of rice, flour, etc., has led to a change in food habits. Tea and tobacco they had taken to since British days, but now they eat and cook like other Indians, using salt, sugar, oil and condiments and similar cooking techniques (as against the traditional boiling and roasting methods). Some Onge speak Hindi quite well. They have access to money paid as wages for work done in various welfare projects in their own community, some of which seem hardly relevant to their urgent daily or long-term needs (e.g. collecting resin for the contractor, working in their gardens under supervision, working on the electric generator, etc.) as per their own perceptions.
The Onge life-style has undergone certain important changes but these have not necessarily or always improved the quality of their life. It has actually led to a certain confusion in their minds regarding the direction of their own life, as they are unable to take their own decisions about what and how to do whatever they may like to do. Most of the time decisions, however good they may be (but that is not the case always), are imposed on them. Because of demographic problems some boys and men are unable to have marriage mates. Further, the ill effects of the inbreeding of a small population of less than 100 are not yet visible, but sooner or later they will appear.
However, socially the Onge society is still viable and well-knit in spite of the changes that have taken place during the twentieth century. There is hope yet that it will be able to cope with the unwise and presumptuous interference with its functioning.
The Jarawa: During the nineteenth century, while the British succeeded in bringing around the ten Great Andamanese after several years’ efforts (involving the use of force and blandishment), the eleventh tribe in the Great Andaman area (South Andaman to be precise) continued to remain highly suspicious of the settlement and the settlers. They were what are known as the Jarawa. There were numerous hostile contacts and encounters with them during the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. In fact during the 1920s and 1930s the British were obliged to send many armed punitive expeditions to the Jarawa areas in the deep forests on the western coast of South Andaman. The Jarawa themselves found it expedient to spread out to the western coast of Middle Andaman under these pressures.
A special Bush police force was also created to deal with the Jarawa. After 1947 this policy underwent a basic change as the new Indian government, influenced by Nehru’s philosophy, (Pandit 1989:83-92) did not subscribe to the principle of punitive expeditions against tribes except under conditions of overt and conscious violent political rebellions against the legally established government. The situation here is altogether different, as the Jarawa are still not consciously aware of being citizens of the Indian Republic. However various ‘Jarawa incidents’ continued from the 1950s to the 1970s, and they occur even today though to a much lesser extent. These incidents are mostly caused by the fact that the Jarawa feel disturbed by movements and certain activities of outside people in their territory and wish to discourage these by attacking the ‘culprits’ if very much provoked. Since 1968 much thought has been given to this matter by anthropologists and the A&N administration and certain useful measures have been taken to remove prejudice on either side. In early 1974 we succeeded in establishing friendly contact with the Jarawa in Middle Andaman. The author was among the first people and the first anthropologist to spend some time with the Jarawa in their own settlement. Since then (over 21 years) many visits have been paid to the Jarawa by official contact parties and friendship has been extended to various groups in South Andaman as well. These visits are made about once a month.
Being under considerable pressure from politically vocal sections of the people, the A&N administration appointed an Expert Committee under Dr S.C. Sinha (anthropologist) to make recommendations regarding the extension of the Andaman Trunk Road alongside Jarawa territory in the South and Middle Andaman. The committee gave conditional approval for constructing the road. But while the road has been made the conditions important for safeguarding Jarawa interests remain mostly unfulfilled due to difficulties faced by the administration and lack of will. This road remains a big hazard for the survival of the Jarawa. Their population of about 200 has an area of 600 sq km of reserved forest and tribal area. But they are surrounded by more than 105,000 (1981 census figures) settlers. Their territory could be overrun in the coming decades unless very sensible and effective measures are taken to avoid such an eventuality.
The Sentinelese: They are estimated to be about 80 to 100 and are the sole inhabitants of North Sentinel island (area about 50 sq km). They are the most isolated of all the tribal communities in India and perhaps in the world. Except for occasional visits by official parties since the British days (and perhaps poachers) nobody goes there nobody else lives there. Because of the sea, where they can get turtles and a whole variety of fish and molluscs as food, they can live comfortably even as hunter-gatherers (Pandit 1990). However, their suspicion of outsiders did not encourage them till January 1991 to have any face-to-face or handshaking contacts with us. But they do not mind gifts of coconuts, bananas, some simple iron implements or iron pieces. They let us put these things ashore while they watch from a distance. What they do not like they throw into the sea. They also come out in their dugout canoes to pick up coconuts thrown into the sea close to the beach. Since January-February 1991 the Sentinelese have relented and have had closer and more friendly contacts with us. It was then that they accepted gifts of coconuts, bananas, etc., from the hands of the members of the gift party (Pandit 1989: 92). A number of visits have been paid since and lots of gifts have been passed on to them. It is our observation and opinion that the Sentinelese population appears to have reduced since 1974, when many more people were encountered on the shore and even photographed.
The situation cannot be corrected by any means at our disposal. In any case the administration does not seem to have much idea about what might be done next. There are cases of the Jarawa and the Onge with whom friendly contacts were made in 1974 and 1885 respectively. Where have we come since then?
The Shompen: Contact of the Shompen with the outside world, directly and through the coastal Nicobarese of Great Nicobar, has existed since the early nineteenth century. It has become closer since the first half of the twentieth century. One saving grace for the Shompen has been the vast forest area that has been at their disposal. In the late 1960s and 1970s it was decided to open the Great Nicobar island for development and rehabilitation of ex-servicemen. Circular and diagonal roads were built to join the east and west coasts in the southern part of the island (403 sq miles in area). This causes very serious disturbances for the Shompen. It also seems that probably disease and intra-group hostilities among the Shompen had earlier caused the dwindling of their population. Their camps are very small and scattered over vast areas. Hence any welfare measures are difficult to take to them. In 1983-84 a Shompen complex was built to attract them so that medical aid, food supplies and some elementary educational facilities could be extended to them through a social worker and medical staff. Besides, on many occasions clothes, utensils, rice, etc., have been distributed among them. But the Shompen complex has not proved as efficacious as was expected in the absence of truly dedicated social workers and proper supervision. The welfare programme remains mostly on paper.
Welfare and Development
Work on the measures described is governed on these islands by popular notions of their meaning. The ultimate objective is understood to be to bring such communities into the ‘mainstream’ as they can find meaning only in merging with it. In the popular mind this means the broad merging of cultural and social identities of the smaller or weaker communities with that of the dominant culture, society or people. Quite often it starts with copying the use of externals, material objects such as clothes, domestic articles, food materials and the visible life-style. Learning of the dominant language helps greatly in achieving the goal set by the dominant people. They are satisfied if this process is effected, but neither they nor the official agencies show any sensitivity to the thought processes, the mental tensions, the humiliations and the deprivations that a relatively small ‘primitive’ community might undergo in the process.
There are also the popular but very subjective and unscientific notions of what is ‘civilised’. Joining the mainstream also means that the smaller community is hopeful of getting the benefits of modern science and civilisation. In actual practice this may not happen. By these ideas the down-and-out Great Andamanese could qualify as a more civilised mainstream community, but the Jarawa would not. Left to themselves, the Jarawa life-style is qualitatively far superior to that of the Great Andamanese and the Onge. What a travesty of perceptions!
Anthropologists (like some environmentalists) have often been blamed for advocating ‘protectionist’, ‘human zoo’ concepts for tribals. There is no doubt that the five small tribes of the A&N islands are among the beleaguered human communities. They need to be protected and looked after by responsible official agencies under proper scientific supervision and guidance so that they not only survive but live as self-respecting communities. Also, they must not be hustled into getting hopelessly embroiled in the ‘mainstream’ conceptual monstrosity. They have to change, but the change must not be forced and thoughtlessly harsh in its implications or its speed nor entirely imposed by half-baked social workers or ignorant and unsympathetic administrators or politicians voicing the concerns and extreme selfishness of the dominant groups.
In 1986 the Government of India appointed a high-powered committee of experts to recommend special measures for these small tribes. The committee, headed by Dr S.C. Sinha, met several times, visited these tribes and made several recommendations to prepare them for change while giving them sufficient time. The idea was to appoint a team of well-chosen specialists which would actually involve itself in researching, planning and monitoring all new measures involving the people at all stages and treating their values, views and opinion with respect so that highly sensitive programmes could be evolved and implemented over a period of 10 or 15 years. But these recommendation are now in cold storage both at Port Blair and in New Delhi. And we are back at square one!
Herders and Horticulturists
The Nicobarese have followed their traditional occupations of keeping large herds of pigs and cultivating large plantations of coconut, areca nut, yams, bananas, pandanus, etc. The pigs are reared with loving care and piglets are paid special attention till they grow strong enough to take care of themselves. And adult pig, besides its normal food, may be given 5 or 6 fresh coconuts a day. The Nicobarese live in settled villages, mostly near the coast. The plantations are grown not far from their homesteads. In fact the impression one gets in Nicobar is that houses are built amidst coconut groves. Coconut trees and fruit are of great economic importance. The nut is eaten, its water drunk, its oil used for cooking, etc. The tree is used for the construction of houses, its branches as fuel and leaves for sundry purposes. The pandanus fruit and yams are important sources of food. Fishing is a most enjoyable activity and is carried out by day and by night using various techniques. The daily catch is an important source of protein. These days the Nicobarese keep some poultry also.
While the coastal areas are used for settlement and plantations, the core areas of the islands are maintained as forest land. Here pigs are taken for pasturing and to provide shady areas for rest. The forest area also provides privacy and for romantic interludes to young boys and girls. The forest serves many other needs also in day-to-day life.
The Nicobarese are seafaring people and have been travelling from one island to another in their dugout canoes for barter, trade and social visits. The Nicobarese keep their own calendar by reading the movements of the moon, the stars and the sun. They also have deep faith in various kinds of benign and evil spirits and the souls of dead ancestors. All these have to be propitiated periodically according to customary rites, rituals and sacrifices.
Pigs are eaten mainly on festive occasions. Their herds are not looked upon primarily as a source of food but as wealth bringing prestige, as precious items of barter, as symbols of general well-being and celebration of life. The blood of a pig is also a medicine and is rubbed on the body to relieve pain.
The Nicobarese enjoy sports like canoe racing and man-pig wrestling, and are very fond of dancing and singing. The coconut tree also provides them with freshly brewed toddy, which is a very popular drink among them. Grated coconut provides coconut milk in which rice is cooked. It is a delicacy. There is no provision for individual and private ownership of land among them. All land belongs to the kin group and the produce is shared among the members. Each kin group has a head and the village has a council and head (also called captain). There is also an island council and chief captain on each island.
Until 1945 the Nicobarese followed their own traditional religion and customs. But from then onwards there have been large-scale conversions to Christianity mainly through the efforts of their own Bishop Richardson, a resident and early convert to this faith in Car Nicobar.
The entry of traders and the growth of the cooperative movement under government patronage has helped the Nicobarese to sell their surplus produce of coconut and arecanut. The traders also introduced new consumer items of all kinds. This has led to some degree of consumerism. Over the decades this has also helped develop, in the midst of a traditional egalitarian economic system, an incipient class system. Some Nicobarese have acquired a lot of wealth in money terms, which has given them access to new goods and services. These have become the new symbols of status and social prestige. There are others who can only watch and envy. However, even today no member of Nicobarese society can die of starvation. The community takes care of all those who are unable to take care of themselves for reasons of health, physical disability or lack of work.
As per the 1981 census the literacy rate among the Nicobarese was about 31 per cent. In 1992 it was reported to have risen to 39 per cent (informal sources). The people are making fair use of the facilities provided by the government. Quite a few boys and girls have passed out from secondary and senior secondary schools or acquired university degrees in arts, sciences, medicine and engineering. Nicobarese youth have thus been able to occupy white-collar and technical posts, including the administrative services, to some extent. This trend will continue and more and more Nicobarese are likely to move away from their traditional moorings in terms of occupation. But as yet there are no signs of any serious conflict within their society between ordinary people and ‘modernists’. The church and the adaptive processes within their cultural tradition are helping to mediate the situation of potential conflict!
Agriculture, animal husbandry and fishing and a whole lot of sundry urban-oriented trades and occupations are followed by the settlers from mainland India who were brought here by the British (1858-1945) and later under various schemes of the Government of India. But hundreds and thousands have been coming here on their own, especially from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Bengal, Bihar, etc. This composite group goes in for jobs of all kinds both in the public and private sectors. These include thousands of jobs provided by various state and central government departments and related institutions. In 1961 their population was about 45,000 but in 1991 they numbered about 250,000, which is an almost sixfold increase in three decades. The bulk of this population lives in the Andaman islands and some in the Nicobars.
The ecological conditions of the Bay islands are rather fragile. The topography is uneven and hilly and the soil rocky and porous with a very thin topsoil. The heavy rains that two monsoons bring simply flow down to the sea. The soil has little capacity for retaining water. In cleared spaces thousands of tons of topsoil are washed down to the sea every year. Only in two islands, North Andaman and Great Nicobar, are there perennial sources of sweet water in the shape of big streams. All over the settlement areas there is a terrible shortage of drinking water and water for daily needs and agricultural purposes. The only saving grace is that large areas are still covered by forest and vegetation. But it is not so in the large settlement areas, where there are constant demands on forest resources. With the influx of increasing numbers of people from the mainland there are heavy encroachments on forest land and a demand for other natural resources. Because of this, and in absence of effective regulatory and corrective measures, even the vast mangrove forests and coral reefs are getting damaged.
This demographically, socially, politically and economically dominant population is all-pervasive in its hunger for resources, without a thought for the immediate or distant future. The people who have come here to settle either as individuals or as fragmentary groups are culturally uprooted entities. Hence their minds, their psyches and their cultural visions and world-views remain mutilated and blind. Their experience and wisdom made sense in their native environment. Here they do not recognise even by name most of the fauna and flora. There is no idea nor any anxiety on their part to relate in any significant way to the local environment. There is, therefore, no sense of restraint or doubt in their interaction with it. The outlook is: take what you need or want and do not worry unduly about anything that comes in the way, including human beings such as the indigenous tribal populations.
There is vast ignorance all around and a lack of effort to build informed opinion to counter it. A serious environmental and human problem is gaining momentum in the Andaman and Nicobar islands which has to be dealt with in a scientific and human way. The situation in the islands in ecological terms has not yet reached a stage of desperation and can be amenable to a well-thought-out constructive, corrective and preventive policy. Much of the responsibility lies with the Government of India and the Andaman & Nicobar Administration. The policy of ‘benign neglect’ will not do. The island environment — the land, the sea and the air — is lovely and can be kept so if we educate ourselves and learn our lessons from the indigenous people who have taken care of it for thousands of years without harming it. These indigenous people, their culture and life-styles enrich and provide depth and a beautiful dimension to the composite society and culture of the islands. We have to show special sensitivity in ensuring their survival with dignity and honour. That way we shall show ourselves to be the true inheritors of the great culture and civilisation that is India.
©1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi